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Monday, May 28, 2012

Doctor Who: The Krotons

Serial Title: The Krotons
Series: 6
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Patrick Troughton 
Companions: Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines), Zoe Heriot (Wendy Padbury)

The best and the brightest of the Gonds’ newest graduating class are congratulated by being sent to be with the Krotons, alien visitors from space who benevolently watch over them. Only, unbeknownst to the public at large, the Krotons really just sending them out into the desert and then killing them with acid. The TARDIS lands on this unnamed planet in this unspecified time (it’s getting worse), just in time to save one of this years’ crop, Vana, and reunite her with her boyfriend Thara, who already suspected something was up and tried to prevent her departure.

The Gonds are shocked to find out that their alien visitors are actually their slavemasters, who have been keeping them in servitude by executing their most intelligent pupils every year and keeping the populace dumb. They also control Gond education with machines- which a band of angry Gond youth then begin to smash apart. As they barely escape Kroton retribution, naïve Zoe dons one of the teaching helmets to test her intelligence. She scores well- marking her for death. The Doctor quickly dons another headset and scores highly in order to follow her, and the two are forced into the Kroton spacecraft, beyond which lies the acid jets. Before being sent out to their deaths, they are brought into a control chamber, where a mind-draining device awaits them; the Doctor manages to circumvent it, ensuring that they aren’t reduced to vegetables as the soon-to-die Gond students are each year. The bypassed device, which converts mental power into energy, is still able to take sufficient power from their intelligence (far higher than the meager pickings of the Gonds) to carry out a portion of its function- two crystalline Krotons are constituted out of a base-chemical slush, their version of suspended animation.

The reanimated Krotons note that the escaped Zoe and the Doctor were not Gonds (something their auto-computer wasn’t smart enough to recognize) and decide to recapture them, starting by capturing Jamie. Meanwhile, the Gonds engage in some Strife & Politics (I can’t use my acronym because they aren’t villains). They eventually decide on acid, a forbidden branch of learning, as the optimum course of action, with the Doctor’s help. Eelek, the security chief, and Beta, a scientist, spearhead this effort- while Selris, current leader, hesitates and waits. No problem, though, as Eelek gets himself elected new leader. (See? Strife & Politics). Eelek then plans a frontal assault that Selris deems suicide- Selris goes to Beta and formulates a plan to attack support pillars beneath the Kroton ship instead.

The Krotons believe that they destroy the TARDIS, but the HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System) preserves it, and Jamie escapes to join his friends. The assault of the Gonds draws a Kroton out, and Eelek sells out the Doctor and Zoe, who the Kroton demands, in exchange for getting the aliens to leave. Selris dives under the closing door to deliver the first completed bottle of acid, and is killed for his troubles. (Eeeek! Leaving that skunk Eelek the leader? Dang, Selris got robbed!)

As the Doctor stalls the Krotons with doublespeak, Zoe pours the acid into the crystal slush tank, poisoning the Krotons, who also use it as a sort of lifeline/air tank. Simultaneously, Jamie and Beta pour great vats onto the Kroton ship from a towering cliff, and it begins to dissolve. The Krotons are defeated (though not destroyed; they apparently can’t be), and Thara (Selris’ son, and Vana’s lover) ascends to the leadership position as Eelek is booted out in disgrace.

The Krotons is possessed of an odd, misshapen narrative structure. The plot is a bit simplistic (Bad guys demand sacrifice- which I totally saw coming- then Doctor and Zoe go inside, then they escape but Jamie is inside- he escapes as the others make a weapon to stop the bad guys, Doctor and Zoe go in again to sabotage, the end)- due to this story being a hastily written replacement for another cancelled story (the real shock, all things considered, being that the wreck known as “The Dominators” WASN’T a hasty replacement, and that it actually SURVIVED cancellation!) For whatever reasons, its sets and costumes remind me of the Underwater Menace and its Atlantean civilization - but the villains have unique, creative, and very cool designs reminiscent of the mysterious and equally cool Tholians premiering around the same time in the US on the original Star Trek. Their outfits and design, with the spinning crystals, are very well-designed and realized- though the bottom, which is clearly just a draped choir robe of some sort, lets the rest down a little bit. (Apparently, this series had budget problems, meaning that, per the Wiki, the producers found “that the budget would simply no longer stretch to the creation of large numbers of convincing alien costumes and environments (or even of much incidental music - hence the dearth of this, particularly in the first few stories).” This is one of the few exceptions, with a wild new alien creature design- which accomplishes this by having very few sets, and very simplistic ones for the sets it does have). So, pluses and minuses. More minuses than pluses. But, we haven’t hit the character bits yet…

The TARDIS crew have a few nice moments- saving the girl from the disintegrator spray, the holding-the-chain mental attack, and the Doctor and Zoe's comedic bumbling to buy time for the 'poison' to take effect. Other than that... well, it was only 4 episodes instead of 6, but it felt like it could have been 2 or 3. It was pretty forgettable.

However, it did provide a bit of character insight. As Zoe once again naively dons the teaching helmet in order to further prove her academic smarts/increase her knowledge, and the Doctor takes her to task for it, I realized that this was Zoe's character, which I'd been missing- brilliant, but not smart. Highly developed in power but poorly developed in wisdom and maturity. A naive genius. That's not what I got from her introduction, so it's been tainting my understanding of who she was supposed to be. This doesn't make her absurd naivete in The Invasion any less absurd, but it does explain it- and as a character concept, it works well. Retrospectively, it explains a lot, really.

The Doctor, meanwhile, has an excellent and very heartwarming moment shortly thereafter where he dons the headset himself to place himself into harms way and potential disintegration so Zoe won't have to face it alone. It's a very loving, almost parental moment of self-sacrifice, and something that I don't think the First Doctor would have done, even at his most tender. It's a telling and humanizing moment that really reveals the depths of this Doctor's care for his companions, who in the youthful and not-entirely-wise Jamie and Zoe, are almost like his adopted children. It's a wonderful moment for his character, and most definitely made me 'fall in love' with this Doctor anew- Three through Eight will have to do something quite spectacular indeed to topple Troughton from being my favorite Doctor. (Note from Sarah: Troughton is definitely my favorite and will continue to be.)

This is followed up by a wonderful scene in which the Doctor, so stressed out about wanting to help Zoe, can't solve the simplest equation because he's distracted, and then, after he succeeds, begins gloating that he scored higher marks than Zoe as the two begin bickering about it... it's a wonderful bantering byplay in which both the writing and the actors shine- that scene overall in the halls of learning is really a true gem amidst an otherwise fairly-forgettable serial, and an outstanding moment for both the Doctor and Zoe that makes me incredibly sad at how close their impending loss is.

(Speaking of the hall of learning, when the young rabble-rousers are smashing it up... I'm guessing we weren't supposed to see the bank of lights on the front fall off, revealing that they were just a facade on a flat board stuck onto the blank front of the machine...?)

Jamie is gallant and noble in this one, and also pretty darn clever- if I don't consider this one an episode where he fairs well, it's probably simply because he has far less screen time than the Doctor/Zoe tag team, who kind of get the spotlight. Still, Jamie is caring and brave in this one and puts up an excellent showing of moral character that does him great credit to compensate for his lesser screen time... it's ironic, then, that an episode so relatively simplistic, mediocre, and skippable should be such a strong character showcase for all three of the leads.

There are a few good strong characters among the supporting cast- the tradition-bound leader, devastated to realize the tradition of murder he's played a part in enforcing, and determined to do the right thing sacrificing himself in a last-minute dive through the door that's as impressive in its athletic prowess as it is in its noble self-sacrifice, to deliver the Doctor and Zoe the crucial component needed to defeat the Krotons.

The leader's son, a headstrong and brash young man willing to fight his entire graduating class to protect the woman he loves- like the New Series' "Big Bang" in which the Doctor offhandedly proclaims to Rory, cradling his fiance's nearly dead body, that "Your girlfriend isn't more important than the universe," to which Rory hauls back and slugs him, and declares with a fervor the character had never even shown before, "Yes SHE IS!", this moment gave me a warm glow in my heart- for all the filth and nonsense about relationships, romance, and physical consummation that we're fed by media these days, it always warms my heart to see love- true, sacrificial love- being showcased as the noblest and best of all priorities... which I truly believe it is.

And, of course, the unflappable and determined chemist, who comes off more annoyed than anything at being expected to save the world without proper time to prepare, and completely uninterested in the fact that he may blow himself up in the creation of acid, simply getting down to business and making it happen as Jamie frets and worries in the background- he's a fun character, a serious role with a comic edge of irony- his reaction to the fantastic, in such a deadpan and accepting manner, makes for an instantly likable fellow.

Last, but not least, we get an introduction to the HADS (Hostile Actions Defense System), a TARDIS feature I strongly suspect we'll never see again. However, it's brilliantly introduced with the phrase "That only happens when I remember to set the HADS"- smoothly explaining away why we've never seen it before and may never see it again, hinging it on a character quirk of the Doctor's- his absentmindedness and forgetfulness making the perfect excuse. Subtly clever and hilarious simply because it works so well.

Despite earlier statements, I would not recommend skipping this one- the last complete Second Doctor serial, of the time of this writing (February 2011) not to have a DVD release planned yet. Its story is simple and threadbare, but it's short (so it won't grate too much even if you find the story dull), and the fantastic villain designs and very strong character moments make this one WELL worth watching despite its weak plots, as it's one of the best character pieces in the Second Doctor's run.

Great moments:
For probably the 50th time… the Doctor’s instant and selfless sacrifice to help Zoe. The Doctor and Zoe’s delays. The Doctor’s annoyance at the HADS and its inconvenient placement. The unflappable chemist. The umbrella rescue.

3.5 out of 5 Bickering Dominators for the Krotons and the first true TARDIS 'family'- here, in the shadow of the countdown to regeneration, to color, to UNIT, and an Earth exile- here, at the end of an era... the Black and White classic Doctor Who shows us what it's made of, in the weakest and least-likely story possible, and makes us truly realize what we'll be sacrificing for the move to a more 'modern' Who.

To borrow a quote from Matthew Stover's PHENOMENAL (really, go check it out!) novelization for Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, "This was the Age of Heroes... and it had saved its best for last."

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