When the BBC released The Krotons on VHS tape in February 1991 it was something of a rarity. A Patrick Troughton story that had survived in its entirety, having not fallen foul of the Corporation's wiping policy. As a result of fandom’s desperation to see anything from Troughton’s golden era in the 1990s the story perhaps had more praise heaped on it than it warranted.
The Krotons was the first Doctor Who story conceived by Robert Holmes who was to become something of a Whovian legend in terms of storytelling, rivalled perhaps only by Terrance Dicks. Go to any Doctor Who convention, even today, and both names are mentioned in hushed and worshipful tones. But Holmes didn’t originally offer his story synopsis for Doctor Who – and it shows.
Holmes had submitted a synopsis for another BBC series, Out of the Unknown. His story, The Space Trap, was dismissed as unsuitable but for the BBC2 series but its producer, Alan Bromly, thought it may be suitable for Doctor Who and passed it on to Derrick Sherwin, who in turn passed it on to Dicks who was Doctor Who’s script editor.
In order to adapt the script for Doctor Who, Dicks worked alongside Holmes as they crafted the story, but with all the stories in for season six, there was no hurry. Dicks would later state that he worked with Holmes “in a very leisurely fashion and it became a sort of hobby for me, to keep me out of mischief.”
Having planned ahead for season six, season five’s script-editor, Peter Bryant had commissioned a script from writer Dick Sharples titled, originally, The Amazons, but later changed to The Prison in Space. This tale was intended to inject some humour into Doctor Who but reading it today one can only cringe at the story. Sharples had the Doctor and Jamie imprisoned, while Zoe started a sexual revolution before being brainwashed. The four-part story was commissioned on 4 June 1968 It was to feature Jamie in drag and end with Jamie deprogramming Zoe by smacking her bottom. Whether this was covered in the original synopsis is unknown, but what is known is that when the incumbent production team read the first one-and-a-half pages of the submitted first draft scripts, they were horrified at what they read. Dicks asked Sharples for some major rewrites, but Sharples refused. The story was dropped.
With the season already in production, according to Dicks, panic set in. And then he remembered the script he and Holmes had been working on. The director earmarked for The Prison in Space, David Maloney, who had just joined Doctor Who, asked to see The Krotons and after reading it through decided that it was ‘workable.’
On the unnamed twin-sunned planet of the Gonds, two youngsters, the brightest of their generation, have been selected, like generations before them, to attend the machine of their masters, the Krotons. But legend has it that anyone who enters the machine never leaves. The TARDIS lands and the travellers depart just in time for Jamie to witness one of the youngsters being vapourised beside a metal door built into a rock face.
It transpires that, as well as the TARDIS crew, the Krotons are not of this planet either. Their spaceship had crashed on the planet thousands of years ago and released a poison which created a wasteland and killed many Gonds. The creatures, who are Tellurium-based and now in suspended animation, passed laws that every Gond child be taught by the Kroton's learning machines. But their ultimate motive is to escape the planet by absorbing the mental energy of the most brilliant Gond students in order to reanimate themselves.
The Gonds, having been subjugated by the Krotons for so long, have come to regard the alien creatures as their guardians, and some Gonds even regard them as their friends. It’s only when the Doctor points out they have created a self-perpetuating slavery that they began to see the truth. In the meantime, Zoe has unwisely taken the student test and, identified as a ‘High Brain’, is selected by the Krotons to join them. In order to find out more about the creatures himself, the Doctor voluntarily takes the same test and is also identified as a ‘High Brain’, who they need to power the Dynatrope - their ship.
The plot of The Krotons is both straightforward and captivating if at least one episode too long. Despite Terrance Dicks familiarity at this point with Doctor Who, Bob Holmes’ story struggles to make the adaptation from an original standalone story to a fully successful Doctor Who one, the main casualty being Frazer Hines’ Jamie, who seems to be relegated to a background character given the task of playing nurse, making acid or getting involved in a contrived fight-sequence, whilst Patrick Troughton and Wendy Padbury take centre stage.
One of the best moments in the whole story is The Doctor and Zoe’s one-upmanship conversation regarding their status as ‘High Brains’. The Doctor initially fails to students test prompting Zoe to state that he is “almost as clever as me.” When he finally beats her score his self-satisfied smirk is countered with “You answered more questions!” That really is the best moment. The rest of the time the tale just plods along.
The Gonds come across as rather underdeveloped characters, all that is except Philip Madoc’s Eelek who plots to seize control of the Gonds council by leading an uprising. It was Madoc’s first appearance in televised Doctor Who (he had previously appeared in the movie Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD) but he would be back before the season was out. The production team also found themselves seriously underbudgeted for this story and that comes across clearly on screen, especially regarding the design of the Krotons. “Visual Effects could not make the Krotons live up to our expectations” Terrance Dicks later lamented.
The creatures, looking very much like a bargain-basement version of ‘Robot’ from Lost in Space were mostly static apart from a head that would revolve furiously whenever they were agitated, and on the odd occasion they did move they did so as if someone was walking around in an oversized corrugated box for a body and a lampshade for a head. Mainly because that’s exactly what the operator was doing. If you suspended your imagination long enough you could see past this – until of course, you noticed the shot where you can see the legs of the man in the box and the lampshade. Vocally their voices were void of any emotion – just loud when angry! This works perfectly well for the Daleks of course but “You will be dispersed!” isn’t a patch on “You will be exterminated!”
However, there is one element of the story that survived into established Doctor Who history. For the first time, we see the TARDIS escape attack by use of the HADS, (Hostile Action Displacement System). Automatically sensing an attack, the ship dematerialises and then re-materialises a short distance away. And although HADS was hardly mentioned again in the televised series, it has found itself into audio and printed forms.
On its initial broadcast in December 1968, The Krotons began with a very healthy audience of 9 million viewers but had lost almost 2 million by episode four. The four-part tale was sandwiched between The Invasion and The Seeds of Death at a time when Doctor Who was losing viewers at an alarming rate. Even the much-heralded story The War Games, which ended the 1969 season, as well as Troughton's tenure as The Doctor never really picked up in terms of viewing figures and episode eight of that epic ten-part story only managed to pull in an audience of just under 4 million. There was much relief when the series returned with Jon Pertwee in 1970's Spearhead from Space story, with a much healthier and programme saving viewership of almost eight-and-a-half million.
In 2009, Big Finish proved that the Krotons sound much better than they look with the release of the audio adventure Return of the Krotons written by Nicholas Briggs. The story featured Colin Baker’s Doctor and Philip Madoc made a welcome return to the world of Doctor Who.
The Krotons shot mostly in studio with a little location filming at the West of England Quarry, Malvern, Worcestershire, will never be regarded as a classic, but it’s a Troughton, and there are too few of them to dismiss those that survived.
Article by Malcolm Alexander 2022