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31 Dec 2003The Power of Kroll, by Paul Clarke
15 Nov 2005The Power of Kroll, by Jared Hansen

'The Power of Kroll' has a rather strange status. It is a rather mediocre affair, but the relatively simple plot is essentially sound; it's main failing lies in the fact that, written as it is by Robert Holmes, it should have been much, much better. 

The plot of 'The Power of Kroll' concerns the conflict between the Swampies of Delta Three, displaced once from their home by colonial humans and under threat a second time as their new home is discovered to be ripe for exploitation. Opposing them are the aforementioned colonists who crew the methane refinery on the planet and whose belligerent leader Thawn is keen to remove them from the equation. To this end, he has secretly arranged for them to be armed, ostensibly by the Sons of Earth, a sympathetic terrorist organisation that believes that humanity should abandon its colonies and return to its ancestral home. Having armed them with guns that he knows to be useless, he then has an excuse to wipe them out should they use these weapons to attack the refinery. Added to this mix is the largest monster ever to have appeared in Doctor Who on television, which the Swampies worship as a god, but which is basically a monstrous giant squid swollen to the proportions of a leviathan by the fourth segment of the Key to Time. This plot is solid enough (and in fact is largely recycled for the far more popular 'The Caves of Androzani') and lacks any noticeable holes, but unfortunately is saddled with a surprisingly poor script. 

The problem with 'The Power of Kroll' is that it is both dull and humourless. The latter shortcoming is especially surprising from a writer who gave us 'The Ribos Operation' earlier in the season, a story boasting some sparking dialogue and considerable wit. 'The Power of Kroll' is not Holmes' worst script for the series ('The Space Pirates' still holds that dubious honour), and it isn't even the worst script of Season Sixteen (more on that next time…), but totally fails to engage me on any real level. Partly this is because the characterisation, usually Holmes' strong point, is extremely weak. The Swampies, despite being green skinned, are textbook natives out of bad and patronizing British colonial fiction; they have a credible motivation, but their predilection for human sacrifice and in the case of Ranquin, manipulative politics, renders them unsympathetic. This wouldn't be a problem if they were actually interesting, but they aren't. Most of them don't say or do anything except chant "Kroll" repeatedly, and their main spokesman, John Abineri's Ranquin, is portrayed as a clichéd religious zealot. Their human ally Rohm-Dutt, a mercenary gunrunner secretly working for Thawn, might potentially have worked, but Glyn Owen puts in such an disinterested performance that he seems half asleep, and as such any emotion that the character might have had is completely lost. 

The colonists are even worse. Neil McCarthy, who previously appeared as Barnham in 'The Mind of Evil', puts in an adequate performance, but he doesn't have much to work with. A grim ruthless psychopath might be more realistic than, for example, Bruce Purchase's extravagant Pirate Captain, but is far less entertaining to watch, and 'The Power of Kroll' badly needs livening up. Thawn might have worked better if he had grander motivation, but as the story stands he's simply a xenophobic thug whose initial motivation (exterminating the Swampies) is quickly sidelined once he discovers that he's got a gargantuan killer squid to deal with. Even his death scene is rubbish, falling into the "blink and you'll miss it category". The other humans are even worse, Phillip Madoc's grumpy performance as Fenner probably giving rise to the myth that he was promised the role of Thawn but got cheated out of it, and Grahame Mallard's Harg is utterly forgettable. Worst of all is Dugeen; with K9 TARDIS bound due to the watery setting, John Leeson instead takes a human role and puts in a poor performance, although the script doesn't really help. His sudden revelation that he is a member or sympathizer of The Sons of Earth is horribly acted and seems to have been forced into the story with a crowbar as an afterthought. 

Normally, when the supporting characters disappoint, the regulars can be relied on, but given the lacklustre script neither Tom Baker nor Mary Tamm get the chance to shine. Baker does his best, but mostly all he gets to do is wander around and explain the plot to Romana, who after her initial abduction and rescue does nothing useful whatsoever. Except of course listen whilst the Doctor explains the plot. The almost total lack of humour is unfortunate, as it might have salvaged the story, but when the best Holmes offers is the Doctor's anecdote about Dame Nellie Melba, there isn't much hope. 

Where the script does triumph is in the handling of Kroll. Having been challenged to create the series' largest ever monster, Holmes scripts Kroll as a big animal, writing intelligent speculation about the creature's feeding habits and life cycle for his characters, and providing a decent explanation for its size and longevity. Indeed Kroll is generally surprisingly effective; the model creature looks rather good, and even its life-sized tentacles (a notoriously difficult visual effect to achieve successfully) look better than they might have done. The split-screen effect used to show Kroll looming on the horizon is rather jarring, but in a series with an unpleasant history of bad CSO this too could have looked worse. These reasonable production values help to rescue the story to a degree, as does the excellent East Anglian location filming. Sadly however, this location footage is home to the Swampies, middle-aged actors painted green who never look like anything other than middle-aged actors painted green. 

In summary then, 'The Power of Kroll' is a rather middling affair, not all bad but displaying considerable drawbacks. After the generally high quality of this up to this point it is very disappointing. On the other hand, compared with the season finale, it is an unparalleled work of genius…

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One of the greatly underrated stories that populate Doctor Who's archives. Why? It's a matter of defying expectations. Of course, now people lap it all up, with Russel T. Davies being congratulated galore for setting up an action-packed adventure about an exploding nuclear power plant, and delivering a soppy moralising sermon against the death sentence. Back, then, however, this behaviour was clearly frowned upon.

This is the second-last part of the mirthful Season 16, remembered for rampant whimsy and a general "Boy's Own" mentality. Furthermore, it is scripted by Robert Holmes, who was famous for his layered, bizarre plots and his sparkling sense of humour. Holmes, however, goes completely against expectations, and delivers a simple plot, filled with gritty violence. Oh, and a big squid.

Kroll, the squid in question, is the most criticised aspect of the entire episode. Holmes famously was asked by script editor Anthony Read to include 'the largest monster ever to appear in Doctor Who', and was relucant to integrate it into his plot. It was definitely a foolish decision, to create such a massive enemy on their often painfully small budget. That said, Kroll's legendary awfulness is much exaggerated. Especially compared to the Skarasen from "Terror of the Zygons"

And, this is all nullified by the skilled dramatic tension Holmes uses in the introduction of Kroll into the story, who is handled by typical horror style, as he is surveyed by the terrified personnel of the rickety refinery.

The plot is very simple. The imperialistic Thawn (the excellent Neil McCarhty) who manages the methane refinery is looking for any excuse to massacre the indigenous Swampies on the moon of Delta Magna. He finds his excuse in the form of a visit by gun-runner Rohm-Dutt to the swampie camp, and aside from attacks by Kroll the plot really doesn't advance much further than that.

What I find appealing about this episode are the gritty portrayals of all the characters. Neil McCarthy's maniacal Thawn is nothing short of brilliant. Phillip Madoc gets less material as second-in-command Fenner, but shows the same flair he had in "The Brain of Morbius". And, finally, John Leeson get to be on camera this episode, and plays Dugeen, the one sympathetic character in the story, and does a very good job. Glyn Owen, likewise, is great as the gruff Rohm-Dutt, even though his character is underused. The rest of the cast all do good work as well.

The episode ends on an exciting note, with a genuinely unexpected Key to Time revelation, and some of Tom Baker's best eccentric behaviour. Interestingly, the episode ends on a different note. No moralising, no judgement of any of the parties. The Doctor just gets the hell out of there! In a way, it shows that imperialism cannot always be fixed.

An episode like this, in my opinion, could only be considered sub-par in a tenure as consistent as Tom Baker's. Nowhere near Holmes' best work, it is true, but mostly because here he writes in another style altogether.

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