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6x04. The Krotons
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: David Maloney
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Peter Bryant

Synopsis: The TARDIS crew encounter an alien race known as the Gonds, who are under the tight control of the "Krotons," unseen but powerful individuals who have created a societal and educational structure to keep the Gonds in a state of semi-voluntary subservience. When the Doctor and his companions discover that certain intelligent Gonds who have been selected to "live among the Krotons" are in fact being killed, the Gonds join them in their efforts to confront the Krotons and end their dominance of the planet.

Review: One might think of "The Krotons" as "The Dominators" done properly. It's a story revolving around ruthless alien conquerors who have the upper hand over a group of natives, but the conquerors come across as a credible threat, and the natives are a diverse cast of characters whose subservient position is given a decent explanation.

"The Krotons" marks the debut of writer Robert Holmes, considered by many to be the best Doctor Who scribe. Holmes is at his best in the first episode as he allows the plot to unfold slowly and focuses on elucidating the background of the Gonds' peculiar societal structure. The Gonds, it seems, have always thought of the Krotons as benevolent and are shocked to hear that those who are "chosen" to live among the Krotons because of their superior intelligence are in fact being killed. But even when this does become clear, the Doctor has trouble convincing their leader Selris to do something about it: they've been under the Krotons' control for so long that some of them barely even think about it any more. They obediently stay out of the "wasteland" above ground, having never mustered the nerve to check and see if it's actually dangerous, and they speak of a legend in which the Krotons punished them for their attack on silver men from the sky but subsequently coexisted with them under the current structure. While it's unclear how this legend developed, it's especially pernicious because it casts the Krotons as offended gods who have granted the transgressing Gonds a merciful peace, when in fact, as we learn later, the situation is just the opposite: the Krotons made an emergency landing on this planet after their ship suffered damage in a battle, and then followed "procedure" in exploiting the Gonds as they saw fit.

This gradually sketched and detailed picture of the Krotons' control over the Gonds, I think, is a large part of why they're effective villains: by the time we actually see one of them, we're well aware of how effectively they've marginalized the possibility of active resistance, in no small part because they're subtle enough that most of the Gonds don't even think they're being oppressed in the first place. And while neither of the Krotons that we meet has much of a personality, Holmes makes them conceptually interesting in that they seem to be just barely surviving. They spend most of their time in a liquid state, assuming their robotic forms out of a stasis tank inside their ship (scientifically, I'm pretty sure this is bunk, but it's an inventive image nonetheless), and they've been stealing mental energy from the most intelligent Gonds to keep their systems running and eventually leave the planet. (An even more interesting route might have been to reveal that the Krotons had in fact already died or departed, having left behind an automated system that still held dictatorial control over the Gonds -- though that probably would have been harder to sustain for four episodes.)

This setup allows Holmes to focus not so much on the "jeopardy" angle, which is fairly straightforward stuff, and more on the differences and divisions among the Gonds and how they react to the situation. Selris, despite his initial unwillingness to resist the Krotons, does not come off as naive or cowardly: rather, he seems like a wise and cautious leader who, until just recently, had every reason to believe that he was keeping his people safe by staying within the bounds of the societal structure created by the Krotons. Eelek, by contrast, is a bit too ready to resist, seeing this more as an opportunity to wrest power from Selris than as a struggle for his people's freedom, and he's more than willing to sacrifice the Doctor and Zoe in order to get the Krotons to leave. The scientist Beta, meanwhile, is pleased just to be given the chance to work outside the stagnating confines of the knowledge conferred by the Krotons' "learning machines." In the end, the real victory for the Gonds (as is emphasized a bit too obviously by the final lines of dialogue) is not the defeat of the Krotons, but rather that they have become able to think for themselves and act independently.

The Doctor and Zoe make for an entertaining team in "The Krotons." Though the Doctor is probably "smarter" in some sense due to all his experience as a time traveler, we see that Zoe actually has a slightly more focused mind, as she is able to answer all the Krotons' test questions easily, while the Doctor gets flustered, makes dumb mistakes, and ends up needing her help. Easily the best line in the serial is his: "Zoe is something of a genius, of course -- it can be very irritating at times!" (As if he has any room to talk about being a genius in an irritating way.) They also have a funny routine towards the end when they're stalling for time with the Krotons and stage an argument over who gets to stand where in front of the computer. Jamie is given less to do, and I must confess that I'm starting to find the whole "Jamie isn't very bright" routine (the Krotons aren't interested in him because, unlike the Doctor and Zoe, he isn't a "high brain") kind of tiresome. The writers were making a point of this all the way back in "The Tomb of the Cybermen," and yet most of his behavior, at least in the available Troughton serials, doesn't seem egregiously stupid -- he's not as sharp as Zoe or Ian or Barbara, but otherwise he strikes me as about average. He's sometimes overly aggressive, but that isn't quite the same thing as being unintelligent.

In a sense, "The Krotons" is still formula (battle against alien oppressors), but it's formula done well and it's a promising beginning for Robert Holmes. With its thoughtful approach and diverse cast of characters, it ranks as my favorite Troughton serial so far.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)