21/08/11 “The Power of Kroll”
The weight of history is against you.
“Power of Kroll” starts off promisingly; all of the location filming contributes to atmosphere and setting to a degree that almost makes the execrable appearance of Kroll believable. However, when you get down to thinking about it, there just isn’t much of substance to this story. It’s a pleasant enough run around, but in comparison with the more enjoyable romps that preceded it, it’s a bit forgettable.
For one thing, “Kroll” makes a striking contrast with its male-dominated cast (Romana is the only female) and the more female-balanced “Stones of Blood.” Certainly this is symptomatic of the refinery base being male (which is plausible), but I was shocked and rather dismayed to see no female “Swampies” in the settlement. I just don’t understand the reason for this rather egregious neglect. The whole depiction of the Swampies is muddled, and in the end I feel like the viewer can only few sympathy for them as victims; as characters, especially as represented by Ranquin, they are superstitious fools who sacrifice “Dryfoots” for no logical reason. Their motivations to take over the refinery are understandable up to a point, but they seem more like vehicles for the plot rather than actual characters.
I can’t think of a huge number of Doctor Who stories that tackle the idea of imperialism (“Kinda” being the notable exception that proves the rule), but having been recently reading a great deal about the Western motifs, I couldn’t help viewing this story through that lens. The Swampies look like Edward Lear’s Jumblies to me; they’re green, male, and nearly nude. (Though I do wonder why the verdigris; if they were “rehoused” from Delta Magna, does that mean Delta Magna is covered in swamps? Or have they been on the moon long enough to acclimatize so well to the swamp environment that they have turned green?) Some of the design work in their settlement during the “Kroll!” dance looks vaguely tribal African, but in general I think that if one wants to draw the parallel, the Swampies are Robert Holmes’ version of Native Americans. I draw this parallel especially because the word that’s used is “reservation.” The Swampies get moved to the moon to get them out of the way on Delta Magna, because the dominant regime of humans can, and as soon as something valuable is discovered on the moon, they are to be shoved out of the way again (like Oklahoma Territory being the ultimate reservation in the nineteenth century American West). Also, the costuming reminded me of the breech-cloth controversy during the filming of Last of the Mohicans, in which activist Russell Means was playing Chingachgook and told the costume department that the Eastern tribes would never have worn breech-cloths that small.
However, Holmes must then have been channeling “The Aztecs,” for the Swampies seem to really have an ingrained desire for blood sacrifice. Even so, at least in “The Aztecs” it made a bit of sense; what was the point of Romana getting menaced by a faux Kroll-monster (other than the clever fake-out—“he probably looked more convincing from the front”)? If she was supposedly going to die anyway, why go to all the trouble of dressing up? Theirs is also not an oral history society (apparently), as in a sewer somewhere the Doctor and Romana stumble upon a sacred book (in actual book format!) that describes the mysterious comings and goings of Kroll, the giant squid. I couldn’t believe that the Doctor would just dump the book back down the chute, as well—where’s all the reverence for the written word that I talked about in my Unsilent Library essay?
As I said, Ranquin is the biggest problem, for his pigheaded stubbornness. Certainly the chip on his shoulder against the betrayal of the Dryfoots (and later, Rohm-Dutt) is understandable, but a Cochise or Geronimo he is not. The Swampie cause, supported as it is by the Sons of Earth, seems to get sidelined midway through by a criticism of religion that so often shows up in Doctor Who. In what must have seemed to Holmes a fitting bit of dramatic irony, in part four Ranquin gets murdered by his own god, which is actually a sentient beast, neither good nor evil. (Slightly less pointed than the vicar getting murdered by the Haemovores in “The Curse of Fenric,” but not by much.) Even as Ranquin’s own followers protest in Kroll’s complete absence of morality, instead recognizing that he (it?) strikes at random because he is an animal, the Swampie leader can’t be persuaded to see the truth—much like Reverend Matthews in “Ghost Light.” Two cases of panning Christianity in the 1980s; one case of panning a sort of pagan monotheism in the 1970s. Science, science must always be seen to come out on top in Doctor Who; in “The Aztecs,” while Barbara despaired of the Aztec blood sacrifice, she had nothing but approbation for the rest of their culture. The Swampies seem to have some very complicated rituals for killing people (including vines that stretch people out, which sounds more like the Spanish Inquisition)—one wonders how they find the time to dream all this up, especially when their sacred Kroll dance has such monotonous lyrics.
Thawn is the other side of Ranquin’s coin. He represents everything wrong with the British imperialist/Anglo-centric Roosevelt-Custer view of progress and native civilization. He is a caricature, one more outrageous in its single-mindedness than Todd from “Kinda.” The point is made with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but perhaps in the 1970s it needed to draw attention to itself. Nevertheless, there are more shades in the characters of the other refinery crewmembers, less black-and-white than those at the outpost on “Kinda”—Fenner and Harg basically share the same view point as Thawn, but less fanatical. We never find out how far Harg woud have gone to follow Thawn’s leadership, as he gets pulled down the pipes by Kroll as Fenner and Dugeen watch in rather impotent shock. Fenner ultimately redeems himself with a more than one-dimensional character, and while it is traditional to lament that Philip Madoc should have rounded out his Doctor Who career in this secondary villain role, he actually is the most interesting thing to watch on screen while the camera settles on the bleak and bleary set of the refinery. Dugeen is a sympathetic, rational character with perhaps hidden depths (if he wasn’t sleeping during his rest period, what was he doing?) who gets killed for his trouble and called a “plant for the Sons of Earth” and a “Swampie-lover.” Despite the range of character among these four, I find the scenes in the refinery quite tedious to watch, and it’s not helped by the Blake’s 7-esque lighting. Gun runner (a specialty of Holmes’!) Rohm-Dutt is similarly disappointing, a rather boring recycling of the Garron character from “Ribos Operation” and ultimately expendable.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot to like in the story. As I said, the location work is truly formidable. It makes the interior of the refinery look like “cardboard,” but it’s still wonderfully atmospheric and makes such a welcome change to the endless quarries and leafy forests. Attempts are made to get Kroll himself up to snuff, and they are about as successful as those in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” The idea of a refinery producing protein which it shoots into the atmosphere is great, and the Doctor twigging that the methane projections do not compute with the lake of that size is similarly solid. In fact, all the “hard” science seems to work quite well. It’s an environment that reminds me of the refinery in “Terror of the Zygons” as well as “Robots of Death.” The ending climax with depth charges doesn’t make as much sense, but the final resolution is an interesting one, forcing the imperialists to go home without causing major bloodshed. (Fenner is the last one left, at loose ends, though the Doctor’s suggestion to stay and “go native” seems a bit half-hearted.) The humans’ costumes are dull (were they made out of bathmats?).
Romana’s costume, on the other hand, is inspired—and has inspired, one would think, as it looks rather similar to the one Emma wears in “Curse of the Fatal Death.” In any case, she and the Doctor are eminently practical this time in their Wellies. Romana has less to do in this story than in some of the others. She gets captured a lot, and being tied up in the power of Rohm-Dutt seemed a lot scarier to me than anything Kroll could have done to her. She gets to make lots of witty retorts, showing even more how her character has progressed into breezy blasé having spent so much time with the Doctor. But that’s more or less it. Even the Doctor, though he makes daring canoe trips across the waters and achieves the final acquisition of the Key to Time (once again, a great flourish just bordering on deus ex machina), seems to be trying to keep the two factions from killing each other long enough to get Kroll to settle back down.
Nevertheless, one wonders what would have happened if the Doctor had never come to this moon and never retrieved the segment. Would the Swampies have been wiped out? Would they have risen against the humans and drove them out? Would Kroll have gotten too large and exploded, meaning there was an end to methane?