Wednesday, August 07, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 36: The Krotons. Featuring Patrick Troughton, Robert Holmes and the Double Act

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Now we have a new Doctor and look forward to a new direction for the series, today it’s a celebration of two people who did those things brilliantly: second Doctor Patrick Troughton and lead writer Robert Holmes, both still regarded as patron saints by Doctor Who actors and writers today. Paired together here from 1969, this scene (and more) offers the sort of double act both men were famous for, a warning about computer games, and proof that nobody’s perfect:
“Oh, Doctor! You’ve got it all wrong!”

By the time The Krotons was first broadcast at the tail end of the ’60s, Patrick Troughton was approaching the tail end of his time as the Doctor, while Robert Holmes was just starting out on his career in the series – one which would see him write for five Doctors over nearly twenty years, become the series’ most prolific writer during the Twentieth Century with scripts that ran from comedy to horror and nicking from everything in sight, and establish himself as Doctor Who’s greatest ever script editor (the equivalent of today’s showrunners like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, without the money), defined by great dialogue and great wickedness. The Krotons is a bit smaller than all that and not the greatest story in which either Mr Troughton or Mr Holmes would be involved, but right from the first Bob writes perfectly for the Doctor and Pat runs with it superbly. You can see why so many actors who’ve played the Doctor since cite him as their favourite, from Peter Davison on BBC1’s So You Think It’s Capaldi… It Is Now! programme last Sunday night to still-current incumbent Matt Smith: not only is Patrick Troughton pretty much unbeatable when he’s giving his best, but he’s obviously the patron saint of ‘the impossible job of following the big success and making it work’. And one of the things both Pat and Bob made their own in their different ways can be checked by asking long-term Who fans, ‘Which Doctor / which writer was brilliant for comedy double acts…?’

Half-way into Episode Two, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his friends Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) are trying to work out the secret of the Krotons, legendary beings long-unseen and perhaps best left that way* who rule from their great crystal machine over the locals, known as the Gonds. The Krotons have for centuries demanded tribute of the Gonds’ best and brightest delivered to them, and in a neat critique of instant gratification, by the time our heroes arrive the Gonds are predictably no longer best or bright. As the Krotons need mental energy to revive themselves, their own not exactly high-brain short-termism means perpetual slumber for them and perpetual slavery for the Gonds. Unless someone very bright indeed turns up and puts their foot in it, of course…

Zoe is a brilliant teenage computer programmer from the Twenty-first Century who, when the Doctor bumbles off to look elsewhere, is drawn to the Krotons’ teaching machines and all the games installed on them. Stop me if you can see where this is going. She’d have been a demon with ‘Tomb Raider of the Cybermen’, and even though ‘Selris’ only involves a completely inanimate block that has to be winched into place, she’s soon more than doubling the previous high score and flooded with endorphins. The Doctor wrenches off her headphones, but the Gonds’ dreary leader has already spotted the score. The Doctor’s not impressed:
“Yes, well, Zoe is something of a genius. Of course, it can be very irritating at times.”
That’s nothing to his reaction when a gong sounds from the great crystal machine and a message from the sleeping Krotons demands that Zoe join them as a special extra companion. As Zoe and the Doctor have both already witnessed that round the back of the great crystal machine there’s an exit where the ‘honoured’ companions are unceremoniously ejected and disintegrated after having their brains sucked out, the usually mildest of Doctors snaps to his friend in sudden fury and fear:
“Now do you see what you’ve done? Fooling around with this stupid machine!”
“But I’m not a Gond!”
“But the machine doesn’t know that!”
He stomps off to take the test himself, unwilling either to let the Kroton machine massacre the Gonds for disobedience or let Zoe go into danger alone. And that’s what I really love about this scene, because the Doctor’s palpable concern, and Zoe wanting to make up for her getting them into trouble, and looming certain death, all obviously create a situation which is both tense and terrifically funny.

The Doctor sits down at the teaching machine and their positions are suddenly reversed: he’s the one with the headset on and Zoe’s the responsible one telling him what to do. And on top of both wanting him to succeed, they’re absurdly competitive about it. She tells him to press the button to start, then tells him again, because he can’t hear with his phones on; he answers back too loudly, and with a storm of testy words that get her going, and coming, and them both rushing about:
“All right, there’s no need to shout! Now go away and don’t fuss me – no, come back, what’s this? – It’s all right, I know – right, fire away. I’m ready.”
At which an exasperated Zoe now mimes that he has to press the button to set it going. Not much of The Krotons looks good, but there’s some fabulous design here for the circling computer symbols (absolutely not CGI) assembling, breaking and reforming, all to great sound design, too, an ominous low chattering hum. Brian Hodgson’s soundtrack – a radiophonic mixture of electronic effects, textures and near-music – is now available to buy, and so fascinating that Richard has instructed me never again to play it in his presence (look, it’s shorter than The Sea Devils…).

So does the brilliant Doctor at once beat Zoe’s high score? No. He makes a clever person’s error and, rather than reading the instructions properly, works it out on the wrong basis and scores zero. The Gond leader worries to Zoe:
“This is the most advanced machine. Perhaps he can’t answer the questions.”
“Of course he can. The Doctor’s almost as clever as I am.”
So the Doctor gets it all wrong again, as Zoe jumps in frustration. That is, until he gets into the swing of it and, at last, the score battering over the upper limit, he turns very smug and she turns very cold:
“I think I’ve scored more than you have, Zoe.”
“You answered more questions!”
Before long, the “dinner gong” sounds again for them to enter the great machine, and even as the danger reaches its pitch, the Doctor’s deadpan polite thanks when Selris the Gond leader dolefully tells him his people will remember him is a scream…

*On another not entirely stunning visualisation, Alan and Fiona have recently covered The Krotons on Kaldor City and I laughed at their all-too appropriate “The Gond village looks like someone has dropped a packet of chips and a Scotch egg on a gravelled drive” – this is not among Doctor Who’s more lavish productions.

Bonus Great Patrick Troughton and Robert Holmes Doctor Who Quotation – The Space Pirates

If The Krotons is not the most fêted of Doctor Who stories, Bob Holmes’ second script, The Space Pirates, can be a bit of a slog. Of all the stories I’ve watched when prospecting for the Fifty, this was the hardest work to pry anything precious from: for me, it’s easily Bob’s weakest script, badly structured, thinly plotted, and with most of it junked by the BBC so only the soundtrack is left, not even visually diverting. With Bob’s entertaining but unexpectedly queasy final treatment of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor not until a 1985 guest reunion, though, this is the only other time they paired up. But the great thing about Doctor Who – and about Pat and Bob – is that even in the most exhausted parts you really can still find something marvellous. And here it’s not in the endless, plotless space chases but in the second half of the story, where the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his longtime partner in the double act Jamie (Frazer Hines) finally get to meet people from across the plot and to do plenty of their perfectly timed schtick. A terrible gag with drawing pins that’s terribly funny; the Doctor’s favourite marble; and the bit that I’m afraid always makes me laugh – trying to break out of a cell with an audio lock, the Doctor gets out a tuning fork and, endlessly, twangs it. Jamie:
“Which end did he land on when you fell down that shaft?”
[After driving them all nuts…]
“Oh, look, Doctor, will you stop it?”
“You want to get out of here, don’t you?”
“Oh, that’s not going to get us out…”
“Yes, Jamie, it is! An audio lock is a simple solenoid switch which is only activated by a particular sound. It’s just a question of finding it, that’s all.”
“Oh, look – I can’t stand any more!”
[He grabs the fork off him… Chucks it against the wall… And as the Doctor wails, the cell door opens.]
“Jamie! Jamie! …Jamie, you found the right note!”
Confronted with a three-inch-steel door later:
“It’s not an audio lock, is it?”
“No, Jamie, it isn’t.”
“Ah, that’s a relief.”
“Jamie, I think you don’t appreciate all I do for you.”
And there you go – sifting out the good bits of The Space Pirates.

Admittedly I do find one line from the old comedy character without much comedy to him very appealing, too – here’s Milo Clancey up against the New Labour space police:
“You know it’s an offence to operate without a feedback to CFI?”
“An offence?”
“I didn’t realise that, sonny, no. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. There are so many offences these days.”

Bonus Great Patrick Troughton Doctor Who Quotation – The Moonbase

The Doctor had begun as a figure who intended only to observe and who learned only gradually the moral instinct to interfere: moral outrage had long topped non-intervention by the time of his first regeneration, but it’s when the new Doctor (Patrick Troughton) faced the early return of the Cybermen that he gave the clearest declaration that he fights monsters now, and fighting monsters is cool. It’s part-way into Episode 2, with the Doctor and his friends having a bit of a time of it up on a Moonbase about a century after the story’s 1967 broadcast. The base commander is fed up with the Doctor’s antics and wants him gone; the Doctor’s friends are mostly fed up with being injured and threatened and might just do that; but the Cybermen appear to be on the prowl, and the playful Doctor suddenly puts his foot down with sober gravitas and issues his manifesto. This is the moment where this Doctor finds himself. Later Doctors found a more nuanced moral compass, but this one took two very firm and uncompromising if not completely complementary stances: anarchic freethinking meddling; and destroy all monsters…
“There are some corners of the Universe which have bred the most – terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought.”

Bonus Great Robert Holmes Doctor Who Quotation – The Time Warrior

One of Robert Holmes more influential scripts, The Time Warrior introduced Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen): in Episode Four, broadcast early in 1974, Sarah Jane has snuck into a medieval castle to knock out a nasty robber baron and his entire garrison while the Doctor deals with the alien in the cellar. It’s a scene that shows how very resourceful she is, how very feminist she is, and how very funny she can be. Caught in the kitchens by Meg the fearsome – well, I suppose in a posher castle she’d be called the châtelaine, but here ‘lead serving wench that bullies the other serving wenches into getting the job done’ – Sarah Jane first bluffs that she’s a lady and will have her flogged, then, that failing, turns on a groat to wheedling pauper needing food and is put to preparing some, after which if she’s lucky she might get some bread, cheese or oatmeal – meat only being for the men. Exasperated at the downtrodden kitchen women, Sarah Jane confronts them about their situation and gets carried away…
“You should set yourselves free.”
“Oh? And how should we do that?”
“Don’t you want to be free?”
“Women will never be free while there are men in the world, girl. We have our place.”
“What subservient poppycock. You’re still living in the Middle Ages!”
Next along, half of what will much later become a famous double act with Sarah Jane…

Extra Bonus Great Robert Holmes Doctor Who Quotation – The Sun Makers

After three sublime years of scaring the kiddies (I was that kiddie) in the mid-’70s, the BBC itself took fright of Doctor Who (and of far right anti-TV ideologues), sacked the producer and demanded a change of tone. And lead writer Robert Holmes, who’d been half of the brilliant creative team behind all the horror, stayed on long enough to come up with the next new wave, too – to use Tom Baker’s enormous charisma as a springboard to a much funnier style. 1977’s The Sun Makers has the iconic line-up: the man in the incredibly long scarf (Tom Baker); the woman in the leather bikini (Louse Jameson); the tin dog (John Leeson). While the TARDIS is still in flight, we join the travellers playing chess. There are other great Doctor-machine chess games to come, from the Doctor’s return match with K9 a year later in which he cheats again but steals from the wrong game, to his playing chess against himself within the Cyberiad just this year, and facing Fenric along the way, but this is the first and, in its own way, as much a statement as the Doctor’s famous line on The Moonbase. The Doctor (Tom Baker) will now be funny and outrageous and often get caught out; K9 will be not just a blaster-cum-database on wheels, but bitchy and pedantic and with a touch of robotic venom when his “master” tries it on. And Leela, moving the pieces for K9, will be the straight man.
“Even simple one-dimensional chess exposes the limitations of the machine mind.”
[The Doctor laughs]
“Bishop to queen six. Mistress.”
“Affirmative. Check, master.”
Machine mind computes mate in six moves.”
“…Your move, master.”
“I know it’s my move. Don’t flash your eyes at me.”
“Wrong square.”
“Your king, master. Wrong square.”
“Really? Are you sure?”

Doctor Who and the Double Act

I don’t know which Doctor Who critic first wrote about the “Holmesian Double Act,” but they nailed one of the most striking things about the series’ arguably greatest writer, and everyone familiar with Robert Holmes’ scripts suddenly knew exactly what they meant. Yet these took a little while to appear; you don’t really get double acts in Bob’s two earliest scripts – there are functional teams (the plotters in The Krotons, the police in The Space Pirates), but they’re not amusing and they’re not memorable. The exception is, of course, the Doctor and Jamie (or the Doctor and Zoe), who’d perfected a brilliant relationship over the years.

So, while Bob was finding his voice, I wonder how much he looked at the team he was writing for in 1969 and was influenced by them – with Pat and Frazer’s fantastic on-screen chemistry displaying a great way to bring out character. The Doctor, highly intelligent, easily flustered, always getting his friend into trouble; the young Scot from 1745, uneducated but canny enough to always watch out for the Doctor getting it wrong; both devoted to each other (and with Zoe coming in to be exasperated and constantly one-upping on both).

The way Robert Holmes writes his own double acts is never the same each time, but still distinctive: two people who are clearly meant to be together but through some imbalance of age, position or outlook constantly snipe at each other, which moves the plot along, informs and entertains us and comments on the story. The earliest version is in 1970’s Spearhead From Space with, archetypally, a husband and wife – and once he’d written the Seeleys always trying to get one over on each other, the key to all the rest is that they’re husband and wife / odd couple sketches transposed into a serious setting. And while Sam Seeley was just a bit shifty, a great many of them raise the stakes by being explicitly villains.

The partners in a Holmesian Double Act can be anywhere along the dial from out-and-out comedy characters to comedy-drama to downright dangerous and very blackly comic indeed, from supporting to central characters in the plot, and from ‘loveable rogue’ with ‘disapproving wife’ all the way up to ‘mad scientist’ paired with both ‘war criminal’ and ‘brutish servant’, which makes the insults all the grander and crueller (“You chicken-brained biological disaster!”) and at their darkest where each might grow to regard the other as disposable. Some double acts are only temporary, just for a scene or two within a story, some an inseparable chorus, but many are deeply celebrated partnerships – to the extent that many other Doctor Who authors consciously emulate the idea, with one writer’s best story features not just Bob Holmes Tribute Band double acts of his own, but even lampshades the term (as does later still writer Paul Cornell. In iambic pentameter).

In 1971’s Terror of the Autons, the Master and Rex Farrel (Michael Wisher) get to play master and servant so archly that it’s amazing so few people spot the husband-wife origins, but the point at which Bob really finds his voice and the double act springs fully formed for every critic to identify is 1973’s Carnival of Monsters, in which we don’t just get gossipy alien fascists Kalik (Michael Wisher) and Orum as the villains but dodgy travellers Vorg and Shirna to mirror the Doctor and his companion. As the series gets scarier, the pairs get more serious – Nyder and Davros (Michael Wisher… Look, he’s awfully good, and very versatile, and they did employ other people in the ’70s, honestly) – but there are vestigial double acts even in comedy exchanges that are going to turn murderous like Warlock and Namin in Pyramids of Mars or Federico and Hieronymous in The Masque of Mandragora, soaring to the nastiest but almost the funniest of the lot in The Brain of Morbius, with unhinged Dr Solon sparking off both his brutish servant and his obsessed master. There’s a spin on the buddy movie not with butch young things but cynical old codgers in The Deadly Assassin (plus The Clue of the Murdered Double-Act that we don’t even get to meet), and in later, less serious times double acts with outrageously evil capitalists before Bob launches another fabulous the Doctor and companion double act, this time an impossibly arch fellow Time Lord. And that’s not the half of them.

Still to come in the Fifty: from Bob Holmes’ big comeback, one of several especially nastily dysfunctional double acts – but will it be the disturbed homoerotic one, the other disturbed homoerotic one, the in-your-face twisted and murderous one, or the only one that’s clearly productive until…? Plus Bob’s deconstruction of his own trope and, shockingly, of his own inspiration – and, of course, the most beloved and famous double act of them all, who each try out various partners before finding each other.

Extra Bonus Great Robert Holmes Doctor Who Double Act Quotation – The Ribos Operation

On, for an irresistible last bonus, to one of Robert Holmes’ most celebrated double acts, broadcast in 1978. I know I quoted The Ribos Operation just last time, but full of such marvellous characters and dialogue that I can’t help coming back to it (and beside, Bob Holmes probably didn’t write that bit, but he definitely wrote this one). It’s half-way into Part Four, and scurrilous con-men Garron (Iain Cuthbertson) and Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) are stuck in a labyrinth. Garron has three aims: avoid the big bad soldiers; avoid the Doctor and Romana; get out with the loot. The more innocent young Unstoffe is shocked by the second aim, and to find that his grizzled old partner has none of the ‘It’s not all about the money’ code of Hustle: having teamed up with Romana in order for each of them to find their friends, Garron’s nicked her vital detector and left her stranded…
“Money isn’t everything, Garron.”
“Well, who wants everything? I’ll settle for 90%.”
“…You cavilling old hypocrite. How could you?”
“Well, I admit I had a great trouble with me conscience. Fortunately, I won.”

Next Time… Monsters from the deep. But which?

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