The title monster in “The Power Of Kroll” is an awe-inspiring giant that spends most of its time mired deep in the muck of a moon-sized swamp. That’s kind of how I feel about the story itself, too.

One of Doctor Who’s less admirable qualities is a longstanding tendency of starting a story with a solid premise and fumbling it somewhere around the middle of episode two. This one is particularly disappointing because it’s one of the more notable failures of Classic-era Doctor Who’s best scriptwriter, Robert Holmes. There is a potentially terrific serial buried somewhere in here—a pointed, acidic commentary about the intersections between colonialism, capitalism, racism and religion that plays a little like Avatar as a horror film. It was apparently so disappointing to Holmes himself that he left Doctor Who entirely for five years, closing off what was inarguably the strongest and one of the longest runs of any of the show’s individual creative staff—an 11-year stretch that included a huge proportion of the series’ best stories and its most influential mythology. And “Power Of Kroll” certainly does have its problems, which we’ll get to momentarily. But more than anything, it feels like a misfire rather than a straightforward mediocrity—I really feel like it could have wound up being the highlight of season 16, if only things had gone a bit differently. (And maybe in a way, that’s exactly what happened, because when Holmes finally came back to the show five years later, it was with the tonally and thematically very similar story “The Caves Of Androzani,” the best Doctor Who serial of the 1980s.) Despite its problems, I found it more consistently enjoyable than any of the Key serials except the terrific season-opener “The Ribos Operation.”

As with all the Key To Time stories, the plot here has its attention divided two ways, between the Doctor’s continuing quest for the Key segments and whatever local imbroglio is brewing where that segment is hidden. In this case, it’s a conflict between an indigenous tribe of moon-marsh dwellers—known by the unfortunate name of “Swampies”—against the genocidal greed of the methane-extraction company men who want their land. Just as the TARDIS lands, the war is about to get nasty: The Swampies have secretly bought weapons from a shady gunrunner named Rohm-Dutt, and the refinery’s unrepentantly racist leader Thawn has genocidal plans of his own. Literally underlying everything else is the gargantuan Kroll, a Godzilla-sized mutant space squid that’s been lying dormant for centuries beneath the swamp, its legend growing into a full-fledged Swampie death cult. As we discover, Kroll itself is the fifth Key To Time segment, making it the central connection of the whole narrative, both the object of the Doctor’s quest and the ultimate cause of the conflict between the Swampies and the company.

There’s something of a disconnect between the two plot strands here. On the one hand, the Doctor and Romana are in what amounts to an Indiana Jones movie, quipping their way through deathtraps and dangers as the stars of a lighthearted action-thriller that takes itself so unseriously that the Doctor literally sings his way out of one jam. And that can work really well: what’s more fun than watching Tom Baker fast-talk his way around guys with guns? The other plot strand is by nature more serious, especially with Holmes’ cynicism about human nature bubbling under the dialogue.

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That sets up a delicate balancing act: One approach works better when it’s less serious, and the other when it’s more serious. And neither way carries the day; they just get in each other’s way. That’s especially damaging to Holmes’ attempt at the more serious storyline, which if it had worked would have made “Power Of Kroll” something more than just a lark about finding the next segment, but a stab at dealing with bigger issues as well.

It’s noteworthy that “Power Of Kroll” is the only story of the Key To Time season so far in which the Key itself is more than tangentially related to the story at hand. It doesn’t seem like any thought was given to how the six Key stories fit together beyond the fact that each one would have a segment of the Key in it somewhere—which you would think would be the entire point of bothering to come up with a season-long arc in the first place. In the previous four installments of season 16, the segments of the Key were, at best, Hitchcockian MacGuffins—valuable objects whose chief importance was merely that they motivated the different characters to find them. But here, the segment created the entire scenario. Kroll swallows the segment, which causes it to grow impossibly huge and ravenous, which warps Swampie religion into a Kroll death cult and which creates the vast methane reserves in the swamps, which attracts the attention of the resource-hungry Delta Magnans and inspires Thawn to wipe out the Swampies to get his hands on their untapped wealth.

This is how every Key story should have been set up in the first place. Since the Key is supposed to be a cosmic artifact of enormous reality-bending power, it makes sense that its six segments would be powerful in their own right, and that in each story part of the Doctor’s dilemma would be confronting how to deal with how the segment had caused massive, weird changes to the local setting merely by existing. (If you want an example of this idea being handled properly, just look at the way the Marvel superhero movies have been handling the Infinity Gems so far—they’re not just plot devices but plot superchargers, bending the narrative around them whenever they appear.)

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To go back to that Avatar comparison I made earlier, there’s a clear similarity between Kroll, god of the swamps, and Avatar’s self-aware planet Pandora. The difference is also obvious: Pandora actually cares about the people who worship it, and protects them. Kroll is just a monster, and will eat anything it can reach, no matter how much they venerate it. It’s trying to be both a horror film and an eco-political thriller, and the needs of the horror film keep smashing aside the needs of the political thriller. Despite Kroll’s central importance to the setup of the plot, it it winds up derailing the narrative once it actually appears. The conflict between the natives and the colonizers is turned almost irrelevant, as Thawn becomes so spooked that he throws aside his previous plans and spends all his remaining time trying to kill Kroll and barely even talks about the Swampies any more. Of all the characters here, Thawn is the most directly opposed to the swamp people, and yet notably he never has a meaningful scene where he interacting with one of them until he’s killed by a spear, unceremoniously, in one of those moves where the writer kills off the villain because there’s only two minutes left in the running time and he’d better get the decks cleared.

The very fact that the Swampies are only known to us as Swampies is indicative of the lack of attention Holmes paid to them: It’s the racist term used against them by the Delta Magnans, particularly Thawn, and there’s no indication that it’s what they call themselves. Holmes fails to pay the swamp people enough attention to give them their own name, or show any of their women, or otherwise make their culture seem like a real thing and not a lazy caricature. The only real attempt at fleshing them out is in their Kroll-based religion, which Holmes largely uses as an excuse to rip off the scene from King Kong where the natives sacrifice Fay Wray to the giant gorilla. That scene is, to be sure, one of the most memorable of early sci-fi cinema, but it hardly casts the swampies in a sympathetic light, does it? It’s a fatal error for a story that’s otherwise trying to cast them as the wronged party. They needed to be more sympathetic than the tribe we’re given: a clearly delusional religious fanatic and several two-dimensional tribesmen, plus one guy in a homemade squid costume we’re encouraged to find ridiculous. (“He probably looked more convincing from the front,” quips the Doctor.)

Speaking of which: The special effects here are particularly disappointing, even after taking into account the low-budget B-movie way that Doctor Who rolls. It’s not so much the Kroll monster itself—the model used for the full-sized tentacled gargantua looks pretty realistic, and the eerie gurgling noise Kroll makes is effectively chilling. Other things like the tentacle that bursts through the refinery wall to drag victims away, let’s just say they’re less believable. The real problem isn’t the effects themselves but the way they’re consistently deployed in ways that blunt their dramatic impact and even make it ridiculous. Case in point: The episode-three cliffhanger, when the risen, cyclopean Kroll looms over the defenseless Doctor and Romana in their tiny boat. As the last cliffhanger in the story, this should have been an awe-inspiring moment that paid off 90 minutes of build-up. Romana notices something burbling in the water, and shouts “Look!” Then, and she and the Doctor watch in helpless horror, the tentacled beast emerges from the swamp, rising and rising above them like a vision out of Lovecraft. But instead we get: Romana shouts “Look!” They turn around, and are amazed that they failed to notice a giant monster that obscures the entire sky. Without seeing Kroll’s actual emergence from the deeps, the effect becomes a little comical.

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Stray observations

• Originally broadcast Dec. 23, 1978-Jan. 13, 1979.

• Lots of noteworthy guest actors in this one, particularly Philip Madoc, in his last Doctor Who appearance after bringing to life two of the greatest villains in series history, the War Lord in “The War Games” and Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.” Here, he brings a smoldering anger and intensity to the relatively minor role of refinery chief Fenner that’s fantastic, if more than the character really deserves. The story goes that he actually thought he was going to be playing the larger part of Thawn, and was so put off by the mixup that he never took a role on Doctor Who again. The affable Dugeen is played by John Leeson, far better known as the voice of K9, given this role when it became obvious the K9 propr couldn’t be used in the swamps and and to be written out. And the fanatical Swampie priest Ranquin is John Abineri, who also played General Carrington in the Third Doctor’s “The Ambassadors of Death.”

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• Upcoming schedule:

• Doctor Who Classic reviews publish monthly. Coming up:

• March: “The Sea Devils”

• April: “The Armageddon Factor”

• May: “Pyramids Of Mars”

• June: “Survival”

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