The Power of Kroll

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Norman Stewart
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1978/79
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

Slagged mercilessly by most, this is actually my favourite Robert Holmes story of the Graham Williams era. While The Ribos Operation and The Sunmakers were indulged and sent up by their cast, Kroll is actually quite a serious story, and a clear forerunner of Androzani. (That's not to compare it or say it deserves praise for that, by the way - just an observation that Holmes's most serious ideas of the period were packed into this one, one of his most slated).

Okay, it's a story that's so dull even Philip Madoc doesn't really sparkle, and the Swampies not only look silly but are also an overstated racial parallel. Yet the location is unique in a series full of quarries, and the various different factions of the plot keep things interesting. (Which actually contradicts me saying it was dull just one sentence ago, but I had to get in the "Philip Madoc doesn't really sparkle" bit somehow).

Little things annoy me in Who, and if you've read any of my reviews of Terry Nation stories you'll know crass exposition is one of them. Here we start with Romana telling a Doctor who likes swamps: "Try telling that to K-9, he's marooned." Stupid. I mean, the Doctor would obviously already know that, so why say it, other than for our benefit? But I forgive Mary for it, because she is reaching levels of almost-adequacy at this stage, and she looks well fit in that outfit. In fact, this is the story where I would the most.

The patently unfunny Doctor-Romana rivalry has returned in the second Holmes script of the season, but those hoverboats are cool and Tom playing that reed like a flute is just so silly you've got to love it. Some say Glyn Owen is phoning in his performance and that there's a reason John Leeson normally plays metal dogs, but I think both are fine. Oh, and listen to Madoc's line of "I don't know" (2'23m in) - after he says it there's a sound effect that sounds like he's broken wind. Not a classic episode but certainly no stinker - I just wish that the likeable location work wasn't backed up by Dudley Simpson. Oh, and those "Kroll!" chants that go on for over three-and-a-half minutes at the end - they send you to sleep.
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While the idea of a monster really being a man in a costume is quite postmodern, I can't stand the jarring mix of studio video and location film that's used to achieve it. Quite shocking to see the friendly fourth Doctor smacking him in the guts as well. Later he looks at an ancient book with the pages obviously stuck in.

The pacing really starts to flag in this episode, and Norman Stewart's staid direction must take some of the blame. Though the lengthy scenes don't do it any favours. I think it really comes down to Mary Tamm's acting, actually. Sorry, but while I definitely would, she ain't no actress. Her lifeless, would-be witty reading of lines always comes across as parody, but not in a good way. This is joke Doctor Who, but without any real self-awareness. Season sixteen is actually my least favourite Tom Baker season, and it's stuff like Tamm that makes it so.

While I seem to like this story more than 90% of other fans, I can see why others dislike it. Well, a bit. One criticism I can't countenance is those that slate the CSO realisation of the eponymous giant squid. It's not a seamless effect, certainly, but then what Tom Baker story had effects that were? Compare the creature to the giant Krynoid in The Seeds of Doom - I think this is far better. Actually, I wrote that pre-emptively - having seen it again, maybe it is a bit crap, isn't it? To be honest, this is the third time I've seen this story and it's defying my preconceptions. The first two times I really enjoyed it, but now I'm being forced to admit that it is a little below par.
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"By the speed this one's forming, it's going to be a daddy!" One of the worst lines in Who, and it's a shame this episode doesn't rock like one. I normally get a kick out of Kroll, but I find myself running out of patience with it this time around.

What really fails to gel about this one is that it feels like two completely different stories rammed together. On the one hand you've got four bored actors in a drab, grey set, taking their bog standard dialogue oh-so-seriously and trying to convince that they're living in that matchbox model. On the other you've got all the silliness of Tom, which is annoying silly rather than funny silly. Here the whole fabric of the programme threatens to come undone as he refuses to acknowledge the drama of any situation. People who praise Holmes should be drawn to the ridiculous scene with the Doctor "singing". "It's not that bad yet" claims Romana. Maybe not, but it's not too far off rock bottom either.
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Who at this stage in its history was becoming frighteningly "safe" and generic. In many ways it's like Pertwee all over again, as a can't-be-bothered Tom meanders through more half-assed muck. I feel guilty for saying all that, I really do. If any story doesn't deserve any more abuse it's this one, and the first two times I saw it I would've stuck up for it. This time, though, my patience has gone. It hasn't stood up to repeated viewings, and has nothing in the way of subtext. The race allegory? It's so overstated it doesn't qualify as subtext.

"When in doubt, cut everything" says Tom, advice limp director Stewart should surely have heeded. I desperately wanted to big this story up so all the Kroll haters could get hot under the collar, but I can't any longer. It's like the scales have been lifted from my eyes, and all that's left is Doctor Who at its most basic and uninspired. The CSO line on Kroll's appearances really is poor, while I was concerned for John Leeson's safety as wooden Neil McCarthy brutally strikes him on the side of the neck. You might also like to look at John Abineri's back when his shawl slips, revealing that half of his back isn't given as much green paint, or that it has rubbed off on the shawl - now that really is rankuin. An alarmingly flat ending concludes an episode that can only be summed up as "piss poor".
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I hate giving a below average rating to a Tom Baker story, but then Tom Baker is partly the reason why this one is so problematical anyway. The location is unique and commendable, but that's the only worthwhile element, with the rest - even Philip Madoc - failing to shine. Season Sixteen is a disaster as far as Robert Holmes is concerned, and I now take back my earlier statement about this being better than The Sunmakers. Slating such a hugely unpopular story is something that gives me no pleasure, but sometimes reputations are there for a reason.
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