Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll
The Key to Time, Part V
(4 episodes, s16e17-e20, 1978-79)
Before now, I had never seen a squid stumble.
The common thread throughout the serial was the weak story. There was very little meat on the bone, and it shows in how detailed my notes are. The story opens in a methane catalyzing refinery where we’re introduced to the crew and their servant, Mensch. The servant, who they treat like swamp scum until he dies, is a native of the planet.
The planet is really a moon orbiting Delta Magna. Taking a cue from The Empire Strikes Back, the moon is one big swamp. Instead of a single green Jedi, the moon’s inhabitants are a group of green natives called the “swampies.” For the record, that’s the last time I’ll mention that name because the narrative treats it in the ugliest manner for the duration.
The commander is returning from somewhere, and the tracking officer notes that a spacecraft followed in the commander’s shuttle. They presume that it must be Rohm-Dutt, a gun-runner who is supplying the natives with weapons in the name of The Sons of Earth. Who are they? A missed opportunity for the plot.
The refinery workers take up arms in pursuit of the smuggler. Coincidentally, the TARDIS arrives at that same time, and as the Doctor and Romana search for the next Key Fragment, Romana is abducted by the natives and the Doctor is ambushed by the humans. K9 gets to stay in the TARDIS since he cannot navigate the swamp. Lucky dog.
Rohm-Dutt questions Romana about her presence and intentions, and the Doctor gets a similar treatment from the workers. After he convinces them that he’s not a threat, the refinery personnel decide to keep the Doctor at their facility. He accompanies them to watch an orbit shot, the purpose of which is, well, not really explained.
Romana, on the other hand, gets to meet the local god since the natives decide to sacrifice her to the mighty Kroll. She’s tied to a stake, subjected to the local interpretation of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and gets scared by a native in a squid suit. With the Doctor’s quip that “it probably looked more convincing from the front,” it’s apparent that this serial is mocking itself.
After freeing Romana, the Doctor reveals that he has (somehow) recovered the Key Core. They decide to investigate further for reasons and discover a text that references Kroll, a creature that consumed a previous High Priest, and has made three appearances. It’s due for a fourth, which happens in short order. The refinery workers note that something has caused the moon’s surface to move up briefly and then settle again. They find that the Doctor has left the complex, decide that he’s a sympathizer who is going to warn the natives of a pending human assault on them, and set out in pursuit to kill him. Everything converges as the humans hunt the Time Lords, the natives attack the humans, their weapons explode on use, Kroll eats Mensch, and the natives retreat to settle the score with Rohm-Dutt and seek a blood sacrifice to appease the god.
The god Kroll is a giant squid. How Lovecraftian.
The natives capture the Time Lords, bundling them with Rohm-Dutt as a massive sacrifice under one of the “seven holy rituals.” The Doctor finds it lucky that they get to participate in the seventh, which is the swamp equivalent of torture by the racks. The second episode ends as Kroll seeks out the refinery, which apparently has been harvesting methane produced by the creature when it hibernates and has been drilling right into it, and eats one of the crewmen after breaking through a pipe.
The Doctor questions the native High Priest about Kroll, trying to hypnotize him so the man will free them, but all he gets is some backstory. Rohm-Dutt also admits that the refinery foreman paid him handsomely to sell the faulty weapons to the natives and discredit The Sons of Earth. See above, re: missed opportunity.
Luckily, the captives break free courtesy of two conveniences: The Doctor shatters a window with his singing and the ensuing storm loosens their bonds. Seven really is his lucky number. They make their way across the swamps and encounter the Kroll once again. It eats Rohm-Dutt and a native, leading the Doctor to deduce that it hunts by vibration.
Those two paragraphs were Episode Three. Yes, really.
The refinery commander, who is going insane in his need to eliminate his opposition, decides to aim the next orbital shot (whatever that is) at the Kroll, but his crew afraid that it will ignite the thin atmosphere and kill all of the natives. The Doctor stops the launch and the Kroll escapes, but the Time Lords do not as the commander catches up to them.
The natives invade the refinery, ending the commander’s threat at the surprise end of a spear. Kroll resumes its assault on the refinery, but the Doctor and the remaining refinery worker distract it by engaging all of the platform’s equipment and alarms. The High Priest offers a prayer to the tentacle emerging from the broken pipe. He ends up becoming a sacrament.
The Doctor takes the Key Core topside, testing his theory that the source of the Kroll’s power is the Fragment. After getting a hug from the squid, he transforms it into the Fifth Segment. The story ends with an aborted bang as the Doctor short circuits the computer to prevent the next orbit shot, which would have been into a plugged firing tube.
The Doctor and Romana make their way back to the TARDIS and take off, thankfully ending this adventure.
This one is stretched thin across the board. The refinery crew is acted poorly, as are the natives, and they have the extra baggage of the Savage Indian trope. The special effects are bad, and so is the script, especially when thin atmosphere and weak gravity are explicitly called out but neither is readily apparent in the acting. Even the regulars are poorly written with jokes that fail so hard at landing that they reach escape velocity without a push.
This could have easily been turned serious as another Doctor Who allegory on colonialism, capitalism, racism, slavery, and religion. It could have been as deep as The Mutants. Instead, we get a self-effacing farce that doesn’t even take advantage of the groundwork to the Key to Time arc. We’ve had one or two hints, but the warning to beware the Black Guardian hasn’t had any payoff at all.
The tremendous positive here is how the Key Fragment was handled. In the previous four stories, the fragments have all been random objects like a lump of jethrik ore, the remnants of a compressed planet, the Great Seal of Diplos, and a piece of a statue. The rub is that the Key was sold to us as a powerful and legendary artifact that maintains the equilibrium of time. This story treated the Key Fragment like one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Infinity Stones, making it so powerful that it warped the narrative around it. The Time Lords couldn’t just theoretically arrive, identify and snag the treasure, and then leave. Instead, they had no choice but to literally fight the monster to solve the story’s conflict and earn the reward. In this story, they had to work for it.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.
I’m surprised at how thin and disengaging this story is. Robert Holmes has been the writer behind some of the highest ratings in the Timestamps Project – Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons, The Time Warrior, The Ark in Space, Pyramids of Mars, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Ribos Operation – but this one turned out more like The Krotons and The Space Pirates.
Rating: 1/5 – “EXTERMINATE!”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.