It's Christmas Adam, 1978. Boney M are still at number one with "Mary's Boy Child." Two weeks later they're unseated by The Village People with YMCA, which stays for the last week of the story as well. All of this marks the clear ascendency of disco as a subculture. In the past, Doctor Who has tracked the tone of youth subculture uncannily. In which case this alone is reason for concern. In any case, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Elton John, and the Bee Gees also chart.
While in real news, Vietnam makes a major attack on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Spain ratifies its new Constitution, an event that Wikipedia describes as officially ending military dictatorship, which is amusing given that six lines earlier in its timeline it describes an earlier stage in the Constitution's development the exact same way. And there's a big UN/UNICEF push for the "Year of the Child" featuring a big concert with ABBA, the Bee Gees, Donna Summer, and Rod Stewart. So that's horrific.
While on television, it's not a popular story at all. Let us be honest, for a moment, about the critical consensus regarding this story. Its weaknesses are evident, yes. It’s a bold fan who can defend the Swampies or the way in which Kroll is merged into shots. (The Kroll model itself is actually phenomenal, and it’s easy to see why his first appearance was an iconic moment for children of the time. On the other hand, the join between the two shots is an abomination.) But these in and of themselves don’t explain this story’s status as a punching bag, nor does the fact that it drags a bit.
No, the biggest problem this story has is that for a Robert Holmes script it’s complete and utter crap. It is, in fact, the second worst Robert Holmes script according to the DWM poll I’ve been oddly obsessing over through this story arc, coming in at 174th place. The one that’s lower is, of course, The Space Pirates, which is actually not a bad story to compare this one to.
Both, after all, have essentially the same origin. Holmes was called in to produce a script in a hurry to fill a gap. And in both cases he was given a thoroughly crappy set of instructions for his troubles. For The Space Pirates he was told to tack on two extra episodes and be sure to keep the science realistic. This time he got told to cut down on the humor and to insert the biggest monster in Doctor Who history. And in both cases the resulting script amounts to Robert Holmes writing a space Western. (Also, in a more esoteric coincidence, The Space Pirates was the first story on which John Nathan-Turner worked, then as a floor assistant. The Power of Kroll, on the other hand, was the first story produced by him, as Graham Williams, depending on your choice of sources, went on vacation or took ill, leaving him as the de facto producer.)
And in both cases the result is similar. When I covered The Space Pirates I suggested that there was a heavy degree of unknowability about the story – that it was paced in a way that would only work in 1969 and that it was so visual as to be impossible to understand from audio only. And I stand by that. I don’t think there’s another story with quite as much information missing as The Space Pirates. But were I to take a guess on what we’d conclude if we had all six parts of The Space Pirates, I’d guess that we’d basically get Robert Holmes giving the show and, if we’re being uncharitable, the audience the middle finger. Simply put, The Space Pirates gives the strong sense at times that Robert Holmes is just going “you want realistic space action, I’ll give you realistic space action: long stretches of NOTHING HAPPENING.”
Here there is a similar sense of irritation. Even the basic idea of the story has a whiff of cynicism to it. A cowboys and Indians-style western set in a swamp. Tat Wood, in what may be the single most psychologically revealing moment in the whole of About Time, asks “what other programme would give you a western in a swamp” as if this is some sort of mark of distinction or a reason to like this story, but for those of us who are not Tat Wood the fact remains that this is not a combination that really sells itself to us.
Instead one gets the acute impression that that Holmes just didn’t care about this script beyond how it let him work in his biggest fart joke to date. (The reason the refinery is producing so much methane is Kroll’s “feeding processes.”) It’s hardly the first or the last story to simply be packed with Doctor Who standards – indeed, it’s not even the last Robert Holmes story to do that. But there’s a density to the standards, and a sense that they’re an older fashioned set of standards than usual. The space western’s parallels with The Space Pirates is only the start. There’s a distinct air of base under siege to the proceedings here, and the sequences where Kroll’s tentacles begin bursting out of pipes in the refinery is more than slightly evocative of Fury From the Deep. The plot throws in captures and escapes like they’re going out of style. And conceptually the whole thing is basically just The Mutants only without the flurry of clever ideas that characterizes a Baker and Martin script.
And that, I think, is the crux of this story’s reputation: the fact that it’s just depressing to watch a Robert Holmes story and compare it unfavorably to a Baker and Martin story. But that comparison also captures, I think, why the reputation isn’t quite fair. Because if it weren’t for the increased expectations that come along with the name “Robert Holmes” much of this story would be easier to forgive. The exact same story transmitted under Baker and Martin’s names would, I think, rank as one of their best. I’d even bet on that simple change being good for a solid 20 to 30 place gain in the DWM poll.
Because even if people prefer to focus on the story’s deficiencies, there’s a lot to, if not love, at least enjoy here. The cast is surprisingly good, with both Philip Madoc (who is, to the frustration of both actor and audience, wasted in something of a bit part) and John Abineri involved. Martin Jarvis was supposed to be there too, and it’s almost a relief he dropped out, in part because it means John Leeson gets to appear in the flesh, and in part because blowing that many great actors on a story this mediocre would be painful. The directing is mostly solid. The Swampies are a wreck, but it’s not like the script gave anybody much more to go on. As I said, the Kroll model itself is actually quite good. It’s not much harder to put it on and have a fun two hours than it was with The Androids of Tara.
It’s just that so much of what stands between it and quality is so… contemptuous. Watching it there is the continuous sense that the writer is looking down on you for enjoying it. Certainly he isn’t. Even the story’s moral point is half-hearted and cynical. It’s an anti-colonialist parable that can’t muster up much more than “homicidal savages with funny skin probably shouldn’t be subject to genocide.”
To Holmes’s credit, he apparently recognized that this script was weak. Indeed, he seems to have taken it as a sign that it was time to step away from the program which, at this point, he’s contributed to ten of the last eleven seasons of. Although he does eventually decide to make a return and contribute another three and a half stories, he did intend his exit after this to be permanent, and given the sheer depth of his contributions to the program, that fact speaks volumes.
Unfortunately, few of the volumes it speaks are particularly good for the program. For the first of two times the program is finding itself put in an impossible position by the BBC. On the one hand it has a mandate to move away from darker and more intense subjects. This is never a good thing to ask of Doctor Who, but at least the program does have one fallback available when this happens – the impish mockery Holmes and Adams have done so much to develop. But not for the last time that leg has been kicked out from under the program as well with demands from on high that the program tone down the humor. So the program can neither be funny nor serious. That doesn’t really leave it with much that it can be, though.
And that’s the crux of the problem. Mocking humor works well enough as a fallback, but falling back from that lands you uncomfortably close to out and out nihilism. An anti-epic can be made to work if it’s at least a cutting commentary on the normal system of values for epic storytelling. And at the start of this season, at least, we had that. The Ribos Operation was, at the end of the day, a compellingly powerful story about the power of the marginal and abject. The Pirate Planet was a sobering reminder of the existence of genuine moral abominations. But this? This is just a western in a swamp done because the writer was pissed off. It’s not an inversion of the normal values of a sci-fi epic. It’s just a willful refusal to do it well in favor of doing it with some backhanded jokes.
And this is the crux of the problem with the Williams era. For all that it has come up with a variety of means to subvert and upend the established order, it’s not clear what it actually does believe in. And not in the Occupy sense of being a howl of rage against a massive system that doesn’t have a coherent plan to fix it. Even if you do for some reason think that a protest’s job is to provide a fully articulated policy plan it’s at least clear enough what the Occupy movement is angry about. It’s pretty unambiguous what they want torn down, even if a large and diverse protest seeking to protect the interests of 99% of the population is unlikely to be able to formulate a unified consensus for an alternative.
But no such clarity seems to exist for the Williams era. What is it that it’s defying? What exactly is it mocking? None of the answers are particularly compelling. No, worse than that, the answers are reasonably compelling, they just don’t say anything good about the program. Is it mocking everything? If so, then there’s an uncomfortable nihilism. Is it mocking anything it can outsmart? That’s just bullying for people with high IQs. Rigidity? Conformity? Then this story and the one before it, which are just straight down the line thrill-by-numbers affairs wouldn’t make sense, or if they did, would have to be taken as mocking the audience for going along with it.
In a way, of course, we’re just reiterating the dilemma from the end of the Troughton era – the realization that tearing it all down is not a viable end in itself and that separation from the world is not intrinsically noble. In fact, in one sense this is the original dilemma of Doctor Who – the animating spirit of the Doctor’s plot arc in the earliest episodes. And now it roars up again.
But this time there is something altogether more troubling about it. The fact that the program has deteriorated to where Robert Holmes gives up on it cannot be taken as a good thing. Yes, this story is entertaining. Considerably more entertaining, in fact, than most people give it credit for. And I’ve never been willing to fault Doctor Who for being “merely” entertaining. But on the other hand, that’s always been because it was other things other times. At this point it is becoming increasingly and unnervingly possible that all Doctor Who is for is light entertainment. For the first time in memory it’s becoming very difficult to formulate a decent answer to the question of what Doctor Who is for. There’s a real sense that it’s just about the man in the scarf, his witty and attractive sidekick, and the tin dog.
And this story doesn’t even have the tin dog.