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Skin, swamps and The Power of Kroll (1978/9)

kroll

Well, after we finish filming they get us in the coach and we go to RAF Bentwaters which is about 10 miles down the road. And we go in… That’s an American Air Force base. We go into the gym and there’s all these 6’ 10” negroes all playing basketball, saying, “Hey man! You must come from Mars! Wow! One black bloke said, “Now you know what I feel like.” Unnamed Swampie actor, talking about how he and his fellow actors washed off their green body paint. (Variations segment on the making of The Power of Kroll, TX 15 December 1978.)

In one of those odd pairings that comes from watching Who in random order. We go from The Mysterious Planet to The Power of Kroll, making our LINK between the two nice and easy: they’re both by veteran writer Robert Holmes. But also, they both feature “primitive” Indigenous cultures at threat. In The Mysterious Planet, it’s the Tribe of the Free – humans in the far future who have been released from their hermetic survival chamber to eke out life in the wilderness. In The Power of Kroll, it’s the Swampies, scantily clad, green skinned humanoids, living in the swamps of a far distant moon.

Both show us what Holmes thought were the key ingredients for sci-fi depictions of Indigenous races. They live in huts, worship heathen gods and perform ritual sacrifice. They are aggrieved by their treatment and want to wage war on their enemies. They are on the verge of rebelling against their oppressors – both eagerly await guns which will allow them to attack the opposing side – though they lack the skill and strategy to win through. (And oddly enough, both have wildly miscast actors as their leaders. Carry On’s Joan Sims as a space age Boudicca? Dignified, straight laced John Abineri stripped to his underwear and painted green?)

The Tribe members of the Free are just colour-by-numbers standard Doctor Who primitives, but the Swampies are far more worrying. On first glance, they seem to be stand-ins for native Americans. But the set dressing around their camp seems to have a Polynesian influence. On top of all that, when chief bad guy Thawn (Neil MacCarthy) talks about them, his sneering hatred seems to be a critique of the treatment of Africans under South Africa’s apartheid (“Not you!” he growls at a Swampie butler who tries to follow him into a room, and he laughs when the Doctor tries to include said Swampie in a head count of personnel). But then, he accuses one of his crew of being a “Swampie-lover” which sounds like it’s referring to race relations in the USA’s Confederate South.

So in the first instance, it’s irritating that multiple, diverse cultures are conflated to produce a generic Indigenous species… like anyone who’s not white is more or less the same. And there’s also something slightly icky about the decision to paint all the Swampies green, from toe to matted bewigged head. By 1978, it’s clearly too offensive to brown or black all the tribesmen up. But is greening them up any better? Green or brown, aren’t they both just symbols for “not white”?

To me, painting them all green is not all that different to blacking up. The significant thing is that they’re not white and there’s no good reason to make the ruling class white and give the oppressed natives coloured skin. Surely it’s not that hard to imagine a version of The Power of Kroll where the Swampies are loin clothed, but white (a la the Sevateem of The Face of Evil). Or even a version where the refinery staff are green skinned aliens and the Swampies are white (or is that too redolent of The Savages?) Or better still, where the refinery staff and the Swampies are played by actors of all skin tones, representative of the diversity of our communities. (Blimey, you might even make one of them… a woman).

Doctor Who’s heart is nearly always in the right place though. Kroll, like that other 70s take on colonialism, The Mutants, might be a bit iffy in its details but in broad terms is rightly critical of racism. It’s clear enough in its characterisation of bad guy Thawn, who makes no attempt to hide his prejudice towards the Swampies (as per the Marshal from The Mutants). He openly admits to the Doctor (a rangy Tom Baker) that his plan is to use the Swampies’ arming themselves as an excuse to wipe them out. He lays out that plan in Part One, so there’s no secret about it. (What he does conceal is that he’s behind the arms dealing in the first place.) Throughout he’s presented as unadulterated bad guy, ranting, unhinged and unapologetically racist – even his co-workers look at him with the sideward glances of those counting the exits. So Thawn and the racism he represents is clearly condemned, and he gets his just deserts when he’s skewered by a Swampie spear.

But that American serviceman’s comment – “Now you know what I feel like” – sticks in my mind. And here’s another interesting quote from 1978, when politician Margaret Thatcher said on a TV news program that, “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Swamped. Maybe Robert Holmes was watching. Maybe out chatty American friend was.

Or maybe they’d watched The Goodies’ episode South Africa – featuring Kroll’s Phillip Madoc as a ranting racist – a few years back. Or maybe they were watching repeats of Love Thy Neighbour or Till Death do us Part. Or maybe they caught the final episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978. Whatever, it’s fair enough to say that television in the UK in the 70s was questioning and critiquing race relations with gusto, sometimes sensitively, often not. And The Power of Kroll is a vivid part of that.

Also, there’s a big squid in it.

NEXT TIME… There you go, big fella! A new Doctor and a new festive tradition in The Christmas Invasion.

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Companions, character arcs and The Ribos Operation (1978)

ribos2

That Robert Holmes was an old slyboots, as the fourth Doctor might say. In the opening scenes of The Ribos Operation, he can’t resist having a jab at his leading man, the by-this-time-in-his-tenure increasingly temperamental Tom Baker. Holmes has the ethereal White Guardian (well, I say ethereal. He’s an old safari-suited gent in a wicker chair sipping an verdant looking liqueur) assign the Doctor a new assistant to, well, assist on his quest for the segments of the Key to Time.

The Doctor hates the idea. ‘In my experience,’ he pleads ‘assistants mean trouble. I have to protect them and show them and teach them and couldn’t I just manage with K9?’ But the man in the big chair insists. He clearly knows K9 can’t even get himself out of those Police Box doors without the camera cutting away, quite apart from the fact that more glamorous help is going to be needed to keep those Dads watching. So a new female sidekick is delivered.

Tom… I mean the Doctor, shoots the White Guardian a mutinous look. I can imagine Holmes watching this episode go out and chuckling into that pipe of his. During his stint as script editor, I bet he would have frequently heard Tom’s opinion that he didn’t need an assistant. Indeed he wrote the story designed to prove Tom wrong. But here he indulges in some self-referential commentary; the powers that be have deigned that Tom/the Doctor gets a new companion, whether he likes it or not.

(But Tom’s no fool and my bet is he would have spotted Holmes’s art mirroring real life. The interesting thing is he doesn’t try to hide his feelings; he puts it all there on screen. Now that’s the sign off a star who knows the extent of his power: he can see someone poking fun at him, he’s pissed off and he won’t bother to hide it.)

The new assistant is Romana, played with ice cold snootiness by Mary Tamm. Romana is an apprentice Time Lord, designed to be a better intellectual match for the Doctor than companions past. This she is, but being a know-it-all also gives her the ability to comically undermine the Doctor by sometimes being more competent than him; she can fly the TARDIS better than him, not walk into animal traps and scored higher than him in the HSC. It seems familiar to us now, because Romana’s direct descendant is River Song; both women point out the Doctor’s pomposity and silliness by outDoctoring him. But this is the first time in the series we see a companion with the ability to do this consistently.

Of course, she’s not allowed to be too clever. She turns out to be smart but inexperienced. So the Doctor still has plenty of opportunities to do all the clever things and point out to Romana that she’s wrong. In some ways this is even more sexist than Doctor Who normally is; to introduce a strong, funny and appealing character and then undermine and patronise her frequently.

Some have said this is demonstrated when Romana’s very first episode ends with her screaming at a monster (it doesn’t, by the way). I think it’s more clearly symbolised by a moment in Part Four, when she ends up pushing vainly against a polystyrene rock. Doesn’t matter how bright you are, Doctor Who‘s basic template reasserts itself. You’re the assistant. The Doctor’s the clever one, you’re the asking questions, pushing jablite one. Now put on this ridiculously inadequate costume and let’s go.

That’s unless you’re able to throw away the template. And I think the next story, Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet is a case in point. Romana is a much more active figure in that story. She can land the TARDIS properly, she deduces and solves as much as the Doctor… It short she’s allowed to be the character she was designed to be. Perhaps what we can see in these two stories is the different approach of two brilliant writers. Holmes, a veteran, committed to the old ways. Adams, a young Turk, ready to tear them all up.

But enough of that, it’s time to invoke a fan cliche and consider the ‘Holmesian double act’, which is overused shorthand for Holmes’s tendency to pair characters together within his stories. On first sight there are two in The Ribos Operation, exiled soldiers the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh and galactic con men Garron and Unstoffe. Both are superior/subordinate pairings which is another pattern Holmes uses regularly. But the more interesting pairing is one no one seems to mention, that of Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) and Binro (Timothy Bateson).

To step back a bit… The Ribos Operation is sometimes summarised as the story of Garron trying to fool the Graff into buying a planet based on a lie that it contains great mineral wealth. But that plot ends halfway through Part Two, when the Graff discovers Garron has bugged his room and the game is up. From then on, The Ribos Operation becomes a simple man hunt; Unstoffe has the Graff’s money and a lump of space crystal called jethryk and the chase is on.

Unstoffe is assisted by a homeless man known as Binro the Heretic. Binro is a stand in for Galileo; both believe, in opposition to the prevailing view, that their planets circle their suns. Both are persecuted for adhering to these ideas and both are forced to recant. There’s quite a nasty instance of suggested violence in The Ribos Operation when Binro retells his story.

BINRO: They said that if I did not publicly recant my belief, the gods would destroy our world.

UNSTOFFE: And did you?

BINRO: In the end. See these hands? (He raises his gnarled, twisted hands) Useless for work now. That’s why I live here.

That’s brilliant writing. In just a few short sentences, we know the whole story. Torture, specifically breaking of Binro’s hands, the tools needed for writing and conveying ideas. Without his hands, he couldn’t work. Without work, he was forced onto the streets. Doctor Who may well have adopted a lighter tone when Graham Williams took over as producer, but the darkness is always there, just a little better hidden than before.

Binro helps Unstoffe conceal himself because, as he says, ‘I know what it’s like when every man’s hand is against you.’ In return, Unstoffe confirms what Binro believes about planets and their movement. So grateful is Binro that he becomes Unstoffe’s guide through the catacombs in an effort to outwit the Graff. It fails in the end, and Binro gives his life for Unstoffe, killed by the Graff and his men. And although this prompts Unstoffe to make a headstrong rush at the guards, he is otherwise untouched by Binro’s intervention in his life.

The pay off is as clear as it is absent. Binro’s friendship should have meant that Unstoffe changed his thieving ways. Certainly he shouldn’t stick around with Garron, as he does at story’s end. Perhaps he should have stayed on Ribos, to take up Binro’s ideas and convince people of them. His character’s journey would be complete.

Or perhaps he should have left with the Doctor, and join the quest for the Key to Time. How about that? The Doctor, Romana, K9 and a light fingered, artful dodger type. Nah, that’d never work. Besides, we know how Tom feels about assistants.

LINK to The Masque of Mandragora: Catacombs! Three stories in a row.

NEXT TIME: Just you watch your lip or I’ll put you across my knee and larrup you. Then I’ll make you watch/listen to The Wheel in Space.

Romana, Romana and The Armageddon Factor (1979)

armageddon

Part Five of The Armageddon Factor is my favourite. It’s the one with the two Romanas. Mary Tamm is teamed up with Lalla Ward and they run around the alien planet, confounding the villain and exasperating the Doctor. They’re an unstoppable team; witty, gorgeous and brilliant.

This, of course, doesn’t happen in The Armageddon Factor, or anywhere in Doctor Who. (Though of course it should have; The Two Romanas. Who wouldn’t watch that?) But the sight of Mary Tamm as Romana and Lalla Ward as Astra inevitably makes the imagination stray to what those two Romanas might have got up to. (Stop it! Not like that!) and it made me think that the very act of being a fan means some stories are spoiled forever.

Because it’s impossible to be a fan and watch this story the way it was intended. Because fans know that Ward takes over from Tamm as Romana in the next story. They may also know that the sudden switch was because producer Graham Williams was unable to convince Tamm to stay for another season, and that Tom Baker (at this stage at his zenith of unpredictability, on and off screen) took a liking to Ward. And they will undoubtedly know that Baker and Ward became romantically entangled, eventually wed and eventually divorced.

So from the moment Astra appears in Part One there’s a part of the fan mind, going ‘Ah, there’s Lalla Ward, the second Romana’. And as the story wears on, every arch look reminds us of her future Romana’s archness, every smile future Romana’s toothy grin. Who can watch the way the Doctor gently examines the nape of Astra’s neck (and the Shadow’s lego-like control device) in Part Five, and not sense the growing closeness between Baker and Ward. It’s beguiling to watch. And erm, what was the actual story about again?

Let’s not worry about that just yet. Back in my film theory classes at uni (films on fuzzy VHS , watched on tellies on those big black wheely frames. Hangovers nursed.) I learned about a viewer’s resistance to seeing a well known star in a role too far removed from their public image. The fancy academic name escapes me now, but the example used was of Tom Hanks, all American comic leading man, playing a gay AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia. No matter how good his performance is, there’s a part of the viewer’s mind going, ’Ah, that’s Tom Hanks, he was great in Big, wasn’t he?’.

And this phenomenon is all over the place in Doctor Who, but usually because a bit player becomes a series regular later on. Even bigger than The Astra Factor, is Colin Baker’s pre Doctor appearance in Arc of Infinity, but there’s also Ian Marter in Carnival of Monsters, Freema Agyeman in Army of Ghosts and  – one we’re still to feel the full effect of – Peter Capaldi in The Fires of Pompeii. (There are others of course. Do write in).

This spoiling effect – and I think it does unfortunately spoil a story – even works with some of the shows more regular guest players. Oh look, a fan might say watching any one of six stories, there’s Michael Sheard. An actor so regular in Doctor Who his supporting roles in Doctor Who start to blur into one lump of Sheardiness. (His most potent fictional persona – as the grumpy Mr Bronson in Grange Hill – eventually infiltrated his Doctor Who work, when he was cast as a headmaster in Remembrance of the Daleks). Michael Wisher’s another one, he of the recently Random-ed Terror of the Autons. He pops up six times, but that peculiarly pinched voice means he’s forever the first Davros.

And while you’d never wish that any of those actors hadn’t been cast in subsequent roles, it does impact the stories which include original appearances. It’s a constant distraction. A nice one and a fannish one, but one which means the story can never be enjoyed in its original form again.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about Star Wars.

Star Wars was released in the UK in December 1977. Bob Baker and Dave Martin started writing The Armageddon Factor in early 1978. Doctor Who mob members Tom Baker and Graham Williams have talked about seeing Star Wars on its release (and feeling disillusioned about Doctor Who’s production values as a consequence), so I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say Baker, B and Martin would have seen it too. But if it had a disillusioning effect on some Who crew, it doesn’t seem to have dispirited those Bristol Boys. In fact, The Armageddon Factor references Star Wars to an extent which invites (perhaps unwisely) comparisons between the two.

The most blatant example of is the shot out of the cockpit of the Marshal’s escape… er, command module, which mirrors the famous shot out of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It’s a direct steal! Then there’s the masked, black robed, gravelly voice villain. The romantic subplot. Romana in a flowing white robe. Dogfights in space. The cutsie robot. The Doctor gets a roguish sidekick. How much of this is intentional we can only speculate, but how like Baker and Martin would it be – never writers to let Doctor Who‘s budget stand in the way of a grandiose idea – to watch Star Wars and say, “yeah… We can do that in TC6!”

Anyway, let them try their best. In fact let ’em all try to grab our attention, from Star Wars mimicry to Tom Baker’s scenery chewing to Dudley Simpson’s bombastic score to the Black and White freaking Guardians. They’re all out shone by one simple aspect of The Armageddon Factor; Mary Tamm was bloody beautiful. Watch any scene she’s in and she lights up those drab sets and makes the whole thing watchable. Impossible to watch her without thinking, ’Ah, there’s Mary Tamm – gone too soon’. Once again, fannish affection intrudes into the story.

LINKS to The War Machines. Both feature mad computers and the departure of a series regular. And cockneys!

NEXT TIME… Come on, you stupid yoik! The assassinations don’t come any deadlier than The Deadly Assassin. ‘Ah, there’s Bernard Horsfall…’