Doctor Who – The Key to Time Part Five
23 December – 13 January 1979
“Well… progress is a very flexible word. It can mean pretty much anything you want it to.”
Apparently when Graham Williams drafted his brief on Doctor Who as part of his application for the role of producer, he suggested the rough beginnings of the Key to Time. Williams postulated that there were vast cosmic forces kept in balance by two opposing beings (later to become the White and Black Guardian). The Doctor was chosen as a champion of the White Guardian to assemble a device could off-set the balance, but he was up against a similar champion of the Black Guardian. His inspired application got him the job, but unfortunately, the scripts for his first year were already written, causing him to put off his interlinking tale for a year.
The Key to Time is a bold experiment that challenged the very concept of Doctor Who. Part of the program’s strength comes from its versatility. It can be a gripping sci-fi tale one story, a light comedy the next and a gothic horror tale the third. The first four parts of the Key to Time covered several styles including comedy, action, science fiction and swashbuckling fantasy. The fifth installment of the Key to Time is in many ways a more traditional tale. A monster story with a twist, Power of Kroll includes statements on colonialism, environmentalism and racism. In many ways, it feels like a story by veteran writer Malcolm Hulke set in the Jon Pertwee era.
The Doctor and Romana arrive on a swamp-covered planet enthralled in a violent struggle for power. There are several plot threads going on already and the first two parts are full of exposition craftily written into the dialog by Robert Holmes. Even so, it’s a bit of a mess and makes the story somewhat top heavy.
In the first 23 minutes, the viewer is presented with the arrival of a high-ranking officer, Thawn, who has returned to his post on a methane-drilling rig transporting protein to the home planet Delta Sigma. There are locals (derogatorily referred to as Swampies) who are threatened by the installation and plotting an overthrow. Quite right too as the full project would see them without any land to live on.
There is also a suspected gun runner named Rohm-Dutt sent by a group of colonists known as the Sons of Earth (a call back to the Pertwee story Colony in Space) sensitive to the Swampies’ rights. But Thawn is anxious to get to Rohm-Dutt first before the Swampies strike. When they travel out to the mainland, they encounter the Doctor who is looking for Romana who has been caught by Rohm-Dutt who hands her over to the Swampies, saying that she is from the rig.
Good, because that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Dutt, as it turns out, is in cahoots with Thawn and has delivered faulty weapons to the Swampies to give Thawn the excuse he has been waiting for to wipe the Swampies out. Already deported from their home world of Delta Sigma to a miserable planet, the Swampies are determined to get revenge on the colonists. Calling upon their great god Kroll, they offer up Romana as a sacrifice… but Kroll is more of an ideological myth than an actual creature to the Swampies. Before a Swampie in a goofy squid outfit can kill her, Romana is rescued by the Doctor who conveniently discovers a tome containing the history of the Swampies and Kroll.
The leader of the Swampies, Ranquin, becomes completely committed to his cause after coming face to face with Kroll when it rises from the lake and attacks. It’s a religious moment for the Swampies that justifies their mission and galvanizes them to action. Of course the Doctor can see it for what it really is. As usual this is not a god at all but a common squid altered by some external power.
With the arrival of Kroll, the many pieces of the puzzle start to come together. The rig has been transporting bits of Kroll for consumption to the home planet, thereby enraging the creature and drawing it out of a centuries long hibernation. According to legend, it has also swallowed a symbol of power that the Doctor is very suspicious of. Thawn is decided on destroying the creature on first sight as it is a clear threat to the rig. In order to obtain the fifth segment to the Key to Time, the Doctor must not only avoid death at the hands of the Swampies and avoid getting wrapped up in Thawn’s plot, but he must also defuse the situation on Delta Three and somehow defeat a mythical squid over 200 miles across.
The story is not one of Holmes’ better scripts, but it has its strengths. Full of rich characters and interesting ideas, it is also set in a fully realized universe, something that is rare in Doctor Who. It shares similar traits to Caves of Androzani, a story that he would contribute in 1983 that would see the end of Peter Davison as the fifth Doctor (satellites, convoluted political plots, gun running and a goofy monster).The dialog, one of Holmes’ many strengths, is in fine form, but it often gets tripped up by corny jokes that are presumably ad-libbed by Tom Baker.
The idea that the rig is operating for the benefit of Delta Sigma and the Swampies are threatening the way of progress (even though it directly threatens their way of life) is rather clever and a very sophisticated device that also hearkens back to the Pertwee era when the stories by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were often mirroring the thoughts and concerns of the viewers.
1978/9 is a period where Baker was feeling very secure as the Doctor and was sure that any idea which crossed his mind was viable for the program. It resulted in a number of scenes that came to a complete halt in order to make room for his latest gag (from playing the flute with a reed to the silly singing gag). I adore Tom Baker as the Doctor, but there are times when he considered the series ‘The Tom Baker Show’ rather than Doctor Who. 99% of the time, he’s golden, but that one percent can be detrimental to the dignity of the series. It’s a fine line and to be honest I’m not entirely sure where it is drawn… but it is there.
As Romana, Mary Tamm is once again the know-it-all who prefers to psychoanalyze everyone she meets rather than relate to them. It’s a character trait that I can only recall cropping up in Ribos Operation and Power of Kroll, so I suspect that it’s am idea of Holmes’ that other writers decided not to use. In any case, Romana continues to act as a glamorous and dignified foil to the Doctor’s scatter-brained space vagrant.
The supporting cast is rather superb. As the gun-runner, Glyn Owen is simply amazing. The part is all attitude and demands that he go a bit over the top in parts but become subtly sly at other times. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a disaster, but Owen pulls it off nicely. Acting as a sympathetic member of the Sons of Earth operating in the interests of the Swampies, at first he seems like a good-hearted rogue. When he is later exposed as a double agent and a scoundrel, he plays it all with such honesty and desperation. In the hands of the Swampies, he’s doomed and Thawn is certainly not about to risk his grand plot to help just one man.
As Thawn, Neil McCarthy bristles from beneath his stern mustache. It’s a very butch role and one that he plays to the hilt. While he is in full control of the situation in the beginning, the appearance of Kroll proves to be too much for him and he starts to fray along the edges, finally becoming one of the many insanely unstable villains that populate classic Doctor Who stories, killing his crew, making decisions that could destroy the entire planet, etc.
Of course the real gem here is Philip Madoc. An actor that has appeared in several Doctor Who stories (including the second Peter Cushing film), he has played the roles of the aggressive Eelek in the Krotons, the serene yet deadly War Chief in the War Games, and the mad scientist Doctor Solon in Brain of Morbius.
This is not one of his better parts. In fact, in Power of Kroll, Madoc is looking a little on the heavy side and his usual smooth demeanor comes off as comical in a belted costume that does his matronly figure no favors. There’s a quality in Madoc’s acting that is not entirely dissimilar to Paul Darrow (Kerr Avon on Blake’s 7) and both actors face similar challenges. They act with such authority and power that you forget that their appearance is in opposition to their tone. In any case, I love hearing him purr lines of dialog and having him in any scene with Tom Baker is simply magical.
Power of Kroll becomes something of an unintentional comedy any time the giant squid appears on the screen. It’s unfortunate because so much of the story revolves around the squid being terrifying and impressive. It does demand attention, but the reaction that I have always gotten is one of dumbfoundedness rather than awe. I mean… what were they thinking?
The sound effects of the monster are very creepy and cool and as usual the cast plays up to the monster to keep it believable (thankfully Tom Baker refrains from sending it up). But even so… what were they thinking? Likewise the Swampies appear rather comical with their silly wigs… in fact they also feel like something out of the mid-Pertwee era.
I have said in my previous reviews of the 16th series that the strength of the Key to Time lies in its variety. After four years of dark Gothic tales, it is refreshing to have so many stories that are wildly and inventively different. It’s not all gold, but the program is so full of inspiration that it makes the experiment memorable and iconic in its own way.
Available on DVD in a deluxe box set, the Key to Time is definitely worthy of a place on your shelf. Play Robots of Death and Genesis of the Daleks when you are alone or with a mate, but if you have a party of guys over who have a vague memory of Doctor Who and are interesting in revisiting that nostalgic place of their childhood, put Key to Time on.