The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 continue their quest for the six segments of The Key to Time. According to the tracer, the fifth segment is located on the third moon of the planet Delta Magna. Surprisingly, the moon’s surface is covered with grass land and swamps, and is inhabited by green-skinned people whose dress and weaponry suggest they are relatively primitive. But they aren’t the only people on the moon. A crew from Delta Magna has set up a methane refinery, and are mining the moon for its large deposits of methane gas. The native inhabitants, whom the crew call “Swampies”, believe this mining activity will disturb their giant swamp god, Kroll, and bring disaster. The Swampies plan to strike back, and a gun runner, hired by an unknown supplier, is providing them with weapons to that end. Not long after their arrival, Romana is captured by the Swampies, believing her to be one of the “dry foots.” They plan to sacrifice her to appease the wrath of Kroll. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds himself an involuntary guest of the refinery crew, who accuse him of being a “Swampie-lover,” and suspect he is an emissary of the group supplying guns to the natives. The crew leader, Thawn, has a particular animosity toward the Swampies, and hence a vitriolic intolerance for those who might be siding with them. With K-9 stranded in the TARDIS (he doesn’t handle water very well), the Doctor and Romana need to find the fifth segment and escape before they suffer the wrath of Thawn, or the wrath of Kroll…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
This fifth story in the “Key to Time” arc was broadcast over Christmas and New Year of 1978/1979, and was written by the awesome and inimitable Robert Holmes. As we might expect of a Holmes story, there are some vivid characters and an interesting plot. On one level this is a story about racism, since the “Swampies” are not considered of equal worth to humans by the colonists. This story is also about colonialism, and not just the obvious (i.e., British colonialism), but also the co-opting of Native American lands in the United States by the white men. The “Swampies” formerly inhabited Delta Magna, but were shipped off to this third moon by these Earth colonists. When that moon was found to be rich in methane, the colonists planned to displace the “Swampies” yet again in order to mine their land. If that’s not enough, you also have a subtle parody of peace protesters who are not averse to using violence to make their point. In “Kroll,” the “Swampies” are being supplied weapons by a gun-runner who it is believed work for the “Sons of Earth”–a pacifistic organization that promotes equal rights for the “Swampies.” While it turns out this group wasn’t actually supplying the guns (a nice plot twist), the point is made that they wouldn’t be above doing that kind of thing to achieve their ends.
Even with all that story layering going on, this is considered to be one of Holmes’s less-than-stellar efforts. I don’t know that I agree with that assessment. There are a number of things that let the story down, but not many of them have to do with the story itself. The giant tentacle that attacks Harg is profoundly unrealistic, and hearkens back eight years to the tentacles that attacked the Third Doctor in “Spearhead from Space.” The “Swampie” acting is a bit theatrical, and pushes credibility. Helping their unrealism is the fact that their hair is made from strips of dark green thick knitted pads sown together and frayed at the ends. And when the great Kroll makes his appearance (he’s a ginormous giant squid), well, he’s not quite as impressive as I’m sure the production team hoped he would be. Actually, I take that back. Kroll’s very first appearance at the end of episode three is impressive. The shot of Kroll sitting in the water, tentacles slowly waving on either side, and the little boat in front for perspective, is possibly one of the best effects shots of the Classic Series. That does look believable. From then on, however, all the shots of Kroll suck.
And then there’s the scene where our heroes are tied to a rack with vines. The theory is that as sunlight streams through the small porthole in the roof, the vines dry and shrink, pulling on the rack and stretching the victims. It’s a neat theory. I have no clue if it would actually work in real life. Might not the vines in fact become brittle as they dry out? Would they really shrink that much? As I said, it’s a clever idea, if a bit fanciful. I’m far more concerned with the way they escape: the Doctor singing a high-pitched noted that breaks the glass and lets rain in to swell the vines. This is such a deus ex machina escape, it’s not worthy of a writer of Holmes’s caliber. After all, if the Doctor has had this ability all along, I’m sure there are plenty of times he could have used it to escape tight situations. Why suddenly remember he could do that now?
There are some first-class performances on the story, especially from Philip Madoc. Madoc has played bad guys on the show before (most notably The War Lord in “The War Games”), but this time he is one of the colonists who, while not a “Swampie” lover, doesn’t want to see them come to harm. Unlike his superior officer. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are excellent (I don’t think Tom Baker ever put in a bad turn as the Doctor). And John Leeson, usually the voice of K-9, gets to act in front of the cameras, which is nice to see.
I like the fact that the “monster” attacking Romana at the end of episode one turns out to be a “Swampie” in a monster costume. I’m sure there were plenty of people watching the cliffhanger saying, “That’s so obviously a man dressed up!”–and it actually is in the story. Nice. I also liked the Doctor’s line: “Progress. That’s a very flexible word. It can mean almost anything you want!” Very true, both in this context, and many others.
I would recommend “The Power of Kroll,” even though it’s not a must-see. Despite its shortcomings, the story is strong and interesting, and there are some good twists and performances.