Douglas Adams, who reworked the conclusion to the story, and the season, immediately spots that the Doctor, when presented with ultimate power, must reject it, otherwise he stops being 100% rebel Time Lord and becomes an authority figure. The way this riffs on ideas raised in Part Five (where the Shadow dismissed the Doctor’s interest in the irrelevant side-show of the Atrios/Zeos War), with the Doctor rejecting the idea of sacrificing one life for the universe, is perfect. Having Astra be the sixth segment is a great idea; having the Doctor decide her life is more important than the Guardians’ endless cosmic to-and-fro is sublime.
And now, a very special episode of Doctor Who: the one broadcast on the day I was born. It’s not, to be brutally honest, one of the classics. It’s not even the best episode of The Armageddon Factor. After two episodes on Atrios and two on Zeos, this moves the focus to the Shadow planet but largely puts off anything that might be construed as a climax until next time. Romana gets captured and tortured, and the Doctor is shunted into a bizarre side plot that, even more bizarrely, casually answers the first question: Doctor who?
I love it when the title of something makes it into dialogue (best of all is ‘I must have scared THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS out of her’). Here, it turns out that ‘the Armageddon factor’ is mutually-assured destruction, and there’s a sort of vague theme that the nuclear war between Atrios and Zeos is a reflection of the cosmic Armageddon factor between the Black and White Guardians. Certainly, this episode focuses more on that conflict and the power of the Key of Time than any since The Ribos Operation – Part One.
I was expecting to find this one a chore, so I’m delighted that it’s very tolerable. The Shadow is a brilliant villain. He lacks the verve of Count Grendel or Vivien Fay, but makes up for it with a gloriously moist and menacing voice, and a very poetic turn of phrase: ‘Your jackdaw meanderings’; ‘there is a want of patience in your nature’. His willingness to sit and wait for a thousand years for the Doctor to eventually make a mistake makes his monstrousness a cut above anything we’ve seen since Sutekh. His torture of Astra is cruel in a way the show rarely is in this iteration. And he looks pretty grisly as well – although I’m not sure why they didn’t just bring back the Master to be the Doctor’s dark mirror (I’m much more convinced this is the crispy Master in a mask than I am the War Chief is actually a pre-Delgado regeneration).
As a follow up to a surprisingly good opener, this is a bit of a mess. On the one hand, the Atrios/Zeos War works: the Marshal is a recognisable type of Doctor Who villain, the “victory at any cost” warmonger, and Merak’s search for the peacemaker Princess Astra has a touch of the Star Wars about it (it also results in one of the greatest moments in Doctor Who as he declares ‘I love her’ and Romana and the Doctor look a bit embarrassed).
The opening is laugh-out-loud funny: a propaganda broadcast in the style of bad sci-fi TV (complete with obviously botched bluescreen), glamourising the heroics of war. Meanwhile, the planet Atrios is being bombed back to the stone age by its twin Zeos, as its Marshal does his best Winston Churchill impression (John Woodvine even parodies the cadences of the PM’s wartime speeches as he claims, ‘Our ships… Dominate… their skies’) and the earnest, outspoken Princess Astra, who’s clearly had to visit one bombed-out hospital too many, pleads for peace and secretly negotiates with the enemy (and gets called ‘Your highness’ a lot – more Star Wars influences).
This is more like it: a properly exciting, race-against-time (complete with two, Goldfinger-style countdowns – an obvious reference since the first stops on 003). Everyone gets a fairly poetic comeuppance, and the threat of Kroll is resolved in a way that satisfactorily ties in with the Key of Time theme. The big difference is that the Doctor is back in the refinery, which means that the tarsome spacechat of the middle episodes is replaced by some actual drama as the Doctor confronts Thawn and spends the next few minutes winding him up (‘Maybe it’s saving you for pudding’).
Tom gets some good lines (‘This is no time to start talking about noses’; ‘He’s got narrow little eyes. You can’t hypnotise people with narrow little eyes.’) and I particularly enjoyed the Doctor’s focus on the details of Swampy architecture while Romana and Rohm-Dutt fret about their impending deaths. And it’s a much better exposition scene than the endless refinery sequences in Part Two. Sadly, though, we’re not past those: here there are lads of discussions about the logistics of blowing Kroll up. ‘How many pages, Graham?’
‘Soon you will wish you had died on the Stone of Blood,’ says a Swampy to Romana at one point. Fair point, but I suppose then she would have missed out on The Androids of Tara. Robert Holmes is positively tempting fate with the above and exchanges like, ‘A sort of Holy Writ?’ ‘I think it’s atrociously writ’; ‘Too glib by half’. It’s not as bad as all of that, but this is definitely not vintage Holmes. Double acts are in short supply and exposition scenes (like the one where Dugeen and Thawn stare at a screen) go on forever without any good jokes to lift them. I suppose the whole plot revolves around Kroll’s farts, which are generating the methane for the refinery: I expect that had Holmes sniggering at the typewriter.
I wouldn’t say that the production of Season 16 has been a great leap forward for the show. It’s a massive improvement over Season 15, but there’s been nothing that looks quite as impressive as a Douglas Camfield or David Maloney serial. But there’s been a shift into that late 1970s BBC space opera aesthetic – capes, frocks, tunics, blouses – perfected by Blake’s 7 but very evident on Ribos, Tara, and even Zanak. Strangely, the first thing I notice about The Power of Kroll is it looks like a Pertwee story, with the occupying Earth Empire in space uniforms and the native “Swampies” green and loinclothed like refugees from Uxarieus. Even the Doctor and Romana are dressed less exotically than usual (the Doctor’s new coat, presumably a replacement for the grey tweed one, is very nice but it’s got no swirling velvet tails) Only Rohm-Dutt brings a bit of Han Solo to the party, and he’d still never make it as one of Blake’s crew.