Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Power of Kroll - "I can tell by the expression on your face that you're putting two and two together."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Power of Kroll - Details

Season 16, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #102)


Kroll v. Methane Refinery
GIF via Not Tonight Dalek
Watched this story in the midst of  watching "The Silurians," a two-discer which means there's a week between Netflix deliveries, so the handling of colonialism and empire in Doctor Who are fresh in mind due to the themes of that early Hulke-penned Pertwee story. But, most of us don't watch the show for insights into popular, or emerging, attitudes towards empire as packaged for family viewing by early- to mid-1970s British watchers of Saturday tea-time telly. At least not primarily. And, I'd have to lean pretty heavily on folks with more direct or studied knowledge of that particular dynamic anyways, so my approach to discussing this one naturally tends more towards how it feels to watch it today, as an American in 2014 with scant awareness of the socio-political climate of Malcome Hulke's and Robert Holmes's Britain.

This is far from the most entertaining of stories of Tom Baker era. Like "The Stones of Blood," it's a bit of a dud in terms of entertainment value within the Key to Time season; however, also like that one, it's not without certain charms. The charms here are, as is usually the case, Tom Baker's charisma, seeing John Leeson (not just hearing him as K-9), and the fun of watching a rubber squid attack a model of a methane refinery rig and menace a swampy marsh from the top half of a less-than-subtle split screen.

The Swampies, our stand-ins for earth-bound aboriginal peoples who've been relocated to make way for the "civilized" folk, are a bit uncomfortable to watch. Holmes makes it clear they're fully human and deserving of the same consideration as the more civilized methane miners. Yet, they ignorantly worship a giant squid and don't know which is the business end of a rifle despite protestations to the contrary. If they were all ignorant and bloodthirsty, the valuable politics of this story would have been obscured. Luckily, just as the crew of the refinery are not a monolith of contempt for the humanity of the Swampies, the Swampies also have individuals that recognize the profound silliness of their squid-worship in light how indifferent the giant squid is to their devotion, not to mention the small-mindedness of their High Priest.

The Swampies and Kroll
Image via Doctor Who From The Start

The Doctor delivers the line that gets to the heart of this episode and is, I think, what salvages an otherwise largely undistinguished bit of mucking about in a swamp:
THAWN: Don't you worry about the Swampies. We'll look after them, provided they see reason.
DOCTOR: What, teach them to carry trays?
FENNER: Why not? Tell me, would you let a small band of semi-savages stand in the way of progress?
DOCTOR: Well, progress is a very flexible word. It can mean just about anything you want it to mean. 
"Progress" is not "profits," or "more resources for one population at the expense of another". Sure, that definition looks like material progress to the beneficiaries of its application, but when we talk about about "progress," if we're not talking about progress towards achieving a society that treats everyone fairly, one that values and practices justice for all, then "progress" is just another word appropriated to justify exploitation.

Holmes, like Hulke with "The Silurians" is squarely on the side of justice for the Swampies, even if the portrayal of their culture comes across a bit high-handed; it's comforting that when the story isn't firing on all cylinders -- not that this one is ever terrible, just bogged down a bit -- it's at least cleaving close to the best of the show's humanist principles.

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