Title: Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll
Written by: Terrance Dicks
Teleplay by: Robert Holmes
Published in: May 1980
Terrance Dicks was 84 years old when he died, but my initial reaction — on seeing the first of many eulogies pouring in through my Facebook feed this morning — was: “Oh no! Too soon!”.
Terrance meant the world to all of us in Doctor Who fandom. I’d say that every single fan who discovered the show in the 20th century owes at least half their fandom to him. To the episodes he wrote, to the stories that he commissioned and ghost-wrote, to the huge pillars of continuity and world-building that he himself laid down (and then self-deprecatingly denied having anything to do with, on dozens of DVD audio commentary tracks). And anyone who became a fan in 2005 or later, who discovered Dicks’ prolific body of work through the books or DVDs, certainly owes at least that much of their fandom to his ideas, his words, his charm.
And, most importantly of all, to his books. To all those Target novelizations he published between 1973 and 1990, and to the many more full-length original novels that he wrote for Virgin Publishing and BBC Books between 1991 and 2005.
Doctor Who‘s “golden age” in the ’70s? Creatively speaking, that was almost all Dicks and his colleagues (Barry Letts, Malcolm Hulke, Robert Holmes), of whom Dicks was the last survivor standing.
My social media feed today was full of literally dozens of eulogies that moved me near to tears. I’ve seen beautiful words from convention organizers, published non-fiction Who authors, and podcast hosts. They all spent time with Terrance backstage at conventions, or in real life, or during interviews. I am none of those things. I met Terrance only once, at L.I. Who 2 in November 2014, and (in typical fashion for this blog) never even wrote up a blog post describing the encounter. I’m sure I made no impression on him at all, but he did sign some novelizations for me, and pretended to enjoy an anecdote that I made up on the spot about once having used his expression “a wheezing, groaning sound” in court, during a trial (that never happened, though I clearly need to fix that during my next court appearance).
I also told him, truthfully, that I’d read more books by him than by just about every great British author in the Western canon (Dickens, the Bronte sisters, etc.). I think he gave a suitably appalled and typically deadpan response.
So I can’t share any memorable story of him, and, of all the books of his that I’ve read, they’re pretty much all my favorite, so I can’t even give you a top-five.
What I can do is share a recent review I wrote of Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll — one of his less-remembered novelizations, from the late ’70s, at a time when Dicks was writing ten books a year, and didn’t have time to add the lush details that permeated his earliest, and greatest, novelizations, most notably Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion.
The Kroll novelization illustrates that, even when writing 40,000 words in 72 hours, Dicks on autopilot still gives a master class in economic yet flawless prose.
Here is a review of Kroll which I recently wrote for my friend Robert Smith? on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.
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It’s easy to overlook the novelization of The Power of Kroll. I sure did: it holds the sad distinction of being the very last of the original run of Target paperback novelizations that I ever bought (at a Doctor Who convention in Chicago in November 1996, on the same day that I first met Robert Smith? — a momentous night for two different reasons, then).
However, this book is deceptively terrific. You have to overlook a few things to enjoy it, of course. First, the TV story. Not Robert Holmes’ best script, but, you can hardly blame him, as he put all his chops into The Ribos Operation, which came out just a few months earlier. The TV production benefits in part from striking location visuals, but suffers from limp acting and that Kroll prop. Oh, my. Even in the context of 1978, it beggared belief.
The book dispenses, of course, with the TV visuals, which means that you lose the marshes and hovercraft and convincing green aliens on the one hand, and the woeful acting and Kroll prop on the other. All that’s left are Holmes’ words… and, to quote an observation by Chris Bidmead, preserved on the text commentary to the Castrovalva DVD release, words were Doctor Who‘s best special effect. And here you have Holmes’ script and concepts laid bare — and who was a better world-builder than Holmes? — and filtered through the crystal clear prose of Terrance Dicks, who never wastes a word and who never lets a sarcastic observation slip by.
While the script may not be Holmes’ best, Dicks writes as if it is. Dicks includes an epic prologue introducing us to the Kroll creature. He gets off an impressive line on his opening page, about the moon of Delta Magna: “It was no place for men — but men lived there all the same. The shuttle craft touched down on the Refinery’s tiny launching pad, discharged its solitary passenger and his bulging travel-bag, and took off as if it couldn’t wait to get away again.” It’s hard to argue with this kind of prose; I love his characterization of the shuttle craft, for example.
The cast of characters in The Power of Kroll is largely made up of the most cardboard of stock characters, for whom the phrase “one-dimensional” would be high praise. Nobody in this story really changes (and there are only two or three proper cast members who survive, anyway). Put it this way, Holmes named one of the Refinery characters after that character’s eventual death scream (“Haaarrgh!”), and named one of the Swampies “Skart”, which sounds awfully rude, for two or three different reasons.
Dicks wisely introduces all the Refinery characters in a single paragraph but makes his words count and ties it all together with a Shakespeare quote, giving these characters a richness that they most certainly did not deserve:
“Fenner, dark, round-faced with a look of irritable gloom, as though he had some perpetual grudge against life. Dugeen, young and eager yet with an air of nervous tension. Harg, amiable enough, but often quiet and withdrawn. Thawn himself tended to be silent and uncommunicative, so they weren’t exactly a happy band of brothers”.
Dicks also dives straight into the political subtext of the presence of this Refinery on a planet that’s basically an Indian Reservation — and, as the Doctor Who production office’s resident Tory, Dicks delivers a surprisingly fine piece of left-wing agitprop, commenting on the situation:
“Delta Magna was their home world, a bustling, heavily industrialised planet. Reasonably Earth-like, it had been one of the first to be colonised. Now, like Earth itself, it was over-developed to the point where its teeming population was running out of both space and food. Hence this refinery.”
Dicks even straight-up makes note of the reservation comparison, mentioning the “Red Indians of Earth” — you could say the phrase “Red Indian” in a children’s book in 1980, I suppose, but let’s hope Terrance is not still running around saying that, 39 years later.
When the Refinery’s lone Swampie servant (amusingly named Mensch, a word that has strongly benevolent connotations for those of us Americans descended from Yiddish-speaking ancestors) enters the room, “None of the four men in the room spared him a glance”. A few passages later, as Harg calls the Swampies savages, “No one so much as glanced at the Swampie servant in the doorway.” Dicks lets you know right away that these humans aren’t heroes or role models and that the Swampies have good reason to shortly start fighting back. The Swampies are not portrayed as simple noble savages, either, with Ranquin, their chief, being a power-mad religious zealot, but there’s not much Dicks can do in this page count to make any of the characters, human or Swampie, more well-rounded than Holmes did in his original scripts.
The rest of the novelization is Terrance’s usual fare, adapting the camera scripts, and thrusting in barbs or covering up minor plot holes (“Several of [the Swampies] threw spears, though luckily all missed”). The text doesn’t quite match the TV dialogue — the word “hell” appears here in dialogue, though it was removed before taping; there’s some extra exposition that also got cut, presumably for timing reasons (such as the Doctor explaining who Dame Nelly Melba was). In the book, Dugeen affirmatively identifies himself as an environmentalist spy for Sons of Earth, but the word “we” was neutered to “they” on the day of taping. Evidently the character Skart, the Swampie high priest, was not in Holmes’ script for Part Four, until someone, probably the director, noticed that the character vanished and inserted him into the final installment by reassigning him lines from other characters. You can compare the book to the televised Part Four and see that Skart’s on-screen dialogue comes only from words attributed to Ranquin or Varlik in the novelization.
But, oh boy, can Terrance write a death scene:
“Rohm Dutt’s nerve suddenly broke. He began sprinting desperately across the swamp, leaping from tussock to tussock, blundering in and out of mud pools, crashing through the reeds like an elephant gone berserk. An enormous grey tentacle rose out of the swamp, flicked around his waist, and plucked him out of existence. There was a dreadful bubbling scream, a squelching, sucking sound – then silence.”
Dicks’ pacing of action scenes is something that brings me utter joy. He uses an intelligent array of words — but none longer than three syllables — and seems to perfectly match the action with adjectives, adverbs, verbs and even a simile. And the use of the word “silence” to represent “death”. This book might have been written over a long weekend, but you could labor over rewriting Rohm Dutt’s death for weeks and not come up with a more elegant passage than this one.
Really the one part of the book which is a letdown is Dicks’ final sentence. The Power of Kroll was the fifth serial of the Key to Time season, with the sixth and final story coming up next. Dicks doesn’t often lead into the next adventure, since the books were largely published out of sequence, but in this case, he notes that the search for the sixth and last segment of the Key to Time “was to be the most astonishing quest of all…”
Well, that would not quite be the case, come to find out…