The Dominators [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Dominators

Starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor.
Companions:  Frazer Hines as Jamie McCrimmon and Wendy Padbury as Zoe Herriot
Written by Norman Ashby (aka Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, with significant rewrites by Derrick Sherwin).  Directed by Morris Barry. Produced by Peter Bryant. Script Edited by Derrick Sherwin.

Format:  5 episodes, about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  August-September 1968 (Seasons 6, episodes 1 – 5).

The Dominators opened up the sixth season of Doctor Who, the last one to star Patrick Troughton in the lead role. It came only a couple of months after the fifth season ended, a gap that was almost completely filled in with an in-continuity repeat of The Evil of the Daleks–explained at the end of the previous season as a telepathic retelling of the story to new companion Zoe. The idea is even picked up on at the start of The Dominators, with the Doctor saying that it was tiring sharing all these telepathic images. Thus, this makes the shortest break of in-continuity content between Doctor Who seasons in the show’s entire history.

Spoilers ahead!

The Dominators is the last Doctor Who story that was written by the duo of Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, although they apparently withdrew their names from the project when script editor Derrick Sherwin did extensive re-writes of the end of the story (including truncating the episode length from 6 to 5 chapters) without their consent. Thus we get the name of non-existent writer Norman Ashby in the titles. Issues with the writers were further complicated by disputes that rose up with the BBC regarding the comic book rights to their Doctor Who creations–resulting in them never writing for the show again after The Dominators (and consequently no conclusion to the Great Intelligence story until the 11th Doctor era).

And whilst the writers’ other stories–The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear–are pretty highly regarded by Doctor Who fans, The Dominators has an assuredly less-then-stellar reputation.

And for the most part, this is pretty deserved: it’s a slow moving affair that is populated by some dull characters, and repetitive plotting (two successive episodes have nearly identical cliffhangers, in which one of the Doctor’s companions is caught in an apparently collapsing building). The decision to truncate it’s length from six episodes to five was probably a good one (especially as it gave rise to the intriguing opening chapter of The Mind Robber).

The big feature of the episode is of course the Quarks, who were certainly the creation that Haisman and Lincoln were upset about. They seem to have been pushed at the time in a big way by the BBC, and while they never showed up on TV again (except in a cameo during the Doctor’s trial in The War Games), they did appear in the comics of the day a lot. And whilst they’d be easy to dismiss as Dalek-wannabes, there are some significant differences.

First, the Quarks were obviously foot soldiers and weapons of the Dominators, rather than a galactic power until themselves. They were more vulnerable than the Daleks, with several being destroyed by “normal” means in some of the story’s most exciting sequences. But they are also more destructive: usually the Daleks need to bring in special armaments if they want to blow up whole buildings–the Quarks just do it of their own accord.

Most notable of all are the Quark’s insanely cute, child-like voices. Indeed, the Quarks’ whole vibe is “kid’s toy”, which is what I’m sure the BBC’s marketing department was going for. They are like precocious little children, pleading for permission to kill and destroy. The distinctions are significant enough that I wouldn’t have minded seeing the Quarks again at some point.

The Dominators themselves are also not the worst the show has ever given us. We only see two of them, but there is a legitimate effort to give their race a distinct personality–passionate about war and conquest, kind of anticipating the Sontarans’ debut a few years later. Their physical stature gives them a reasonably distinct look (at least for 60s Doctor Who aliens who don’t look like robots)–the fact that they don’t have too many goofy makeup effects on them actually helps a lot. Kenneth Ives and Ronald Allen give reasonable performances as the beings, although their bickering gets a little tedious eventually.

Where The Dominators really fails though is with the Dulcians, who are one of the most boring alien civilizations the show has ever presented, and certainly the worst-dressed.

The Dulcians’ shtick that they don’t know anything about aggression is interesting enough in theory, but in presentation it falls into the classic science fiction trap of making paradise appear outrageously dull. All they seem to do is sit around and talk about how unknown violence is to any of them, and get killed for their efforts. The Dulcian council ends up being so irrelevant that they don’t even show up in the latter part of the story. The fact that they are all dressed in their strange toga-like skirt outfits does not help the audience take any of them seriously.

The one “counter-cultural” citizen is Cully, but he lacks the presence to be genuinely interesting. Perhaps if he’d had more to act like the potential-revolutionary he’s supposed to be (like do something about his people’s stagnant culture other than complain about it). Or perhaps if he’d been played by someone younger, rather than a guy in his 30s who looks as much like a member of the establishment as anyone else.

What Cully does get to do is run around with Jamie fighting the Quarks, which makes for the story’s most exciting bits. Really, whenever the Doctor or his companions are driving the action, then the story has a chance. Patrick Troughton is one of my favorite Doctors (maybe even my favorite from the classic era), and even when his episodes aren’t very good, he still brings lots of charm and life to the screen.

The dynamic between the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe is excellent and extremely well-balanced. So with The Dominators, there is still fun stuff to watch, even if on balance it’s one of the weaker stories of his era.


One thought on “The Dominators [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Dominators may have been a sign that the classic Doctor Who was on a downhill slide before Pertwee’s era would most significantly change things. I must say that Troughton’s stories were at this point starting to seem somewhat repetitive, even if his era ended grandly on The War Games. The Quarks were interesting for this one and I’m glad that they found comic book recognition for kids including myself. Thank you, Ben, for your review.

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