The Dominators

DVDThere’s an all-too-easy trick if you want to give the appearance your writing is structured and thought-through. Have the ending of a piece tie up its opening. That’s blatantly what I did here (from DWM #424.)

I recall a very good pal from a rival magazine telling me how neat this review was and I attribute that entirely to its symmetry. It’s not something I resort to very often. It makes me feel as though I’m not trying hard enough. Likewise, closing on a pithy final bon mot. 

Another all-too-easy trick.

DWM #424

Fungus to seaweed is not the widest gamut in the world. Wise words, there, if I say so myself. Hold on to them. Although, they’re not especially relevant to The Dominators.  No, the only comparable lesson you can take away from this Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe story is: Quark to Dalek – now there’s a gamut of almost infinite width. Enough, certainly, to accommodate a whole fleet of Dominator flying saucers plus a galactic tour bus from Cully’s Adventures Unlimited, tagging along behind.

Of the many flaws cursing this 1968 five-parter – in which the evil Dominators (well, it’s kind of in the name) commence drilling and general nastiness on the dull planet of Dulkis (ditto) – the most crippling has to be the robotic rapscallions who plod around like a child in Dad’s welly boots. We all know the quart-sized Quarks were created as a potential Dalek-style merchandising opportunity, and are talked up in this story as “a new kind of robot”, but while the mutated Skarosians are busy subjugating the cosmos with shock and awe, these little chaps stand around flapping their arms as if they were parky pensioners.

The “wee tin kettles” (as Jamie has it) are a long way off the Daleks’ pace, and have since become poster boys for crap Doctor Who baddies. It’s entirely deserved. Diminutive, shrill, and unable to even operate a drill without stopping to recharge, it’s no wonder they were missed out of the round-robin when fiends united this year for the opening of the Pandorica. Let’s be frank, the tin fellas can barely stand on their own two feet – both literally and metaphorically. Their relationship with the groovy, doomy Dominators is akin to a vulnerable, slightly wayward kid and its parents. Throughout the story, Rago (Ronald Allen) and Toba (Kenneth Ives) fret about the wellbeing of their chrome-headed charges. They’re such dedicated guardians, they’ve even commissioned a series of sweet little robot portraits to hang in their spaceship. A strange love indeed has resulted in this Quark of nurture.

Continuing the theme, Rago and Toba spend the whole story bitching like a married couple in Ikea. Scenes are spent with the duo refusing to make eye contact while they trade long-winded barbs or narkily name-drop the other’s rank-and-file: “With respect, Navigator Rago!…” “I decided otherwise, Probationer Toba!…” Granted, their dysfunctional relationship is one of the few innovative elements in the story and stops them short of becoming identi-kit bad men in black, but the spatting also robs them of stature. Imagine if the Sontarans suddenly started trash-talking each other, all hands on hips. Even when they’re on point they just seem silly and self-aggrandising; Toba banging on about ruling the 10 galaxies, or Rago roaring at the Doctor and Jamie – “We are Dominators!” – like they should be impressed. Pity, because visually, the double act are quite arresting, staring out with dank, dark eyes from within their turtle-like tabards.

The same can’t be said for the docile denizens of Dulkis. Doctor Who’s response to hippy culture and The Summer of Love, they’re more Wood Lane than Woodstock, ruled by tubby men who mix bureaucracy with a fad for lounging about in white nighties. Not so much ‘free love’ as Freemasonry, eh?

Granted, there is some slim satire – the impotence of indecision – but the incessant council meetings keep coming long after we’ve got the joke. Plus, the whole lot of them have a weird penchant for tagging Dulcian soubriquets onto everything. There’s “Dulcian debate”, “Dulcian garments”. We learn there are “no prisons on Dulkis” that “haste is not in the Dulcian tradition” and none of them are “used to manual labour on Dulkis”. Put those words into the mouth of you or I and substitute ‘Earth’ or ‘human’ as required and it flags up just how clunky the writing is.

Of course, there are good things over the five episodes. Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines are never better as the Doctor and Jamie. Perhaps responding to the paucity of the production, they work tons of extra business into the margins. Episode One ends with Jamie tugging at the Time Lord’s jacket in an effort to alert him to the presence of the Quarks. “Jamie, don’t do it!” chides our hero obliviously. Later on, the Doctor is munching sweets in the Dulcian travel pod, and in the final episode he’s literally dancing for joy when he manages to mock up a makeshift bomb.

Plus, there’s Cully. Ah Cully, so wasted here. Had the freethinking black market tour operator shown up in the series some 10 years later he would have been portrayed as a cockney wide boy and played by Karl ‘Jacko from Brush Stokes’ Howman. Here we have the permanently middle-aged and forever middle-class Arthur Cox. Nonetheless, he still impresses, railing against Dulcian conformity. “Vegetables, the lot of you!” he declares. “You don’t live, you exist!” You tell ‘em!

However, in a story which pivots on nothing more ambitious than possession of a laser gun, and fills the rest of the screen time with a lot of arm waving and foot stomping, dear old Cully’s other grand claim proves as much a misnomer as the ominously named Island of Death (home to a permanent survey unit and regular visits from students). “An adventure with Cully,” he declares, “is something never to be forgotten!” Actually it is. It’s probably better that way.

DVD extras

“Crappy work.” Derrick Sherwin’s appraisal of Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s (working under the pseudonym ‘Norman Ashby’) script for The Dominators. The former Doctor Who story editor is clearly a man whose words remain untouched by the mincing machine… unlike your reviewer, of course. Sherwin is one of a clutch of talking heads assembled for solid retrospective documentary Recharge and Equalise, but while no-one matches his volcanically charged ire, a Dulcian dust cloud of distaste has evidently settled upon everyone else. In short, no-one has a good word to say about this tale.

Haisman himself bristles at the memory of the heavy-handed intervention the script suffered. He moans, “Mr Sherwin put his oar in and started changing things”. However he’s creditably quick to admit that those Diamonique Daleks, the Quarks, were a result of he and Lincoln thinking “money”. Frazer Hines, meanwhile, reckons The Dominators too “talky”, Giles Block (Teel) says the Dulcians are just a bit wet, Arthur Cox recalls the horror of his costume (“I can’t wear that! It’s a girl’s gym tunic!”) and simply everyone rubbishes the old-school efforts of director Morris Barry. Back to dear Mervyn, though, who nabs the best line of all: “So many other [episodes of Doctor Who] are missing – and this one? They’ve got the whole damn lot!”

As DWM went to press, we were still hanging on for the Wendy Padbury, Frazer Hines, Giles Block, Arthur Cox and Sylvia James (make-up designer) commentary track, but even that accounted for, this is a slight release. The only other significant extra is a Second Doctor-related edition of Tomorrow’s Times, helmed – in that wonderfully capricious 2|entertain manner – by Third Doctor companion Caroline John (Liz Shaw).

Make no mistake, contemporary comment on classic Doctor Who is a strong concept for a featurette, and there’s some lovely stuff here. But the execution is mostly lousy.

John – normally a capable and solid performer – is done no favours. Poor thing looks like she’s recording a hostage tape, eyes darting nervously as she reads a pre-prepared statement (“I am being well treated, but my captors demand 30,000 grotzits or they will force me to take up a tobacco pipe and star in a new BBV drama…”). Meanwhile the voiceover artists, presumably exhumed from the Points of View Retirement Home For Provincial-Sounding Players, read newspaper remarks with gusto, working their range of regional accents hard. This reviewer finds the stylings of Francis Hope from The New Statesman most pleasing. In one article he muses, “I know many households where the programme’s name is forbidden in case the older children acquired a taste for it and the younger ones refuse to be excluded”, and in another he bemoans the small conceptual leap between The Web of Fear and Fury From the Deep: “Fungus to seaweed is not the widest gamut in the world”. Wish I’d said that.

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