Norman Ashby gave us back Doctor Who. I'm serious. I know he doesn't really exist and The Dominators was written by our Yeti veterans Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, and The Dominators had a troubled production that ended with the story being an episode shorter than planned and the writers taking their names off it, but regardless of story quality (this ain't a classic) for the first time in ages I felt a quiver of excitement as I detected that quintessential "essence" of Doctor Who. The Season 5 stories, though they are great accomplishments, didn't have it - they were scary, atmospheric, tense, claustrophobic, the stuff of kids nightmares, but by Fury from the Deep I was starting to think the producers thought Doctor Who should only ever be these things. With The Dominators, all that's gone, replaced by adventure and plenty of humour, just when time to remind viewers that the universe isn't full of bases under siege. Once again, Doctor Who can do anything.
Thats the best aspect of The Dominators - it's so welcome. Then there's the fact that the bulk of the missing stories are over. From a marathon perspective, the hallmarks of the typical Troughton story are so set in stone that as none of them show up I'm shocked - and relieved, because I was sick of them.
The story begins with the arrival of a space ship carrying two Dominators, Rago and Toba, who have been sent on a mission to drill some holes into the planet Dulkis. The work is carried out by the Quarks, robot servants of the Dominators, and as a side effect of the operation the civilization on Dulkis will perish. So they're not nice guys. You have to feel sorry for them; the Quarks are useless, they have to wear the worst shoulder pads ever, and they're played by terrible actors, who never quite mange to make Rago and Toba anything more than one-dimensional grunts. For comedic reasons, they never agree on anything, but even though Rago is in command Toba goes with his gut and is constantly chastised for doing so. All of these work to undermine their effectiveness as threats, so the comedy in their relationship works, even though it gets wearisome after a while.
This is a very silly story. The inhabitants of Dulkis, the Dulcians, used to be a violent race but now abhorr violence, having taken up a policy of peace and dressing terribly. Seriously, the Dominator costumes are memorable but ridiculous and the Dulcian costumes take this a step further, we're used to seeing revealing clothes on women but the men don't get away with their dignity intact either, wearing what appear to be curtains, really stretching my ability to do anything but laugh at them. A serious misfire there.
The TARDIS arrives on the near-abandoned island of the Dominators just after the Quarks have killed some Dulcians. The Doctor has been to Dulkis before - interesting - and is surprised to find a small weapons museum nearby, given the Dulcians attitude towards violence. This is Zoe's first story as a traveller but she copes well enough that if you hadn't seen The Wheel in Space you'd never know she was the newbie. There's no process of showing her the ropes, and infact given in her own way she has led almost as sheltered a life as Victoria I'm surprised there's no process of settling in, as she experiences things textbooks haven't prepared her for, which way a key part of her character development in her debut story. Zoe's a cipher companion in its purest form, but Wendy Padbury has enough charisma to pull off a character that would be dull if played by a lesser actress.
Anyway, as the story goes on the Doctor and company meet up with a group of Dulcians who have visited the island, including survivor of the dead bunch, Cully, who I have to comment on - he suffers the most from the wardrobe malfunctions, a middle aged man trying to escape his father's shadow, wearing something that looks like he's just come out the shower, with the actor playing the role completely straight. No, just no. The others fare better, I liked Kando even though she was a bit too willing to submit to the Dominators, while Balan was stubborn but more believable than Cully.
As the Doctor tries to determine the Dominators' plan, he and Jamie are kidnapped and tested to determine intelligence. This is the kind of material that's worth it because Patrick Troughon and Frazer Hines's performances make it great alone, to say nothing of the writing itself. It presents the Doctor and Jamie in a situation that isn't the end of the world so they can, so it ends up being more fun. Anyway, they convince the Dominators that they aren't clever enough to be worth putting to slave work, so they are released.
The action moves to the Dulcian city as Zoe and Cully try to warn the Dulcians about the Dominators, however the visit ends up being padding, only introducing us to the docile lot who don't believe Cully. Suddenly I'm finding myself not caring much about whether they live or die, although I do care a bit more about the ones who have been captured back on the island and turned into slave labour. The message of the story is about as subtle and obvious as in Galaxy 4, but at least the plot is more interesting than in that story and is played more as an adventure, which certainly helps it - methinks the two writers might have been aiming for different things here, giving us a story that tries to do both. So the Doctor thinks that violence is necessary under certain circumstances, forcing people who have shunned violence for centuries to take up arms to fight off the aggressors (even though the Doctor and his companions end up doing most of the work).
Their main opponents are the Quarks, the robot minions of the Dominators (the Dominators themselves argue too much). The Quarks are strangely cutesy for a group of deadly robots and I think this was a clear attempt to appeal to kids and possibly the toy manufacturers. The Quarks turn out to be easy to blow up however they have limited power and are critical to the progress of the Dominators' plan, which turns out to be to turn the planet into a power reserve for their ships. In a silly story like this, the Quarks do work, because they go along with everything else which is being silly. Put them in The Power of the Daleks and I'd hate it, and at least nobody seems scared of them.
The finale is action-packed. While Jamie and others blow up Quarks (and have lots of fun doing so), the Doctor tries to intercept the Dominators' bomb and turn it against them. Even though the location is a quarry, there's lots going on and its heaps of fun. It's at the expense of drama but it's not like there was any in the first place. As the Dulcians leave, with the Doctor planting the bomb aboard the Dominator ship which will cause a volcanic eruption on the island, Troughton and Hines are at their best as the Doctor enjoys noting that he has saved yet another civilisation - until Jamie points out that they happen to be on the island that's going to be filling up with lava in seconds! The actors' chemistry has never been finer.
The Dominators isn't model Who, but I disagree about it being dull. It probably could have been four episodes and been better, and I'm glad it wasn't six, but five is good. A decent typical fun story with some bad creative decisions that conspire to ruin it, but don't quite manage to. Can't wait for the DVD!
Horror quotient - I'm scratching my head on this one. But we've had quite enough horror lately, and after all the seasons of the RTD era started off with a more lighthearted story.
Comedy quotient - Plenty of comedy. For once, we get a wealth of Troughton/Hines moments instead of little moments.
Drama quotient - Who'd believe in the threat of the Quarks? There's little drama or tension beyond what Troughton does his best to communicate.
Just when I thought Doctor Who had narrowed its scope, along comes The Dominators to widen it, and it's a hoot too.