Doctor Who Unloved: ‘The Dominators’

Doctor Who Unloved is a new series of articles, by writer Peter Ravenscroft, that seek to look back at episodes of the show that have picked up a less than stellar reputation over the years; perhaps unfairly. These articles will revisit and perhaps restore the reputation of these stories.

We begin back with the 2nd Doctor and ‘The Dominators’. Over to you Peter.

Ah, ‘The Dominators’.  Poor, unloved ‘The Dominators’.  A story that frequently languishes shamefully towards the very bottom of fan polls, almost the worst Troughton story; for some fans, the very worst; the story that’s so bad even the writers had their names removed from the credit; even Derrick Sherwin, who re-wrote most of it, shaved an episode off and didn’t have a kind word to say about it.

In this episode of Doctor Who Unloved, I take a look at whether ‘The Dominators’ really is the disastrous Dulcian’s dinner that fandom seems to think, or is it worth substantial reappraisal?

Now, I have a confession to make; a confession that the five people who follow me on Twitter already know: I love ‘The Dominators’.  It is one of those stories that every other fan appears to loathe but which I truly enjoy.  In the last Doctor Who Magazine poll, it was noted that ‘The Dominators’ was the only story not to receive a single 10/10 rating from voters.  But that’s because I did not vote in the Poll!

‘The Dominators’ was the first Patrick Troughton serial I ever saw, way back in 1990 when it was shown as part of the Galaxy channel’s Doctor Who weekend in late September.  And immediately, I was impressed with Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor.  Anyone who can find nothing to like in ‘The Dominators’ must surely be oblivious to the superb chemistry portrayed by Troughton, and Frazer Hines as Jamie, one of the best Doctor/Companion pairings in the history of the series, and they are on sparkling form here.  The scenes set in the Dominator’s ship as the TARDIS team face intelligence tests that the Doctor is trying desperately to fail are superb, as is the scene in which Dominator Rago assesses whether the Doctor and Jamie understand guns.  The Doctor’s improvised solutions to problems, such as piloting the travel capsules, rustling up potent explosives from a medical kit to destroy Quarks, and tunnelling through the bunker wall to catch the deadly seed device are tremendous fun to watch.

One accusation often levelled at ‘The Dominators’ as a serial is that it is dull.  Sorry, but I just don’t see that.  It captivated me as a ten year old, and I will still watch all 5 episodes back-to-back to this day.  A real highlight is the pacy, and often brilliantly absurd Quark hunt in the final episode.

There is nothing dull about the Dominators themselves.  They are nasty, vindictive, cruel villains who are presented as a credible threat.  Surely there is a convincing allegory to be applied to a twenty-first century view of them – they are the unscrupulous businessmen and politicians who would destroy a planet and its people for profit, driven by the greed for fuel.  

Ronald Allen and Kenneth Ives are perfectly cast and deliver suitably menacing performances; Allen brilliantly plays the glowering senior Dominator Rago; one of his best scenes is the callous gunning down of Tensa by a Quark, when the Dulcian refuses to accede to Rago’s demands.  Ives is despicably devious as the rash and impulsive Toba, intent on senseless destruction for the fun of it whenever Rago’s back is turned; his high point is the malicious murder of the harmless Ballan in the penultimate episode.  The fact that neither of the Dominators get on with each other is actually a rather refreshing take on Doctor Who villainy, arguably an example of the banality of evil: Dominators by name; petty but no less dangerous bureaucrats by nature, and I enjoy this facet of their characterisation, a facet that enhances, not detracts, from the Dominators as villains. 

Another accusation of dullness is frequently levelled at the Dulcians themselves.  My interpretation is – that’s the whole point.  The Dulcians are a civilisation which has allowed themselves to become so complacent that they have atrophied into an indolent race with no curiosity, no personality, no ambition, and with their politicians trapped in interminable debates.

Perhaps ‘The Dominators’ is unpopular because the politics of the Dulcians holds up an unflattering mirror to the issue of lazy liberalism.  Now, I’m not implying for one moment that the way to solve such laziness is to crush the offenders out of existence, but even the Doctor, often portrayed as a liberal supporter of the underdog, realises that the Dulcians need a literal bomb under them to get them to act; in much the same way as the First Doctor has to rouse the pacifist Thals into action to solve their own insidious problems on Skaro.  Maybe such politics has fallen out of fashion in our supposedly more enlightened age, and ‘The Dominators’ suffers as a result.

I think that is a shame.

Of course, one cannot assess ‘The Dominators’ without considering the Quarks.  Now, I have very few issues with the Quarks.  Their design is appealing (they would make great action figures), the soundscape created for them, with all of their burbles, beeps and warbles is distinctive, and they do give the very clear impression of being, as the Doctor puts it ‘appallingly dangerous’: their initial destruction of Cully’s three friends as they run from the capsule is effectively gruesome, and the pyrotechnics team do a convincing job of portraying the Quark’s firepower in the destruction of Cully’s travel craft.  The only thing I would criticise is their voices: they are certainly idiosyncratic but I feel they would have been more effective if they had been more sinister and powerful, rather than sounding like giggling children.

To conclude, I stand by my conviction that ‘The Dominators’ is an unfairly maligned entry into the glorious canon of Classic Doctor Who and deserves far wider appreciation than it receives.

Is that a ‘Dominators’ detractor I see over there?  Quark – Destroy!

Written by Peter Ravenscroft

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