Ah, The Key To Time. The season that may well have been responsible for this whole project. I’ve never watched any of it, despite having owned it on DVD for a while. When that boxset came out, it really appealed to me; watching an entire season from start to finish seemed like a fun and novel idea. I never got round to it. But then a year and a half ago, I had the urge to watch me some Classic Who, and remembered that I had this boxset. But then I had the idea to go one better and watch an entire show from start to finish, and the rest is massively important history.
It’s certainly a cracking concept for a season, and a very forward thinking approach – a series of standalone adventures with an over-arching theme is very much the standard these days. And this is an arc that starts very promisingly. It’s basically The Keys of Marinus, but across six serials rather than six episodes. I’m very much on board. The White Guardian was introduced very well; The Doctor being so much in his thrall really sold the character without giving too much away.
I wasn’t quite so keen on Romana at first impression. I like the idea of a companion being forced upon The Doctor, but it lead to quite a frosty relationship at first. That would be fine, but for the first few episodes she seemed to do little but follow orders, and it looked to be establishing her as just an assistant rather than a friend. However, this improved as she developed more of a personality over the course of the story – the odd little touches of cheekiness or vulnerability helping to thaw the frostiness. Meanwhile, K-9 Mark II has thankfully retained the exact same character as Mark I, but his mechanics are a hell of a lot quieter, I’m pleased to note.
With all this new, exciting stuff around, it’s easy to forget that there was a whole other three and a half episodes’ worth of non-Key/Guardian/companion-related stuff. Like with Romana, it took me a little while to get on board with the main story. It was a strange viewing experience – you introduce this huge, epic, impossibly-high-stakes quest, then you go straight into a camp little comedy of errors between a flamboyant mockney conman and a large leg of ham dressed as a prince.
But then Part 3 comes along, and it’s one of the most talky episodes of all time, which on paper sounds like the worst thing that could happen. But this is Robert Holmes, and his dialogue is well worth taking the time over. The change of pace really helped, as these broad characters were finally fleshed out and made real. As a result, both Garron and The Graff will be long remembered performances, and I absolutely loved Binro The Heretic. Brilliant dialogue sequences between proper actors playing ridiculous, flawed but loveable characters is what Doctor Who is all about.
All of which lead to a final episode with a lot of emotional punch, as I really cared about these one-off characters by this point. I even felt sorry for The Graff as he tipped over from standard nutter to full-blown screaming batshit after the death of his second-in-command and, I assume, boyfriend. And I’m proper gutted about Binro. Binro was right.
In the end, while the mythology and the quest threatened to overshadow everything, I was left satisfied by the story I’d seen played out, and eagerly anticipating the next one. The Key To Time is functioning like the televisual equivalent of a page-turner, plus I always feel strangely reassured when the show has some sort of structure, and The Doctor has some sort of overall purpose – whether that be working for UNIT, trying to get Ian and Barbara home, trying to figure out what Bad Wolf is, or finding bits of a magic key for an absinthe-drinking ponce. It makes me feel like the production team know what they’re doing.
And then I saw who wrote the next serial, and I’m even more excited…