After the previous story reminded me of the Pertwee era, this one harks back even further. This was effectively an old-school historical from Hartnell’s days – no alien invaders, no huge world-ending threat, just The Doctor accidentally interfering in local politics, trying to make sure that power remains in the right hands. The only difference between this and something like The Reign of Terror or The Crusade is that it wasn’t using real people from Earth. That and the swords being made of electric.
But yes, setting it on an alien world allowed for a different take on a fairly classical power struggle, with the injection of android duplicates into the plot. In the end, they played a surprisingly small role in the story, with more mileage being found in the intricate political machinations. It was odd that you also had an actual doppelganger for Romana in there too, as well as the androids, and that it still didn’t add up to much. I was half expecting some twist at the end that someone or other had been an android all along, but we didn’t see hide nor hair of one after the fake king got spiked.
However, the multiple roles for Mary Tamm really gave her a chance to shine, and Romana found herself as more of a protagonist than The Doctor at times. I loved his complete lack of interest in anything other than chess or fishing at the start, which also allowed the companion to take centre stage as she went off to find the latest Key segment on her own – incredibly successfully as it happens.
Finding the segment immediately and with very little drama was a nice way to break the formula – the season arc stuff tacked on to the start of the proper story, rather than the end. The danger of doing something like The Key To Time is that the structure of the serials can become predictable, and that it could all blend in to one. But as it happens, each story has felt very different to the last thus far, which is a hell of an achievement.
It was the smaller scale that really helped this one – not every quest has to involve saving the universe, and it was nice in this one to really get to know the villain. Count Grendel is like a big-nosed version of The Master, only a bit more rapey. He’s a proper ruthless fucker, and compellingly acted. Other than an honourable mention for the android version of the Prince/King, Grendel was by far the highlight of the guest cast – the rest were all just a bit dim, and ultimately forgettable.
All of which adds up to an inexplicable fourth consecutive appearance of the same rating. I’m not doing this on purpose – they’ve all been very good but not quite classic this season, and they’re all just about as good as each other. No idea what to expect in the last two, but just you watch – it’ll either be amazing or all crumble to shit.