The Armageddon Factor

Before I started watching this serial, I made the following note:

Expecting a similar structure to last season’s finale – four eps dealing with a regular story, then a big twist into a two part extra mini-story, presumably to do with the Key and The Guardians.

And for the first few episodes that seemed to be exactly what I was getting. It’s interesting to note that this is the last ever six-parter (although it wasn’t planned to be, but we’ll get on to that in around twenty days). They were the norm at times during the first three Doctors’ eras, but since they’ve been reduced to one a season, you’ve been able to tell that they’re not sure how best to tell a story at that pace. Not that the results haven’t sometimes been brilliant (obviously), but I’m not going to mourn their passing.

The initial storyline to this serial was a good one, providing as it did the brilliantly hammy Marshall, and the first appearance of Lalla Ward, who shone through despite the inherent weirdness of having what I saw as two Romanas on screen at the same time. It also gave us a genuinely emotional sequence where K-9 is on his way to a furnace, and it all turns into that scene in Toy Story 3. The way he pitifully calls for his master as he faces death. Oh man.

But then the format was broken, because they seemingly ran out of plot after three episodes, leaving Part 4 as one of the mostly blatantly padded-out-by-running-round-in-circles filler eps of all time. A shame, because they could have afforded to get on to all the stuff with The Shadow a lot sooner. He was a brilliant creepy villain, who seemed just as imposing and powerful as an agent of the feted Black Guardian should be. I was also a fan of Drax. I like the idea of The Doctor having an old schoolmate who’s a bit dodgy – the type of bloke who makes you despair every time they post on Facebook, but who you can’t bring yourself to unfriend.

The “two part extra mini-story” also gave K-9 another chance to shine – he’s such a loveable character that his odd behavior under external control was really disconcerting, and subtly done through minor variations to his normal voice and speech patterns. I’m worried that the character will suffer during John Leeson’s upcoming gap year, as his portryal is truly excellent.

Not sure what to make of the knowledge that this is Mary Tamm’s last episode. She’s been very good, and I always enjoy it when the companion is on a similar standing to The Doctor in terms of intelligence and capability. But Lalla Ward is clearly great also, so I’m sure the character is in good hands, and I’m looking forward to seeing if and how the dynamic is tailored.

The final episode was very tense, with all the various elements reaching their crescendo, along with the new dimension of making The Doctor and Drax tiny, and a great moral dilemma surrounding the identity of the sixth segment. But hold on. The Black Guardian turns up disguised as the White Guardian. Does this mean that it was the disguised Black Guardian who set this whole thing up in the first place, meaning that this whole season was one wild goose chase? Or: if the genuine White Guardian set the quest, then the Doctor dispersed the assembled Key before handing it over for the necessary universal re-balancing to take place, thus rendering this whole season pointless.

Either way, it’s not terribly satisfying. They slightly fumbled the ending to this season-long story arc, which is a shame – it was consistently good throughout and it felt like it was really building up to something, and a truly great ending would have tipped the balance. As it stands, The Key To Time fails to quite reach its potential to be really special, but remains a bold and worthwhile experiment.

RATING: 8

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • Seasons/Series watched: 16 of 35
  • Stories watched: 103 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 505 of 826

Very much looking forward to seeing where The Randomiser takes us, under the guidance as script editor of one of the greatest writers of all time…

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The Power of Kroll

The Power of Kroll is a curious thing. There are many things that are wrong with it, not least every single visual effect they attempted, the noticeably shortened running time, the complete lack of even a couple of bookending scenes for K-9, and a somewhat anti-climactic ending where The Doctor makes the monster disappear by waving a magic wand. But somehow, despite all this, it’s a really enjoyable serial.

I always enjoy a story that avoids the simple route of having clear cut baddies and goodies. Here, the effort is taken to depict a complex situation that the Doctor and Romana are just plonked into – there’s so many different factions, with good, bad and neutral people on all sides, and our heroes are stuck in the middle. A trio of good performances from Philip Madoc, John Leeson and your man from The Mind of Evil boosted the not terribly original refinery crew to becoming a highlight.

The Swampies were also great, even if they did look like they should be flogging tinned sweetcorn. They were fairly silly, particularly their happy little Kroll dance, but loveable for it. John Abineri (who I will always see as “Rimmer’s Dad” even if he’s covered in bright green paint) was as great as you’d expect from such a frequent guest – him and Philip Madoc have now clocked up four appearances each, over which time they’ve proved immensely versatile. It was an interesting twist that Madoc’s character should be the reasonable one, considering his last couple of characters.

Even though the realisation never matched the concept, I did find Kroll to be a pretty decent threat – they were smart to limit his screentime, as just the sheer idea of a monster that size was intimidating enough. It was interesting to read that the concept was imposed on Robert Holmes, and that he absolutely hated it. I doubt it would have been as good in the hands of many other writers – Holmes makes the most of it with the way he structures a story, and his brilliant dialogue.

But as is the case with most stories, even though I don’t mention it very often, it was Tom Baker’s performance that was the biggest highlight, that weird high-pitched squealing notwithstanding. I don’t tend to think about it much, but he just is The Doctor in my mind right now. Like Troughton before him, his sheer presence keeps you gripped no matter what, and you can never predict his behaviour. So again, it was interesting to read that it was around this point in the production that his ego really became a problem. It’s still over two seasons away, but it’s going to be a huge shock to the system when he leaves.

Yes, apparently all sorts of things were going to shit behind the scenes at this point, so it’s remarkable that, with five out of six segments in the bag, The Key To Time is so consistently good. Then again, I note that two writers have written a pair of stories each so far, and the other was written by Douglas Adams, so there is a logical explanation for both the consistency and goodness. Yet again, I’m going to give it the same score as the others. There are very minor variations in the quality, and I probably would be able to rank them if necessary, but they’re all bloody solid.

Overall: Kroll story, bro.

RATING: 8

The Androids of Tara

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.

RATING: 8

The Stones of Blood

Ooh, it’s the hundredth story! And therefore the hundredth entry on this blog. I might commission a special cake and then never use it.

And this one really felt like two stories in one. We start off back on contemporary Earth for the first time in ages, and back on OB video tape instead of film, both of which are a pleasant change. The countryside setting, eccentric posh people and wildly varying pace (you can’t beat a sausage sandwich break), all contributed to a Pertwee-esque air, which was reassuringly nostalgic.

Then all of a sudden The Doctor packs his bags and heads into hyperspace. The complete change of setting immediately struck me as a smart move – I was very much enjoying the serial, but another two episodes of dimly-lit gothic cult business might have tipped the balance from nostalgic to repetitive. There were tonnes of possibilities as to what a trip into an impossible alternate reality could entail, and the two disembodied justice computers arguing with each other about The Doctor’s fate is an even more Douglas Adamsy idea than anything that happened last time.

But I wasn’t expecting the possibilities to end with them, and for the entire fourth episode to be a comedic courtroom routine. I mean, it was fine, but it was a bit anti-climactic- the stakes were way higher back on Earth in our own dimension, especially after the particularly grim scene that introduces those two campers for no other reason than to kill them horrifically. It was also weird that Romana was sent on a wild goose chase to find evidence, but by the time she’d got back The Doctor had sorted it all anyway. The show seems to be struggling to portray suitably epic and satisfying denouements at the moment.

But on the plus side, both halves of the story heavily featured an absolutely fantastic guest star in Beatrix Lehmann as Professor Rumford. Such an energetic and endearing performance, with writing that plays against audience expectations to provide a joyously unpredictable character. As well as being funny throughout, she was moving and powerful in Part Three when she learned the truth about Miss Fay and the stones, and her world basically fell apart around her. It was clear from the start that one of those two was going to end up being the baddie, and I’m glad that lovely old Emilia was the one to remain a goodie.

It was also a strong story for K-9 – again, as well as being the usual light relief, he was also seen to be either weakened or in actual mortal peril several times, and you really care about him. I do like Romana a lot, but at the moment I sort of see him as the “main” companion, especially when this serial opened with a reminder that she’s just the hired help at this stage. The scenes where K-9 and The Doctor go off to explore showed him in the same light as any humanoid companion, and they make just as good a double-act as most.

So the final part may have been a particularly odd one, but on the strength of the other three, I found myself coincidentally reaching the same rating as I did for the first two stories of the season. At the half way point, The Key To Time is nothing if not consistent.

RATING: 8

The Pirate Planet

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. There are little milestones every now and then on this journey – stories that I’ve heard of because they mark the first or last occurrence of something or other. Having been a fan of Hitchhikers long before Who, and this being the first time I’ve watched anything from these couple of seasons, I’ve long been fascinated with how Douglas Adams’s unquestionable genius would translate. It’s mainly his tenure as script editor that excites me – to see a whole run of episodes with his ideas sprinkled throughout – but this serial provides a first glimpse as to how well it works.

And the answer is: pretty bloody well. A lot of sequences are very recognisably Douglas, particularly in the first couple of episodes – The Doctor wandering around unable to get anyone to listen to him, but Romana having no problems whatsoever. The Doctor even did a variation on the “I’ll never be cruel to a gin and tonic again” joke. The interactions between The Captain and Mr Fibuli were very Hitchhikersy, and it was always entertaining while they were on screen.

There are arguably a few too many ideas in the mix, with only four episodes to deal with them all. The concept of a time-travelling empty planet gobbling up other planets is brilliant, and the addition of the perpetrators being tyrannical pirates with a robot parrot would probably be enough. But then you’ve got the psychic fellas, and the compacted planet corpses, and the reveal that some old woman, suspended in time, is behind it all… none of these extra elements had enough time to be used satisfactorily.

All of which lead to a real disappointment of an ending, with The Doctor’s heroics all taking place off screen, and everything explained to us verbally afterwards. For one thing, the explanation was just a blur of long words and bollocks, which left me so confused I had to look it up afterwards. But even if the resolution had been satisfying in itself, it would have been so much nicer to have seen it rather than be told about it. We didn’t even get a nice, neat coda of them retrieving and converting the key segment, just “oh, we’ll pick it up later”. What a swizz.

But still, it was an always entertaining set of episodes thanks to the sizzling dialogue – no surprise given the author – and great performances from all three regulars. Two serials in, I really like Tom Baker and Mary Tamm together, plus of course K-9 keeps getting better and better. Not quite the uncovered Douglas Adams masterpiece I was unrealistically hoping for, but it will very much do.

RATING: 8

The Ribos Operation

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…

RATING: 8