Wow. This series is so inconsistent right now. It seems to be lurching wildly between all-time-greats and absolute stinkers, with very little in the way of middle ground. This serial was firmly in the former camp, and consequently this trilogy is a shit sandwich, but made with some absolutely world-class bread.

I was gripped from the start, with a first episode that contained all the best elements from both Carnival of Monsters (the creepy sailing ship where everything’s slightly off but you can’t figure out why) and The War Games (the oblivious humans plucked from their own time to be used as playthings for powerful aliens). It’s not derivative, it’s just tapping into the same themes, and it’s a very rich source.

It’s a gripping plot that unfurls, and the Eternals are superb baddies. They literally do not give a fuck about anything, with the exception of Marriner, who’s a creepy old perv towards Tegan. But right towards the end, I really felt for him following his reaction to Tegan’s reaction to thinking The Doctor was dead; it nearly brought a tear to my eye. There seems to be a running theme of immortality and how it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, which I’m aware will pay off in the forthcoming special.

Marriner and his fellow Eternal, Striker, were the highlights of a brilliant and star-studded guest cast, which included Roy Evans from off of Eastenders, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (thankfully not singing this time), and Leee John, bizarrely. Not entirely sure why Nurse Gladys spoke directly to camera at the end of Part Three. This isn’t Come Outside.

Much like with Mawdryn Undead, the main plot would have easily been enough for a classic story, but you’ve also got the culmination of all the Turlough/Black Guardian stuff, and it’s great. Mark Strickson’s performance is utterly insane at times here, but it’s compelling. He seems to share Tom Baker’s knack of making an alien character feel alien, although that could be down to the thinness of his eyebrows.

You were never sure what side Turlough was on throughout the story, and I’m not sure he was either. I loved The Doctor silently judging him every time he flip-flopped in an increasingly desperate attempt to save his own skin. He keeps his cards close to his chest throughout, with Davison playing it extremely subtly as he makes his feelings known in a quiet yet firm manner.

Turlough’s torment ramped up and up until holy fuck he actually tried to kill himself. Man, this is dark, and I love it. There was a high death count in this story, with whole crews being wiped out at a time. But I liked how – perhaps due to the need to contrast the ephemerals’ reactions with the Eternals’ – the TARDIS crew aren’t so blase about death as they have been at times. This was all about pointing out the consequences when those in power play their games.

This continued into the final Guardian-off, which acted as a satisfying conclusion to both the story and the trilogy. With Turlough free of his tormentor, I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s like as a normal companion. I hope there’s still some moral ambiguity, because I’m enjoying the change in dynamic, but his enlightenment experience does give the production a clean slate if they choose to use it.

I still can’t get over how much the quality is varying these days. It makes the failures more frustrating when you know how good the show can be, but it does make me feel better about heading further and further into the murky depths of JNT’s 80s era to know that every now and then he struck gold.


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.


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…