I am well aware that the concluding story in the Key to Time arc is not highly regarded in Doctor Who fandom. But I unashamedly include The Armageddon Factor in my top 100 (albeit it at the bottom end) as a story I manage to get great enjoyment from. I grant you that as with The Ribos Operation and The Power of Kroll, it would probably be less enjoyable were it not for the overall story arc for Season 16. But the fact is, it is the concluding episode of the season long story-arc, and a very satisfying conclusion at that.
In reality, there are three different stories at play here – two warring planets; the Doctor trying to find the last segment of the Key to Time; and an agent of the Black Guardian, the mysterious Shadow attempting to steal it. There are some nice twists at play too – the planet Atrios is on its last legs under the command of a mad military office the Marshal, whereas the planet Zeos is effectively run by a battle-computer. The Shadow lives on a planet hidden between the two planets, manipulating both sides (although it isn’t actually clear why he needs to do this) and plans to use the Doctor to track down the last segment of the Key to Time – which turns out to be none other than Astra, Princess of Atrios!
Okay, so at six parts it is rather long. The love story between Astra and Merak is rather poorly done, and the Shadow’s methods seem haphazard at best – but you still find yourself enjoying it! There is something rather awesome about the Doctor manufacturing an ersatz sixth segment in order to stop Atrios and Zeos blowing each other up (if ever there was a metaphor for the Cold War …), and the final scene where the Doctor faces off against a disguised Black Guardian is genuinely spine tingling. We also get a brief glimpse into the chemistry to follow in coming seasons, with Lalla Ward appearing as Astra. Just one story later she would replace Mary Tamm as the newly regenerated Romana – although it again is a regret that we never get to see Romana regenerate properly.
As the end to Season 16, The Armageddon Factor is entirely worthy and I greatly enjoy it. As a standalone story however, it is rather obvious why it’s not in the top 50 …
We continue with Jon Pertwee’s final season with another 6 part story, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. And let us acknowledge the proverbial elephant (or should that be Tyrannosaurus) in the room – the dinosaurs are pretty naff. And unless you allow yourself to see past the dodgy special effects you won’t be able to appreciate the story in any way, shape or form. Do I wish they offered a version with upgraded effects when they released the DVD? Maybe just a little … but then we can’t have everything!
But when you resolve to accept that the effects were probably as good as you would get for the era and budget, and ensure that they do not interfere in your enjoyment of the story, there is quite an entertaining and imaginative story to be told, and it doesn’t suffer quite as much as other Season 11 six-part stories for its length. Having smuggled herself into the TARDIS during the previous adventure, Sarah-Jane is brought back by the Doctor to 20th Century London to discover the city deserted. Unfortunately for the BBC, the big reveal at the end of episode one of the dinosaur threat, meant to be disguised by calling the first episode simply ‘Invasion’ was spoiled by the Radio Times – something they would also do with Peter Davison episode Earthshock.
If I have a regret when watching this episode, it is knowing what the plot was in advance. I hesitate to say that the plot would not have been guessable at the time, but a lot of the shocks like long-term UNIT member Captain Yates betraying his former friends lost a lot of their impact when you knew they were coming. For all that, you still enjoy the Doctor trying to track down the ‘Golden Dawn’ environmental group committed to returning the Earth back to an earlier ‘unspoiled’ state and the degrees of deception and duplicity involved. The story also manages to address a theme returned to in Season 12 opener Robot – namely, how far one should go to protect planet earth from the impact of environmental harm. Indeed there is something very chilling in the fact that talks by the Golden Dawn about killing off Sarah-Jane simply because she does not share their view of the world pre-empt a similar strangling of free-speech in modern Britain.
I think the biggest credit to Invasion of the Dinosaurs however is that it gave the opportunity for Mike Yates to explore personal redemption in the season closing Planet of the Spiders. As I earlier commented, the story as a whole is largely atrocious, but the journey Mike went on is exactly the kind of character development I would love to see explored in the current series of Doctor Who.
I have enormous fondness for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and thoroughly enjoy most stories he features in. Sadly, this adventure suffers not so much from inherent problems as paling in comparison to other great Pertwee classics, and being but a shadow of The Curse of Peladon that preceded this adventure some two seasons previous.
Like the previous Peladon adventure it is very much a political commentary of its time – but where Curse grappled with the weighty issue of the UK joining the (then) European Economic Community, Monster grappled with the equally weighty issue of strikes, as it was around this time that a certain Mr Scargill was making both mischief and a name for himself – rather appropriately it is the miners who are causing the mayhem in this adventure. As with the best political satire and comment, it is not necessarily subtle!
Like many Pertwee adventures, its greatest benefit is also its greatest weakness – six episodes. Plenty of time to allow characters to develop, but also plenty of time for the story to proceed at an almost pedestrian pace. The Monster of Peladon is a definite candidate for a story that would not have suffered for the loss of two episodes – I think one of my main regrets is that it took until Tom Baker became the Doctor for the BBC to land on the optimal format of 5 four-part adventures with a concluding 6 part epic adventure. To my mind, it leaves the Pertwee era with a lot of slightly over-long stories, and the regret that instead we could have had another four part adventure for each of Pertwee’s seasons – but that’s a comment for another time!
Accepting that it is a little pedestrian in places, the story is perfectly enjoyable, and the reveal of the Ice Warriors is (forgive the pun) suitably chilling. I strongly suspect that it was less enjoyable watched in the midst of Season 11 however. I had the benefit of buying the Peladon boxset, and so watching the two serials more or less back-to-back. Watching in real time, I think it would have become obvious to the viewer that Pertwee was feeling somewhat dispirited by the untimely loss of Roger Delgado, and by Katy Manning leaving the show at the end of Season 10. Lis Sladen is of course excellent and feisty as Sarah-Jane Smith, not shrinking from the opportunity to tell Queen Thalira that she ought to stand up for herself … but I think this episode more than any other shows that, mentally at least, Pertwee had already moved on from Doctor Who.
Like many of these middling episodes, it is precisely that – middle of the road. Rather like Planet of the Dead in the modern series, there’s a distinct hint of indulgent self-referral and contentment that isn’t harmful in small doses. I finished watching the DVD feeling it had been pleasant enough to enjoy – but I think also painfully aware that it doesn’t measure up to many serials of this time in the show’s history.
There is a certain charm and mystery about the very first story of Doctor Who. There was no indication of what the show would become in future years, or even that there would be future years. Indeed, when one watches the 50th anniversary tribute, An Adventure in Space and Time, one appreciates just how fragile Doctor Who was until the series achieved audience breakthrough with The Daleks. At this point viewers knew nothing of this mysterious person simply identified as ‘The Doctor.’ Indeed by the end of episode one, the viewers’ sympathies would be largely with his unwilling first companions, schoolteachers Ian and Barbara, and perhaps for his granddaughter Susan, who seems much more gentle than the old man, but also somewhat under his thumb.
This preamble is all very important when watching An Unearthly Child, lest you run the risk of judging what in essence was a pilot episode from the 1960s, through 50 years of subsequent development and legacy. At this point there was no inkling who the Doctor’s race were (the actual pilot episode had Susan say “I was born in the 49th Century” before showrunner Sydney Newman insisted it be made more vague for the broadcast episode one) or why he and Susan were travelling the universe in their ship. Ian and Barbara are very much meant to be the viewers – brought into the adventure, experiencing it on our behalf. And in rather the same way that Rose needed to be earthbound so that a new generation could be introduced gently to Doctor Who, the first episode of An Unearthly Child largely served as the means of bringing Ian and Barbara into the TARDIS, so that the adventure could begin.
I really looked forward to watching this serial when I discovered it was to be shown on UK Gold – I don’t think any self-respecting Doctor Who fan would willfully choose to neglect the opportunity to watch the all-important first outing of the Doctor! Perhaps due to my relative youth, I was mostly unenamored by the story, which could be more or less summarised as: ‘The Doctor and his companions teach some cavemen the secret of fire.’ But when watching the DVD, my viewing was much more sympathetic. It certainly would not pass muster today for quality of effects or acting, or the pace of the action – but that’s a 21st Century audience. Watched through the lense of 1963, you cannot help but appreciate how groundbreaking this story was for its time – you are glad to be there for the Genesis of Doctor Who.
Of course, perhaps the biggest thrill comes right at the very end, when Susan mistakenly tells her grandfather “the radiation levels are normal” – for the camera to show the needle move determinedly to the danger mark. That by itself was a cliffhanger par excellence, but viewed in the lense of history, the viewer realises with a thrill that the next story was truly the one that started it all …
Following on from historical (and sadly
supposedly missing) epic Marco Polo, this six part adventure was a firm indication that Sydney Newman’s “No bug-eyed monsters” policy had been torn up. From here on, the Doctor and his companions would alternate (approximately) between a historical adventure and a sci-fi adventure, until finally deciding to scrap historicals in Season 4. At this stage however, the producers seemed to have revelled in the prospect of creating as many outlandish scenarios as they could reasonably get away with.
In theory there is one overarching story for The Keys of Marinus – landing on the eponymous planet Marinus, the First Doctor and his companions are coerced into helping retrive five ‘keys’ that will prevent an uprising by the Voord – a rogue and hostile species on the planet. Five keys for five episodes, neatly resolving itself (supposedly) in the sixth – simple concept!
The slight problem is that the producers then attempt to do too much, in too little time, with not enough budget. I will confess that I found the DVD oddly entertaining viewing provided you didn’t take it seriously – not least of which that you have to appreciate the special effects for the level of 1960s quality (or I should say, lack thereof). But the tricky thing is, that while a bold and interesting experiment, The Keys of Marinus suffers from the famous Top Gear malaise of being “ambitious but rubbish.”
I honestly couldn’t tell you what happens for each of the mini adventures, except that one of them is on a mountain, and that at some point a heroic chap in a loincloth insists on rescuing a princess. And I strongly suspect that wouldn’t change with several viewings. It is quite simply, a serial that tries to do too much. Yet for all that, I suspect you will enjoy watching it!
We resume the countdown with a two-part adventure from Season One. The Edge of Destruction was written to fill the block between The Daleks and Marco Polo while having to accommodate not having the budget for a major storyline. This apparent weakness actually led to a story that probably helped the show in the long run by giving two episodes only featuring the TARDIS crew, and focused entirely on their relationship with each other – and not least the relationship of Ian and Barbara to the still unpredictable character of the Doctor.
The story plot can be summarised very simply: after taking off from the planet Skaro the TARDIS goes wrong, and the Doctor has no idea why it is not working. After Susan goes a little crazy (in a very frightening way), the Doctor accuses Barbara and Ian of sabotaging the ship, who in turn accuse the Doctor of refusing to take them home. Finally it is discovered that the very obviously labeled ‘Fast Return Switch’ is stuck – by unstucking it, the TARDIS returns to normal, and the Doctor apologises for suspecting his new companions.
In the full view of history, the story was crucial for building camaraderie between the Doctor and his human companions – and for moving the Doctor from a somewhat irascible old man, to a still alien character, but one with a softer and more vulnerable side – one capable of identifying with humanity. It could be argued therefore that while The Daleks won Doctor Who a huge fanbase, The Edge of Destruction was critical for helping fans to love the TARDIS crew, and not least the Doctor, paving the way for the longevity that sees the show continuing today.
So it is a crucial and historic story, and certainly one the viewer will remember. Although it is also not one you would rush to dig out on DVD, and not really 45 minutes you would want to enjoy in isolation. As mentioned, it is a very psychological story, and the sections in episode one where Susan loses her senses were recognised by showrunner Verity Lambert to have been over-the-top – her actual words were “I am amazed that we were not banned for that!” So while you will enjoy watching it after The Daleks and ahead of lamenting the absence of Marco Polo – I think that’s rather the point. It’s a good story to enjoy – but not all by itself.
I have made several pleas in this short series for Steven Moffat to bring back enemies to Nu Who. Steven – if by some miracle you are reading this, and you only take away one request, then please take away this one: Bring back Sutekh in Series 9
Sutekh, the last of a powerful race known as the Osirians (basically the gods of ancient Egypt) makes his one appearance in Pyramids of Mars – but what an appearance. Gabriel Woolf produces a masterclass in voice acting – when Sutekh speaks it chills the bone. You forget that he is bound to a chair, seemingly imprisoned forever and instead sense the aura of his power and malevolence. In a rare event for Doctor Who, the show purposefully shows what the future would look like if Sutekh wins, showing an utterly devastated earth. Right until the very end you hold your breath, fearful that somehow he may yet win, and wondering how the Doctor can hope to stop him.
Need I make more of a case? As I have said before, Doctor Who hires very creative writers to come up with very creative ways to demonstrate that a person/species/planet isn’t actually dead – so Sutekh’s seeming demise need be no barrier. A story featuring the malevolent awfulness of Sutekh, and the full threat of his evil power would be genuinely frightening and exciting concurrently – not least to imagine Peter Capaldi facing off against him. We very rarely see the Doctor face an enemy who possess the means to destroy all of creation (the Daleks really don’t count) and carry the clear understanding that if freed they will proceed directly to destruction. Sutekh is such an enemy, and he is long overdue a comeback.
This then is the last of my enemy reviews, until later in my countdown I review my best loved recurring enemies. In my next post we continue the countdown with a William Hartnell adventure at number 100 …