What do you get when you combine the gothic horror of that typified the era when Philip Hinchliffe was producer (Seasons 13 and 14) with the humour that that typified the era when Douglas Adams was most involved with the series? Well, my humble opinion is that you would get The Stones of Blood – and that is what makes it such a masterpiece!
This charming adventure is the one adventure during the Key to Time season that has the least to do with the Key to Time, and could most easily be used in any other season. Arriving on the planet of Tara, the Doctor decides to let Romana press ahead with finding the fourth segment of the Key to Time, while he takes a break to do some fishing. The duo become unwillingly pulled into the political machinations of the court of Tara; Romana is captured by the devious Count Grendel, who confuses Romana for the Taran noblelady, Princess Strella. The Doctor meanwhile is accosted by the bodyguard of Prince Reynart, rightful heir to the throne of Tara, who asks him to repair a perfect android copy of himself, intended to be a diversion to distract Grendel.
As you can tell, with a story featuring lookalikes and androids, this story contains more cases of mistaken identity than a Shakespeare farce. Episode two concludes with the Doctor appearing to strike down Romana, when in fact he is striking down an android duplicate of Princess Strella – meaning that the viewer needs to be sharp witted to follow exactly what is happening at any given moment!
It is certainly not the most complicated Doctor Who story in the world, and definitely not the most clever. But it’s enormously good fun, and highly enjoyable to watch! There is something delightfully delicious about Grendel’s ill-disguised political opportunism and Machiavellian plotting, and Peter Jeffrey (who previously appeared in the missing Troughton adventure The Macra Terror as the Pilot) realises the role superbly. Cyril Shaps also breaks with past tradition of his previous Doctor Who appearances, by managing to keep his character alive until the end of the adventure! The rest of the guest cast, while one-dimensional to a certain degree, don’t really need many layers to be enjoyed; although it is amusing that Reynart’s android has slightly more character than Reynart himself, a point referenced in the script!
Baker is just as peerless as you’d expect, and seems to revel in a slightly devil-may-care attitude for this adventure. While K9 also enjoys a starring role and plenty of comic laughs, poor Mary Tamm is slightly reduced to the damsel-in-distress for this adventure. While by no means completely helpless, her role in the story is pretty much get captured, escape, and repeat. Given that so much of the story revolves around pretending to be someone you are not (Tamm played four roles: Romana, Strella, and their respective android doubles) it was perhaps inevitable that they couldn’t give Romana anything other than the role the story demanded.
What can I say? The Androids of Tara is a straightforward story, with a slightly hammed up cast and script, using very familiar themes and motifs. Some fans detest it for all of those reasons. I adore this story for all of those reasons!
Next Time: There’s something underhand in Loch Ness …
The second episode of the Key to Time season is very much a marmite taste to Doctor Who fans – but whether you love it or hate it, you are in agreement that the reason why is that it’s a comical performance that verges on pantomime. While the preceding story The Ribos Operation is very much hit and miss (and more miss than hit), by The Pirate Planet you can very evidently see the fingerprints of Douglas Adams at work in Doctor Who, with his humour and narrative style much more evident. I personally greatly enjoy Adam’s offbeat and sardonic humour, which perhaps explains why I enjoy this story, one of only three Doctor Who stories penned by Adams himself.
Seeking the second segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana land seeking the planet Calufrax, instead landing on Zanak – which for whatever reason is occupying the exact point in space and time that Calufrax ought to be. The planet is under the rule of the tyrannical Captain, a cyborg who is every inch a blustering pirate captain, waited upon by the fastidious Mr Fibuli. As the TARDIS crew seek to discover where Calufrax has gone, they realise that the Captain is nothing more than a puppet for the planet’s presumed dead former Queen, Xanxia. Xanxia established Zanak as able to transfer instantly across space to engulf whole planets, robbing them of their mineral wealth, and enabling her to hold back death and attempt to create a new corporeal form. The Doctor and Romana find themselves in a race to stop the demented Queen before Zanak cannibalises their next target: Earth!
While there are many outstanding performances, it is Bruce Purchase as the Captain who either makes or breaks this story for the viewer. Loud, bombastic and every inch a pirate stereotype, you will either rebel at the caricature, or else embrace it warmly as you realise that the Captain himself is putting on a front, hoping to usurp Xanxia. Baker and Tamm make good use of the humour provided by Adams – indeed I would say this is one of Tamm’s strongest performances in the role, getting a better balance between helpless damsel (The Power of Kroll) and overbearing know-it-all (The Ribos Operation).
This story may not be universally loved, but I principally enjoy it for a good straightforward story, and plenty of simple laughs. I cannot think of an occasion when I have watched this story, and not been cheered up by the end of it; which I think is just about the best compliment you can pay to any television material!
The Pirate Planet
is available to download from the BBC Store for £4.99
Next time: Before Sarah Jane Smith met Davros, she met his villanous creations …
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 …
If there were a Doctor Who story-writers’ FAQ then one entry might read like this:
Q: I want to write a story featuring the largest monster ever seen in the show. What should I do?
Really, the summary of why The Power of Kroll performs so dismally is very easy: the adversary of the piece is a very unconvincing giant squid, the titular Kroll. There is a certain amount of peril and threat, the theatrics of swamp people (that is, actors painted green wondering if their profession is really worth it after all) and the typical Earth crew stationed on another world meddling with forces that they do not understand and suffering for it. But … it’s all a bit lame.
I’m aware I’ve spent a long time lambasting the production values of the 1980s, and imagine certain readers would dispute (perhaps with just cause) that The Power of Kroll is worse than a story like Silver Nemesis in that the production values were pretty bad by the standards of the 1970s, and the story line is fairly weak. It struggles to make four parts not feel like delaying the inevitable. I must also confess that when it came to buying the DVDs, Silver Nemesis was one I rather looked forward to, but The Power of Kroll was faced with closely approximating dread – a necessary stepping stone in the Key to Time season, but one to be stepped on as quickly as possible.
But when it has come to ranking the stories, I found to my surprise that I genuinely couldn’t rate any of the 1980s episodes higher. I suspect it comes down to three factors:
1. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm both put in exceptional performances as the Doctor and Romana – even if by this stage the writers are resorting to type somewhat and casting Romana in the ‘damsel in distress’ role.
2. I rather enjoy the Key to Time as a whole season. I think this makes me more disposed to be sympathetic to episodes that might otherwise have been propping up the list.
3. The story is weak yes, but I found it oddly compelling when I watched the DVD. If you suspend a little disbelief, and of course try not to guess the very obvious fact that the giant squid is of course the fifth segment to the Key to Time … then it’s possible to accept it on its merits and gloss over the ropy production values.
So embracing the positive, I’m pleased to say that this story is no longer viewed as a chore to get past when watching Season 16. Being candid however, it’s never going to be high on my list of stories I would rush to watch!
I return after a busy season with another Tom Baker serial – and one I always suspected was never going to do well.
One of my most enjoyed experiences of watching Doctor Who as a child was the gradual introduction to the ‘Key to Time’ story arc of Season 16. The entire season was given over to the Fourth Doctor tracking down the six segments of the eponymous Key To Time – conveniently one segment per story! The Key was meant to be an extremely powerful artefact that could be used to bring equilibrium to the universe. And thus Tom Baker is dispatched by the White Guardian to assemble the Key so that he can bring order back to the universe.
I loved the concept – and still do. As a child it was a torture to have to wait for each story to be released on VHS, and as a young adult it was a torture to not be able to watch the DVDs back to back because of time constraints! But rather unfortunately the grand concept is undermined by the fact that three of the six stories are decidedly weak – and the starting story is the worst of the lot, only redeemed from a lower rating because it is in such an enjoyable season.
So … where else to begin but with Baker’s Doctor expressing publicly the sentiment he expressed privately: “Do I really have to have a companion? They just end up getting in the way!” I have a lot of time for Mary Tamm’s Romana and rate her on a par with Caroline John as Liz Shaw – a smart confident character who undoubtedly would have thrived in the modern series, but was just a little too smart to work alongside the classic Doctors. In this episode however she’s rather difficult to like – you end up sympathising with the Doctor rather than agreeing with Romana when she berates him.
And the plot. Oh dear goodness the plot. There is no huge mystery about what the segment of the Key to Time is disguised as, and the rest of the plot is largely over-egged and over-acted – in short, a couple of conmen trying to persuade a warlord that the planet they are on contains vast mineral deposits for his battle fleet to take advantage of, before he figures out that they don’t actually own the planet or have the right to sell it – as you quickly work out, the warlord in question is far from the sharpest tool in the box!
I was surprised how sympathetic a viewing this got when I watched the DVD – I was expecting to judge it harshly, but managed to enjoy the almost laughably comic escapades of the conmen, the ridiculous witch doctor figure that appears for no rational reason in episode 3, and the equally comic monster that threatens the Doctor in episode 1. I think the sympathy however has much more to do with enjoyment of this season as a whole. Judged on lone merit, The Ribos Operation is deservedly outside the top 100 by quite some margin.