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.