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.
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?
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.