Doctor Who Project: The Armageddon Factor

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Remember me to Gallifrey.

Season-ending stories bring with them an inherent weight, allowing the production team to make a statement of intent, to add a flourish to their body of work, to set the tone for the season to come. Season Sixteen ratchets up the pressure on the final story, with dynamic duo Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Armageddon Factor” (Story Production Code 5F) also serving as the finale of the six part Key to Time arc. Given that Baker and Martin’s last two outings provided a dismally conceived retelling of Jason and the Argonauts and an overwrought tale of shrunken clones injected into the Doctor’s brain to fight a feisty shrimp, one might hesitate granting such an important assignment to them. Thankfully, we get the Baker and Martin of “The Mutants” and “The Claws of Axos,” writers with a proven ability to quickly sketch cultures and settings without getting in the way of the action. The resulting six episode story on offer, while not entirely satisfying, nevertheless pays off the Key to Time arc in sufficient style to have made the exercise worthwhile, if not ultimately necessary.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana

Unlike the first five stories in the arc, “The Armageddon Factor” keeps the search for the sixth segment of the Key to Time in the foreground. Everything in the story serves the eventual resolution of the arc. Indeed, the sixth segment even has a speaking role, with Princess Astra (Lalla Ward) being the embodiment of the segment itself. The slow revelation of her dual role as princess and perspex chunk drives the tale on an emotional level and, neatly, brings the entire arc to a close.

Lalla Ward as Princess Astra

As the story begins, Astra’s planet, Atrios, wages a long nuclear war with its twin planet, Zeos, and initially the Doctor and Romana, drawn to Atrios by the tracker, seem caught up in a simple tale of a warlike Marshal, determined to smite his foes, pitted against a pacifistic princess and her lover trying to end the conflict. Baker and Martin use the growing mania of the Marshal (John Woodvine) to tease the real story, of a shadowy figure pulling the strings from behind a mirror. It’s a slow drip of tension and narrative development, with the Doctor, Romana, and even K-9 alternately in danger and saved thanks to this sinister force, known as the Shadow (William Squire), who needs the Doctor alive, at least for the time being.

John Woodvine as the Marshal

Most six part stories wind up split into disparate halves, and “The Armageddon Factor” is no exception, but here the halves find a seamless bridge, with the events of the first half having significant impact on the events of the second half. Almost literally, as the last ten seconds of the third episode cliffhanger repeat over and over (and over) throughout the next three episodes, trapped in a time loop…
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Doctor Who Project: The Power of Kroll

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Was it absolutely necessary to land in a quagmire?

When a Doctor Who story from the 1970s involves tentacles, it’s a safe bet that Robert Holmes wrote it. His second entry in Season Sixteen’s Key to Time arc, “The Power of Kroll” (Story Production Code 5E), involves the largest squiggly appendages in the series to date, belonging to Kroll itself, a giant squid made gargantuan through the transmutative powers of the fifth segment of the Key to Time.

Behold the Mighty Kroll!

But it wouldn’t be a Robert Holmes story without some commentary on social, economic and/or class divisions as well, and this story centers around the exploitation of the People of the Lakes, a small band of descendants of the indigenous green-skinned humanoid inhabitants of the planet Delta Magna who were resettled on a moon by colonists from Earth thousands of years ago. With the discovery of huge pockets of methane gas on the moon, though, a corporation has set up a pilot methane catalyzing refinery to produce massive amounts of compressed protein, needed to feed the masses on Delta Magna. If successful, the subsequent swath of refineries will wind up displacing the People of the Lakes—demeaningly labelled “swampies” by the humans—yet again.

The People of the Lakes

The Doctor and Romana arrive on the unnamed third moon of Delta Magna in search of the fifth segment of the Key to Time, which registers as a diffuse presence on the scanner, as though it were all around. A case of mistaken identity sees the crew of the refinery attack the Doctor, whom they mistake for the scruffy, broad-hatted Rohm-Dutt (Glyn Owen), a gun-runner delivering weapons to the People of the Lakes. While the People of the Lakes think that the Sons of Earth, a group on Delta Magna sympathetic to their cause, have supplied the worn-out rifles, in actuality the leader of the refinery, Thawn (Neil McCarthy) has hired Rohm-Dutt to supply useless arms to the “swampies” to encourage a futile uprising that will allow them to be wiped out in the name of self-defense.

The scoundrel Rohm-Dutt, a captured Romana, and one of the People of the Lakes

The plan would have worked, except for the minor issue of the refinery drilling operations awakening the slumbering Kroll, whose metabolic functions during its long hibernation caused the methane build-up so valuable to the humans. Originally one of many giant squids transplanted from Delta Magna along with the original People of the Lakes, Kroll ate a high priest—and along with him the People’s holy relic, the fifth segment of the Key to Time in disguise—centuries ago and grew to enormous dimensions, almost a mile across, as a result. It attacks the People of the Lakes as they wait in ambush for the humans, chomping one of their number as a post-slumber snack.

Their leader, Ranquin (John Abineri), decides Kroll’s malevolence stems from the presence of the “dryfoots,” the Doctor and Romana, who have mocked Kroll’s power via Romana’s droll anthropological observations about their ritual practices. Ranquin orders our time travellers, along with Rohm-Dutt, whose treachery has been discovered, executed via the seventh holy ritual of the Great Book, the longest-lasting and worst of them all: spine stretching via contracting creeper vines. And how does the Doctor manage to escape? He sings…
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Doctor Who Project: The Androids of Tara

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My hat’s on fire.

Up to now, the stories in Season Sixteen’s Key to Time arc have focused, to at least some extent, on said Key. The various Key segments, because of their ability to assume mundane (and fantastic) forms, drive the action, with the Fourth Doctor and Romana spending their efforts in hot pursuit of the disguised perspex chunks. But by the fourth of the six stories in the arc, David Fisher’s “The Androids of Tara” (Story Production Code 5D), the writer and production team seem to have just given up trying to integrate the MacGuffin into the narrative on offer. Here, Romana finds the fourth segment of the Key to Time within the opening eight minutes of the first of four episodes, has it promptly taken away (as she herself is captured), and then, once the plot du jour comes to a close, she and the Doctor remember to grab it before leaving as the briefest of afterthoughts. For a device that can stop time and destroy the universe, the Key to Time doesn’t get much respect.

That wasn't so hard.

“The Androids of Tara” does not suffer from the Key’s tentative linkage to the story, however. As often happens when Doctor Who leans into historical pieces that can draw on the BBC’s extensive costume wardrobe and Britain’s equally impressive collection of castles, the sumptuousness of the proceedings papers over many plot problems. Sadly, the title spoils the core surprise here, as on first glance, the Fourth Doctor and Romana have landed in the Middle Ages of the storybooks, with chivalric knights, bridled chargers, majestic moats, and overzealous retainers quick with a rapier. Only when the Doctor’s hat is zapped by an electric sword, and when Romana is mistaken for an android and nearly disassembled, do we realize that Tara is no ordinary Medieval society.

Not your everyday Medieval castle interior

Interestingly, this juxtaposition of the traditional side-by-side with the futuristic has not featured prominently in the series to date. We’ve seen fallen cultures that cling to past technology as talismans (“The Face of Evil,” “Underworld“) and technology improperly transported into archaic settings (“The Time Meddler,” “The Time Warrior,” “The Ribos Operation“), but other than the Peladon stories, this seamless blending of horses and robots, of peasants and laser crossbows, represents relatively new and fertile ground for Doctor Who. David Fisher, writing his second story in a row, fails to do much with the conceit, alas, using androids as a simple means of introducing doppelgängers for several characters in this reworking of Anthony Hope’s tale of courtly intrigue, The Prisoner of Zenda.

Will the real Romana please stand up?

Trite does not equal boring, however, and Fisher, with director Michael Hayes, gives both the regulars and the guest stars plenty of scenery to chew. Of note, Peter Jeffrey, playing the villainous Count Grendel, proves the most slippery and supercilious foe the Doctor has encountered since Roger Delgado’s Master, given to vainglorious proclamation and skillful swordsmanship in equal measure. Tom Baker in particular plays off of Jeffrey with ease, and their repartee, aided by Fisher’s deft touch with the bon mots, yields an enjoyable, if somewhat unmemorable, story. Well, not that anyone could ever forget one of the most horrific moments in series history: the Fourth Doctor’s scarf being burned…
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Doctor Who Project: The Stones of Blood

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How do you kill a stone?

While the prior two stories in Season Sixteen’s Key to Time arc utilize the segments of the Key in minor plot roles, as befits a MacGuffin, newcomer David Fisher’s contribution, “The Stones of Blood” (Story Production Code 5C) integrates the segments’ transmutation ability into the proceedings more directly. Disguised as the Great Seal of Diplos, a planet in the Tau Ceti system, the third segment hangs as a pendant from the neck of Vivien Fay (Susan Engel), who also happens to be known as the Cailleach, a Celtic goddess of war, death, and magic, and as the wanted criminal Cessair of Diplos. Her welter of identities dovetails nicely with the story’s wild tonal shifts, from gothic gloom to shocking horror and from broad farce to courtroom drama. Just when viewers think they have “The Stones of Blood” figured out, Fisher and director Darrol Blake change gears, not always smoothly, resulting in one of those herky-jerky stories only Doctor Who could (more-or-less) pull off.

The Cailleach, or Vivien to her friends.

Events begin on contemporary Earth, in England as ever. The tracker leads the Fourth Doctor and Romana to Boscombe Moor, site of an ancient stone circle whose megaliths have a disconcerting habit of moving on their own. But once they arrive, the tracker no longer registers the segment’s presence. Shortly thereafter, one of the leading scholars of the location, Professor Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann) arrives to conduct a survey with the help of her assistant, Vivien Fay. Oddly, the tracker registers once more when Rumford and Fay are nearby. After the Doctor points out evidence of a recent blood sacrifice in the circle, the Professor tells him about BIDS—the British Institute for Druidic Studies—a group that conducts pseudo-Druidic ceremonies at the site. The Doctor goes to their nearby headquarters in an old convent to investigate, while Romana stays behind to keep an eye on Rumford and Fay.

Fay, Rumford, and Romana, in happier times

Between scenes of the cultists pouring blood on the stones in the circle and the creepy manor house with dust covered walls, to say nothing of the excessively dismal location shooting, Fisher and Blake employ the visual language of horror films throughout this four part story. Far more than earlier cult-laden, terror-tinged stories, like “The Daemons” and “Image of the Fendahl,” “The Stones of Blood” leans heavily into the threat of imminent violence. Blood, bones, and skeletons abound, as though Mary Whitehouse’s crusade were but a distant memory.

Dinner time for the Ogri

When the leader of BIDS, DeVries (Nicholas McArdle) knocks out the Doctor and prepares to sacrifice him to the stones, the long curved blade glints menacingly near the Doctor’s throat, a visceral level of danger seldom seen of late. The overall effect would be spellbinding, were the Doctor not saved by the fortuitous approach of the Professor, walking her bicycle nearby, scaring away the cultists out of all proportion to her relative strength. Indeed, the only things less frightening in the story than the septuagenarian archeologist and her bicycle are the blood-fed stones themselves, as they waddle after any victims incapable of moving faster than a snail…

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Doctor Who Project: The Pirate Planet

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Has anybody seen a planet called Calufrax?

The segments of the Key to Time, that MacGuffin driving the whole of Season Sixteen, can, like a properly functioning TARDIS, take any form. Leave it to the fervid imagination of Douglas Adams, then, in his debut Doctor Who script, “The Pirate Planet” (Story Production Code 5B), to make the second segment an entire planet. The piece is not just on Calufrax, it is Calufrax, a cold and uninhabited world that has coincidentally been swallowed whole by the hollow planet Zanak, the eponymous pirate planet.

The hollow pirate planet, Zanak

Absurdity and over-the-top characterization dominate this four episode story, not surprising given Adams’ oeuvre, and the usually healthy dose of technobabble in any Doctor Who adventure ramps up to dangerous levels here, such that even two Time Lords, the Fourth Doctor and Romana, can barely explain away all the narrative-driving inanities. Throw in a dash of psychic energy and a deadly robot parrot, and the resulting story proves such a delightful romp that the completely incoherent plot almost fades into the background.

Beware the Robot Parrot!

Indeed, the less focus on the plot, the better, as the conceit of a planet that can dematerialize and reappear around other planets, in order to drain them of their mineral wealth and stored energy, plays out as ludicrously as it sounds. The idea itself is fascinating, and given more attention might have led to a taut exploration of greed or unbridled industrialization, but it must compete for screen time with a culture where gems are scattered like dross on the ground and a horde of rogue telepaths that terrorizes the inhabitants—to say nothing of a lead villain whose notions of piracy revolve more around Gilbert and Sullivan than any actual malice or avarice. So many plot strands vie for attention, and while eventually they all tie together, viewers feel much like K-9 throughout, begging the Doctor to pay attention to the big picture.

The mighty Mentiads

As with “The Ribos Operation,” the Key to Time framing device allows for any particular component story in the arc to shoulder less narrative burden than a stand-alone story. Where the initial offering used that freedom to tell a closely observed, character-driven tale made all the more poignant by the relatively minor stakes at play, “The Pirate Planet” indulges in such overly broad acting and writing that any potential danger or threat fades away, to the extent that the Doctor himself has to warn Romana—and the audience—to take the cyborg Captain of the Pirate Planet (Bruce Purchase) seriously, despite his frequent exhortations to the Great Parrot of Hades and the Moons of Madness. Doctor Who may have been pitched initially as a children’s program, but the Captain marks its first cartoon antagonist. Even the Celestial Toymaker had a touch more gravitas…

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Doctor Who Project: The Ribos Operation

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Only five more to go.

Season Sixteen ushers in not only a new mark of K-9 and a new companion, but also, courtesy of producer Graham Williams, a season-long story arc that sends the Doctor on an extended quest for the Key to Time. This meta-narrative serves to loosely tie together six otherwise disparate stories by giving the Fourth Doctor and Romanadvoratrelundar (Mary Tamm) some McGuffin to track down in each tale. But more importantly, as series veteran Robert Holmes’ “The Ribos Operation” (Story Production Code 5A) demonstrates, the story arc allows for smaller scale adventures for the Doctor; the fate of the known galaxy isn’t immediately at stake in this four part story, just the lives of two con men—and those of the two Time Lords who get caught up with them.

The TARDIS stopped by the Guardian

To establish the overall season arc, a bumper scene shows the TARDIS halted in mid-flight, the doors flung open in a splay of harsh golden light. Tom Baker manages to convey the Fourth Doctor’s trepidation well, despite heavy make-up covering facial injuries suffered prior to shooting this episode, convincing the audience that the otherwise inoffensive gentleman lounging in a wicker chair like some minor functionary of the Raj at a Bombay club wields untold power. The White Guardian (Cyril Luckham), as he describes himself, sets for the Doctor a task he cannot refuse, to secure the six segments of the Key to Time, claiming some cosmic catastrophe should he fail or, worse, should the Black Guardian acquire the pieces instead. The stakes, essentially, ratchet to the highest possible level—total annihilation of everything. Even for Doctor Who, that’s a step beyond the typical conundrum of Dalek conquest or planetary plague.

Cyril Luckham as the White Guardian

The White Guardian assigns the Doctor an assistant, against his wishes, leading to the presence of Romana, a recent graduate of the Time Lord Academy and a mere stripling at 139 years old, against the Doctor’s 759 (or so) years. She indicates that she was picked by the Supreme President of the Council (a position the Doctor held one story prior), suggesting that the Time Lords as a whole adhere to the wishes of the Guardians, a heretofore unknown power, or at the very least know better than to defy them. (Granted, the Time Lords were almost undone by telepathic tin foil and a grand total of four Sontarans in “The Invasion of Time,” but they still remain a potent force in their own right. Really.)

Mary Tamm as Romanadvoratrelundar

With the overarching quest providing the narrative urgency, as it were, the stage is set for the Doctor and Romana (with a little firepower from K-9 Mark II as needed) to have a small, intimate adventure, of a kind last seen with any frequency when William Hartnell’s First Doctor was trodding the boards at Television Centre. The tracker Romana installed in the TARDIS, without the Doctor’s permission, leads them to the planet Ribos, a “protected class three” planet whose civilization exists at a primitive level, firmly convinced that their world is flat and the stars but floating ice crystals. All the Doctor and Romana must do is procure the first segment of the Key to Time, which happens to be hidden as some other object inside a guarded case holding the planet’s crown jewels. Easy enough for two Time Lords armed with a Sonic Screwdriver, except someone has already broken into the case…

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