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.
“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.
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.
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…
Thankfully it only loses a foot or two of length, as Farrah (Paul Lavers), swordsman to Prince Reynart (Neville Jason), attempts to intimidate the Doctor into repairing the android decoy of the Prince, needed to throw off Grendel’s men before the Prince’s coronation the next day. As in Zenda, the Prince must be present at the appointed hour, lest he lose his claim to the throne. Sure enough, Grendel captures the Prince, but the Doctor and Reynart’s retainers Farrah and Zadek (Simon Lack) manage to sneak the android double into the ceremony, where it functions long enough to be crowned King of Tara.
Grendel counters with his own android doubles, taking advantage of Romana’s striking resemblance to Princess Strella, First Lady of Tara and Reynart’s intended bride. Strella, at present, resides as a prisoner in the dungeons of Castle Gracht, Grendel’s ancestral home. Grendel originally had his doctor-engineer, Lamia (Lois Baxter) create an android double of Strella, which he sent to the coronation so as to hide the fact she is being held captive. But when the Doctor bashes the android over the head with the royal scepter, revealing its mechanical nature—one of the most violent episode cliffhangers in recent memory—Grendel must come up with a new plan.
Lamia whips up another double android, this time sending word to the Doctor that he will exchange Romana for a promise of safe passage into exile for himself and Lamia. A trap, of course, as the Romana android comes equipped with a voice-activated laser and various other deadly accessories. Wise to the danger, the Doctor and K-9 go to the meeting place early and get the jump on Lamia and the android, which turns out to be no match for the ever-resourceful tin mutt.
The real Romana, meanwhile, manages to escape from Castle Gracht, even rescuing the Doctor from Grendel’s men after he eludes their trap, but is then captured again when Grendel comes to parley under a flag of truce. The codes of honor on Tara prevent Reynart’s men from acting against him, but Grendel himself shows no such compunctions about violating the terms of the truce. Ultimately, the Doctor manages to break into Castle Gracht just in time to prevent the wedding of Romana (in the role of Strella) to Reynart (now King, even though his android double was the one crowned). Grendel’s plan, such as it is, involves Reynart being killed after the forced wedding, leaving Romana/Strella a widow, who would then marry Grendel and, sadly, die, leaving Grendel on the throne. According, of course, to the Laws of Tara and quite a few “accidental” demises.
A lengthy sword fight ensues, with the Doctor and Grendel facing off for a good six minutes of screen time. They fight in the throne room, around pillars, up stairs and down tunnels, before Grendel quits the field of battle, jumping from the castle walls into the moat below. Tom Baker does Jon Pertwee, the finest screen swordsman of all the Doctors, proud with his prowess here, and it’s the best bit of fight choreography since the Third Doctor’s bravura turn in “The Monster of Peladon.”
Visually, “The Androids of Tara” provides a treat, both in Michael Hayes’ direction and the inspired location shooting; only a few dungeon and night scenes suffer from the excessive darkness that plagued the location shooting on “The Stones of Blood.” The costuming, from Romana’s bright purple tunic to Strella’s flowing gown, from Grendel’s finery to the Archimandrite’s (Cyrill Shaps) multicolor vestments, delights the eye. Even the android effects, with that uneasy body horror when the face plate comes off, work well enough, not surprising since the last faceless android story took place only three years prior. The effect here comes across with more visceral potency, the depth of the skull cavity being unsettlingly pronounced.
Doubles have been something of a recurring theme for Doctor Who. The First Doctor had his share of duplicates, both robotic and otherwise, the Second Doctor shared a face with a megalomaniac, the Zygons produced more than a few duplicates, and even in the story just prior, the Cailleach used the power of the Key to Time to disguise herself as the Doctor in order to push Romana off a cliff. For a series that tends to show viewers information and viewpoints that the Doctor lacks, using doubles and then not letting on which character is “real” and which is duplicated provides an effective means of surprising the audience beyond jump scares and cliffhangers. It suffers, however, from overuse, and between doubles and characters being mentally possessed, the trope feels a bit shopworn at this point.
One imagines the actors enjoy the challenge and freedom of playing doubles, though. Fisher especially gives Mary Tamm a wide range here, as she plays not only Romana and Strella but also the unemotional android versions of both of them; the differences between Romana and Strella specifically come across clearly, as though they really are two distinct people. One hopes the experience made up for all the time Romana spends in restraints and chains in this story.
Neville Jason, as well, gives an impressively deadpan performance as the android Reynart, affecting a quite realistic stupor even as Tom Baker fusses about with wires attached to the back of his head. He imbues the “real” Reynart with a deeply heroic mien, as befits such a romantic figure. The contrast between his nobility and Peter Jeffrey’s oily, conniving Count Grendel provides dramatic (or perhaps melodramatic) tension every time they share the screen.
Tom Baker delivers one of his best performances to date in “The Androids of Tara,” with the script just about managing to keep up with his enthusiasm and vigor. Whether languorously fishing or flinging his scarf over his shoulder in the middle of a life-and-death duel, Baker sells the script’s humor while still honoring its serious aspects. But, in truth, the story seems written with an understanding that Baker will “funny” it up regardless of how straight as scene might be presented in the script. Fisher, and one assumes producer Graham Williams and script editor Anthony Read, have accepted Baker’s preference for levity over gravity at this point.
K-9 (John Leeson, voice) saves the day a few times, as usual, with a plethora of well-timed stun rays to help the Doctor escape the clutches of Count Grendel and his men, but neatly, Fisher has the mechanical marvel stymied by that most dastardly of foes, a staircase. The Doctor admits as much, telling K-9 to stay behind because of the vertical challenges to be faced. The series has reached the point where K-9 can be mocked, gently, without upsetting the mutt’s legion of youthful fans, with the story ending on a scene of K-9 on a raft spinning helplessly in the moat around Castle Gracht. We joke because we love…
The Fourth Doctor and Romana acquire the fourth segment of the Key to Time with no fanfare whatsoever in “The Androids of Tara,” with no suggestion throughout the story of its importance save a quick exhortation from Romana at the start that they better get on with the job. The Doctor prefers, instead, to go fishing. In a “stand-alone” story, one not part of an arc, such insouciance in the face of a crisis might have a place, both as character development and as a source of narrative tension. But the stakes the arc imposes are too high. “The Androids of Tara” suffers from being part of a larger whole, and the larger whole likewise would be better without it. Taken independently, though, it’s a fine period piece that performs the neat trick of not being a period piece at all, a reminder of the kinds of clever surprises Doctor Who can provide at its best.
(Previous Story: The Stones of Blood)
(Next Story: The Power of Kroll)
Post 104 of the Doctor Who Project