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.
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.
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.
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…
With the Shadow’s connivance, the superior forces of Zeos have been neutralized, allowing the Marshal to launch Atrios’ sole remaining warship against his foes and deliver a killing blow. But unknown to the Marshal, the computer controlling Zeos’ defenses will trigger an explosive device capable of destroying both planets when it is attacked—the “armageddon factor,” as the Doctor notes. Unable to figure out how to override the computer, the Doctor resorts to using the incomplete Key to Time. He quickly fabricates a replacement for the still-missing sixth segment, giving him some of the Key’s power over time and space. He commands the Key to stop time, but the jury-rigged cube can only loop it in an ever-deteriorating cycle. Over and over, the Marshal gives the order to fire, and each loop gets imperceptibly closer to the order being carried out. It’s a keen use of the Key’s power in the narrative itself, creating both a time limit to the action and forcing the Doctor to bring the pieces of the Key out of hiding—and into the reach of the Shadow.
Baker and Martin build up the Shadow carefully, befitting his moniker, as we watch him pull strings and manipulate minds. His kidnapping of Princess Astra at the end of the first episode conveys effective menace, as does his subversion of her mind. He uses her as bait to trap the Doctor, who has figured out her connection to the Key. Even when the Shadow confronts the Doctor face-to-face for the first time, on a space station positioned between Atrios and Zeos, the danger remains understated yet palpable, making him a worthy foe, almost in the same league as the Master. One could even be forgiven for thinking that the series might bring back the Doctor’s arch-foe for this role; had the Shadow been unveiled as the Master, it would have been accepted unquestioningly.
When the Doctor will not yield to his threats, the Shadow simply leaves, noting that the Time Lord’s legendary lack of patience will be his downfall. It’s a striking scene, one that resonates with an audience which has seen the Doctor rush ahead in a foolhardy manner certainly more than once.
Sadly, the ominous effect suffers greatly when the Shadow shifts from puppet master to deranged villain, cackling uproariously at the thought of obtaining the Key to Time. Worse still, he underestimates the Doctor, thinking him defeated time and again without making sure. John Woodvine does his best with the script and the heavy makeup, to be sure, and competent villains do make for unsatisfying narratives much of the time, but the Shadow’s descent from mastermind to, finally, patsy feels like a waste of potential. When the Doctor outwits the Shadow by simply grabbing the Key and having it shine a light on him, it’s an ignominious defeat.
The story risks overcrowding with characters at times, a situation not helped by the introduction of another Time Lord, Drax (Barry Jackson), a classmate of the Doctor’s—Class of ’92!—also imprisoned by the Shadow and forced to build the computer about to destroy Zeos and Atrios. Despite the Fourth Doctor’s regenerations, Drax recognizes old “Theet,” introducing the Doctor’s nickname of Theta Sigma to the series, and, after some convincing, helps the Doctor escape from a cell. It’s an untidy coincidence, and Baker and Martin use that uncertainty to good effect, particularly when Drax miniaturizes the Doctor instead of one of the Shadow’s minions just as he’s about to enter the TARDIS. Drax did so to help the Doctor escape, as it turns out, but the moment also leaves the TARDIS door open, allowing the Shadow to acquire the near-complete key. With friends like that, the Doctor scarcely needs enemies.
Lalla Ward plays Astra convincingly, certainly well enough that she is brought back in Season Seventeen as Romana’s next regeneration, replacing Mary Tamm in the role. The part calls for multiple tonal approaches, from caring monarch to impassioned lover to flat possessed puppet. Astra’s monotone when she is no longer under the Shadow’s control but instead feeling the call of her “destiny” to approach the near-complete Key to Time comes across chillingly; she is the sixth princess of the sixth dynasty of the sixth royal family of Atrios, and her genetic inheritance creates a molecular anomaly in her very being that means she is the sixth segment of the Key to Time. She reaches out to the Key and turns into an angular chunk of plastic. For a scene that could have been unintentionally funny, director Michael Hayes, last seen at the helm of “The Androids of Tara,” shows a deft touch, helped by Ward’s delivery.
With the Shadow dispatched, the Doctor and Romana rush back to Zeos from the space station. Armed with Drax’s knowledge of the computer system, they manage to deactivate the doomsday device just before the temporary time loop snaps. The Marshal still fires his missiles, but fortuitously the Doctor manages (off-screen) to whip up a quick deflector shield, bouncing the nuclear devices into the Shadow’s space station instead, vaporizing him. Just as well, as it turns out, since the Shadow had just reported his failure to his own master: the Black Guardian.
Doctor Who has long given the audience knowledge that the Doctor himself lacks, and here, Baker and Martin reveal the the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall) is pretending to be the White Guardian who gave the Doctor and Romana their season-long quest in the first place. It was all a ruse to get the pieces of the Key to Time gathered together, and even the Shadow was but a pawn in the Black Guardian’s plan. In this case, the audience’s foreknowledge plays well against the Doctor’s repartee with the Guardian, because the audience does not immediately know that the Doctor suspects something is awry. Tom Baker plays the moment to perfection, getting ready to hand over the Key and then quickly changing tone, asking a question, before seeming to acquiesce again. His slippery, self-assured delivery, so often the source of the Doctor’s insouciance, here serves to outwit the Black Guardian and leave viewers guessing, a nice counterbalance to the audience’s usually perfect awareness.
And how did the Doctor know for sure that the Black Guardian was not the White Guardian? By pointing out that Astra would remain trapped forever as part of the completed Key to Time; the Black Guardian accepted her fate as a necessary cost to “restore balance,” while the White Guardian would have used the Key for its intended purpose and then separated it again immediately, restoring her to life. The Doctor warns away the Black Guardian—indeed, with the completed Key to Time at his disposal, the Doctor holds ultimate power—then escapes before dispersing the segments of the Key back out through time and space, returning Astra to life in the process. It’s a tidy resolution, and one that the story earns. Even the Doctor’s installation of a destination randomizer on the TARDIS control panel, so that the Black Guardian cannot find him, promises to pay dividends in the seasons to come.
Tom Baker, as noted, shines in this story. Even with such a large cast of characters, there’s never a scene where he is not the focus of the camera and the audience’s attention. Perhaps producer Graham Williams and script editor Anthony Read have finally accepted that Tom Baker is the show at this point in the series; certainly the scripts cater more and more to his comedic tendencies and physical mannerisms; and where they don’t, his ad libs take over. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes drama, though, the result on screen seems worth it. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor demands the center stage and gets it; seldom does he fail to deliver.
For her swan song, Mary Tamm unfortunately doesn’t get quite so much attention as her fellow Time Lord. Even Drax gets a bigger role in this story than Romana. It’s tempting to suggest that Baker’s developing characterization of the Doctor leaves little room for a companion quite as independent and knowledgeable as Romana, at least in Tamm’s rendition of the role. Though she does get captured during the story, the fate of pretty much every companion, she’s utterly capable, and works well in conjunction with the Doctor. But the scenes where she and the Doctor quarrel due to that self-confidence feel off, both in this story and throughout the season. Mary Tamm performed brilliantly as Romanadvoratrelundar—her take on the role does not receive the plaudits it should—and it’s shameful to see her leave without a more significant sendoff, for the actor if not for the (continuing) character.
Oddly, K-9 (John Leeson, voice) receives the most character development in this story, perhaps not entirely surprising given that Baker and Martin introduced the tin dog back in “The Invisible Enemy.” K-9 twice gets captured via its inquisitive nature, and the first time especially, its plaintive cries for the Doctor as it trundles towards a recycling furnace verge on the pathetic, within the essential meaning of pathos. Even viewers hardened towards the metal mutt surely feel something during that sequence, a significant achievement indeed for Leeson, Baker, and Martin. Later, when K-9 falls under the Shadow’s sway, the slight vocal shift when it acknowledges its new master brings a moment of frisson. Only the constant repetition of the original voice and behavior over the past ten stories could bring about this level of unease with such a small change.
With “The Armageddon Factor,” Doctor Who completes its first story arc, a feat not to be attempted again until Colin Baker’s turn as the Sixth Doctor some seven years later with the season-long story “The Trial of a Time Lord.” Though the intent was for the Key to Time arc to add a measure of continuity to the Fourth Doctor’s otherwise peripatetic wanderings, the stories of this season worked best when the arc shouldered the narrative burden, allowing the stories themselves to become smaller, as in “The Ribos Operation” and, to a lesser extent, “The Stones of Blood.” But when the arc-elements were obviously shoehorned in, particularly in “The Pirate Planet” and “The Androids of Tara,” the conceit showed quite baldly and detracted from the stories on offer. As an experiment, it worked well enough, adding a bit of spice to a few stories, but also proved to be unnecessary.
In the end, Doctor Who stands as a series not in need of an arc, or perhaps more appropriately, as a series whose basic concept serves as an arc in and of itself. The show’s rich internal history already provides an arc in all but name, as every subsequent appearance of the Daleks, the Cybermen, or the Master demonstrates. The Doctor’s personal journey in this milieu, both within and between regenerations, yields more interlinking narrative tension and interest than any MacGuffin, no matter how powerful, could ever hope to deliver.
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