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…