Category Archives: season 16

The Armageddon Factor

Perhaps the modern trend of Doctor Who bookending its series with elements of an ongoing story arc can be traced back to The Key to Time. Although episodes in between have only small references to the Doctor’s quest and the Guardians, the first and last serials feature these things prominently, and The Armageddon Factor wraps it up for good. It is not the most thorough of resolutions – I’m still none the wiser as to who the Guardian was or why a Key to Time even existed in the first place – but there are a few good twists and some nice drama to this one in itself.

Princess Astra realises her destiny is to become a piece of transparent plastic. Disappointingly, she does not say "armageddon outta here" at any point.

Princess Astra realises her destiny is to become a piece of transparent plastic. Disappointingly, she does not say “armageddon outta here” at any point.

It’s a very “plotty” serial, for want of better term. A lot happens and everything intertwines. There’s a lot of really good science-fiction concepts too, such as a nuclear war between neighbouring planets, a computer controlling things behind the scenes, mind-control devices, a perpetual time loop and a mysterious figure pulling the strings.

Mentalis, a computer system built to perpetuate a state of war between two worlds. Impervious, invulnerable. Is defeated by ducking.

Mentalis, a computer system built to perpetuate a state of war between two worlds. Impervious, invulnerable. Is defeated by ducking.

We also meet an old friend of the Doctor’s, Drax, and suddenly the rather dark tone of the story changes for silly comedy (including a sequence involving a shrink ray). Curiously, Drax calls the Doctor “Theta Sigma” (presumably another nickname?) and suggests that “The Doctor” might just be a title he acquired after earning his doctorate. Although what’s perhaps more curious is that he recognises the Doctor by sight, even though his face has changed!

"Ello, me old chum!"

“Ello, me old chum!”

Drax is quite fun, but his persona is weirdly comedic in a story that is otherwise fairly grim. The Shadow is the main villain of the piece, the servant of the Black Guardian. With his wonky skull mask and sinister voice, I thought he was quite good. I also liked the twist reveal at the end, but it does leave things open for possible future stories. K-9 has a hard time in this one, almost getting melted for scrap and later being brainwashed by the Shadow, but he turns out alright.

The Shadow is on a quest to collect the key fragments too. Like the Doctor's shadow. Ah, I see what they did there.

The Shadow is on a quest to collect the key fragments too. Like the Doctor’s shadow. Ah, I see what they did there.

In Romana, K-9 and the Doctor, we’ve had a Tardis full of smartypants for this series, but it’s actually worked out quite well. I see the appeal of having a human presence to keep the audience grounded, but this shows that it’s not always necessary, and Romana’s intelligence takes some of the egotistical edge off of the Doctor’s character. It’s a change from the lonely wanderer that the Doctor is in the modern series, as is the presence of old Time Lord friends and entities of power handing out quests for him to do.

K-9 has no trouble getting around in this story since it conveniently takes place on small sets with nice flat floors. Despite the grand scope and all the teleporting around, it does feel claustrophobic at times. Ah, BBC budgets!

K-9 has no trouble getting around in this story since it conveniently takes place on small sets with nice flat floors. Despite the grand scope and all the teleporting around, it does feel claustrophobic at times. Ahh, BBC budgets!

With the navigator circuits randomised so the Guardian cannot follow, the Tardis disappears into new adventures.

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The Power of Kroll

‘The Power of Kroll’ sounds like an Arnold Schwarzenegger film from the 1980s. Well, we’re not quite in the right era yet, but this Doctor Who serial deals with a giant monster and the penultimate piece of the Key to Time, as the Doctor and Romana find themselves on a swampy moon orbiting Delta Magna.

Kroll attacks! Yet Ranquin's faith does not waiver.

Kroll attacks! Yet Ranquin’s faith does not waiver.

This story is not so subtle with its allegories, with the green-skinned ‘Swampies’ representing the oppressed native tribe – one of them is even a slave – with the greedy mining corporation trying to oust them from their land. It’s all painted with very broad strokes. The refinery controller, Thawn, is the typical character you love to hate, disregarding to the lives of the natives in the name of ‘progress’. The Swampies don’t come off too well either, mind you – they’re a tragic bunch, having been forced onto the moon in the first place, and now guided by a religious leader who follows his faith in the giant squid Kroll literally to the death. Cue ritual sacrifices and common sense being thrown out of the window. Oh, and chanting. Holy moly, am I sick to the teeth of ritual chanting!

Taking a cue out of a Bond villain's book, the Swampies leave these three to die slowly by contracting vines. Meanwhile, the Doctor admires the architecture.

Taking a cue out of a Bond villain’s book, the Swampies leave these three to die slowly by contracting vines. Meanwhile, the Doctor admires the architecture.

The creature itself is quite well realised and the sequences where it attacks are well done for their time. I like the idea of an ancient monster awoken from its sleep, but I didn’t quite grasp how it had arrived on the moon if the swampies had been worshipping it for thousands of years. Did it migrate through space or have I got the timeline of events out of whack? Anyway, whatever.

Narrow-minded, results-driven, power-mad leader of a dangerous facility - CHECK!

Narrow-minded, results-driven, power-mad leader of a dangerous facility – CHECK!

The Doctor yet again delights with humour and wit, and more than once looks death in the eye with a smile. I like a funny Doctor, and Romana is developing a sarcastic edge which I think works quite well here, but I fear that the Doctor is losing some of his compassion. In this story, he not only doesn’t seem to care about the fate of Kroll (turning it into the key fragment at the end) but has a disregard for life in general. When the smuggler, Rohm-Dutt, is dragged away by a giant tentacle, neither the Doctor nor Romana try to save him. They just watch him get dragged slowly to his death and say he shouldn’t have moved.

The story ends with not one but two aborted countdown sequences.

The story ends with not one but two aborted countdown sequences.

On the other hand, slapstick potential is scuppered by the lack of Scrappy-9. What with it being a swamp planet, he can’t leave the Tardis! This was probably for the best. One more key fragment remains!

The Androids of Tara

It seems to me like the BBC props department said “hey, we’ve still got a load of these android parts from The Android Invasion – can you make use of these again?” and the costume department said “medieval gear, anyone?”, and thus The Androids of Tara was born, perhaps the weakest entry in Tom Baker’s tenure so far.

The android copy of the prince is crowned king. He can't talk, he's very ill. Shhh.

The android copy of the prince is crowned king. He can’t talk, he’s very ill. Shhh.

I do dislike it when alien societies are portrayed as Earth history. It’s the easy way out, it’s lazy, it’s incredibly unlikely too. It’s also hard to believe that a society in which perfect copy androids are a known quantity would not have provisions for dealing with imposters. An android is crowned king, for pity’s sake! It’s also incredibly unlikely that Romana would just happen to look exactly like Princess Strella, who just happens to be the subject for an identical android anyway. I struggle to see the point of that whole setup. The three roles hardly stretch Mary Tamm’s acting skills and the princess spends most of her time in the dungeon anyway.

Is it an android? Is it a princess? No, it's Romana!

Is it an android? Is it a princess? No, it’s Romana!

So, there’s a society that mixes the ancient with the futuristic, in which androids exist, and the concept is wasted on a little game of deception and tricks between the King and the Count. The Count is a terrible villain anyway because he tells everybody all of his plans. When he casually informs Archimandrite that he will wed the King’s widow shortly after his death, I had to wonder why nobody suspected foul play. The sword fight was a weak way to end the story, but it hardly mattered by that point.

The Doctor's sword fight with Count Grendel would have been over far more quickly if he didn't have to keep picking his scarf up.

The Doctor’s sword fight with Count Grendel would have been over far more quickly if he didn’t have to keep picking his scarf up.

And the Key to Time? Yes, it was disguised as a statue for no apparent reason and they collect it before they leave.

The Stones of Blood

Crazy cultists worshipping aliens as gods, meeting in secret and making sacrifices – these are all well-worn ideas by now, and not an inspiring way to usher in the 100th serial. However, the druid theme and the stone circles do provide a creepy flavour to the proceedings, and the ending takes an unexpected turn as the Doctor finds himself aboard a prison-ship in hyperspace, at which point it turns into a sci-fi court drama.

The Doctor and Romana meet Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay.

The Doctor and Romana meet Professor Rumford and Vivien Fay.

There continues to be a thread of light-hearted humour running through these serials, even amidst the dark themes, but it is this humour that I find confident and charming. The Stones of Blood is funny in places, a little scary in others, but always watchable. It is, to coin an annoying phrase, a “fun romp”, like watching a Scooby-Doo episode. I’m even growing to like K-9, the Scrappy-Doo character, and when he gets temporarily squashed by the big stone thing and all his circuits are hanging out, I felt a bit sad for him. Of course, he always bounces back, recharges, gets fixed or whatever.

I can’t decide whether the stones are scary or ridiculous. I think there is potential for them to be threatening that sometimes works. They’re sentient blood-drinking stones that emerge from the darkness with that pulsating noise (it sounds familiar, I want to say it’s from Fury from the Deep, but I’m not sure) and strip the flesh from your bones with a touch, a “hidden in plain sight” concept much like a proto version of the Weeping Angels. But at other times, the way they just slide around the sets in full view, barging around the place knocking into things, looks daft.

The Ogri are less scary once you find out they're silicon-based lifeforms from another planet.

The Ogri are less scary once you find out they’re silicon-based lifeforms from another planet.

Vivien, who turns out to be the villainous Cessair of Diplos, puts on a solid performance but the part is underwritten, and the final moments of the court proceedings fall flat, as the Doctor convinces the Megara of her guilt while Romana and Professor Rumford pointlessly rush to gather evidence to do the same thing. And then there’s the warning at the start, “beware of the black guardian”, which is never mentioned again. Is the implication that Cessair is the black guardian? Why did she have the key to time around her neck? It doesn’t tie up satisfyingly. Maybe the next story will provide some answers.

Aboard the prison ship, the Megara are released after thousands of years of confinement... and sentence the Doctor to death. Huh?

Aboard the prison ship, the Megara are released after thousands of years of confinement… and sentence the Doctor to death. Huh?

I can’t help but feel this one didn’t turn out quite as planned. It’s got some good ideas, likeable characters and witty dialogue, but it fails to be anything more than okay. Not bad but unremarkable.

The Pirate Planet

Douglas Adams writes this one, and he is a really good fit for the good-humoured sci-fi the show has developed into lately. I definitely see more than a hint of Hitchhiker’s “big ideas” in The Pirate Planet. There’s the ridiculously advanced technology that allows a hollowed out planet to teleport around the universe, swallow up smaller planets and leech them of minerals, which recalls memories of a certain factory floor. The unmalicious threat to Earth itself is not unlike Vogons blowing it up because it’s in the way, and of course the charismatic self-congratulatory Doctor is not far removed from one Betelgeusian president. There’s also a chase sequence through an inertia-cancelling corridor that ends in one of the funniest moments I’ve seen in this show so far.

The Captain's base of operations. A godly "palace" atop the mountain, and a good looking model.

The Captain’s base of operations. A godly “palace” atop the mountain, and a good looking model.

The fact that it does all of this on a 1978 BBC budget is commendable. Douglas Adams paints a picture of a vast universe full of wonder without having to actually show it, which is perfect for Doctor Who. The dialogue offers up a lot of technobabble, and under any other circumstances, it might seem too much, but it really works here, and is frequently funny. The plot revelations are nicely spaced out and the whole thing is a rather enjoyable watch. My main complaint would be the apparent villain of the piece, the cybernetic Captain, who is just insufferable. I get that’s the point, but his blustering and threats are a pain.

The half-robotic Captain, with a robot bird on his shoulder that looks like Boba Fett. That's right, you can't unsee it now. Mwahaha!

The half-robotic Captain, with a robot bird on his shoulder that looks like Boba Fett. That’s right, you can’t unsee it now. Mwahaha!

Big ideas, snappy humour and some nice twists – this has all the ingredients of a classic. The Key to Time is worked into the story, thankfully without impeding on it, with no further mention of the guardians for now.

The Ribos Operation

By now, Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor is so well settled in, I can’t really imagine anyone else playing the role. Even the relatively poor stories have moments of humour and wit, or some banter that makes me chuckle. Even so, to stop things becoming stale, season 16 shakes things up a bit. Firstly, there appears to be a season-long arc running through it, as the Doctor is tasked by the White Guardian (who?) with collecting the six pieces of the Key to Time (one per serial over six serials, presumably). While this doesn’t really limit the Doctor’s adventures, it does focus his motives, which I suppose could be helpful.

The White Guardian has lost his keys and wants the Doctor to find them for him. Has he checked behind the sofa?

The White Guardian has lost his keys and wants the Doctor to find them for him. Has he checked behind the sofa?

Secondly, since Leela left (boo!), the Doctor is assigned new assistant Romana. Unlike previous companions, she is a Time Lord herself (or Time Lady?), so we don’t have the grounded frame of reference that we would get from a human character. So far, this hasn’t had a negative impact, but I fear Romana’s attitude could grow tiresome over time. As with any new character, however, I will give her the benefit of the doubt.

The Doctor and Romana infiltrate the treasury on Ribos.

The Doctor and Romana infiltrate the treasury on Ribos.

The story is a bit flabby and threatens to becoming boring, but it’s filled with lively characters and amusing accents, so it remains watchable enough. There are some undercooked elements, like the dragon creature or the witch, that add very little. K-9 returns in Mk.II form (identical) and saves the day with his magic laser beam. But it’s fine, not bad, not great.

Farewell to Garron and Unstoffe. I rather liked this pair of would-be thieves. Most of the extended cast performed well, actually.

Farewell to Garron and Unstoffe. I rather liked this pair of would-be thieves. Most of the extended cast performed well, actually.

It remains to be seen if the rest of the season can find interesting ways to present the hidden keys of time, and indeed whether anything exciting happens with it at the end. Right now, it does kind of feel like an irrelevant linking device. Previous “cross-serial” stories (see: Frontier in Space / Planet of the Daleks) have been disappointing in resolving answers, so I’m hoping for something better. On the other hand, The Keys of Marinus was pretty good, and this is giving similar vibes. Time will tell.