It's a huge bill this time, as the latest release is a box set containing the six stories that make up "The Key to Time" story arc. First off The Ribos Operation:
A poor startNext The Pirate Planet:
This story is generally remembered for starting the Key to Time season rather than for any of its own incidents and it's easy to see why this is. The entire setting of Ribos is utterly uninspiring, both in terms of narrative and also in terms of design. Additionally the plot is weak and there is little reason for the Doctor and Romana to remain on the planet other than the search for the first segment of the Key. to Time.
Robert Holmes' script contains some wonderful lines and the pairing of Garron and Unstoffe is probably the story's strongest point, but otherwise there's very little in the tale to inspire. The Doctor and Romana spend most of their time together trying to show off to each other and come across rather poorly, whilst K9 is used as little more than a mobile weapon. The Graff Vynda-K is very poorly written and few of the other characters make much impact at all, though the scene between Binro and Unstoffe where the latter tells the old man that he is in fact right about there being life on other worlds is well written and extremely moving and memorable. Perhaps the worst character of all is The Seeker, who is far too often deployed as a quick means to advance part of the plot. The plot is extremely straightforward and extremely uninspiring, with a main problem being the lack of any wider perspective on matters. Wisely the opening scenes in which the quest for the Key to Time (better discussed more fully in a review of the season as a whole) is set up are kept to a minimum so that the overall story arc does not intrude too much on the tale. The opening scene with the Guardian gives a strong sense of power, especially when the TARDIS comes within his power and the bright light is reminiscent of some Biblical films.
Cast wise there are few bright points at all. Binro is played by Timothy Bateson in an all too stereotypical manner to make much of an impact, whilst both Iain Cuthbertson (Garron) and Nigel Plaskitt (Unstoffe) are too pedestrian to really shine. Mary Tamm plays Romana very much as a cold 'Ice Maiden' and the result is some scenes between her and Tom Baker that show a poor rapport between the two.
The production produces a Ribos that is highly reminiscent of Russia in the 19th century. Compared to the previous season the production values are up, though the Shrivenzale does not convince at all well. The direction is competent, though it does not rescue the story from the relatively weak script. As the opening story for a linked season, The Ribos Operation is an especially disappointing tale. 5/10
Adams arrivesThen it's The Stones of Blood:
Douglas Adams' first contribution to the series is played remarkably seriously given the author's reputation for out and out comedy. Although The Pirate Planet contains some strong wild ideas such as a planet travelling through space than consumes others, a woman determined to stop at nothing to stay alive, a man being heavily wounded and manipulated by the one who preserved his life or a gestalt telepathic entity that grows in the minds of individuals, few of these are especially bizarre by Doctor Who's standards and thus the basic story remains sane. Consequently elements such as the pirate references or the way the guards are continually sent up work since there is an underlying seriousness that holds the story together. Equally critical is the way that the Key to Time quest plays a relatively small part of the proceedings and that the story could easily have been told devoid of the season concept with only a few minor changes, showing up its strengths. The main humour in the story derives from the dialogue but there are many serious moments as well, most obviously the scene in Part Three where the Captain and the Doctor are examining the remains of planets in the trophy room and the Doctor expresses his outrage about the way that Zanak is destroying planets and murdering on a massive scale.
One of the interesting elements of the story is the Polyphase Avitron that K9 gets to fight and eventually subdue. The idea of K9 having his own little foe is a good one, but unfortunately the Avitron is poorly realised, being little more than a prop in many scenes and only seen moving in special CSO close-ups. Furthermore it is unable to speak. Consequently the battle between the two is poor and consists primarily of video effects between the two that do no make for the most tense ridden fight of all.
Of the cast, Tom Baker and Mary Tamm have still to develop an onscreen rapport but make competent performances nonetheless. However only Bruce Purchase (The Captain) makes a significant impact whilst the rest of the cast are merely going through the motions. This is unfortunate since humour such as Adams' often requires an extra special effort for it to work properly.
Productionwise The Pirate Planet benefits from sensible decisions being taken about how to spend the money, though the film sequences suffer from a poor quality in the transfers. The sets are competent and the video effects are reasonable for the period. Pennant Roberts gives competent direction and the result is a story that is well crafted and only let down by some weak performances. 7/10
Competent but uninspiringThen we come to The Androids of Tara:
It's difficult to escape the sense that this story is the budget saver for the season, being set on contemporary Earth with an extremely limited cast and straightforward sets. However The Stones of Blood still manages to tell an original story and provide for many surprises along the way.
By far the story's best creation is Professor Emilia Rumford, who gets some wonderful scenes with the Doctor, Romana and K9 and makes the viewer wish that she had been made a regular companion. She is clearly the inspiration for Evelyn Smyth in the Big Finish audio adventures many years later and is wonderfully brought to life by Beatrix Lehmann. Rumford provides a strong counterbalance for the story, bringing a touch of sanity into an otherwise confused environment. Less effective is Susan Engel as Vivian Fey, who fails to convince as either an archaeologist's assistant or an alien criminal posing as a god. Even worse are the De Vries who add virtually nothing to the story other than some padding in the early episodes.
Plotwise The Stones of Blood is difficult to follow in the early episodes but once the main focus of attention shifts to the Megara spaceship it soon becomes a lot clearer. The early part of the story is dominated by the stones and the general mystery and does not generate that much excitement. The later episodes generate some very good humour by satirising the legal system as the Doctor stands trial for a trivial 'offence' that has brought more benefit than harm. Given the limitations of contemporary video effects, the flashing lights representing the justice machines are portrayed extremely effectively and it is difficult to see how this effect could be improved upon at all by the subsequent two decades of development in the video effects department. The story comes to an extremely simple ending, with the search for the third segment being treated almost as an afterthought, but this is not a tale to see off a threat to the end of humanity.
Productionwise it's clear how limited the budget is, with the night scenes at the stone circle being recorded in studio even though the daytime scenes have been filmed on location. The Earth interiors are pretty standard, whilst the Megara spaceship is dull. The direction by Darrol Blake is competent though, but David Fisher's script simply does not offer much scope for an epic adventure. This is a rare example of Doctor Who playing 'safe' and whilst it produces a competent tale, there's little to get excited about other than the scenes with the justice machines.
Duel and DualityThen the penultimate adventure is The Power of Kroll:
Even more so than previous stories in the Key to Time season, The Androids of Tara is a tale that has clearly had the search for a segment of the Key added onto the story, given the undue haste with which this element of the plot is quickly wrapped up. Equally the story's monster is utterly forgettable and is disposed of very early on in the story, leaving the rest of the four episodes for a tale of court politics and yet another double story.
Doubles are a science-fiction cliché, but this story gives no less than four separate roles to Mary Tamm, playing the real Romana and Strella as well as android doubles of both of them. This does seem somewhat excessive though fortunately it is always clear who is who in the story and there are comparatively few scenes requiring more than one Mary Tamm. Otherwise the android element of the story works reasonably well as a tool by the competitors for the Taran throne to achieve their goals despite interference.
The story's roots are supposedly clearly the novel The Prisoner of Zenda but as one who is unfamiliar with that work I am unable to comment upon this use of source material, other than that it doesn't obviously show to the uninitiated. David Fisher's tale is well written, offering a logical chain of events as Grendel seeks to seize the throne whilst the Doctor aids Prince Reynart against the Count. There's a degree of humour in the tale, especially in its send up of the quest for the Key to Time at the start of the story or in its send up of the over eager Farrah, but the story never lets the humour dominate it and thus the whole thing works well.
Of the cast all the actors playing androids often wind up making the role a little too obvious, but the 'real' characters fare better. As Count Grendel Peter Jeffrey easily steals many of the scenes that he is in, whilst Neville Jason manages to bring to Prince Reynart as sense of being truly displaced. The rest of the cast are less effective though, with Lois Baxter making little impact as Lamia.
The production of the story strongly resembles a contemporary period drama, with some very good location work whilst the studio sets all come across as effective. The only unsuccessful element is the realisation of the beast at the start of the tale and one wonders why a real animal could not be used for this redundant sequence, but otherwise The Androids of Tara is a story that generally holds together quite well. 7/10
One script too many?And finally The Armageddon Factor:
This story is most notable for featuring what has to be one of the biggest monsters ever seen in the entire series. Such a move is incredibly daring given the budgetary limitations of the series but what's surprising is that Kroll does not come across as looking especially cheap or fake. Instead Kroll looks huge and generally appears realistic and even terrifying Consequently the story is told around Kroll and utilises the monster quite well, most obviously in the way that it is literally the squid's emissions that provide the methane gas that the refinery crew are seeking.
Unfortunately there is little else in this tale that generates much excitement. None of the refinery staff or any of the Swampies come across as particularly effective characters, in spite of some competent performances by Neil McCarthy (Thawn), Philip Madoc (Fenner) or John Abineri (Ranquin). John Leeson gets a change from the norm in this story by playing Dugeen but is unable to bring to the character much that makes him stand out. The only character who makes any impact at all is Rohm-Dutt, who is competently played by Glyn Owen but only stands out much by virtue of his character's role as a gun runner. Even Tom Baker and Mary Tamm fail to give their usual full performances.
Plotwise there is little of note in this tale either. The story is a clear parody of colonialism and the anti-colonial movement, but by now this has formed the basis for several other Doctor Who stories, all of which are able to tell far more effective stories. The Swampies' worship of Kroll is logical but equally unoriginal and again has been bettered elsewhere. Worse still is the story's ending, in which the tracer is effectively used as a magic wand to resolve the story and end the menace of Kroll simply by reconverting the symbol of power into the fifth segment.
Robert Holmes cited this story as his least favourite and given his absence from the series for the next five years it's tempting to dismiss this story as one too many from one of the series' finest writers. The production values of the story are good, with the location work coming across as effective even though a swamp is not the most exciting of locations. However this is not enough to save this story from being poorly construed and further let down by weak performances. As a result, this story is easily forgettable. 3/10
The final phaseLast of all, there's my review of the season as a whole:
The final story of the Key to Time season sees the Doctor, Romana and K9 arrive in the middle of an interplanetary war with a difference. Unlike earlier stories set on several planets, such as The Space Pirates or Frontier in Space, there is little sense of a great epic and instead this is a story that focuses very much on the individuals, offering several tough decisions for the Doctor throughout the story.
The early parts start out on Atrios as the Doctor and Romana seek to bring a degree of sanity whilst the dictatorial Marshal seeks to completely destroy Zeos, despite the strong desire to see the war brought to a peaceful conclusion held by many including Princess Astra. With the themes of perpetual warfare and its human cost in the background, this part of the tale is little more than a prelude to subsequent events. The middle parts see the Doctor, Romana and K9 reach Zeos to discover the truth behind the long invisible enemy, but it is not until the last parts of the story that the action becomes intense as events head toward their conclusion on the Shadow's planet. After several earlier stories in which the search for the Key to Time has often been little more than a motivation for the Doctor, Romana and K9 to go to and remain in a particular location it makes sense to have a story in which the Key plays a more direct role in the plot, especially given that the last segment turns out to be Princess Astra herself. The conflict between the Doctor and the Shadow is strong and generates real tension throughout these episodes, though less effective is the introduction of Drax who is almost redundant to the plot. Finally the story, the season and the quest all climax in the Doctor's encounter with the Guardian, though no real attempt is made to hide the fact that the Black Guardian is disguised as his White counterpart and Valentine Dyall's distinctive voice does not help the disguise either. This climax is best saved for a review of the Key to Time season as a whole though.
For their final collaboration for Doctor Who, Bob Baker & Dave Martin produce one of their strongest scripts, full of strong charecterisation. Every character is well defined, even those such as Drax who could have been cut from the plot. Combined with a strong set of performances the characters really stand out. The most obvious performance comes from Lalla Ward as Princess Astra and it is easy to see why she was offered a regular role. Of the other cast members John Woodvine gives a tough performance as the Marshal, whilst Ian Saynor brings to Merak a sense of tragedy as he seeks to comprehend much of what is going on around him and the fate of his beloved. But it is William Squire who delivers the most intense performance, making the Shadow very convincing when it would be tempting to send up such a part. The Shadow is written as an agent of the Black Guardian who has been waiting for an eternity for the Doctor and the Key and Squire's performance makes this very believable which is essential for such a role.
There's one major plothole in the story and that is the fact that Astra is deduced to be the sixth segment as she is the sixth Princess of the sixth dynasty of the sixth house of Atrios. Although both the Doctor and the Shadow talk of her as the final segment, one wonders what would have happened if this had been an earlier stage in the Doctor's journey, though there our several theories as to why this is. (See my season review.)
Although the budget may no longer stretch as far as it did in some earlier seasons, the design work for this story remains confident and the Shadow's planet is especially well realised. Even the CSO used in the scenes where the Doctor and Drax have been shrunk doesn't let the side down. Combined with some good direction from Michael Hayes and a highly dramatic incidental score from Dudley Simpson and you have one of the strongest stories of the entire season and a worthy climax to it. 8/10
A sense of purposeDoctor Who - The Key to Time can be purchased from Amazon.co.uk.
After a decade and half of mostly stand-alone adventures with only a few stories combining to tell a bigger tale (such as Mission to the Unknown & The Daleks' Master Plan, Frontier in Space & Planet of the Dalek), it makes a change to have a season in which all the stories are linked by a wider umbrella theme. Although Season 8 saw the Master used in all five stories, even that does not constitute an ongoing narrative in any way beyond the continuing conflict between the Doctor and the Master throughout the series.
But Season 16 is different. The Key to Time concept appears throughout and offers a sense of purpose to the Doctor's adventures. Furthermore it allows the Doctor to undergo a great quest like many other heroes from the Greek hero Jason and the Golden Fleece through to King Arthur and the Holy Grail right down to James Bond's quest to find Blofeld. But above all it offers a sense of justification for the Doctor's actions. Here he is seemingly requested by one of the most powerful beings in the universe to find and assemble an all important artefact in order to literally save the universe itself. Indeed the opening scene in The Ribos Operation seems almost Biblical, especially in the use of the great light beaming into to the TARDIS console room. This allows for a sense of our hero's importance in the grand scale of events, as well as the more mundane means of providing a reason for viewers to come back for each new story.
Unfortunately there are several areas in which the umbrella theme for the season is poorly applied. In some of the stories the segment of the Key is disguised as a key plot device within the tale itself and thus the adventure sees the two tales operating simultaneously. At other times it seems as though the quest has been left to one side and in The Androids of Tara there's a clever send up of the quest in that there's an almost undue haste to get the segment found and then allow the rest of the story to proceed with the quest placed on the backburner for the moment. Only The Armageddon Factor contains a significant portion of the story which is driven exclusively by the quest. Whilst this can be of immense benefit to the individual stories (although in some cases it isn't enough to save them from failing), it does also result in a somewhat disjointed season.
Furthermore there are some major questions arising out of the wider season format itself. Most fundamentally there is very little attempt to give any sense of the universe's approaching descent into evil and chaos that the Doctor is told is the reason for the quest in the first place. Then at the end of The Armageddon Factor there is no actual time for the White Guardian to use the Key to Time to restore order throughout the universe. Even the resolution to the mystery in The Armageddon Factor as to what the segment is disguised as can be confusing, since one of the main reasons for deducing that Astra herself is the segment is that she is the sixth Princess of the sixth dynasty of the sixth house of Atrios, yet if Atrios had been visited at any other point in the sequence then the Doctor and Romana would have been searching for a different numbered segment. There's also uncertainty in The Stones of Blood as to whether or not Cessair of Diplos/Vivien Fay is an agent of the Black Guardian given that she seemingly knows what her necklace actually is and the warning given at the start of the story. Several theories have been put forward which might explain things, yet few are convincing throughout. One that can be dismissed is the suggestion in the novelisation of The Armageddon Factor that the White Guardian is able to use the Key remotely whilst it is assembled. Given that his Black counterpart cannot do this there seems little reason to follow this line. One could suggest that the tracer is the vital link, but this in turn undermines the Black Guardian's claims whilst posing as the White that he needs to be given the Key to use it since the Doctor would have surely realised that for it to be handed over was not strictly necessary.
Perhaps the main theory is that far from being sent on a great righteous quest by the White Guardian, the Doctor and Romana are in fact dispatched by the Black Guardian disguised as the White Guardian and Time Lord President and that the Shadow has been waiting in the full knowledge that the rest of the key is coming. Although not every segment is shown being put into the full Key, it is possible to see that the quest takes the Doctor and Romana to the segments in an order from bottom to top, so the Shadow could reasonably expect the rest of the Key to have already been assembled, whilst Vivian Fey may have been a precaution should the search have proceeded in a different order. Although it may well have not been what the production team intended at all, and does still leave the question of why a warning is sent to the Doctor and Romana at the start of The Stones of Blood or explain why the White Guardian makes no appearance at all, this way of looking at the season makes a great deal more sense. Although it might have come across as a little coy, the season may well have benefited from converting The Armageddon Factor into a four part story and using the additional two episodes to start and finish the season. This would allow for more scope to both the start of the quest and possibly even provide some degree of visual warning about the threat, whilst the conclusion would focus more directly upon the Doctor's encounter with the Black Guardian. This would also have meant that the all important opening and closing scenes to the series were not being forced to compete for time with the demands of the individual stories they are set in.
Production wise season 16 manages to maintain some reasonably consistent standards, though there is a tendency towards weaker acting in the stories that are already poor script wise, with the result that the overall quality of the stories can vary heavily based on such fluctuating circumstances. The scripts are a mixture of the exciting and daring, such as The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and The Armageddon Factor to the more pedestrian efforts of The Ribos Operation, The Stones of Blood and The Power of Kroll. But between them the six stories succeed in taking the Doctor on an extremely diverse journey. We get to visit Earth only once, whilst we also get to see a wide mixture of societies from feudal to technological to primitive to military. Above all the stories all stand or fall on their own but the overall umbrella theme makes for a sense of continuity.
It is the supreme irony though that after a season of stories in which the Doctor has been given a sense of purpose to his wanderings, he then goes and installs the Randomiser, supposedly to make it harder for the Black Guardian to locate him, but in practical terms now making him once more a random wanderer with no sense of purpose at all. But after having completed one great quest it is a good move to take the Doctor and the series back to one of its original roots. It is possible to view the stories in this season on an individual basis, but as a whole they bring an entire extra dimension. This is definitely one to watch in order. 7/10