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Losing your Key. Doctor Who’s Grandest Narrative?

June 11, 2015


At 26 episodes (average 24 minutes each = just under ten and a half hours in total) the Key to Time sequence is the longest more or less continuous storyline in the franchise’s history.  Oh you can talk about various lietmotifs that crop up or suggest that most of the Pertwee-Letts-Dicks era was one long UNIT versus The Master tale – but the Key to Time story of 1978 was the longest continuous story idea ever.

I recently rewatched it, affectionately, not uncritically, and decided it’s probably, on balance, worth the effort.

Now the idea of losing a key type device and looking for segments had been done back in 1964 in Keys of MarinusKeys of Marinus was a kind of portmaneau adventure carrying different adventures in different settings – but each adventure took up just one episode.  And in 1964, it was the fate of Marinus that was at stake – not (da-da DAH) the fate of the entire universe.

The Ribos Operation sets up the premise with the so-called White Guardian (God in a hat) deciding that the Fourth Doctor is just the person to locate the fragments of a device that is needed to stabilise the very fabric of timey wimey stuff.  “God” turns out to be a rather indolent non interventionist who is unable it seems to use His immense powers very directly.  In this Manichean universe, his exact counterpart the (wait for it – yes – you’ve guessed it) The Black Guardian appears to be blessed with rather greater powers of initiative.   And the Doctor is suddenly given Romandadvoratrelundar, a scientifically gifted young Timelord as an unwanted companion (all of the Fourth Doctor’s companions – apart from Sarah Jane Smith – are sort of unwanted).  Romandadvoratrelundar is offered two abbreviations of her name – “Romana” and “Fred”.  She chooses Fred.  In fact, you can tell a true Whovian because, in their gorgeous nerdiness, they will keep using the name Romandadvoratrelundar or ever “Fred” to describe this Time Lord, in preference to the vulgar abbreviation that seems to be most current.

The extent to which finding the key fragments defines the six individual stories in this sequence varies quite a bit.  The key fragment is pretty central to Ribos Operation and Armageddon Factor whereas, for example, in the close Prisoner of Zenda remake – Androids of Tara – the fragment is found pretty much immediately and then pretty much forgotten about until the very end.

There’s some decline in quality as the long story unfolds.  Ribos Operation has some of Robert Holmes best writing – i.e. some very fine writing indeed – and much of the finest is devoted to the internal drama of Binro the Heretic, a persecuted Galileo trapped in an early Renaissance society.  Romandadvoratrelundar is still finding her feet and has to learn what playing second fiddle to an insufferably curious and irreverent version of The Doctor is all about.  Douglas Adams penned Pirate Planet, which is perhaps the most audacious and inventive of the sequence, as well as employing one of the more amusingly shouty villains of the Baker era. A planet that eats other planets is a delicious conceit and if it’s not the most compelling of stories, it’s one of the most consistently entertaining.  Stones of Blood starts out very effectively and spookily – a standing stone gothic of a kind the Beeb was well placed to stage and finance – but its final episodes involving a comic courtroom drama on a space ship rather dissipate the creepy atmosphere that’s been so well generated.  Romandadvoratrelundar arrives wearing very inappropriate shoes.  Mary’s Tamm’s Romandadvoratrelundar favoured floaty layers of costume – she looked like someone doing a guest singing number on The Two Ronnies.  Then there’s Androids of Tara which is one of the most unabashed escapist romps of the 1970s.  Anthony Hope’s original plot is retained, along with all of his main characters and the introduction of cybernetic technology barely informs a squashbuckling adventure that might have suited Jon Pertwee better than Tom Baker.  It’s so light hearted, its villain (the incomparable Peter Jeffrey) is even allowed to escape and fight some notional other day.  Some people object to such frivolity, but in order to build tension through any series, you need to vary the stakes a bit.  You can’t have the Doctor saving the very nature of Time and Space on a weekly basis.  Sometimes it’s enough for him to save Guildford.  Or in this case, Zenda Tara.

From this kind of happy swordplay, we descend to Power of Kroll – its author Robert Holmes’ least favorite self penned adventure.  If we say that it may well indeed be the worst Robert Holmes script it’s also fair to say that it’s not really that bad.  You can imagine Malcolm Hulke writing a rather grimmer version of it earlier in the decade.  Energy companies versus the indigenous “swampies” – a fairly familiar scenario.  Perhaps most disappointing is that Philip Madoc – one of the franchise’s most gifted recurring players, is shamefully underused as “grumpy but sane” operative.

And then there’s the conclusion –  Armageddon Factor – the six parter – now rather disregarded.  Six segments of of the key to time. Six adventures, culminating in an adventure involving Princess Astra (Lalla Ward), the sixth princess of the sixth dynasty of the six houses.  I think the Omen movies engage a less ambitious and obsessive triangulation of sixes than The Armageddon Factor.  The Armageddon Factor was the last six part adventure ever – all of 37 years ago, heaven help us.  Indeed it has contributed to the notion that six part adventures were always a bad idea – which is plainly wrong.  The plotting of Tom Baker’s seasons involved six part adventure capping seasons of four part adventures.  Genesis of the Daleks,  Seeds of Doom, Talons of Weng Chiang Invasion of Time. Armageddon Factor and the abortive Shada.  John Nathan Turner gave up on the concept and so Logopolis only has four parts.  The idea of the four part adventure as the standard normative Doctor Who adventure format was only really established in Tom Baker’s time.  Jon Pertwee had lots of six part adventures and very fine many of them were.  Indeed, six part adventures are no more boring, judged collectively, than four part adventures.  But they are a product of a strange and distant world where there are only three TV channels and 5.25pm on Saturdays belongs pretty much exclusively to Doctor Who.  There’s a lot of loyalty attached to the idea of being the only game in town.

And Armageddon Factor isn’t that bad.  It has John Woodvine, who is always delicious to watch.  I remember watching him very unhappily married to Fiona Shaw on  stage at the National Theatre in Machinal and then very happily married to Fiona Shaw on screen in Persuasion soon afterwards.  He was a supremely effective villain in David Edgar’s epic adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.  Sadly John Woodvine disappears for much the second half of the adventure, trapped in a time loop and just saying “fire” over and over again.  Meanwhile we’re introduced to “Drax” – another maverick runaway Time Lord – a loveable rogue of a kind that Robert Holmes would normally invent (and write better lines for).  Drax is the invention of the Bristol Boys – Baker and Martin – not top drawer writers but “reliable” as they say.  Which makes Drax all the more annoying really.  I mean, I hate to be an irritating continuity freak (I hate to be one but I am one) but experienced contributors like the Bristolians had some sort of responsibility to the fanbase to come up with some sort of explanation as to how a Gallifreyan classmate of The Doctor’s could possibly recognise the Fourth Doctor by sight?  I mean, come on lads – come up with some Time Lord empathetic link gibberish – just to keep us going eh?  Drax refers to The Doctor as “Theta Sigma” which the novelisation (Terence Dicks riding to the rescue yet again) rationalises as a sort of student number and NOT, we repeat NOT, the Doctor’s “real name”.

I’m trying to remember if Romandadvoratrelundar (as played by Mary Tamm) smiled even once in 26 episodes.  I supposed I could watch the whole thing again, but even I have a life. Of sorts.


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