Continuing their search for the segments of the Key to Time, The Doctor and Romana arrive on Tara. Romana goes in search of the segment; the Doctor goes fishing. But both soon become embroiled in local politics as the evil Count Grendel has a master plan for deposing the good Prince Reynart.
Would you mind not standing on my chest? My hat’s on fire.
Spring Break and Spring Holiday are over. I’m in the down-hill stretch of my semester, which has really interfered with my blogging pace. Papers on redaction criticism and comparative criticism have dominated the past couple of weeks, and the next two weeks have two document design projects which are demanding my attention. And I was making such good progress in “The Key to Time.”
I finished “The Androids of Tara” two weeks ago, but I didn’t have a lot to say about it. While the first three installments of the “Key to Time” season had some interesting, and often masterfully-handled thematic material, “The Androids of Tara” is just flat-out fun. It is an adventure story. In fact, it could be argued that “Tara” is a retelling of “The Prisoner of Zenda,” an argument that I’ll let others engage in since I have never read or watched “Zenda.” But the bottom line is that this story is fast-paced and a lot of fun. In atypical Doctor Who fashion (atypical at this point in the show’s history, at least) this is a story where monsters are not important; only one monster appears—the dreaded Taran bear—but it is entirely incidental to the plot. The real monster is Count Grendel, a thoroughly human character. He is plotting to seize the Taran throne. Thus, “The Androids of Tara” is a swash-buckling adventure story. It is full of humor and the pace is tight, making it a good story to introduce new viewers to Doctor Who. “The Androids of Tara” is a fun romp and a nice break from some of the heavier thematic material this season.
In their continuing search for the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive on Earth and investigate a Bronze Age stone circle that holds the fascination of a local archaeologist and a neo-Druidic cult that worships an ancient Celtic goddess.
Erase memory banks concerning tennis.
With The Stones of Blood we have a return to the gothic horror that has been a defining feature of the Tom Baker era. Graham Williams has touched upon this genre a couple times before with Horror of Fang Rock and Image of The Fendahl. Horror isn’t a defining feature of Williams’s era, but it is interesting to see how he approaches it when it does come up. In fact, I would say that the gothic horror of Graham Williams is more in line with the supernatural horror genre defined by writers like Poe, Lovecraft, Stoker, Crowley, and so on than Hinchcliffe and Holmes. Sure, H&H did the gothic horror, but they geared more toward gothic-horror-adventure. The horror of the Graham Williams era deals more with tension, fear, suspense, and cosmic dread. The Stones of Blood is occult gothic horror with a twist, namely that it successfully switches genres halfway through. Parts one and two are excellent suspense pieces, while parts three and four are fascinating, and hilarious, sci-fi pieces.
The Doctor and Romana arrive at Boscombe Moor in Cornwall. They trace the third segment of the Key to Time to a stone circle called the Nine Travelers. They meet Professor Amelia Rumford, an archaeologist, and her assistant Vivien Fay. In conversation with the two women, The Doctor and Romana learn about a local cult that imitates Druidic rituals. Naturally the Doctor must investigate. Of course, it seems the Doctor’s coming had been foretold by the Cailleach, the Druidic goddess of war and magic. Plans are made to sacrifice the Doctor at the Nine Travelers. And as the story progresses, we learn that blood awakens the stones, which are really stone creatures called Ogri, Vivien Fay is an alien criminal, and just out-of-phase in hyperspace is a prison ship that has been shipwrecked for a few thousand years. The way in which David Fisher handles these elements is magnificent. He plays fairly with the gothic horror tropes and completely subverts them as we move to the prison ship. This story keeps the viewer guessing and that is a wonderful thing. The ominous tone soon gives way to humor as the Doctor is put on trial by the Megara, justice machines which operate a judge, jury, and executioner, for a rather trivial offense.
The Key to Time season has been a wonderful journey so far. We have had three very different stories, each blending a variety of genres (Ribos—historical fiction/sci-fi/caper; Pirate Planet—sci-fi/pirate adventure; Stones of Blood—supernatural, occult horror/sci-fi legal drama/comedy). This season has been a genre blender which has deftly handled everything it has set out to do. The overarching plot is somewhat inconsequential (the Doctor doesn’t really need a reason to travel), but neither does it get in the way of the storytelling. The only complaint I have about this particular installment is the resolution, which is much too quick. The resolution isn’t allowed to breathe, which is too bad. But the journey was excellent and the script is excellent, so I can live with a rushed ending.
The Doctor, allied with the mysterious Vardons, establishes himself as the President of Gallifrey and opens the door to invasion.
One grows tired of Jelly Babies, Castellan.
Season fifteen saw Doctor Who opening in familiar territory: dark, atmospheric, and scary. Along the way, however, the season has had some significant growing pains as new producer Graham Williams and new script editor Anthony Read attempted to find their footing. The show was under intense political pressure to tone down the horror and violence and to stay on budget. Thus, this is a season of redefinition and rebirth. It is a season that attempted to redefine a show that was an undeniable success, and it had to move away from many of the elements that made the show successful. But rather than impress the audience with this new direction, season fifteen stumbled and fumbled its way to a resolution. There wasn’t the time and money to go with Williams’s Plan A (which we will get in season sixteen). Instead, this season was hindered by a desire to put something, anything, on the air. As a result, the season is weak, uncertain, and—at times—appalling. Viewers were left to wonder exactly what was happening to this show, and many viewers gave up on it.
The Invasion of Time closed out the season. Ironically, this story captures the uncertainty and fear a viewer has for Doctor Who as a show. We have a story in which the Doctor, like the show, is vaguely familiar but seems very different, and, in the case of the Doctor, possibly evil. We want to trust him, being the loyal viewers as Leela is the loyal companion, but it is hard to make sense of the decisions the he is making. In fact, the overall theme, using this analogy, is to wait and trust. Trust that the Doctor has not sold out Gallifrey; trust that Doctor Who is still a show worth watching.
As this season ends, Leela stays on Gallifrey, written out in an unsatisfying way. With her departure, the final remnant of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is gone. Symbolically, the show is now free to find its new voice and move into this new era. But at the same time, Leela had become such an endearing character. Louise Jameson was a great actress that truly rose above the material she was given. She fashioned Leela into a compelling character, not because of the demeaning outfits, but because of her performance. Being written out at the last minute was a horrible end to the character (although, she DID get an exit, unlike Dodo). The character, throughout her portrayal, has never shown romantic inclination; this is no less true in this story. Leela leaving the Doctor to stay with Andred was not set up at all. I remember hearing on a podcast (I think it may have been Fantragic/MMM) that when Leela held out her hand in part six, anyone could have grabbed it and it would have made about as much sense. In fact, Leela and Rodan had more screen time together and suffered more together, but I doubt that implying a lesbian relationship would have been any more acceptable to Mary Whitehouse and others criticizing the show than the violence.
And yet, I enjoyed this story. I felt it suffered a bit in parts five and six, but I found the first four episodes to be engaging, witty, and clever. The scenes between the Doctor and Borusa are magnificent. Tom Baker successfully keeps the viewer uncertain. And I appreciate that the writers had the audacity to make us question the Doctor. Sure, we knew there was some point to the deception, but it was withheld long enough to make us uncomfortable. This was a daring move but extremely effective.
How does this story relate to The Deadly Assassin in its portrayal of the Time Lords? I was critical of the previous Time Lord story because I prefer the mysterious, mythic, godlike Time Lords to the academic, bureaucratic Time Lords. And while The Deadly Assassin rooted the Time Lords in a structured and defined civilization, they maintained a sense of power and scope that is lacking in The Invasion of Time. With this story, they are just an advanced society with all the same strengths and weaknesses of any other. The Time Lords are at their most human. Any vestiges of mystery have been removed from the Time Lords themselves and shifted to Rassilon. From this point on, the mysterious and mythic and godlike portrayal will exist in Time Lord history, the era of Rassilon and Omega, not in the relative present. Thus, Doctor Who is tipping an unconscious, symbolic hat to the idea that the magic is gone; it is in the past. Doctor Who has become nostalgic. It longs for an ethos that existed long, long ago.