Doctor Who – The Armageddon Factor

Doctor Who Story 103 – The Armageddon Factor

Written By

Bob Baker and Dave Martin

What’s It About

The search for the Key to Time is near its end. The Doctor and Romana have traced the final piece to Atrios, a planet in perpetual war with the nearby planet Zeos. Their ruler, Princess Astra, has been abducted, and their Marshal seems to be taking secret orders from an unknown source. And hidden in the darkness between the two planets is a third planet, a shadowy planet.

I’ve Stopped the Universe

Source: Wikipedia. Copyright by BBC.
Source: Wikipedia. Copyright by BBC.

At least, that is how this story feels. It is six parts, and it is slow. This is a shame because on the whole, season 16 has been a lot of fun. “The Ribos Operation,” “The Stones of Blood,” and “The Androids of Tara” were great stories. “The Pirate Planet” was full of witty dialogue and was conceptually amazing, but it was a bit too ambitious to realize. It has only been these last two stories, “The Power of Kroll” and “The Armageddon Factor” that have let the season down. Bob Baker and Dave Martin are usually great at concepts, even if they don’t always realize them. And while the idea of the final segment being a living, breathing, sentient being is a great idea that has the potential to create a moral dilemma, in the end even that is squandered, and we have the equivalent of a megalomaniac trying to assemble a super-weapon. The tension between the White and Black Guardians, the restoration of balance to the universe, is gone. The scope is nothing more than a Cold War space opera, which doesn’t even have the courtesy to work on a meta-textual level. Indeed, what could be more fascinating than the Guardians being a metaphor for the East and the West, and true balance being the unification of the two. There is no shadow without light; there is no yin without yang. The anima and the animus. This is not pursued, and neither does “The Armageddon Factor” attempt to subvert them. And all the potential of the Key to Time falls apart.

In truth, at the end of this second Graham Williams season, I feel sorry for the show. I genuinely believe Williams wanted the show to succeed. The entire concept had potential, and the season started well. But beyond the MacGuffin, there seemed to be no real unity to the concept. There themes didn’t play out as well as they should have. This was one of the most ambitious stories Doctor Who had ever told, and it failed. And it is incredibly sad knowing that Graham Williams’ troubles are far from over.

Doctor Who – The Power of Kroll Kroll Kroll Kroll Kroll

Doctor Who Story 102 – The Power of Kroll

Who Wrote It

Robert Holmes

What’s It About

In their ongoing search for the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive on the swamp moon of Delta Magna. In order to find the Key, the must navigate the violent designs of the natives and the colonial prejudices of the refinery workers. But lurking beneath the waters of the swamps is an ancient beast that hungers.

It’s atrociously writ.
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Kroll R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn! (Source: Wikipedia.)
Ia! Ia! Kroll fhtagn! (Source: Wikipedia.)

It is inevitable that I would think of Cthulhu while watching this story. I have been steadily reading through the works of H.P. Lovecraft for over a year now and any cyclopean, tentacled water creature is going to cause my mind to wander toward cosmic dread. I don’t know that Lovecraft had any influence on this story at all; there seems to be little evidence that Robert Holmes read his stories. The mythos hardly strikes me as stories Holmes would enjoy. The similarities are extremely superficial. But the disappointment over what could have been, a story involving an ancient, cosmic creature with complete indifference to its worshippers, would have been a fascinating story. It also would have been completely contrary to the BBC’s mandate to Graham Williams. The story would have been much too dark—on the level of Image of the Fendahl.

The second area of disappointment I felt while watching this story was how uneven it was. Robert Holmes opened the season with a magnificent story. The characters were fun, the story was intriguing, and it was truly an example of everything Robert Holmes (and by extension, Doctor Who) does so well. Kroll, also by Holmes, lacks everything that The Ribos Operation had. The characters seemed underdeveloped. The pace is uneven. I almost wonder if Robert Holmes even cared.

This is a shame, I think, because the visual effects for Kroll look quite good. No, they aren’t perfect, but Kroll is one of the best-realized monsters of Doctor Who. The monster itself looks magnificent. But the story is half-hearted. The themes lack any significant punch (honestly, they were done better in Colony in Space). Even Philip Madoc is wasted in a secondary role (but he is still excellent). The Power of Kroll doesn’t quite get off the ground, even though it has so much in its favor. Robert Holmes was one of the great writers of classic Doctor Who. Even when his heart wasn’t in it, the stories had interesting elements. Unfortunately, when they are wasted in a story that doesn’t seem to care, watching a Holmes story can be incredibly disappointing.

My Rating

2/5

Doctor Who – The Androids of Tara

Doctor Who Story 101 – The Androids of Tara

Who Wrote It?

David Fisher

What’s It About?

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.

ImageSpring 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.

My Rating

4/5

Doctor Who – The Stones of Blood

Doctor Who Story 100 – The Stones of Blood

Who Write It?

David Fisher

What’s It About?

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.
The Cailleach
Source: BBC Website

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.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – The Pirate Planet

Doctor Who Story 099 – The Pirate Planet

Who Wrote It?

Douglas Adams

What’s It About?

The second segment of the Key to Time is on the planet Calufrax. Unfortunately, Calufrax is missing. Instead, the TARDIS arrives on Zanak, a planet whose inhabitants are so wealthy that precious jewels litter the streets. They celebrate their beloved Captain, who has seen them to a life of prosperity. But a group of exiled psychics know something deadly lies beneath the wealth of Zanak.

Excuse me, are you sure this planet’s meant to be here?

The Doctor and The CaptainI was filled with dismay when, after two episodes, I had failed to get in to this story. I have seen The Pirate Planet quite a few times. I know what to expect. The jokes aren’t funny to me anymore. But starting with episode three, I was enthralled. And when I look back on it, episode three is when the plot starts to pay off what the first two episodes had set up. The tone shifted from frivolity to complicated concepts punctuated by humor. The Captain has shifted from a bombastic blowhard to a tortured slave; a story of genocidal greed turned into a story about resurrection. This story was positively bursting with wonderful ideas, and the four episodes are struggling to contain them. In the end, everything becomes a bit rushed and confusing.

As for criticisms, as noted earlier, I think the beginning is slow. Given how rushed the ending was, I wonder if the material could have been spread out a bit more so that the early episodes pulled more weight. Also, Zanak did not seem like a populated world. The crowd scene in episode one had just enough people to fill an elevator. This hardly constitutes a crowd. A few more extras would have helped this story out. The budget, however, was well spent on the pirate bridge. The set looked amazing. I also enjoyed the nods to pirate tropes: the Captain’s electronic eye patch, the mechanical parrot, the plank the Doctor walks in episode three, and the mechanical arm (rather than a peg leg). And who couldn’t smile when K-9 chases the Polyphase Avatron? A mechanical dog is still a dog.

::Edit 3.16.2012::

When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t get Star Wars out of my head. I was thinking about Obi-Wan, and I had a vague impression that I had a dream about Qui-Gon. But after a few minutes of trying to figure out why Star Wars was stuck in my head like a bad song, I realized that The Pirate Planet contains quite a few ideas that were also present in George Lucas’s original trilogy:

  • a celestial body that destroys planets (the Death Star/Zanak)
  • a group of exiled mystics (the Jedi—particularly Obi-Wan and Yoda/the Mentiads)
  • a strong psychic pain when a planet is destroyed (Obi-Wan feeling the death of Alderaan/Pralix)
  • a villain who is part machine, part man (Darth Vader/the Captain)
  • this villain is good at heart, a pawn of an evil tyrant (Vader’s relationship to the Emperor/the Captain’s relationship to Xanxia

Now, to be clear, I don’t believe Douglas Adams (or Anthony Read, who reportedly did major revisions on the script) cribbed a bunch of ideas from Star Wars. Some of these ideas that are a part of Star Wars came about years later. I believe that Adams, Read, and Lucas tapped into similar ideas. There is nothing in The Pirate Planet that suggests it was added just to reference Star Wars; all the above elements are actually central to the overall plot. Additionally, The Pirate Planet is closer to plausible science than Star Wars ever attempts. (The release of psychic energy from a destroyed planet applies Einsteinian principles to fictional energy, thus giving it the ring of truth—something midichlorians never had.)

What does this mean? I’m not entirely sure. I have always been fascinated when ideas, conceived in relative isolation (as much isolation as one can get, at any rate), turn out to be similar: Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, Millennium and Profiler. We are media savvy these days; we expect that any successful story will spawn imitators. When two, unrelated but similar stories appear at the same time, we are tempted to cry copycat. All we see is the end product, however; we are never privy to the cross-pollination of the behind-the-scenes creative process. And when similar elements start to reappear, I start to wonder if these elements betray something deeper: An observation about society? A fear held by the creator? A necessary solution to a problem that arose during production?

One final note: On the TARDIS Eruditorum blog, Philip Sandifer writes, “First Holmes knocks down the idea of binary oppositions . . . then Douglas Adams knocks down the idea of “balance” as a fundamental moral good by reminding us of the existence of atrocity.” While I don’t take issue with this, per se, I do find it interesting that, when looking at The Pirate Planet and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we have a binary opposition. In The Pirate Planet we see a hollow planet that materializes around other planets and destroys them. In H2G2 we see a hollow planet that creates new planets. Between the two stories, we have equilibrium: a planet that destroys and a planet that creates.

My Rating

3.5/5

Doctor Who – The Ribos Operation

Doctor Who Story 098 – The Ribos Operation

Who Wrote It?

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

At the behest of the White Guardian, The Doctor and his new companion, Romana, begin their search for the segments of the Key to Time. Their first stop is Ribos, a feudal planet in the midst of a decades-long Icetime, where two con artists are pulling a one final con.

All right, call me Fred.
The Captain of the Guard, The Graff Vynda-K, and Sholakh
Source: Doctor Who Reviews

I can’t think of any season opening for Doctor Who as fun and well-written as “The Ribos Operation.” Robert Holmes has turned in what must be his most-perfect script; Tom is on fine form; Romana adds a great counter-point to the Doctor; the production looks great. We haven’t had a story as tight as this one since “Horror of Fang Rock.”

Season sixteen is the Key to Time season. Each story advances the overall arc, but each story is still somewhat episodic. The search for the Key to Time provides a reason for the adventures, and it bookends each story. It therefore imposes a structure on the adventures during this season. While I don’t have a problem with story arcs in general (I am a fan of Lost, Fringe, and Babylon 5, after all), I prefer to see a more controlling hand at work. Ideally, I want to see arcs that arise from character decisions and actions (seen in some of the plot points that linked story to story in the first season of Doctor Who), but if a show is going to have a grand mystery, then I want the episodes to seem somewhat relevant to that mystery. “The Ribos Operation” is good in spite of the arc, and if Holmes had written a different McGuffin the story would have worked just as well.

Being a part of the arc, however, does present some interesting thematic material. As Philip Sandifer points out in TARDIS Eruditorum, the Key to Time arc sets up a theme of dualism. This theme is indicated early in the story when the White Guardian coerces the Doctor into the quest. The White Guardian is an unambiguous stand-in for God. He is a force for order, and his opposing element, the Black Guardian, is a force for chaos. This leads to a strong problem, however, for if you developed stats for the Doctor in a role-playing game, his alignment would be chaotic good. Doctor Who has clearly indicated that the Doctor rejected the lawful good of his people in order to pursue his own path. In this regard, the Doctor is a very poor candidate to champion this quest—this Doctor, at least. Although, if the Time Lords are the only beings with the resources to enable them to find the segments, then the Doctor is not such a bad choice: he is more resourceful than his people and he far less likely to be corrupted by power. The Doctor is probably not the best choice to ally with order, but he is probably the safest. Romana, on the other hand, is completely inexperienced in adventuring. She is far more sensible and she understands order and commands. This makes her an ideal pawn for the White Guardian, should he determine the Doctor isn’t following the quest in the proper way.

Ribos is a fascinating planet for me. Its cycle of Icetime and Suntime reminded me of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The costume, prop, and set designs seemed inspired by pre-Romanov Russia. The Graff Vynda-K is almost Shakespearean in his growing insanity. And at the core of the story are Robert Holmes’s con men. Holmes plays with Graham Williams’s epic and cosmic ideas, but his real heart lies with the Garron and Unstoffe as they attempt to steal from the Graff.

Watching season sixteen is an exciting prospect. The Key to Time is the story that Graham Williams wanted to tell in the previous season but couldn’t due to budgetary problems. Similarly, season seventeen will also suffer from factors beyond Williams’s control (namely, a strike). Thus, the Key to Time season is the only season that fully represents Graham Williams’s vision for Doctor Who. And as it goes, it is off to a great start.

My Rating

5/5