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For most of this year so far, I've been working my way more-or-less sequentially through the Tom Baker era, largely thanks to UKTV Drama. When the current season of New Who started up, however, they went into temporary hiatus, leaving me hanging at The Robots of Death. I was ready, though. The enticingly-packaged Key to Time box-set was already waiting in reserve. It meant jumping forwards a little - but what with one thing and another there are actually only four stories I haven't seen between Robots... and the start of this season, so it wasn't too much of a problem, and it has meant another six stories viewed (mainly) in their original broadcast order. Now that I've worked my way through not only its six stories, but a solid selection of its myriad extra features, it's time to review it - as a season, and as a set.

Fourth Doctor: The Ribos Operation
This is the story which opens the season, and as such it has two jobs to do which the subsequent stories don't: establish the overall plot-line involving the Key that will run through the season, and introduce the delectable Romanadvoratrelundar. We begin in a desert, where the Doctor has been summoned to meet the mysterious White Guardian, and be charged with the task of assembling the six parts of the Key to Time. Of course it's always fun to get glimpses into the mysterious forces that govern the Whoniverse at a level above the Time Lords, and always fun to put the Doctor in the presence of someone to whom he defers like a slightly naughty school-boy. (I especially loved his protestations at the prospect of being given a new 'assistant' (as it was back then) for the job). But it's slightly worrying that the White Guardian is so blatantly presented as a member of the ex-patriate British governing classes (white linen-suited and sipping a cocktail as he lounges in a high-backed wicker chair), while within the terms of the story itself I would have appreciated a little more background on just why the Doctor is so ready to trust the Guardian and take on his commission in the first place.

Anyway, back in the TARDIS, the new girl is waiting - and Tom Baker's heart-felt 'Ohhhhh, Mary!' on the commentary track as the camera pans slowly up her body from her pointed boots to her arched eye-brows says it all. ;-) I think Sarah Jane remains securely my favourite Four companion, but after a season's worth of her, Romana certainly comes in as a very close second. And of course she does, given that she's written as his perfect foil - equally pompous and self-assured, but with greater academic prowess in the place of his life experience. She really throws his character into sharp relief, and of course watching her deconstruct him, undermine him and generally bring him down a peg or two makes us as viewers love him all the more. Since they share the same background, too, she's a great device for giving us glimpses into Time Lord society, and the Doctor's backstory in particular, which other companions could not - like details of Time Lord education system, and the Doctor's less-than-brilliant academic record. Also, she prompts one of the best pieces of TARDIS!love ever, when the Doctor finds out that she (or the White Guardian, really) has put a hole in his TARDIS console to receive the Tracer that will help them find the Key - and actually leans over and kisses the hole better:


It's all terribly, terribly Freudian.

The story itself takes them to the ice-planet of Ribos, where Romana gets to wear a big furry Boney-M style hood - presumably to indicate her general ice-maidenly demeanour at this stage in the season. It's pretty decent stuff, with some nicely fleshed-out guest characters - a con-merchant who sells planets he doesn't own to gullible wealthy nobles, his nice-but-dim assistant, the over-blown (and marvellously named) Graff Vynda-K, a witch who has visions and a lonely old man who has been shunned for suggesting that Ribos might one of many planets, orbiting around their respective stars. The setting is interesting and nicely presented (a vaguely Russian-looking medieval-type society), the script moves effectively between comic and serious moments, and the pacing is generally good - although I did feel things got a bit stuck in a rut in episodes 3 and 4 for a while. There are plenty of opportunities, too, for Romana to come face to face with things that are completely outside her experience, but quite normal for the Doctor - giving him the chance to get his own back for her initial dismissal of him, and of course the two of them to start settling together onto an even keel. And even K-9 gets a proper heroic rescue scene that really moves the plot along. :-) In short, a fine start to the season.



Fourth Doctor: The Pirate Planet
Continuing onwards, we enter Douglas Adams territory with a manic and sometimes convoluted romp about a planet that jumps through space, enveloping other planets and mining out their mineral resources, before crushing them down into a highly-unstable football-sized core, and moving on. In classic Adams style, it is absolutely packed with unusual ideas and unexpected twists and turns, which take quite some concentration to follow, even though the story was (apparently) quite seriously smoothed out and simplified for broadcast from the original script. As a result, it's clearly also one of the highest-budget productions of the series, requiring lots of complex sets, costumes, models and props (including a flying car) that do a pretty impressive job of bringing his ideas to life. And, as with most of the Who stories Adams was involved with, it includes quite a few jokes and ideas that were recycled later - like the idea of a ruler preserved on the brink of death by a perpetual stasis field, which he applied to the Galactic emperor in (I believe) Fit the Ninth of the H2G2 radio series.

The characterisation provides much of the fun here - I enjoyed the rather Neronian pirate captain, with his self-admiration, his flamboyancy and his difficult relationship with the domineering former Queen, as well as his fawning side-kick, Mr. Fibuli. Unusually, both the Queen herself (in her projection as the Captain's nurse) and Romana come across as strong and interesting characters, which is nice to see, since I don't otherwise think of Adams as being very good at writing women. In Romana's case, of course, this is particularly important for the season as a whole, since it means consolidating her character as the new assistant - so we get to see things like her casually outdoing the Doctor at getting the locals to talk to her when they first arrive on the planet, or effortlessly convincing a guard who has just captured her that she is actually in control. And she gives us further juicy snippets of Doctor backstory at the beginning, too, such as revealing that he has been operating the TARDIS for 523 years at this stage, or that the TARDIS actually has a manual: a large hand-written codex on a stand, which the Doctor has clearly always more or less ignored.

It's a story with very different strengths from The Ribos Operation, privileging brilliant individual ideas over general story cohesion. But overall they probably weigh in about equally for watching enjoyment, making this a sterling continuation of the season.



Fourth Doctor: The Stones of Blood
This story had me squeeing madly for most of the first two episodes. We get more great Doctor / Romana interactions (her shooing him out of the TARDIS changing-room; him trying to convey to her the charms of Earth) more Romana-out-of-her-depth moments (her unsuitable shoes; her assumption that Earth people still use stone circles), and a great scene with K-9 in which he literally erases his memory of tennis when Romana ends a conversation about it by telling him to 'forget it'. There are some good jokes; a literal cliff-hanger ending; and some remarkably impressive background research into stone circles, historical Druidism and neo-paganism. Most importantly of all, though, there is Professor Amelia Rumford: an elderly but doughty female academic, who likes nothing better than excitement and adventure - except perhaps for rubbishing her fellow-academics. She is by far and away my favourite guest character from this season, and quite possibly from the entire history of Who.

Things do unravel a bit in the third, and especially fourth, episodes, though, when the Doctor and Romana get projected into hyperspace, and end up embroiled in a lengthy court case with two beings known as the Megara, represented only by flashing lights. The idea is good, and the script actually quite witty, but it goes on rather too long, sits at odds with the rest of the story, and just generally holds up what had until then been a remarkably engaging plot. It's also clear from the commentary track that the actors involved found it quite hard to interact with characters that they couldn't see - and this probably contributes to making it a less-than-successful scene.

It's a pity, because other than the scene with the Megara this would be my favourite story of the whole season. It also marked the show's fifteenth anniversary - and on that front I think the decision to omit a planned scene in which Romana produces a cake to celebrate the Doctor's birthday, and to substitute a rather dull re-statement of the Key to Time quest instead, represents another misfire by the script editor. Still, for all that, a hugely enjoyable story, which quite possibly still is my favourite despite its flaws.



Fourth Doctor: The Androids of Tara
Our fourth story starts off in promising style by playing up to both Tom Baker's boyishness and his bohemian aesthetic by having the Doctor refuse to continue with the Key to Time quest until he has had a jolly good fishing trip. This provides Romana with a good excuse for some exasperated tutting, while meaning that we get some charming scenes of him out enjoying the wonders of nature - something that always shows him off to good effect. Similar scenes of him sniffing the forest air and stroking leaves at the beginning of The Android Invasion are a good part of the reason why that story so appealed to me, I think, and I'm only sorry that the predominantly studio-bound nature of the programme at the time meant we didn't get more of the same.

In this case, it's also an important driver for the plot, since it means that Romana goes off to explore on her own instead, having largely independent adventures which only re-connect with the Doctor's at the end of the second episode. This demonstrates nicely how her character has developed from the brilliant-but-inexperienced Academy graduate we met at the beginning of the first story, and how well she has settled into the Doctor's travelling lifestyle - although it's noticeable that her adventures largely involve her getting captured, while the Doctor is busy making friends and influencing people. That said, though, the capturing device also serves to reveal how affectionately the Doctor has come to feel towards her in spite of himself by this time, since he appears quite genuinely distressed when her life is being threatened.

All that aside, though, the story itself seemed a little lacklustre - decent enough, but falling somewhat short of really great Who territory. The medieval(-ish) setting, the convoluted political machinations and even the sword-fights are all better handled in The Masque of Mandragora, the script was serviceable but not sparkling, and there didn't seem to be much of a feeling of developing tension or drama to pull the viewer on through the four episodes. Odd, really, considering that it was written by the same person (David Fisher) as The Stones of Blood, which had really impressed me. All the same, though, there were some fun scenes, and I did very much like the character of Madam Lamia, stoically continuing to serve and support a man whom she knows will never return her love for him.



Fourth Doctor: The Power of Cthulhu Kroll
I think I'd gathered from Amazon reviews when I bought the box-set that this was the low point of the season - and even if I hadn't, the dismal Swampie costumes on the front cover would probably have given the game away. I'd love to be a radical apologist for it, and see in it hidden (swampy) depths that others have missed - but I really can't.

It's not actually dire - it's just a bit dull, and full of missed opportunities. Take the character of Mensch, for example - a Swampie who has gone to work for the corporate imperialists in the Refinery. Potentially, there's a lot of interest to be had in exploring his personal reasons for making this choice, and the responses of both the Refinery crew and his fellow Swampies to it. In fact, though, he turns out to be nothing more than a plot device - a way of ensuring that the Swampies know that the Refinery crew are planning to eliminate them. Similar things might be said about the double-crossing gun-runner, Rohm-Dutt, or for that matter the overall plot themes of nature vs. technology and exploitative imperialism. Meanwhile, the special effects are - well - speshul, and the dialogue lacks the sparkle and wit that most other stories in this season can boast.

Still, it has its moments. As for The Androids of Tara, we get a great-outdoors!Doctor scene early on, as he sits on the banks of the marsh making himself a reed flute, and wearing thigh-high waders which seem perfectly in keeping with his previously-determined identity as a fishing enthusiast. John Leeson also leaves K-9 behind for once to play a human character - Dugeen, who operates the scanners in the Refinery, and, without being in the least over-stated, is actually one of the most compelling characters in the story. There were also some interesting parallels drawn between the respective leaders of the Refinery crew (Thawn) and the Swampies (Ranquin): both were blinkered, violent and domineering, both needlessly endangered the lives of their followers, and both paid the price for it in the end. And I quite liked the scene in which the Doctor, Romana and Rohm-Dutt were condemned to be stretched to death by drying creepers, and the Doctor kept everyone cheery until he got the chance to break the convenient glass window above them by making a weird Dame Nellie Melba noise to let in the rain.

Otherwise, though, it does have to be a 'meh' story. I'll just finish by noting, for future reference, that the Doctor is wearing a series of chunky 3-D flying duck badges on the lapels of his coat in this episode, much like a similar artist's palette badge which he wears in City of Death. It seems someone somewhere had had the 'bright' idea of incorporating topically-relevant badges like this into his costume during the last few seasons - so it's something I'll watch out for in other stories made after this date.



Fourth Doctor: The Armageddon Factor
Our final destination features a long-drawn-out war between two neighbouring planets, A[trios] and Z[eos]. Various appropriate parallels are referenced as part of the scene-setting - the Second World War via a propagandist love-film, the Cold War when we discover that the entire Zeon side of the struggle is being run automatically by a computer called Mentalis (and this five years before War Games), and the Trojan War when the Doctor and Drax, miniaturised by Drax's 'shrinking gun', sneak into the Shadow's lair by hiding inside K-9. I wondered as well whether the scene where Merak (the good-looking hero character) believes he has seen his beloved Princess Astra and runs forward to embrace her, but finds that his arms slip right through her was meant to reference Aeneas' similar experience with his wife, Creusa, in the burning streets of Troy - but it may not, as that's quite a common device for portraying any encounter with a ghost or projection.

It's a decent story on the whole, with some interesting features - John Woodvine makes a great uncompromising obsessive as the Marshal, K-9 is well used in the scenes when he communicates with the Zeon war-computer, and, as a Time Lord, the character of Drax offers the same opportunities as Romana for drawing out new snippets of the Doctor's back-story. I also don't think anyone other than Tom Baker could have pulled off the Doctor's "But supposing I wasn't all right?" scene at the end to such great effect as a way of conveying the terrible power of the fully-assembled key. But, for all that, as a whole it perhaps slips into Androids of Tara territory - fine, but just not particularly brilliant.

What I don't quite know, despite my usual attempts to maintain broadcast-order continuity, is how it would seem as a climax to the season, since I actually watched it first, as big_daz was round shortly after I'd bought the box-set and hadn't seen it for a while. Having watched it again at the end, though, I suspect that this didn't make terribly much difference - except that obviously I knew about the denouement with the Black Guardian at the end all the time I was watching the previous stories. I'm still puzzled about that ending, to be honest, since although the Doctor successfully saves Astra and prevents the Black Guardian from getting his hands on the key, he doesn't do what the White Guardian had originally asked him to do, which is hand it over to him. Are we supposed to understand that he's realised that the White Guardian at the beginning of the first story was a fake, too? Or was the original White Guardian the real thing, but the Doctor has nevertheless suddenly decided now he's actually seen the key that even the White Guardian can't be trusted with it? In either case, of course, the question begged is - why did the Doctor agree to go on the quest in the first place? Which makes the entire season seem a bit pointless, really...



The Key to Time Season
For all that, though, I can see why creating even a rudimentary season-long plot-arc was a good idea for Who at this time. Tom Baker was well settled in by now - indeed, this season marks exactly the point when he out-did any of the previous Doctors for length of service. So playing around with things like a new type of companion and a wider 'plot' make a lot of sense as a way to keep the series fresh - and I think on that level it definitely worked.

Of course, it's not handled in the same way as New Who's plot-arcs. Although the final story does 'up the ante' a little bit via the introduction of the sinister Shadow, there's relative little attempt to build up dramatic tension throughout the season as a whole by dropping hints of a devastating climax from an early stage. And although there is a twist at the end of the story, as I've indicated above it seems rather poorly-thought-out, really. (Oh wait - actually, that's exactly like New Who, isn't it? ;-) )

On the other hand, though, even if the viewers can't have fun spotting clues to the ending, what they can do of course is have fun spotting segments of the key. I felt very pleased with myself by the end of the first episode of The Armageddon Factor, when, after the action had just cut to Princess Astra immediately after the Doctor had mentioned the key for the second time, I turned to Daz and asked whether people could be keys in this universe. (Although of course that's much easier to do in this post-Buffy season five world than it probably was at the time). After that, though, I rather robbed myself of the chance to play along, since the segment in The Ribos Operation was so obviously the Jethrik, and then a documentary about the season as a whole which had been included on that DVD gave away all the others for me before I'd seen the relevant episodes! I don't normally mind spoilers, but in this particular instance - gah! Still, I can see that it would have added an extra dimension to viewing when it was originally broadcast, and doubtless given rise to a lot of very enjoyable speculative conversations in playgrounds and the pub. On the whole, definitely a good move for the series.



The Key to Time Box Set
And, last but not least, it certainly makes for a great box-set, too. Yes, it's expensive (I paid £96 for my second-hand copy), but actually I can say with total conviction that it really is worth it. The packaging is gorgeous, the prints are generally high-quality (with the exception of out-doors scenes shot on video-tape, that are always going to be washed-out and hazy), and the extras are frankly worth the entrance fee entirely on their own. Every single disk has as standard a 'making-of' documentary, an optional 'information text' (i.e. subtitles telling you background info about production, sets, abandoned scenes etc. as you watch), a photo gallery, continuity links from the time, and two commentary tracks, at least one of which always includes both Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. These are absolutely hilarious, as they sit around calling each other 'darling', getting confused about the plots, and, in Tom Baker's case, practically having orgasms every time he hears the theme tune at the start of each episode. Meanwhile, most discs also have deleted scenes, supplementary 'short' documentaries about various related issues (e.g. sound effects, particular people or settings used in the stories), and contemporary chat-show interviews with members of the cast.

But my favourite extra of all has to be a series of short, macabre stories on the theme of childhood, read to camera by Tom Baker under the aegis of a series called Late Night Story. It helps a lot that the stories chosen were very much to my taste (including Saki's Sredni Vashtar) - but even if they hadn't been, his reading was absolutely breath-taking. His voice is famously celebrated, of course, but, even though all he was really doing was sitting in a chair, looking at the camera, the visual element in these episodes added so much more to them. His expressions, his dramatic pauses, and the occasional changes of camera angle really helped to bring out the drama and structure of the stories, and I was completely enraptured by all five of them.


Overall, then, not every story in this season may be amongst the best. But the box-set itself is a very sound investment. And now I do believe it is time for this week's episode of New Who... *big grin*

Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
qatsi
May. 3rd, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
We haven't watched it all yet; though we had some of them on VHS and have watched them all within memory. The Ribos Operation was much better than the Target novelisation, which I always recall as really rather dull; The Pirate Planet was much better than I expected - and if you continue watching the classic series chronologically, I suggest you bear it in mind if you get as far as Castrovalva. The Stones of Blood is by far the best in my opinion - you are quite right about Amelia Rumford. For me, the rest of the season isn't so good: none of them are terrible, but I find The Androids of Tara a bit dull, and the last two just a bit silly.
strange_complex
May. 3rd, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC)
Hmm - actually, I watched Castrovalva back in January, as only the second stop in what has become my Who Odyssey. But I'm not sure I know what you mean about any relationship between it and The Pirate Planet.
qatsi
May. 3rd, 2008 09:55 pm (UTC)
I suppose I just found the courtyard in The Pirate Planet particularly reminiscent, visually and in its attendant claustrophobia, of Castrovalva, nothing deeper than that. (Although I imagine Chris Bidmead and Douglas Adams would be quite capable of mututal self-reference).
strange_complex
May. 3rd, 2008 10:13 pm (UTC)
Ah - yes, I can see what you mean about that, actually.
steer
May. 3rd, 2008 11:53 pm (UTC)
As a continuing thread I rather enjoyed the Key to time stories and I thought you might rather like the feisty elderly academic character in "the stones of blood". I agree with you though that the sequence goes off the rails when the stones get explained.

The Pirate Planet bugged me a little by the villain being a little too over-the-top and "bwahaha... make them walk the plank". Plus, with every Douglas Adams thing, you see which ideas he reuses later and that's so... I don't know. It makes me re-evaluate Douglas Adams when you realise that Hitch Hikers and Dirk Gently were reusing so many other ideas from throughout his writing career.

Kroll does have some of the worst special effects ever. There's a Peter Davidson episode with Silurians which rivals it for sheer awfulness of effects but it's pretty bad.

I think I liked Androids a lot more than you did. The whole "locked room" murder setting quite appealed. However, there is a Doctor Who inevitability that if you're reassured that a robot is harmless then it's bound to kill someone but if it's just taken for granted that the robot is harmless then it is. Still, I thought it was a good episode overall and there were some nice bits. I thought it caught the claustrophobia of the crew stuck on the long mission together rather nicely.

The Armageddon Factor, I didn't really warm to that much but there were some great performances in there.

Overall though a really good sequence of stories and it does make Romana one of my favourite assistants. I think it's the fact that she often manages to get the better of the doctor in exchanges rather than him always being correct.
strange_complex
May. 4th, 2008 01:56 pm (UTC)
I thought the Pirate Captain's melodramatic villainy actually worked quite well, given that it's later revealed he isn't really the main villain after all, but is being manipulated by the nurse / former Queen. That was what made me think of Nero, in fact. I know what you mean about the recycling of ideas, though.

And yes, Romana is ace, especially, as you say, when she (quietly) get the better of the Doctor. I liked the way he kept apparently not listening to her very sensible ideas, and then announcing them himself a few moments later as though he'd just thought of them. It does a lot to show up the blaggard / charlatan in him - which we all, of course, secretly love!
steer
May. 4th, 2008 08:18 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean about him not being the real villain... still.

Most of the Doctor's assistants usually managed to put one over on him at some time or other but usually by superior use of weapons, violence, "feminine intuition"... only Romana and sometimes Liz seemed to get one over by being cleverer -- at least that I can think of.
big_daz
May. 4th, 2008 09:57 am (UTC)
I thought the Professor Rumford character was excellent an'all. Apparently, the actress who played her had been something of a society beauty in her day and this was her last role- she died a few months later.

Apologies for messing up your viewing schedule too- Armageddon Factor is one of the few Who stories I don't have on tape and I hadn't seen it in years. Not that its the best of stories, mind- I think they'd run out of money by the time it was made.
strange_complex
May. 4th, 2008 02:01 pm (UTC)
Ooh, thanks for that link to the Beatrix Lehmann pictures. I'd gathered she was considered something of a treasure from the way the other actors were talking about her on the commentary track - but hadn't actually seen any pictures of her in her younger days. She's become something of a heroine for me, now!

And don't worry at all about the viewing schedule. As I say, I don't think it really mattered having seen The Armageddon Factor first - it's not like it was the final resolution of a whole host of subtle clues and twists, like New Who finales are nowadays. I'm more annoyed about the documentary which blew all the keys for me. And I think you're right about the budget. They'd clearly used most of it up by the time they finished The Pirate Planet, hadn't they?
steer
May. 4th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
That icon reminds me, the new Futurama movie is due out in a month or so isn't it?
strange_complex
May. 4th, 2008 09:40 pm (UTC)
Actually, I didn't even know they were making one! Judging from IMDb and Wikipedia, it's not coming out in cinemas - rather it's a new format they're using for season five. So I guess we'll just see it in due course on TV, or else buy it on DVD.
steer
May. 4th, 2008 10:12 pm (UTC)
I've just been buying them on DVD as they come out. Bender's big score was excellent -- movie length time travel geeky weirdness. (And Leela gets a new love interest but I won't say any more in case of spoilers).
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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