Season 16 (Aug 29 - Sept 10)

August 29: The Ribos Operation Parts One & Two
August 30: The Ribos Operation Parts Three & Four
August 31: The Pirate Planet Parts One & Two
September 1: The Pirate Planet Parts Three & Four
September 2: The Stones of Blood Parts One & Two
September 3: The Stones of Blood Parts Three & Four
September 4: The Androids of Tara Parts One & Two
September 5: The Androids of Tara Parts Three & Four
September 6: The Power of Kroll Parts One & Two
September 7: The Power of Kroll Parts Three & Four
September 8: The Armageddon Factor Parts One & Two
September 9: The Armageddon Factor Parts Three & Four
September 10: The Armageddon Factor Parts Five & Six

August 29: The Ribos Operation Parts One & Two

This season marks something of a bold experiment for the series: long before the BBC Wales version started having overarching themes, season 16 attempted to have an entire season with a single goal in mind.  Each of these six stories deals with the Doctor's efforts to find a segment to the Key to Time, a powerful artifact that can stop everything.

This is all set up in the opening moments of the first story of the season, The Ribos Operation, and there are some great moments just in those first few minutes.  The White Guardian is portrayed as a Southern gentleman, dressed in white and sipping a colorful drink while seated in a large wicker chair.  He's the epitome of calm sophistication, as he describes the Key to the Doctor (who has a visible wound on his lip from an earlier off-screen encounter with a dog) and how he needs it to restore balance to the universe.  "Ah!" the Doctor exclaims.  "You want me to volunteer, isn't that it? ... And if I don't?" "Nothing," the White Guardian replies. "Nothing?  You mean nothing will happen to me?" the Doctor presses.  "Nothing at all.  Ever," the White Guardian says pleasantly.

And so the Doctor is saddled with a quest and a new companion: Romanadvoratrelundar104, a recent graduate from the Time Lord Academy.  Mary Tamm plays her as naturally superior, and her initial back-and-forths with the Doctor are quite entertaining. "I may be inexperienced," she tells the Doctor, "but I did graduate from the Academy with a triple first."  "I suppose you think we should be impressed by that, too?" the Doctor scoffs.  "Well, it's better than scraping through with fifty-one percent at the second attempt," Romana replies haughtily.  "That information is confidential!" the Doctor cries defensively.

Once all this initial Key to Time business is set up, it's time for the main story to get going, and Robert Holmes chooses not to give us an important tale but instead one about con men and deposed rulers.  The main storyline of these two episodes is marvelously whimsical, being unconcerned with the usual threats of universal destruction/dominion.  Instead we get Garron and Unstoffe, two off-world con men trying to sell Ribos to the Graff Vynda-K, the deposed ruler of Levithia, in the manner of those selling, say, the Brooklyn Bridge to unwitting tourists.  Of course, the con men have attempted to sweeten the deal by making the Graff believe that the planet has an unusually high amount of jethryk, the rarest element in the universe.  It's into this attempted con that the Doctor and Romana enter as they're looking for the first segment of the Key to Time, and they end up being the catalyst when the con seems to go wrong, at the end of part two, even though they're trying to stay out of the way and just get on with grabbing that first segment.

It should also be noted how well the world of Ribos is realized on screen.  By choosing to make this an alien planet stuck in its own middle ages ("As yet, they haven't even discovered the telescope," Garron tells the Graff.  "Many of the natives believe that the planet is flat and if they walked far enough they would fall off the edge"), it gives the set designers the ability to create an imaginary world that is nonetheless rooted in history, which leads to an opulence and beauty often missing from more futuristic worlds -- no gleaming bare white walls here.  Someone (either Holmes or the designers -- or both) has also decided to give things a Russian flavor, which means that we also get some slightly unusual design elements that don't appear in more English medieval stories.  The whole thing looks amazing -- and even the fake snow looks convincing for once.

So far we've got a fun, well-written story (of course it's well-written; it's Robert Holmes, isn't it?) that's a joy to look at, and we've got a cast that are taking things seriously, yet clearly having fun while they do so.  These first two episodes are a joy that makes the viewer want to see more.

August 30: The Ribos Operation Parts Three & Four

Part three certainly starts entertainingly, with the Doctor trying to restrain the Graff Vynda-K from striking Garron and receiving a slap across the face with the Graff's glove for his troubles -- which leads the Doctor to indignantly take the glove from the Graff and slap him across the face.  Obviously this doesn't do anything to improve the Graff's mood, and the Doctor, Romana, and Garron are hauled off, to be questioned later.

The Doctor summons K-9 with his whistle while Garron and Romana
look on. (The Ribos Operation Part Three) ©BBC
The rest of this episode is largely complications, but there are some entertaining moments along the way: the scenes between Unstoffe and Binro the Heretic (who controversially believes that the lights in the sky are stars and not ice crystals, among other things) are justly lauded, particularly because of how Holmes allows the story enough time to insert this material.  We could have just as easily gotten some scenes of the Graff's men searching for Unstoffe, but instead we get a quiet, beautiful moment.  And the interaction between the Doctor and Garron is also a lot of fun, as Garron describes how he almost got away with selling Sydney Harbour to an Arab, only to be rumbled when the Arab complained to the government about how Garron refused to throw the Opera House into the bargain. "Doctor," Romana interrupts, "there are men out there planning to kill us, and you're just sitting here chattering!"  "Please don't panic, Romana," the Doctor tells her. "...Listen, when you've faced death as often as I have, this is much more fun."

Then there's the odd inclusion of the Seeker, who seems slightly out of keeping with everything else -- while there's a medieval element obviously present, the sense we get is of a more urban environment that the Seeker doesn't quite fit into.  But, more than that, there's also the manner that the off-worlders keep ridiculing the primitives on Ribos for their superstitious ways -- and yet all of the Seeker's predictions come true.  It's an interesting touch.

Part four is concentrated in the catacombs beneath the city of Shur, as the Graff gets closer to tracking down Unstoffe (and thus his stolen gold, as well as the piece of jethryk).  This is really more business as usual as far as Doctor Who goes -- complete with more Shrivenzales (those slightly-less-than-convincing creatures like we saw in part one) roaming the catacombs.  The most notable part is how, after a cave-in kills most of the Graff's men (including his beloved friend Sholakh), the Graff goes mad and declares revenge on everyone on the planet -- leaving his remaining soldier with an armed grenade so that he can blow himself up.  Then we as the audience hear what the Graff hears: the sounds of battle as he marches forth, clearly mad -- and unaware that the soldier (aka a disguised Doctor) has planted the grenade on him.  The Graff's reign is over, and the Doctor has the jethryk -- in reality the first segment of the Key to Time.  "Only five more to go," the Doctor says at the end.

It's a fun, fast-moving story -- yet it still has quieter moments of charm to help balance things out.  It's not a "big" story, but it is an entertaining one.  Robert Holmes has been given the chance to write a lighter script, and he's delivered in spades.  It doesn't hurt that the cast all seem to be having a good time; the only person who seems slightly out of their depth is Mary Tamm, who occasionally sounds a bit stiff -- but this could just be characterization (since Romana is also meant to be rather austere and stiff).  If the rest of the season is up to The Ribos Operation's standards, we'll be in for quite a good season indeed.

August 31: The Pirate Planet Parts One & Two

Hey, it's my friend Jason's birthday!  Happy birthday, fellow Who enthusiast!  There are certainly worse ways to celebrate than the first two parts of The Pirate Planet.

So there have been moments here and there, but in general the majority of stories recently have been more concerned with serious threats and dangerous situations, with bits of levity thrown in.  But this story, much like The Ribos Operation right before it, is much more interested in being fun first and dangerous second.

Note that's "fun", not "funny".  While there are some jokes and humorous situations scattered throughout (as one might expect from author Douglas Adams -- arguably the most famous writer to work on the show), the cast generally aren't treating this like a comedy.  Well, Tom Baker might be, but as his performance here in indistinguishable from surrounding stories it's hard to tell (and as we'll see in part three, he does know when to let that carefree mask drop).  But Bruce Purchase, as the Captain, doesn't seem to be, even if he is chewing up the scenery -- there's the scene where he talks tenderly to his parrot that suggests the bravado is a cover, and the Doctor notes in part two that he and Romana are in great danger from the Captain. "What, from the Captain?" Romana says. "Oh, he's just a terrible old bully.  All that 'by the evil nose of the sky demon' nonsense is just bluster."  "The Captain is a very clever and very dangerous man.  He's playing with us," the Doctor replies seriously.

But nevertheless, fun is still the order of the day for these two episodes, and as a result we're presented with an hour of highly entertaining television.  The stuff about how to fly the TARDIS is nice (and gives us an in-universe explanation for Tom Baker's mouth wound) and the way Romana can get the native Zanakians (Zanakans?  Zanakese?  Zanish?) to chat with her while the Doctor continually fails also brings a smile to the face.  Plus the Doctor's entrance onto Zanak's bridge is great stuff.  And while the Captain is full of bellowing bluster, it's still entertaining bluster, with many creative phrases.  Yes, there are occasional missteps ("I'll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again", the Guard Captain waving goodbye to his departing aircar), but these are more than made up for by the surrounding material.

And beneath the layer of fun is a fabulous SF concept: as we learn at the end of part two, Zanak is a hollow planet that teleports across the galaxy around other planets and exploits all the mineral wealth and energy from the captive planet.  "Romana," the Doctor says urgently, "we've stumbled on one of the most heinous crimes ever committed in this galaxy."  It's an impressive and fascinating idea, and it will be interesting to see what the next two episodes do with it.  Well, so long as our heroes can escape the clutches of the Mentiads...

September 1: The Pirate Planet Parts Three & Four

Of course, the Mentiads are on the Doctor's side, so it turns out he wasn't in any real danger.  This means we get a chance to get a bunch of exposition about what's going on: why the Mentiads grow in strength every time Zanak plunders another world, and who Queen Xanxia was and why the Captain was able to take over so easily (basically, Xanxia left Zanak in ruins and easy to conquer).  And there's the memorable scene inside the Captain's trophy room, as he explains to the Doctor how he's created a feat of gravitational perfection by having all the superdense remains balanced against each other, so that they don't immediately collapse into a black hole.
DOCTOR:'s the most brilliant piece of astro-gravitational engineering I've ever seen.  The concept is simply staggering.  Pointless, but staggering.
CAPTAIN: I'm gratified that you appreciate it.
DOCTOR: Appreciate it?  Appreciate it?!  What, you commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it?  Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets–
CAPTAIN: Devil storms, Doctor!  It is not a toy!
DOCTOR: Then what's it for?!  Huh?  What are you doing?  What could possibly be worth all this?
It's a fabulous performance from Tom Baker, who usually portrays the Doctor as in command of the situation and largely unaffected by events around him (see, for instance, his behavior not long before this scene, where he's chained up to a pillar but still manages to be in complete control: "You don't want to take over the universe, do you?  No.  You wouldn't know what to do with it.  Beyond shout at it") but here, his sheer horror at the situation bubbles over into the shocked outrage we see here.

The Nurse, the Captain, and Mr. Fibuli look as the Doctor produces
the destroyed Polyphase Avatron. (The Pirate Planet Part Three) ©BBC
And part three also features the fight between K-9 and the Captain's Polyphase Avatron (aka robot parrot), in a bizarre yet entertaining fight.  K-9 keeps blasting up while the Avatron flies around pooping death on everything.  Of course K-9 wins, but it's still entertaining to watch.  Plus it leads to the discovery by the Doctor and Kimus of Queen Xanxia, trapped in her last few seconds of life while giant time dams have been constructed to prolong those seconds as long as possible.

But as good as part three is, it's really the cliffhanger that shines, both in its execution and in its resolution in part four, as we learn that the Doctor has not actually walked the plank to his death, but rather a projection.  This little bit of trickery changes what we thought we knew about the motivations: we thought the Captain was power-mad for some reason, but it's actually his nurse (who didn't even appear in part one) who's been pulling the strings: she's a projection of Queen Xanxia, attempting to rule Zanak forever.  Everything after this just involves trying to stop her -- entertaining to watch (and touching too, in the case of the Captain's reaction to Mr. Fibuli's death), but there are no new twists in the tale.  The Doctor is able to stop Zanak from moving on and Xanxia is defeated.  Oh, and it turns out that the entire planet of Calufrax was the second segment of the Key to Time, which they apparently recover from the vortex.

It's an immensely clever tale, with quite a lot of plot running through these four episodes.  This does occasionally mean that The Pirate Planet has exposition scenes where the Doctor and Romana have to explain the plot to the Mentiads/Kimus/Mula/each other, but honestly it's difficult to mind much.  The inventiveness on display, combined with the coating of fun that these episodes have, makes The Pirate Planet a very satisfying story to watch.

September 2: The Stones of Blood Parts One & Two

It's the 100th story for Doctor Who, as well as being broadcast near the show's fifteenth anniversary.  That's quite the milestone to reach, but nevertheless it's business as usual for everyone here.105  And so these two episodes present the last stab at horror for 70s Doctor Who -- this time with Druids and Druid sacrifices.

The only problem is that the show has already run into problems with showing things that have deemed too scary for younger viewers, and so this is a horror story that's had all the terror taken out of it.  It's about as spooky as a dirty tea cup, and whether it's by accident or by design, the cast seem much more invested in the fun aspects of these episodes than the scary ones.  Witness, for example, the (admittedly rather wonderful) discussion between the Doctor and Leonard de Vries of the three missing paintings, where they regard each blank space where a painting used to be in turn, talking about the subjects that were portrayed in each.  Tom Baker and Nicholas McArdle seem far more engaged in this scene than in the one where de Vries is preparing to sacrifice the Doctor to the Cailleach, which feels like it's being played more for laughs than with any serious intent (at least from Tom Baker's point-of-view).  And even the idea of the Cailleach posing as the Doctor in order to try and kill Romana has been softened to avoid upsetting viewers -- so now we just get an off-screen voice and Romana telling us about it afterwards (once she's decided to trust the Doctor again).

All that said, there are some good moments here.  The use of the crows is really good, and the screen lights up any time Beatrix Lehmann is on it as Professor Amelia Rumford -- while Susan Engel also does a good job as Vivien Fay and is a good choice as the true villain of the piece (even if those three separate paintings of her are clearly all painted by the same artist).  And you can't help but wonder what the relationship between de Vries and Martha is: how close were they?  Did they go to school together?  Has she been supporting him all these years, perhaps out of a sense of love?  Oh, and the decision to shoot everything on video also lends the proceedings a welcome sense of visual uniformity.  And I don't even mind the moving killer stones that much (even if there's no way they left those indentations in the ground near the TARDIS).

But despite the good moments, this simply isn't engaging enough to maintain interest.  The neutering of any real threat in these two episodes leaves them without anything substantial to fill the void, and the net result feels like an hour of running around, rather than anything of note.  It's an entertaining enough run-around, but it's also a lightweight one.

September 3: The Stones of Blood Parts Three & Four

Part three, it must be noted, is a somewhat awkward blend of horror and "space" (for lack of a better term describing the more futuristic, gleaming white walls approach).  While the script still wants to throw in some scares here and there (most memorably with the Ogri killing the two campers, which is a very effective moment), the production itself seems more comfortable dealing with the SF aspects: they certainly seem far more confident and self-assured when screwing around making a hyperspace portal device and discussing Einstein's theory of special relativity than they did talking about Celtic goddesses and Druid sacrifices.  Meanwhile, the actual hyperspace ship itself is also a nice model, and it's kind of fun to see a couple old monster costumes in the cells.106  The cliffhanger is incredibly lame, though: oh no, the Doctor and Romana are trapped on the hyperspace ship.

Romana and Professor Rumford prepare the repaired hyperspace
projector while K-9 stands guard. (The Stones of Blood Part Four)
Part four is probably the most entertaining episode: it certainly seems to be the one where Tom Baker perks up.  Donning a barrister's wig, he seems to be in his element as he defends himself against the Megara, the justice machines that he set free in the last episode who now want to execute him for releasing them without authorization.  The Megara, as an effect, are nicely realized, and the concept of a completely unyielding sense of justice is frustrating and scary in its own way, seeing how it taps into that sense we all have of no one listening to the important things we have to say.  And there are some comic moments too: "I am Vivien Fay of Rose Cottage, Boscawen," says the silver-skinned woman on the hyperspace ship.  "Ask anyone in Boscawen, they will identify me."  It takes some trickery to get the Megara to finally scan Miss Fay and verify that she is in fact a criminal who's been posing as a Celtic goddess for the last 4000 years, but they get there in the end -- thanks to the Doctor grabbing Miss Fay's hand at the moment of his execution, thus preventing the Megara from using the full strength of the deadly beam (I think; it's a bit confused what's going on) and then needing to scan her brain to make sure she's all right.  Of course, this means that Romana is too late with her own evidence proving Miss Fay isn't human: "Stop! I have new evidence," Romana cries.  "Too late. I've just been executed," the Doctor replies.

And so sentence is carried out on Vivian Fay (in reality Cessair of Diplos), as she's turned to stone -- though not before the Doctor grabs the Great Seal of Diplos (aka the third segment) from around her neck.  With Cessair taken care of and the Megara sent back to their hyperspace ship before they can successfully execute the Doctor, our heroes are free to continue their quest for the Key to Time.

It's only been a season since the show was content to scare the viewers with tales of horror and death, but Doctor Who has now become completely uninterested in trying to make terrifying monsters and dark, brooding situations.  There's been a growing sense for a little while now that Tom Baker is more interested in romping across the screen and having a good time than he is in scaring the kiddies, and this is the story where it becomes clear that the production team agrees with him.  The difference in quality and commitment between the two styles The Stones of Blood tries to pull off is rather striking.  This is thus the crossroads between the Gothic horror of Hinchcliffe's producership and the whimsical SF of Williams's: from here on out, the rest of the 70s are going to see the programme move further and further into the "light entertainment" category of television shows.

September 4: The Androids of Tara Parts One & Two

There might not be a Doctor Who story that is better described by the word "charming" than The Androids of Tara.  From the moment it begins, there's a sense of cheerful effortlessness that pervades the entire piece.  Compare, for instance, the chess game here with the one in The Sun Makers: the Doctor is still losing here, but he seems far less aggrieved about it than he did last season.

There's also something marvelous how David Fisher (who, as the author of both this and The Stones of Blood, becomes the third writer credited with back-to-back stories) chooses to deal with the fourth segment of the Key to Time almost immediately, by having Romana locate it in the first ten minutes of the story while the Doctor's off fishing.  Of course, this is also the moment where the infamous Taran Wood Beast appears.  There are a number of stories that have a token monster to (presumably) keep the kids happy (The Talons of Weng-Chiang, The Caves of Androzani, and Ghost Light spring to mind), in which said monster is actually quite decent but still receives criticism from fandom just because it's in the story at all.  While the Taran Wood Beast is another token monster, it deserves all the criticism it gets; it's clearly a man in a fur suit with an appallingly poor mask to complete the ensemble.  Surely they could have spent a little time on that face?

But other than this brief blip, it's a delight all the way, as Romana is captured by the wonderfully villainous Count Grendel (who makes no attempt to hide his ambitions but doesn't insist on being a vile and twisted man as well), while the Doctor is grabbed (at electrified swordpoint -- "Do you mind not standing on my chest?  My hat's on fire," the Doctor tells his assailant) by the other side: those working for Prince Reynart, who establishes himself as the obvious "goodie" of the story -- note the way in which he accepts the Doctor's word with a smile on his face, to show that he's a just and reasonable man.  And since the Doctor knows about technology and the Prince and his men don't -- knowledge of such things being a peasant skill (one wonders if Fisher is making a sly comment on the sorts of upper class people who, say, don't know how their car works, just that they need to call a mechanic when it breaks down) -- Reynart knows that the Doctor will be useful in helping him being crowned king, thanks to an android replica of the Prince.  There's also some stuff about how Romana is a very close lookalike for the Princess Strella, and so Grendel at first thinks she's an android and then decides he'll use the resemblance to his advantage.  It's all pleasingly entertaining.

Obviously complications are introduced in part two, with Reynart being kidnapped by the Count and the Doctor having to use the android to fool everyone at the coronation, but this same feeling of charm runs through these events as well, and you can't help but smile as they happen.  It's a well-balanced tale so far, and everyone in the cast seems to be having a good time making this -- there's not a misjudged performance among them.  If things continue like this, The Androids of Tara will be a winner.

September 5: The Androids of Tara Parts Three & Four

Happily, these two episodes are just as wonderful as the first two.  The third episode is primarily concerned with a deal between the Doctor and Count Grendel to get Romana back.  The Doctor, naturally, suspects a trap ("They always want you to go alone when you're walking into a trap, have you noticed that?"), and the Count doesn't plan to disappoint him.  But his villainy is so satisfying -- making an android assassin version of Romana and willfully stringing along his assistant, Lamia (who is hopelessly in love with him) -- that it's genuinely distressing when Lamia is accidentally shot down by the Count's men, as it seems cruel and unexpected rather than just desserts.

Zadek and the android King, along with the Doctor, listen to what
Count Grendel has to say. (The Androids of Tara Part Three) ©BBC
Of course, these two episodes also highlight the continuing shift in Tom Baker's performance, to make the Doctor less serious than before.  The third episode has the scene where the Doctor exits the little house where the exchange for Romana is to take place after the Count tells him that he has "my word as a Gracht you will not be harmed," only to be shot at by the guards' men, whereupon he ducks back inside, sticks his head back out to yell, "Liar!" and then ducks back in.  It's a fun scene, but it does require us to take the Doctor as a more comic figure than before.  There's also the start of the swordfight between the Doctor and Grendel at the end of part four, which has more clowning from the Doctor -- he might be doing it deliberately to provoke Count Grendel, but it still looks like Tom's not taking things seriously.

But honestly, those are minor complaints, and it helps enormously that this is the sort of story where such behavior fits in: the Doctor is playing the role of the charming hero, and so his actions are broadly in the same vein.  And that climactic swordfight, once it gets going, is one of the best we've seen on the whole series so far; it has an energy and drive that a lot of swordfights on the show have lacked (due, presumably, to safety concerns), and it helps that it's recognizably Tom Baker (and not, say, Terry Walsh) for a lot of it -- it gives it that sense of verisimilitude.

The whole story is really one whole bright and charming tale, full of life and fun.  It's also nice to have a story with such "slight" stakes: only one kingdom is at stake.  Yes, obviously it's a take on The Prisoner of Zenda, but it's done with such style that it's hard to care -- and it's not like Doctor Who hasn't plundered other sources for stories before.  It's not an Important tale, and there are a couple duff moments here and there, but overall The Androids of Tara is a breezy, entertaining yarn.

September 6: The Power of Kroll Parts One & Two

Poor Norman Stewart; first he's tasked with directing Underworld, and now this.  He does the best he can with what he's given, but the problem seems deeper than what he can do.

No, the main mystery with this is why Robert Holmes, a man who worked on the production side of things and was around for stories like Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Robot, was unable/unwilling to convince Graham Williams and script editor Anthony Read that a story about a giant monster was a bad idea.  But no, instead we get a story with gun-running rogues, green natives, and a truly gigantic squid (the realization of which in part two is a hell of a lot better on the picture-stabilized DVD than on the original).

To be perfectly honest, though, these first two episodes aren't that bad.  All the swamps and high reeds do make this looks like an alien moon, and it's nice to have one that's not in a quarry.  And Tom Baker seems a bit more reined in on these two episodes (slipping cups of liquid into his pocket aside), which does sell the threat a bit more.  And the green makeup on the native "Swampies" is surprisingly effective.  And somehow, they've managed to put together a top-notch cast, with Philip Madoc, Neil McCarthy, and Glyn Owen.  They've even gotten John Abineri as Ranquin, the leader of the Swampies.  This is a talented cast, to be sure.  The problem, though, is that these two episodes are a bit dull.  There's some stuff about sending guns to the Swampies that looks like it was meant to both give the Earth colonists a reason to kill them all and discredit a troublesome organization at the same time, but it's handled in such a way that it's difficult to care.  The scenes in the methane refinery are slightly more interesting, but they're just tracking the strange movements on the sea bed that turn out to be Kroll, a gigantic squid who happens to be waking up after a 200 year slumber -- there's little else going on.  Really, it's only the scenes with the Doctor that are really watchable, and he spends a good deal of time being captured.

Any good bits?  The Kroll monster costume that turns out to deliberately be a costume is a nice touch, and the model of Kroll is actually rather good -- it's simply the mix between the effect and the film that doesn't work (and even if the cameraman hadn't physically masked off the top of the shot while shooting, thus making a very obvious straight line across the screen, it's unlikely this would have really worked).  And it's nice to actually get to see John Leeson, the voice of K-9, for a change.

Like I said, the worst thing about these two episodes is just that they're a bit dull -- even the usually reliable Philip Madoc seems to have trouble delivering lines in an interested manner.  But the cliffhanger to part two, where a rather unconvincing rubber tentacle breaks through a pipe and pulls one of the refinery workers inside, might be a worrying sign of things to come...

September 7: The Power of Kroll Parts Three & Four

Kroll emerges to destroy the Swampies' settlement. (The Power
of Kroll
Part Three) ©BBC
Actually, these episodes are better than I had remembered them being.  That's not to say that they're undiscovered classics or anything, and part three is definitely the weaker of the two, but they still manage to remain entertaining for the duration.

But man, that join between sky and swamp...

As I said, part three isn't so great, due in no small part to the fact that the Doctor, Romana, and Rohm-Dutt the gunrunner spend most of it being slowly stretched to death as a ritual sacrifice to Kroll.  There are a few moments of fun to be found (such as Romana's exasperation at the Doctor's reaction to their impending demise), but the resolution (giving the Doctor a heretofore unknown superpower of high-pitched screaming that can shatter glass) comes out of left field and is thus rather unsatisfying.

But the emergence of Kroll, join aside, is rather good, and the shot of Rohm-Dutt being dragged away by a tentacle is far better than it has any right to be.  The cliffhanger is rather odd, though, as it hinges on us caring about a nameless Swampie being dragged under the waters of the swamp.  Unless it's simply supposed to represent that Kroll is on the hunt?

Part four has quite a bit going on.  Some of the Kroll shots are better than others -- the one where it's jabbing its tentacles through the shrubbery wall is surprisingly effective.  Meanwhile, Thawn, the leader of the refinery, appears to have gone mad, since he doesn't seem to care about the thought of wiping out the Swampies (and possibly the refinery itself) in his pursuit of destroying Kroll.  He's even willing to kill John Leeson's character to achieve his goals.  This means that things have been accelerated to a fever pitch, and so it's quite exciting when everyone turns up in the refinery for the story's final act.  Ranquin is killed by his god, Thawn is killed by the Swampies, and the Doctor's decisions, first to sabotage the orbital shot that Thawn intends to use to kill Kroll, and then to head out to face Kroll armed with the tracer (he has a theory that the Symbol of Power that Kroll swallowed 200 years ago is the Fifth Segment of the Key to Time) are treated surprisingly somberly.  The latter choice in particular is one that Tom Baker chooses to play very straight.  "Here," he says, giving his scarf to Romana.  "Where are you going?" she asks him.  "To test a theory," the Doctor replies.  " All theories have to be tested some time, and this seems as good as any.  You stay here in case I'm wrong."

Ranquin prays to his god. (The Power of Kroll Part Four) ©BBC
I also don't find I really mind the bit of danger after Kroll is defeated, where the orbital shot is going to go off on automatic and can't be shut down.  Yes, it looks like blatant padding, but it's blatant padding with Philip Madoc at the helm, so it remains highly watchable anyway.

Unless The Armageddon Factor ends up being significantly worse than I remember it being, The Power of Kroll will still end up being the weakest story of season 16.  But other than a bad choice regarding the masking of the camera, the effects of this story are better than I remembered them being.  The Kroll model itself is nicely done (and the shots of it attacking the refinery are pretty good), and the scenes of its tentacles aren't too bad either; in fact, the close-ups of its body as the Doctor goes out to face it with the tracer are surprisingly good.  The worst thing about this story is that it's a bit dull; there's too much focus on the Swampies (who look great but are rather more questionable as characters) at the beginning and the refinery plot remains too unconnected to everything else for too long.  But it does manage to bring things together in a reasonably satisfying way at the end, which is more than can be said for a number of other stories.  It's not the best, but it's better than its reputation.

September 8: The Armageddon Factor Parts One & Two

Five hundred episodes!  That's quite a milestone that The Armageddon Factor Part One has reached.  And it's also my anniversary, which is a different kind of milestone and rather harder to tie in with this story.  I guess there's that couple at the beginning ("Men out there, young men, are dying for it")?  No?  I guess not.

This is another one of those stories that gets a rough ride from fandom, but -- at least on the basis of these first two episodes -- it's hard to see why.  It's no worse than anything else we've seen under Graham Williams's producership, and there's quite a lot to enjoy here.  The propaganda video is honestly a nice touch, juxtaposed as it is with the scenes of despair and destruction we see in the makeshift hospital on Atrios.  I also like the iridescent quality of the braids and such on the Atrian costumes.  I'm less convinced about using an office chair as the Marshal's seat of power though.

See, the thing is that these episodes are structured quite well, and no one really lets down the side on the acting front; people often deride Davyd Harries, but here, at least, he's quite pleasantly understated.  The worst of them is probably Ian Saynor as Merak, and that's only because the script needs him to be all moony over Princess Astra.  And this is probably Mary Tamm's best performance as Romana, as she's finally figured out how to deliver the exposition lines in a way that sounds natural (a problem that she was having in earlier stories).  Plus there's a lot of fun to be had with John Woodvine's performance as the seemingly possessed Marshal of Atrios, constantly fingering his neck and prone to sudden, irrational mood swings.

It's got a decent set design, a good cast, and a reasonable script (well, except for the second cliffhanger, where the Doctor suspects he's walking into a trap and then seems surprised when the trap is sprung).  It's not going out of its way to impress anyone, but so far The Armageddon Factor is a solid, entertaining story.

September 9: The Armageddon Factor Parts Three & Four

The action shifts in these two episodes from Atrios to Zeos, as we see what the other side has been getting up to.  Well, I say "the other side", but it seems there's a third party involved, a tall, dark, emaciated figure called the Shadow who wants the Doctor to hand over the first five segments of the Key to Time.  But he seems to believe the Doctor will make a mistake and so leaves him be to explore Zeos.

K-9, the Doctor, and Romana in Mentalis's computer room. (The
Armageddon Factor
Part Three) ©BBC
There's a lot of corridor wandering in these two episodes, but in part three, at least, I find I don't mind too much, as there's enough to sustain interest.  The stuff with K-9 and Mentalis, the Zeon computer, is a lot of fun -- particularly K-9's pleasure at encountering another computer and his slight exasperation with all the organics he has to deal with; K-9 often comes across as a mobile plot-solver-cum-weapons-platform, so it's nice to see him get some characterization.  And while Davyd Harries is starting to get a little looser with his portrayal of Shapp, I still don't really mind it.  He's leagues ahead of the characterization of Merak, who seems so focused on Princess Astra to the exclusion of everything else that he comes across as unbelievably wet and annoying.  Mind, even the Doctor (or is it Tom Baker?) seems irritated with him, as he snaps at him near the end of part three.  The cliffhanger to part three, by the way, gives us our best ever look at Doctor Who's standard monster actor Pat Gorman, who here is the Marshal's copilot.

It does start to sag a bit in part four, though.  The best part involves the Doctor constructing a temporary sixth segment to hold the Universe in check long enough for the Doctor and Romana to stop the impending Armageddon from both the Marshal (who's preparing to blast Zeos out of the sky) and Mentalis (which is prepared to destroy both planets if an attack gets through).  The idea of the time loop affecting the Marshal's ship and the Zeon computer room, and how the time loop is slowly stretching as the makeshift sixth segment burns out, is clever (even if it isn't incredibly original).  The stuff with Princess Astra and Merak, on the other hand, is rather dreary -- Astra may be possessed, but this seems to be an excuse for some rather theatrical acting.  And at this point in the story it's hard to care about the Shadow, as all he's doing is lurking sinisterly -- he's not really putting many plans into motion.  Still, it's one of the better cliffhangers, as it's rather unsettling to hear K-9 refer to the Shadow as "Master" -- and the Shadow is more than happy to laugh maniacally as the credits roll...

September 10: The Armageddon Factor Parts Five & Six

Apparently I had lowered expectations going into these last two parts: I had a memory that the Drax bits were too jokey and that the very end wasn't very good.  It was therefore nice to be pleasantly surprised.  These two episodes hold up quite well.

But yes, if the first two episodes were primarily on Atrios, and the second pair on Zeos, then these final two are set on the Shadow's world (what the Doctor calls the planet of evil but which looks more like a space station, at least from the model shots).  There's a sense of trying to disorient the Doctor (and therefore the viewer) by providing fake voices and multiple visions of Romana, but it doesn't quite come off.  And as it turns out, it doesn't last too long either, as the Doctor counters fellow Time Lord Drax, who refers to the Doctor as "Theta Sigma".  As About Time mentions, it really does feel, given Bob Baker & Dave Martin's history of naming Time Lord characters after Greek letters (Omega), that they're revealing the Doctor's real name after all these years.  (Fortunately (since Theta Sigma is a dumb name) The Happiness Patrol will retcon this as a nickname.)  The Drax bits are quite entertaining, and I like how the Doctor rumbles his game almost immediately -- which means we don't have to worry about Drax betraying the Doctor at a crucial moment.  Mind, part five's cliffhanger makes it look that way...

All the shrunken stuff in part six is okay, but this episode is really about trying to obtain the complete Key and stop the Shadow from handing it over to the Black Guardian, and doing so before time runs out on the time loop and Atrios and Zeos annihilate each other.  This does give things some welcome tension, and while the events themselves aren't the most exciting (it's basically about the Shadow getting the first five segments, turning Princess Astra into the sixth, and having the Doctor and Drax infiltrate the Shadow's main chamber via K-9), that time pressure makes you wonder if they're going to achieve everything in time.

The Doctor commands the completed Key to Time while Romana
looks on. (The Armageddon Factor Part Six) ©BBC
The very end of the episode is a bit problematic.  The bit where the Doctor pretends to have gone mad with absolute power doesn't really work (although one wonders if it would have been more successful if Dudley Simpson had put some dramatic music over the scene), and there's a bit of a sense of "that's it?" at the end.  Yes, the Key to Time was completed, but the Doctor is never seen to hand it over to the White Guardian, choosing instead to rescatter the pieces across the universe (which brings Princess Astra back, who tenderly looks at an injured Merak -- except I'm so heartily sick of Merak by this point that the scene doesn't have the impact I suspect they were going for).  It's a bit anticlimactic for a season-long arc, and while there are theories to account for this (one is that the Guardian in The Ribos Operation was in fact the Black Guardian in disguise, and that the Universe wasn't actually in grave danger; this appears to have been the view that the production team took -- at least according to interviews with Bob Baker), the problem is that none of those theories show up on screen, which does leave an unfinished feeling at the end.  (Oh, and speaking of unfinished business... what actually happened to all the Zeons?  Did they die early on?  Are they all in hiding on another part of Zeos?  We never find out.)

Still, this only happens at the end, and before that The Armageddon Factor is a surprisingly entertaining story.  There's a feel of an epic here in Bob Baker & Dave Martin's final story for the series (and as it turns out, the last six-parter as well107), and even if what we get on screen doesn't quite match the effort, there's still plenty here to engage with.  It's also nice to have a story that's actually largely about the Key to Time, as opposed to the other five stories this season, which treat the Key as an incident along the way.  Making the Key the focus helps with that epic feeling.  It's not perfect, but The Armageddon Factor is a damn sight better than its reputation would have you believe.

Season 16 was, of course, the first season of Doctor Who to have a linking theme for all the stories.  As an experiment I would say it was a qualified success.  Certainly having a specific season-long goal gives the stories an impetus that contributes to the feeling of something monumental going on.  Of course, the fact that these six stories often only have a passing familiarity with the Key to Time as they go on to tell their own tales (The Androids of Tara in particular) does lessen the impact somewhat, but I found I didn't mind.  It's only at the very end that things disappoint, and as that's something that could have been solved with an extra line or two of dialogue it's not that frustrating an ending.  The production issues behind the scenes (essentially, linking six stories means you can't switch the running order around any, which causes problems when one of the stories is having troubles) meant that they were unlikely to try this again, but in general the Key to Time season works more often than it doesn't.

Of course, the other thing to note about this season is how uninterested it is in being scary.  The one story that half-attempts this (The Stones of Blood, if you've forgotten) seems incredibly uncommitted to making things terrifying.  This is a season far more interested in space stories and in romping about and having a good time.  This obviously suits Tom Baker just fine, as he seems far happier being invincible and having fun than in being dark and brooding.  But the issue this causes is that the focus of the show is now squarely on the lead actor's shoulders.  Doctor Who, at this point in time, is no longer interested in exploring strange environments and presenting striking, often scary, imagery; now it's all about watching the Doctor and Romana romp through the action and being generally invincible -- content to make jokes at the baddies rather than look worried (which, to be fair, isn't the worst lesson in the world).  It works as well as it does because, frankly, Tom Baker is incredibly entertaining to watch, but there's a sense that there's only so much more of this the programme can take and still remain viable.  Doctor Who has essentially become a light entertainment show, something safe and comfortable; we're a long way away from its beginnings.


104 Well, that's what we're always told it is, but Mary Tamm repeatedly pronounces it as "Romanadvoratnelundar".
105 Actually, the cast and crew realized at some point that this was going to be the show's 100th story, so a scene was inserted where Romana and K-9 present the Doctor with a surprise birthday cake and a new scarf for his 751st birthday; however, producer Graham Williams nixed this scene on the (sensible) grounds that it was too self-indulgent.
106 Entertainingly/bizarrely (delete according to preference), the half-second shot of a dead Wirrn is enough for Wikipedia to count this as a "Wirrn story" in their template at the bottom of this story's entry.  No love for the Kraal android, though.
107 Allowing for the fact that The Two Doctors (and, sort of, "Utopia"/"The Sound of Drums"/"Last of the Time Lords") is essentially a six-part story masquerading as a three-parter.