|This is how it ends. Voratrelundar flirting with herself.|
True love at last.
It’s January 20th, 1979. The Village People remain at #1 with “YMCA.” One week later they’re unseated by Ian and the Blockheads’ “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick,” which I assume, especially based on what else is popular, is sort of like Lady Gaga’s Disco Stick. That’s all over in a week as Blondie hits number one with “Heart of Glass,” which, I mean, good for Blondie, but it’s one of the most brazen selling outs of any talented musician ever. But it still sees out the season. Oliva Newton-John, Funkadelic, Chaka Khan, ABBA, Leif Garrett, The Bee Gees, Elvis Costello, and Gloria Gaynor all also chart.
In real news, now is the winter of our discontent, but we’ll do that on Friday. Lesser news includes Brenda Ann Spencer opening fire on a school in San Diego because of her dislike of Mondays. Patty Hearst is released from prison on the same day that Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Tehran from exile, which just about sums up the Carter administration. Ten days later Khomeini takes power in Iran, leading to nothing but sunshine and bunnies for decades to come. Pluto nips inside Neptune’s orbit to let Neptune become the outermost planet. This remains so until 1999, at which point Pluto becomes the outermost planet again. Neptune, of course, is horribly jealous about this and plots political moves to retake the position more permanently, but that’s more a Tennant-era story. It snows in the Sahara Desert for half an hour, China invades Vietnam, and St. Lucia becomes independent from the UK.
While on television, the Key to Time concludes with neither a bang nor a whimper. But before we look too far at that, let’s take a step back and look at the arc as a whole one more time, and more generally at the Williams era to date. The central critical dilemma with the Williams era is straightforward enough: is it a witty and lively postmodern rendition of the tropes of science fiction, or is it just a bunch of cynical hacks mocking the show they’re supposed to be making?
Both of these, of course, overstate their case. The former, admittedly, is not nearly as impishly brilliant as Gareth Roberts’ summary of that case as viewing the era as “an artefact of postmodern forces combining to produce works of semiotic thickness through usage of meta-textual signifiers.” The latter, on the other hand, might actually be too nice. The same Roberts piece provides a damning account of the practical origins of the anti-Williams camp.
Not to leaf too many pages ahead, but there are only five more transmitted stories in the Williams era after this one. After that begins the nine-season tenure of John Nathan-Turner as producer – a tenure that defies easy classification as a single era. Nathan-Turner’s contributions to the program are far too complex to square away in what amounts to an introductory note. But one of the more sickening aspects of the era is the way in which Nathan-Turner presented himself as providing a glorious rebirth for the show and unabashedly threw Williams – his previous employer, keep in mind – under the bus to do it.
To fully understand this, however, one has to also understand what we may as well call the fan-industrial complex that started to be created in the Nathan-Turner era. Again, we’ll deal with the contours of this more specifically in future entries, but one thing that happened under Nathan-Turner was that the show overtly refocused on courting its more obsessive fans. One hallmark of this was the retaining of Ian Levine, a particularly high profile fan, as an unofficial advisor for the program. The result is spectacles like those described by Roberts – fanzines that include a dartboard of Graham Williams alongside a positive review of Timeflight, and a guidebook to the famous Longleat convention in which Ian Levine savages the Williams era before praising “the new golden age” that he’s quietly moonlighting for. Meanwhile, Saward, the current script editor, accused the Williams era of insulting the audience while Nathan-Turner talked up how he had fixed and improved the program.
This is something that any critical assessment of the Williams era simply has to come to terms with. The bulk of the arguments against Williams came out of a period where fandom had a badly incestuous relationship with the people making the program and where the people making the program had an active interest in marginalizing their predecessors. It’s nearly impossible to look at this raft of criticism and not be slightly sickened by it. (The hit jobs on Nathan-Turner, of course, will eventually become equally indefensible, but if I’m refusing to do 1983 in this entry, I’m sure as hell not doing 1987.)
If nothing else, then, we need to, in looking at the Williams era, make sure that we distinguish between pissing off a set of Doctor Who fans who were doing official and quasi-official publications in the 80s and actually being bad. Though they’re deeply imperfect numbers, it’s worth turning to the AI figures here. For those unaware of how British ratings work, in addition to getting audience figures British ratings have an “appreciation index,” which basically polls a chunk of the audience to ask if they liked the program. These numbers are, of course, imperfect, measuring only an immediate reaction as opposed to any larger critical judgment. They are also sporadic – for some seasons in question we have only eight datapoints. And there’s a further trend whereby the numbers improve in general over time, making it difficult to use AI to compare different eras.
That said, the average AI for Hinchcliffe’s last season was 59. Williams’s three seasons got 62, 64, and 65 respectively. John Nathan-Turner’s first season got 63. So clearly whatever one might say about the Williams era, suggesting that it is in some way obviously bad is a stretch. The obvious counter-argument here is that popularity isn’t equivalent to quality, but frankly, that’s just not true. Popularity is unambiguously equivalent to quality. It’s just not the only form of quality, nor is it necessarily the best form of quality.
So it’s clear enough that the audience at large didn’t feel disrespected by the Williams era and didn’t view it as a cratering failure compared with the eras on either side. This alone is grounds to moderate any criticism of the era. But all we’ve done here is avoid the most savage criticisms of the era. That doesn’t mean we have to like it. I mean, the Letts era was popular and is even quite beloved by fans, unlike the relatively contentious Williams era. But in many ways it came up short on the blog.
Actually, the Letts era is in many ways an apt comparison. Both the Williams era and the Letts era suffer largely from the fact that it’s not entirely clear everyone involved is making the same show. But where the Letts era had two competing aesthetics – glam rock pastiche and serious minded military action – the Williams era runs into the problem where it’s never quite clear whether the show is engaged in good-natured satire that’s aware of its own technical limitations or whether it’s just given up on the idea that it can possibly be good and is just being bitter about it. Or, to put it another way, it’s never quite clear whether the program is doing the best it can under trying circumstances or whether it’s just going through the motions.
The thing about the Key to Time arc is that it moves through three distinct phases in this. The first two stories gave every indication that they were trying and were finding inventive things to say and do with the program’s limitations. The second two were more ambiguous. Stones of Blood, if you were willing to be preposterously charitable to the urine rocks, could still be read as quite inventive. Androids of Tara less so, but both, at least, were great fun. But The Power of Kroll is very difficult to find a good take on, seeming to consist of Robert Holmes just angrily taking the piss out of the program. And then there’s The Armageddon Factor.?
The biggest problem here manifests before the first shot. We praised The Ribos Operation for having the good sense to hire Robert Holmes to tackle the difficult job of starting the Key to Time off. In the same spirit, then, it is difficult to feel anything but dismay at the decision to hire Bob Baker and Dave Martin to write the conclusion of the arc. There is really no way to look at this decision and come to a good conclusion. There are two possible interpretations, both of them appalling. The first is that Williams and Read looked back on The Invisible Enemy and Underworld and thought that the writing there was of a high enough quality to serve as the climax to the entire Key to Time epic. This implies that neither Williams nor Read have anything resembling a sense of taste. The alternative is that Williams and Read have a more or less accurate sense of how good Baker and Martin are (i.e. not) and simply don’t care.
Either way, those who feel as though there’s something a bit cynical about the Williams era have little ammunition more compelling than this story. It beggars belief that anyone could possibly think that Baker and Martin are an appropriate choice for wrapping up an epic like this. And sure enough, they blow it in key regards. The problem is simple enough – they display no sense whatsoever that they see the Key to Time as anything unique in the world of sci-fi epics. They think they’re writing Star Wars for the BBC.
While on the other hand, what made the Key to Time so interesting at the outset was that it was an anti-epic in which the grandiose scale was revealed as a lie that served to erase the individual. Whereas here we have grandiose epic by numbers. The epitome of this is the Marshall, a character so ham-handedly stupid that it’s difficult to know what to say. When Baker and Martin first turned up on the scene in The Claws of Axos we had to bend over backwards to defend these sort of pig-headed caricature characters in terms of the overall aesthetic of the Pertwee era. Simply put, the Pertwee era worked by putting programmatic characters in situations where their single note was inappropriate and enjoying the results.
But look, its not 1971 anymore. The Axos approach could be justified in the Glam era when the play of visually arresting images in color was a novel thing for television to be doing. Attempting the play of visually arresting images on a BBC budget after Star Wars, however, is… not going to work. (Eventually new opportunities for spectacle will, of course, open themselves, but Scary Monsters and Super Creeps isn’t out yet.) And even if it did work, the people who are going to make it work aren’t going to be Baker and Martin, who haven’t actually had a new idea in years. In hindsight their biggest successes came on the backs of successful decisions by the design department in what was one of the golden ages of design in Doctor Who. Claws of Axos didn’t work because the writing was full of good ideas, it worked because the design department turned out aliens made of lurid yellows and oranges that looked like nothing else on television.
In 1979, with visuals that are competent but not uncanny, these programmatic characters just look like Baker and Martin can’t be bothered to write characters and so have decided on ludicrous cliches instead. We may as well just check them off. Cackling malevolence of a villain? Check. Evil computer? Check. Thinly veiled Cold War metaphor about mutually assured destruction? Yep. And we’re not even in a particularly exciting moment of the Cold War! I mean, this is detente and we’re doing evil computers and mutually assured destruction. There’s next to nothing interesting being said here except “BIG EPIC THINGS GO BOOM!”
The worst and most crushing moment of this is when the Shadow proclaims himself to be “the shadow that accompanies you all,” a moment of staggering breadth that seems, just for a moment, to hint at the idea that he’s the literal embodiment of the Jungian shadow or something. Then he cackles a bunch and engages in more schemes that make the Master look clever.
All of which said, the summary offered by Miles and Wood in About Time is thoroughly apropos: it’s not a complete disaster, which is better than one has any right to expect from the circumstances. Like The Androids of Tara, with whom this story shares a director, the production is solid enough to elevate the script. This is the best war-ravaged hellhole since Genesis of the Daleks, with scads of atmosphere. The Shadow is an appallingly written villain, but his skull mask is genuinely unsettling and does tremendous amounts to get the character to punch above his weight. The occasional howlers crop up, sure, but for the most part the production manages to get the visuals on message in a way that Doctor Who of late has had problems with.
On top of that, Baker and Martin, for all their myriad of faults, catch something of a break here with the material. Yes, this is a hackneyed cod-epic mess, but it’s got just enough scope that, combined with the on-target visuals, it manages to get a decent bit of swagger going. On top of that, in amidst the cliches, Baker and Martin do get a few clever ideas in. The fake segment of the Key is a relatively inspired use of the MacGuffin, having the sixth segment be one of the major supporting characters is charming, and the slowly stretching time loop is compelling and clever, and the visual of scenes slowly but surely playing out at greater and greater length is quite good. All of it adds up to give the story enough punch to keep it from cratering, which, let’s be fair, was a real possibility for an end-of-season Graham Williams effort penned by Baker and Martin. This absolutely had to be leagues better than, say, The Invasion of Time, and in that regard, mission accomplished.
But there’s a painful squandering of good will here in a way that only deepens the concern that the series has lost its way. This is an acceptable conclusion to a Graham Williams produced epic. It’s much harder to treat it as an acceptable conclusion to the storyline set up by The Ribos Operation. The Ribos Operation was full of ambiguities and nuances about the nature of the Guardians and balance. Here, however, the Doctor is treated straightforwardly as a servant of the White Guardian, with the Shadow being portrayed as his counterpart for the Black Guardian. All notions of balance are just out the window, with the White Guardian being the straightforward good guy and the Black Guardian being the straightforward bad guy.
What we’re left with is an uncomfortable sense that the Williams era is an era where extraordinarily good stories can happen, but where they happen almost by accident. Even within this story there’s that sense. It’s difficult to understand how a story that can produce ideas as compelling as the fake segment or the time loop can also have a 30 second sequence of K-9 making modem noises at a door or, more appallingly, Drax. It’s difficult to understand how a production team that created The Ribos Operation and The Pirate Planet could possibly think that this was an acceptable way to wrap that up. One starts to get the sense that when the series has worked this season it’s been because one or two people have shown up and put in a heroic effort.
Unfortunately, of the ones who have, most are out the door shortly. Robert Holmes is already done. The director who salvaged this and made The Androids of Tara sing has exactly one more story to his name. Mary Tamm, who salvaged more than one terrible moment with judicious applications of winks at the audience, is gone (and once again with Williams not bothering to write in a decent companion departure because he wrongly convinced himself he could get the actress to come back). John Leeson, who gave a certain charm to K-9 even at his worst moments, is gone.
The only three people to have demonstrable knacks for quality sticking around, in other words, are Tom Baker, who brings his own host of problems these days, David Fisher, who penned two solidly competent scripts, and Douglas Adams.
Speaking of whom, as it happens, Baker and Martin opted to dissolve their writing partnership with this story. This meant that rewrites needed to be done by the script editor. But Anthony Read was out the door at the end of this as well, which meant that the incoming script editor ended up writing much of the last scene himself. That script editor, of course, is Douglas Adams.
And the fact of the matter is that it shows. The final TARDIS scene is wildly better written than anything that comes before it, shot through with a genuine sense of ambiguity and skepticism about the story arc. Adams (unsurprisingly given his own beliefs) seems wholly skeptical of the very idea of gods and absolute power, and there’s the strong sense that the Doctor’s shattering of the key is done not just to screw the Black Guardian but to screw the entire process. Notably, no attention whatsoever is paid to the idea that the key needs to be given to the White Guardian.
Crucially, this is a marked change from earlier in the story. When the Doctor and Romana lash together the fake key they seem downright cheery about being “gods for an hour or two,” a marked contrast with the Doctor’s visible horror and fear at the idea of absolute power in the end. It’s a moment that highlights just how not in sync with each other the Adams/Holmes idea of the Key is with Baker and Martin. But it’s also quite marvelous, and just about lands this awkward and kind of kludged together mess of an “epic.”
Still, the overall score is… not encouraging. It’s difficult, at this point, to treat the program’s successes this season as being deliberate products of the way the show is being made. When it works, it seems to work in a desperately underground manner whereby brilliantly subversive quality is smuggled into a show that nobody knows what to do with. When it doesn’t, it’s an embarrassing, unambitious, and cynical mess.
Still, let’s try to find the positives. When the show worked last season, it usually did so by imitating the hits of the Hinchcliffe era. The exception was one Robert Holmes script. This season it worked at least three, and really four times, always by doing something new. When it worked, it generally did so spectacularly. One can complain that the show is only good by luck these days, but one can’t do it without also acknowledging that it gets lucky an awful lot, and when it gets lucky, it’s been getting very, very lucky. Frustration may be warranted. Despair certainly isn’t.