Only Ashes (The Armageddon Factor)
|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.
December 28, 2011 @ 1:20 am
There's a kind of double-bind internal self-sabotage thang going on in the last scene. As it stands it looks like the Doctor defeats the Black Guardian's ruse but never complete's his mission for the White Guardian. I think we were meant to take it that the Guardian at the start of 'Ribos Operation' was really the Black Guradian in disguise too – so the whole thing was a trick. This would come over much better if (no disrespect to Valentine Dyall) they'd got Cyril Luckham back. However, that idea – while it makes more sense in narrative terms – sabotages the whole notion of the arc. It removes the ambiguities even more than does the idea of Black and White in competition. It seems obvious, in hindsight, that the way to develop the ambiguous starting points created by Holmes and Adams would be to create a story in which the Doctor has to side with the Black Guardian because, in this case, 'Order' and 'Goodness' and 'Balance' are not what the universe needs, because the imposition of such things would be an evil. Like 'Progress' in 'Power of Kroll', 'balance' is one of those words…
Actually, it's not clear to me that the themes need developing anyway. 'Pirate Planet' already showed a situation of stasis, balance, prosperity and general happiness – based on mass murder. 'Pirate Planet' should've been the season finale.
It's funny but, when they did another Guardian arc, they once again created a series of tales which relentlessly undermine simple moral ideas about 'balance' and 'stability'… only to cop out in much the same way at the end with a banal speech about how light and dark must always co-exist. It's like the show can only go so far rejecting conventional moral binaries before it has to snap back and start pretending everything is nice and simple again.
December 28, 2011 @ 2:33 am
This comment has been removed by the author.
December 28, 2011 @ 2:34 am
They missed a trick, actually. The dilemma concerns Astra, who is 'trapped' in the Key. Romana could have given up her first 'life' for her; so we'd have a journey from humble assistant to saviour, a big climax, and an explanation as to why Romana II looks like Astra.
Why, why didn't they ask me? Oh, because I was nine.
Repeating myself: I enjoy this season very much and feel the tone (literate whimsy, menace and near-surreal science fantasy oddballness) is just what I want from the show.
December 28, 2011 @ 3:41 am
Myself, I've always believed that the Entropy which wipes out a good chunk of the universe in "Logopolis" was the apocalyptic event to which the White Guardian was referring to at the start of "The Ribos Operation".
But that's just me… 😉
December 28, 2011 @ 6:57 am
I'd recommend giving AI Indices next to no credence. The reason why Season 14 got a lower average score than Season 15 would be because a lot more people watched it. A larger audience is likely to include more unenthusiastic viewers than a smaller sample. By Season 15 a lot of these naysayers would have decamped to watching The Incredible Hulk on ITV, while those who actively enjoyed Doctor Who would have continued to watch it, thus bumping the AI rating up.
December 28, 2011 @ 7:58 am
You've almost certainly heard Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick before – in the TARDIS scene at the start of Tooth and Claw. I have no idea if it's similar to anything Lady Gaga's done, though.
Oh, and I think you meant that JNT THREW Williams under a bus, rather than through him.
December 28, 2011 @ 9:29 am
Despair is the operative word here. trying to sit through the unispired mess that is the Armageddon Factor is difficult enough, finding ways to talk about it as if it were interesting is even harder.
i thought that the whole notion of the key was not that they white guardian needed the actual key, just the key assembled so that he could stop things for a second and "restore the balance" or some such. although the very fact that they didn't film cyril's final scene during the first recording block shows that they had no idea where they were going, how they where going to finish it off, no idea that they had any idea at all that they had no idea.
we've moved into Doctor Who that wants to shoot itself in the foot and kill off the sacred cows (such as Baker's comment to the Daleks on next season's opener about climbing stairs) without being interest in creating anything new at all. Want to channel the punks into this show's zeitgeist? Here is is: they want to tear down a lot of things that we love about the show but weren't interested in building anything new in their place. And for that, screw them.
And once they rip it down, there really is nothing more than the clever man, his attractive sidekick and the sometimes funny dog. And thats not good enough.
Are you going to do a sidetrip to Game of Death? Great novel, a much better version of Nightmare of Eden.
December 28, 2011 @ 9:32 am
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.
December 28, 2011 @ 10:22 am
I'm not convinced that's what the punks wanted at all, at least not the musicians "labeled" punks by the media. Maybe the people who followed them, but not the artists themselves. John Lydon is just a clever troll, gleefully attacking everyone with equal opportunity, including his merry "punk" followers, and then laughing behind their backs when they take the joke seriously. Anyone who takes "Anarchy in the U.K." at face value probably ought to stop and have a think.
As for the others, someone like Siouxsie Sioux who was thrown in with the "punk" crowd in the late '70s had absolutely no interest in violent overthrow of the establishment as much as consciously choosing not to participate in it. If anything, I'd say these people were more interested in the freedom to be themselves and make new things than simply destroying existing institutions. Of course they had grievances with the system, as many creative people do, but many of them were wise enough to realise it wasn't going to change overnight. As Andy McCluskey says about his post-1981 output, a big creative turning point for him came when he finally came to the conclusion that thinking music alone could change the world was a hopelessly naive sentiment.
December 28, 2011 @ 4:50 pm
For my money, this whole story is justified by this one exchange:
The Doctor: We have the power to do anything we like, absolute power over every particle in the universe, everything that has ever existed or ever will exist as from this moment. Are you listening to me, Romana?
Romana: Yes, of course, I'm listening.
The Doctor: 'Cause if you're not listening I can make you listen, because I can do anything. As from this moment there's no such thing as free will in the entire universe. There's only my will because I possess the Key to Time.
And then Tom Baker literally ROLLS HIS EYES. Genius.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
December 29, 2011 @ 7:31 am
Okay, I've only read the first few paragraphs, but here's the thing I need to say:
THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO SAY AN ARTIST SOLD OUT ARE PEOPLE WHO HAVN'T FOUND ANY SUCCESS EARNING MONEY BY 'SELLING OUT.'
It's a bullshit statement, I'm sorry. Utter crap. Blondie didn't sell out with "Heart of Glass," they made a song that made them lots of money. Just because you don't like the style of the song, or the way in which is was produced or whatever doesn't matter. An artist who makes money is not an artist who 'sold out,' it's an artist who isn't starving, as as someone who's been a starving artist, I'm far more concerned about not-starving more than I am about maintaining some mythical idea of 'artistic purity' wherein I produce amazing things and then live off of the positive vibes people send me, rather than anything useful like money.
Sorry, I just… 'selling out' is a load of bollocks. Say "Blondie made a song I don't like," or even worse, I'll accept "Blondie made a song that was commercially successful and, indeed, maybe have been written from a cynical place that wanted to exploit commercial viability in music," but 'sold out'? I can never accept "sold out."
December 29, 2011 @ 7:44 am
I agree that most accusations of selling out are bullshit for exactly that reason and really just mean "the thing I used to feel cool for liking is now trendy." But in this case I think it's apropos – Blondie was successful already. They did one song in a hyper-trendy disco style as a cash grab, made out like bandits, and then went back to the style of music they were known for and were good at. It was not a matter of starvation fixing, it was a crass move to make money.
I mean, good for them. I don't begrudge them it. And notably, my favorite Blondie song was released after Heart of Glass, so it's not like I view them as jumping the shark. But I think dropping your style in favor of a trendy cash grab is accurately described by the phrase "selling out." And should I ever manage the feat, I'll happily own the phrase myself. 🙂
December 29, 2011 @ 8:06 am
Quite a few punk/new wave artists had a sincere interest in disco. At any rate, I enjoy "Heart of Glass," so I don't much care if it was made for art or for filthy lucre.
December 29, 2011 @ 9:08 am
I hold no particular brief for Blondie, but are you sure you can distinguish your account of their behaviour ("a cash grab") from a band simply doing a one-off song in a style that they are interested in having a go at, and that song turning out well and therefore being successful? I mean, have any of the band gone on the record saying "we thought it was bollocks, but reckoned it would make a packet so we did it anyway"?
December 29, 2011 @ 9:09 am
I thought assuming cynicism was far more charitable than assuming a genuine love of disco. 😉
December 29, 2011 @ 9:15 am
As a leftist media-studies academic, Phil, you ought to give disco revisionism a chance.
December 29, 2011 @ 9:26 am
I find that, in general, it's fans and critics who put up rigid barriers between genres and styles: the artists themselves tend to have far more eclectic tastes.
December 29, 2011 @ 9:43 am
I share JSD's appreciation for that scene where Tom Baker starts acting like he's been corrupted by power, then reveals he was just making a point. Definitely the best part of the story, though I also liked the following exchange:
MARSHAL: We must have the weapon that will wipe the Zeons clear of our skies once and for all. Can you provide it?
DOCTOR: Yes, I think so.
MARSHAL: What is it?
There are a couple other decent bits, such as the improvised segment used to put the Marshal's ship into a time loop, and the look of the Shadow. Unfortunately, that is about all there is to commend about the story.
I'm not surprised that Mr Sandifer didn't dwell much on the events of the story itself since there is precious little connecting any of the elements to anything else. It is a bunch of half-formed ideas strung together in the hopes that people would be so intrigued by them that they wouldn't notice that none of it has been thought out, and the story has nothing to say.
What is the Shadow? What are the Mutes? More importantly, what happened to the occupants of Zeos? Why bother adding the Timelord, Drax, to the story at all? Why does the so-called Third Planet look more like a space station and how does nobody notice it? The Shadow's plan for the war makes no sense. And what would they have done if the princess was killed in a nuclear strike? I'm sure one could have made something interesting out of those disparate things, but it's all just thrown out there with no thought or rationale.
Then there's the scene where Shapp gets shot, which seems to be played for laughs (note the way he falls, plus how stupid the two weapon blasts sound), yet he looks to be dead. Then you're surprised when he shows up later.
I kinda like the idea that it was the Black Guardian that recruited the Doctor in the first place, though I never got the impression that we were supposed to come to that conclusion (I always thought it was weird to have the White Guardian appear as someone we hadn't seen before, in the finale). It would resolve the problem of the Doctor dispersing the Key without giving it to the White Guardian if we assume the "imbalance" in the universe was just a lie. However, it is clear they never put any thought into the Key, the Guardians, or the linking premise of the season beyond the most superficial details, much like the final story of the season, so you could come to any number of connections with past and future events.
BTW, if the White Guardian can stop the TARDIS and force the doors open, why can't the Black Guardian? Ugghhhh.
December 29, 2011 @ 9:44 am
On the other hand, Valentine Dyall impersonating a good guy is one of the funnier images in the history of the series.
December 29, 2011 @ 11:40 am
Philip, where does the Gareth Roberts quote come from?
December 29, 2011 @ 11:46 am
An essay reprinted in Paul Cornell's Licence Denied anthology entitled "Tom the Second," originally from DWB #122.
December 29, 2011 @ 3:49 pm
"More importantly, what happened to the occupants of Zeos?"
Anthony Read happened. From the Shannon Sullivan site:
"In Baker and Martin's original storyline, submitted on December 19th, 1977, both Atrios and Zeos were populated. Astra (at that point called “Reina”, a name later changed to avoid confusion with Prince Reynart from The Androids Of Tara) was an astrophysicist who had discovered the Shadow's planet lying between the two warring worlds. The conflict had arisen because Atrios and Zeos blamed each other for a catastrophic shift in their orbits; they were being egged on by the Shadow, known as “the Presence” on Atrios and “the Voice” on Zeos. The Doctor was forced to use the makeshift Key To Time to temporally freeze both planets' armies. The Shadow's own shadow turned out to be the sixth segment of the Key To Time. His plan was to use the powers of the Key to pit one half of the universe in war against the other half. The Doctor stopped the Shadow by unfreezing the Atrian and Zeon armies and giving each the coordinates of the Shadow's “Castle of Evil”.
With Baker and Martin no longer writing together, the burden of rewrites chiefly fell on Read's shoulders. Of particular concern was the cost of “Armageddon” and to this end, Read decided to eliminate the Zeons altogether, replacing them with the computer Mentalis."
Also, despite the end TARDIS scene being, yes, very good, the original ending from Baker and Martin seems like it might've taken Philip's fancy:
"By the end of the script editing process, Read was being trailed by his successor, Douglas Adams. It was Adams who changed the serial's name to The Armageddon Factor, and he and Williams cowrote the Doctor's climactic confrontation with the Black Guardian. As originally written, the Doctor simply decided that he did not trust the White Guardian with the Key, and consequently scattered the six segments again to prevent anyone from controlling it."
December 31, 2011 @ 6:43 pm
Since this is the last Baker & Martin story, and since whatever you may think of their output they were trusted by three different production teams to deliver the goods, it would have been nice to see an overview and farewell. Maybe you can squeeze one in under Nightmare of Eden. There are some running themes that are very Doctor Who that I think Baker and Martin hit consistently and are worth highlighting. In particular:
* Advanced races don't just drop in altruistically / Colonialism is problematic. This comes up in all of their stories except the Armageddon Factor and arguably the Hand of Fear. (The Minyans throw this argument off slightly, but they are essentially observers in the battle between the technologically advanced Seers and the backward Trogs). The more technologically advanced a race is the less it is to be trusted. Because of the way Doctor Who stories are structured this can easily come over as straight xenophobia, particularly when the right thing to do is clearly to reject (for example) the riches offered by the Axons, but I think the key story here is The Mutants where the Earth guys are the ones not to be trusted and are the more technologically advanced. So it's not just xenophobia; it is more a fear of the motives of powerful people who you know insufficiently well. In the context of the Bristol Boys it's surely worth mentioning that Bristol rose to wealth as a port because of the slave trade, and you see the influence of this over and over again as they try to work out what it felt to be the person going out, terrified and alone, a long distance away, to do something evil that you felt was wholly justified. This is only a spit and a polish away from the Philip Hinchcliffe theme of baddies from the distant past that you identified under Brain of Morbius and others, but that is equally true of Hand of Fear (though Hand of Fear loses impact compared to Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius by not being allowed to be about the end of the universe etc).
* There is a natural pattern of discovery, and races should be left to follow it themselves / Be careful what you look at, you may be looking at yourself. This is strongest in the Pertwee stories, where it's also a strong theme in Malcolm Hulke and in The Time Warrior — essentially in all the genuinely thoughtful Pertwee stories except Day of the Daleks and The Green Death. A lot of Baker/Martin scripts turn on a discovery about the nature of one of the players — not used as a crass double-cross but as something more fundamental, for example (obviously) The Mutants but also Nightmare of Eden, Princess Astra in the Armageddon Factor, the end of the Kastrians in The Hand of Fear and (most effectively, because it has little bearing on the plot but is entirely emotionally sound) the revelation in The Three Doctors that Omega no longer physically exists.
* The things that are meant to keep us safe make us vulnerable. Nuclear power plants get taken over, medical asteroids are used to grow the Nucleus to full size, the scientific research process itself is abused by an obscene Sontaran, the Oracle may choose to blow itself up at the end, war is peace and peace is war.
[to be continued…]
December 31, 2011 @ 6:45 pm
They also have a great sense of how to write episodic fiction, essentially by throwing something new in every episode. I haven't done an analysis, but I would guess that the Baker and Martin scripts have a greater tendency than other scripts in the colour era of introducing significant characters (other than the Big Boss) after episode 1: Sondergaard, lady Eldrad, Marius, everyone in Underworld, the Shadow. (Hulke, again, matches them here). They also throw in entire new settings late in the game (Invisible Enemy (twice), Underworld — I would love to count the interior of the Sontaran ship in the novelization of The Sontaran Experiment, but I think credit for that has to go to Ian Marter).
And (to repost an older comment of mine) they understand structuring those episodes using the (presumably monomyth-inspired, though it predates Star Wars) recurring trope, the descent through multiple layers and return. I demonstrate this with a bulleted list:
* Claws of Axos — Axos buries itself in Earth, everyone goes down inside it, is changed, re-emerges.
* The Mutants — Descend from station to Solos; when in Solos, go into the caves.
* The Three Doctors — Through hole to Omega's universe; when there, go into huge underground palace
* The Sontaran Experiment — only two episodes, let's get on with it.
* The Hand Of Fear — Earth to Kastria, a big underground place, then down in a big lift, then a desperate scramble back to the surface and an epilogue back on Earth. For bonus points, villian ends up (SPOILERS) down a big (SPOILER).
* The Invisible Enemy — Titan Base to the medical center (not a descent as such) then down into the DOCTOR'S VERY BRAIN to re-emerge as a PRAWM.
* Underworld — Does exactly what it says on the tin. Note the zero-gravity descending to the CENTER of the WORLD. There is no more under. And note that we have to go all the way back to the P7E at the end.
* The Armageddon Factor — Atrios -> Zeos -> The Shadow's World. And then shrink everyone! Because we have two extra episodes and have to do something.
(I'd also note that although I dismissed The Sontaran Experiment quickly above, it does feature a lot of falling down holes).
What I think makes The Armageddon Factor the strongest of these stories, at least in its use of the descent theme, is several things: (a) the descent is a bit less literal than usual and much more clearly about moral corruption; (b) the physical movement is mirrored by the characters going bad one by one EVEN K-9; (c) unless I'm misremembering, it doesn't unwind all the steps back to the beginning the way the other Baker & Martin stories do; instead the Doctor and Romana break out of the cycle at the lowest point and head off… which mirrors how the Doctor reacts to the Key to Time itself. It's all done pretty nicely.
But I can't defend Drax. What were they thinking?
December 31, 2011 @ 6:55 pm
And specifically on The Armageddon Factor, its focus on a planet in permanent war nicely echoes your criticism of the whole Guardians setup back under the Ribos Operation. These conflicts acquire their own momentums and retrospective justification. Who knows what the significance really is of the ongoing conflict between the White and Black Guardians? Are they just doing whatever they're doing because they're doing it? So not only do we start the story with a critique of the eternal just war that the season initially presented us with, the idea is further subverted by concentrating the entire ongoing war into one person endlessly yelling "Fire!" inside a Time Loop.
Really, only Drax lets this down significantly. Letts and Dicks trusted Baker and Martin to write the 10th anniversary story, Hinchcliffe and Holmes trusted Baker and Martin to get rid of Sarah Jane, and Williams and Read knew exactly what they were doing asking Baker and Martin to write this one. If they'd done a Planet of Giants on episodes 5 and 6 it would have been a great five-parter.
December 31, 2011 @ 7:00 pm
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 thr[ew] Williams – his previous employer, keep in mind – under the bus to do it.
Both Nathan-Turner and Williams came in to the job with the basic brief that the show was Doing It Wrong. Nathan-Turner was much smarter politically than Williams and made more of a virtue out of this. Revolutions need figures of reaction. At least Williams wasn't shot in a cellar in Ekaterinburg. Not to say that Nathan-Turner's behavior was admirable, but they were crazy times.
January 2, 2012 @ 1:48 pm
Then he cackles a bunch and engages in more schemes that make the Master look clever.
I never understood why they didn't just use the Master (other than they just weren't clever enough to think of it)? The Shadow was visually reminiscent of the Pratt/Beever Master and was the logical choice for the Doctor's antithesis. Even the Shadow's primary schtick (mind control) is the same. If the Black Guardian had promised the Master a new regeneration cycle in exchange for service, it would have been perfectly believable AND gotten us a new Master without all that silly mucking about with body-snatching on Trakken.
Henry R. Kujawa
April 26, 2012 @ 8:26 pm
I remember having the exact same thought, that in both "TALONS" and "ARMAGEDDON" it felt like it should have been The Master, but wasn't. And frankly, when The Master did turn up in "TRAKEN", I found it very disappointing. The best part, at the time, seemed the visual of Tremas turning into The Master (with a vague resemblance once again to the original), but in retrospect, too many follow-ups were even more disappointing.
By comparison, as of 2 days ago I'm now sorry nobody ever thought to cast Peter Jeffrey as a regenerated Master. With that personality and charisma, he could have equalled Delgado in a way Ainley never did.
Meanwhile, I've always seen "ARMAGEDDON" as one of Mary Tamm's finest appearances. She absolutely gorgeous in this. And her character and relationship with The Doctor has been coming along so wonderfully, it's easy for me to imagine that exactly how it continued the next season could have happened if she had just stuck around. So why didn't she??? Then again, considering Bob & Dave broke up, and Holmes quit the show, and John Leeson left, and Anthony Read… what was going on just then? Good grief. (And how on Earth didn't they have Cyril Luckham at the end?)
By the way, when The Doctor gets sarcastic with The Shadow about his TARDIS security in part 3, he reminds me of Hartnell again. Shapp, meanwhile, reminds me an awful lot of Bernard Cribbins. Which made me suddenly think, this story might have been fun if Peter Cushing had starred in it.
I did enjoy Drax. Someone suggested he'd have been a good fit beside Colin Baker. Too bad nobody ever thought of doing that!
March 4, 2013 @ 4:50 pm
Actually, Dave Martin did put Drax into a Colin Baker story of sorts, in the Choose Your Own Adventure-style book Search for the Doctor. But as I recall the two don't have much interaction in the story.
May 14, 2013 @ 7:48 pm
I think what happened was, Mary Tamm (may she rest in peace) found out she was pregnant around the time of "Armageddon Factor."
''That'' would truly have been the controversy to end all controversies!
November 2, 2021 @ 5:55 am
So, here’s a comment 8 years after the last one. I just re-watched the whole Key to Time Season over the past 5 months or so, and I must say I quite enjoyed it all. I thought the Armageddon Factor wasn’t too bad. I didn’t mind Drax, he was silly, but it wasn’t my biggest issue with the plot. That was the “no Zeons on Zeos” when there were numerous mentions earlier in the story about Atrios and Zeons trading with one another. I understand now that for productions reasons Zeons were replaced by Mentalis, but it really left more questions than answers as to what was going on. However, the atmosphere, the teleporting between three planets / bases, the stretching time loops and the Shadow’s lair made for an entertaining Dr Who story. You’re right, it didn’t quite come together, but overall it was worth watching. The last scene with the Black Guardian was very memorable, and I liked that the key was broken up straight away. It’s probably the most memorable / identifiable seasons of Dr Who, whereas I often can’t place where other stories fit inside different seasons, so that’s a marketing success.
For what its worth, my overall ranking of the season in terms of enjoyment:
Stones of Blood
Androids of Tara
Power of Kroll
And even with Power of Kroll, I didn’t think it was as bad as your review, it just dragged a bit, which is impressive given the shorter episode lengths.