A season-long epic: Doctor Who and the Key to Time

For season 17 of Doctor Who, the series went big. All six serials are part of one composite story, involving the Doctor and his new companion’s quest for the Key to Time.

In the first episode, the Doctor gets yanked out of time to meet the White Guardian, one of two entities representing order and chaos (that’s the Black Guardian).  The Guardian explains that while the two opposing forces normally keep the flow of time and existence in perfect balance, once in a while, it needs a reset. That requires the Key to Time, an artifact capable of giving one of the Guardians absolute control of reality. Because of the potential for abuse, the key is scattered across the universe in six separate, indestructible segments. The White Guardian explains that it’s necessary for him so he’s recruiting the Doctor to collect the pieces. Doctor: “What happens if I refuse?” “Nothing will happen, Doctor … ever again.”

He’s also provided the Doctor with a new companion, Romana (Mary Tamm), a Gallifreyan Time Lady. It proves to be one of the classic odd couple pairings: Romana has better education and technical skills, the Doctor has better education in the school of hard knocks. While Tamm is stiff as an actor, her knowledge enables her to hold her own with the Doctor in a way most companions can’t.

The first story, The Ribos Operation, has them hunting for a segment on the eponymous planet. On this medieval-level world, the overcast sky has left them unaware of the rest of the universe; a would be galactic conqueror, the Graf Vinda-K, seeks a priceless chunk of a rare mineral to finance his coming wars. Guess what the Key-detector the Guardian gave the Doctor shows to be the first segment? This one is well thought-of, but I’ve never really liked it; the acting is good but like Curse of Peladon it’s close to pure costume drama only not as much fun. And K9, as he often does, makes things a little too easy for the Doctor. “You can’t be a successful crook with a dishonest face, can you?”

Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet, by contrast, is a delight, even though I’d remembered it as over-the-top silly. Seeking the second segment, the Doctor arrives on a planet ruled by a cyborg pirate captain (with a cyborg parrot, no less); as we eventually learn, the planet sustains itself by jumping through space, engulfing other worlds, then strip-mining their resources. It turns out the captain isn’t as crazy or silly (“By the beard of the sky demon, the jaws of death were around your throat!”)
as he seems and there are multiple other players in the game … This one’s first-rate. “Use your tongue, Doctor — it’s the only weapon you have left.”

I also really like the third serial, The Stones of Blood, for its effective use of British stone-circle folklore. The Doctor and Romana arrive in present day England, where something’s going on involving an old circle of stones that supposedly move around so that nobody can count them accurately. And hmm, something seems to be crushing people in the area to death … Does it have anything to do with the mysterious Vivian Fay whose family have held the land for centuries (if I were watching cold, that folklore-laded name would have been a big Warning). While this takes a too-comical twist near the end with the Megaera, alien judge/executioners, it still works. “I think of modern Druidism as a joke perpetrated by John Aubrey.”The Androids of Tara is less successful. Arriving on a planet where despite a generally 18th century lifestyle, the technology allows for android servants, the Doctor and Romana get caught up in a Prisoner of Zenda remake: Romana’s the exact double of the local ruler, kidnapped by the scheming Count Grendel, so can the Time Lady fill in for an important ceremony? I like this one more than it deserves: while Grendel’s a good villain, the androids seem more like a plot device than anything integral to the planet’s culture (in contrast to, say, The Robots of Death). And once again, K9 is a little too handy. “I don’t think I’ll refuse the crown a second time — it might create the wrong impression.”

Power of the Kroll involves an offworld chemical refinery in conflict with the local alien tribes, so the Doctor’s arrival is obviously some scheme by the activist Sons of Earth to side with the “swampies,” right? That conflict proves secondary when it turns out the fifth segment has turned a local squidlike creature into the Swampie’s giant god, Kroll; the creature is impressive as a shadowy outline or when it’s just ginormous tentacles, much less so when we see more of it. Overall, this one’s so-so. “Somehow this lake is producing enough protein to make this operation possible.”

The season wraps up with The Armageddon Factor, taking place on war-ravaged Atrios, which is locked in a losing battle with another world. Here the Black Guardian makes his play, manipulating the power-mad Marshal who leads the war for Princess Astra (Lala Ward, who became Romana’s next regeneration), but the Shadow, his hand-picked agent to obtain the Key of Time. On top of the imminent destruction of Atrios in the war, the Doctor discovers Astra is the final segment: assembling the key will destroy her.

Ultimately the Doctor and Romana do assemble the key, but when the White Guardian asks for it, the Doctor decides it’s too powerful to trust to anyone and wills the segments to disassemble (Astra will live!). Smart move: the White Guardian has been the Black Guardian all along (at least that appears to be the case) and him with the Key would be Very Bad. However the two Time Lords are now on the Black Guardian’s shit list: to prevent him following them, they completely randomize the TARDIS time jumps (the Doctor’s been able to control it perfectly this season, unlike usual). Overall, this didn’t quite work: the Marshal’s a nicely fanatical villain, the Shadow much more stock, and Lala Ward has zero screen presence as Astra. There’s also another Time Lord character who’s too much comic relief. So overall a decent season, but not as stellar as the previous few. “Well of course I’m all right… but supposing I wasn’t all right?”

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