Saturday 9 October 2010

The Armageddon Factor

The Fourth Doctor and the first Romana look for the sixth and last segement of the Key to Time in a warzone.

I think the Key to Time season shows how story arcs don't really suit Doctor Who. Character driven story arcs are fine. The first season with the original TARDIS crew was one long story about the characters. That works. However, plot-driven arcs that span multiple serials or episodes do not work so well. Despite some of the excellent and delightfully witty writing in Season 16, the writers never really made the Key To Time into a convincing or interesting concept. Androids of Tara almost sends up the whole idea of the quest, with the Doctor's indifference to finding it and Romana's remarkably immediate success in finding the fourth segment. The nature of story arcs is that they build up audience expectation and thus require an epic conclusion. The problem is that Doctor Who does not do epic terribly well. The Armageddon Factor makes a brave attempt at a epic finale, but ends up looking just a little too tacky and cheap. Even worse, it gives us a resolution to the Key To Time quest that is a little confusing and unsatisfying.

Armageddon Factor has a wonderful opening, with the scene in the dreadfully melodramatic war movie. This imaginative move suggests good things for the serial and indeed, it does have good ideas. A pointless war to the death, a paranoid general, an enemy fleet controlled by a computer and the Doctor tempted by god-like powers. The script is really excellent with some great lines. Tom and Mary do their customary great job, though its sad to know this is the last performance of Mary Tamm. Of the guest cast, John Woodvine is brilliant as the Marshall and he is ably supported by Davydd Harries as Shapp. Woodvine gives a subtle performance, acting quite woodenly in a way that suits the character. The early scenes set on Atrios create a wonderfully bleak and dystopian atmosphere, reflecting Orwell's 1984. Unfortunately, this is lost as the story progresses and we are left with a lot of sci-fi silliness.

As I said, The Armageddon Factor needed to be epic and here the problem of scale comes in. We have a story set in three locations, the underground city on Atrios, Zeos and the Shadow's HQ (is it a space station or a planet?). Atrios is represented by a lot of grim and dark corridors, Zeos is represented by some brighter, cleaner-looking corridors and the Shadow's HQ is made up of some sinister, cavern-like corridors. Despite its cheapness the Atrios sets work because of the claustrophobic, war-torn atmosphere. Once we move away from Atrios, the cheapness of the sets prevails in the viewer's mind.

While the Marshall and Shapp are great, the rest of the cast are rotten. Lalla Ward gives a rather uninspiring performance. It is amazing that she managed to prove her worthiness in the next season. Ian Saynor is simply appalling as the princess' drippy lover, Merak. The Shadow's costume is not bad, but he has the most embarassing evil laugh in the history of the show. His silent servants are given shockingly bad cotumes, complete with sensible lace-up shoes. I suppose there is no reason why an alien moster might not wear lace-ups, as opposed to jackboots or sandals, but it just adds to the overwhelming feeling of cheapness in this story.

The subplot with Princess Astra was clever, but the ending is just too confusing. Did the White Guardian restore balance to the universe instantly when the Key was assembled? Or was the quest pointless? Was the White Guardian really the Black Guardian? We are left without any decent resolution. On the other hand, Tom Baker's speech about having absolute power is a brilliant moment.


  1. Pirate Planet, Androids of tara, and The Armageddon Factor were the three best serials from this season. Ribos Operation was boring, Stones Of Blood was OK, and Power of Kroll was horrendous.