1. The Ribos Operation
2. The Pirate Planet
3. The Stones of Blood
4. The Androids of Tara
5. The Power of Kroll
6. The Armageddon Factor
The Key to Time
The Story Arc of Season Sixteen
|Dates||Sept. 2, 1978 -
Feb. 24, 1979
With Tom Baker, Mary Tamm,
and John Leeson as the voice of "K9".
Produced by Graham Williams.
Synopsis: The White Guardian compels the Doctor to recover the Key to Time in order to prevent eternal chaos. But the Black Guardian has an equal but opposite plan.
An Overview by James Mansson Updated 17/3/98
While it is convenient to divide Doctor Who into various eras, it shouldn?t be assumed that the quality of a story can be deduced purely on the basis of who was producer/script-editor/whatever. Even though the Williams-era as whole does not have a great reputation, quite a few of the stories have been given a favourable review in the Guide (e.g. Horror of Fang Rock, Image of the Fendahl, The Pirate Planet, The Armageddon Factor, City of Death, Nightmare of Eden). Of the three series, the Key to Time Season maintains the highest standard throughout. The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara rank alongside the best of Doctor Who, and, of the other stories, only The Power of Kroll has a bad reputation.
The chief strength of the stories lies in the humour and the colourful characters. The stories lack the serious themes of many other Doctor Who stories, or at least the appropriate style to explore them, though this is not really a problem. After all, one of the great strengths of Doctor Who is that it can encompass a wide variety of material. The production values vary from the atrocious (The Power of Kroll scores heavily in the rubbish effects stakes) to the very good (The Androids of Tara again shows the BBC?s flair for costume drama). Tom Baker is by now totally at home in the role, without having come completely off the leash. Mary Tamm does well as Romana, although it must be said that she isn?t always given the greatest of material to work with. Whether K-9 is any good depends very much on whether you like K-9; I, for one, am quite fond of the mechanical mutt.
Humour and Drama by Mike Morris 30/1/99
Okay, I'll lay my cards on the table. Along with Seasons Eighteen and Twenty-Six (Now there's a trio not often grouped together), Season Sixteen is my favourite. I'm still very much of the opinion that never have humour and drama worked together so well as they did in the Key to Time sextet. So, being a student with little else to do, I think I'll review all six stories, starting now.
Overall, I'd say that there are three very good stories, two which have a few good points in their favour but don't fully come off, and one which can be classed as very bad indeed. Hardly great stuff, I suppose. But if you like the Williams-era humour, this is really the one to go for.
The Key to Time itself is a secondary issue. Ignore it. Only The Armageddon Factor is directly related to the Doctor's quest. There are plenty of other interlinking points between the stories, however. These are: great jokes, superbly rounded characterisation, concise plotting, a reliance on human drama rather than unconvincing monsters, Tom Baker at the height of his powers, and an obvious rapport between him and Mary Tamm, often forgotten because of the interplay between Tom and Lalla Ward, Tamm's successor.
The Williams era is often criticised for being too silly. In my opinion, the humour of season sixteen reinforces the drama. The Doctor's moments of seriousness (such as the 'what's it for?' scene in The Pirate Planet) are made more weighty because they're surrounded by so many jokes -- when he's being serious, you know it's over something important. Season Fifteen is still a little influenced by the B-movie horror of the Hinchcliffe years, and not as funny as it could have been. Season Seventeen is (with notable exceptions) a little too silly - but maybe I'm being stuffy. The Key to Time Season gets the balance right.
Okay, the stories. It all gets off to a great start with The Ribos Operation and The Pirate Planet -- the first is an almost Shakesperean drama with great dialogue, the second a hugely imaginative piece of SF. I thought the trend was going to be continued with The Stones of Blood, but after a great horror story for the first two episodes, it all gets very dull -- the parts set in hyperspace are very badly written. Nice idea though. The Androids of Tara is one of my favourite stories of all time -- Doctor Who as a swashbuckling romantic tale, all sword-play and wit. A lovely piece of escapism.
It's a shame it tails off a little. The Power of Kroll is a very unimaginative story, slow-moving and with woeful effects... although I've still got a sneaking liking for it (I'm not sure why, but there you go). The Armageddon Factor is at least two episodes too long, and it's blatantly obvious that all the money's run out by now. However, the scenario is quite imaginative, and there's a few good set-pieces.
As I say, it doesn't sound that incredible. But the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. The Key to Time Season as a whole stands up to any analysis, and is very much a high-point in the show's history.
A Review by Rob Matthews 16/8/01
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: One of the most frustrating things about Doctor Who (the TV series, anyway) was that, for a show with so many imaginative premises, there was often an astonishing lack of creativity at important moments: the almost implicit assumption of scriptwriters and editors that any given story has to feature monsters and corridors; the perfunctory Pertwee era Daleks stories made only because the production team had decided it would be nice to have a Dalek story every year; the compulsion to give Anthony Ainley's Master a Delgado beard; The Five Doctors; JNT's awful notion that the Doctor must wear the same clothes all the time, as if we wouldn't recognise him without question marks or bad jackets...
And The Key to Time. What an imagination-crushingly blank and obvious idea for a season-long story arc. It's like the first thing a script editor would think of, and then scribble out and replace with something more original. The Doctor might as well have been sent on a quest for six pieces of a big red herring.
Ah, but The Key to Time story arc is a very different thing from Season Sixteen itself. This is the season of evocative, atmospheric adventures like The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara, The Stones of Blood and The Armageddon Factor. The year when Doctor Who got the balance between humour and drama, and ideas and characterisation, exactly right. That it went awry exactly halfway through The Stones of Blood and laid an egg with The Power Of Krapp does not stop it from being one of my favourite seasons. And it regained some gravitas with the underrated Armageddon Factor, which had great atmosphere and acting to make up for a rather flimsy plot, and squeezed a brilliant moral conundrum out of the Key quest when Princess Astra was revealed as the final segment.
This is also the season of Mary Tamm's Romana and John Leeson's K9. For the former, I had only vague memories of The Stones of Blood and The Power of Kroll - hardly the cream of the crop. For me, the name 'Romana' always conjured up an image of Lalla Ward. It took only one viewing of The Ribos Operation to change this. Mary Tamm is absolutely superb. A great foil to Tom Baker, and probably the only companion who's his equal at all times. Given the right script, she could easily have stolen the show away. And, yeah I know it shouldn't matter, but with her beautiful face, flouncy hair and flouncy skirts, it's nigh-on impossible to take your eyes off her. And I'm not even heterosexual..
Then there's K9, who Tom Baker never liked, but who I've grown to love. It brings a great big smirk to my face when, somewhere during episode 2 of practically every story, he pops his head out of the Tardis and enquires, 'Master?' in that funny nasal little voice. I love when Drax tickles him under the chin and he snorts 'Your silliness is noted'. Not to mention his battle with the mechanical parrot in The Pirate Planet.
So, season sixteen sends these three oddball laugh riots out across the universe, and it doesn't really matter what they're chasing after as long as you're with them. Here's a show about people who can live for centuries and go anywhere in time and space. And you can really feel the joy of that when you watch these stories. A better overall plot would have helped, but this is a very sweet sixteen.
A sense of purpose by Tim Roll-Pickering 18/6/02
After a decade and half of mostly stand-alone adventures with only a few stories combining to tell a bigger tale (such as Mission to the Unknown & The Daleks' Master Plan, Frontier in Space & Planet of the Daleks), it makes a change to have a season in which all the stories are linked by a wider umbrella theme. Although Season 8 saw the Master used in all five stories, even that does not constitute an ongoing narrative in any way beyond the continuing conflict between the Doctor and the Master throughout the series.
But Season 16 is different. The Key to Time concept appears throughout and offers a sense of purpose to the Doctor's adventures. Furthermore it allows the Doctor to undergo a great quest like many other heroes from the Greek hero Jason and the Golden Fleece through to King Arthur and the Holy Grail right down to James Bond's quest to find Blofeld. But above all it offers a sense of justification for the Doctor's actions. Here he is seemingly requested by one of the most powerful beings in the universe to find and assemble an all important artefact in order to literally save the universe itself. Indeed the opening scene in The Ribos Operation seems almost Biblical, especially in the use of the great light beaming into to the TARDIS console room. This allows for a sense of our hero's importance in the grand scale of events, as well as the more mundane means of providing a reason for viewers to come back for each new story.
Unfortunately there are several areas in which the umbrella theme for the season is poorly applied. In some of the stories the segment of the Key is disguised as a key plot device within the tale itself and thus the adventure sees the two tales operating simultaneously. At other times it seems as though the quest has been left to one side and in The Androids of Tara there's a clever send up of the quest in that there's an almost undue haste to get the segment found and then allow the rest of the story to proceed with the quest placed on the backburner for the moment. Only The Armageddon Factor contains a significant portion of the story which is driven exclusively by the quest. Whilst this can be of immense benefit to the individual stories (although in some cases it isn't enough to save them from failing), it does also result in a somewhat disjointed season.
Furthermore there are some major questions arising out of the wider season format itself. Most fundamentally there is very little attempt to give any sense of the universe's approaching descent into evil and chaos that the Doctor is told is the reason for the quest in the first place. Then at the end of The Armageddon Factor there is no actual time for the White Guardian to use the Key to Time to restore order throughout the universe. Even the resolution to the mystery in The Armageddon Factor as to what the segment is disguised as can be confusing, since one of the main reasons for deducing that Astra herself is the segment is that she is the sixth Princess of the sixth dynasty of the sixth house of Atrios, yet if Atrios had been visited at any other point in the sequence then the Doctor and Romana would have been searching for a different numbered segment. There's also uncertainty in The Stones of Blood as to whether or not Cessair of Diplos/Vivien Fay is an agent of the Black Guardian given that she seemingly knows what her necklace actually is and the warning given at the start of the story. Several theories have been put forward which might explain things, yet few are convincing throughout. One that can be dismissed is the suggestion in the novelisation of The Armageddon Factor that the White Guardian is able to use the Key remotely whilst it is assembled. Given that his Black counterpart cannot do this there seems little reason to follow this line. One could suggest that the tracer is the vital link, but this in turn undermines the Black Guardian's claims whilst posing as the White that he needs to be given the Key to use it since the Doctor would have surely realised that for it to be handed over was not strictly necessary.
Perhaps the main theory is that far from being sent on a great righteous quest by the White Guardian, the Doctor and Romana are in fact dispatched by the Black Guardian disguised as the White Guardian and Time Lord President and that the Shadow has been waiting in the full knowledge that the rest of the key is coming. Although not every segment is shown being put into the full Key, it is possible to see that the quest takes the Doctor and Romana to the segments in an order from bottom to top, so the Shadow could reasonably expect the rest of the Key to have already been assembled, whilst Vivian Fey may have been a precaution should the search have proceeded in a different order. Although it may well have not been what the production team intended at all, and does still leave the question of why a warning is sent to the Doctor and Romana at the start of The Stones of Blood or explain why the White Guardian makes no appearance at all, this way of looking at the season makes a great deal more sense. Although it might have come across as a little coy, the season may well have benefited from converting The Armageddon Factor into a four part story and using the additional two episodes to start and finish the season. This would allow for more scope to both the start of the quest and possibly even provide some degree of visual warning about the threat, whilst the conclusion would focus more directly upon the Doctor's encounter with the Black Guardian. This would also have meant that the all important opening and closing scenes to the series were not being forced to compete for time with the demands of the individual stories they are set in.
Production wise season 16 manages to maintain some reasonably consistent standards, though there is a tendency towards weaker acting in the stories that are already poor script wise, with the result that the overall quality of the stories can vary heavily based on such fluctuating circumstances. The scripts are a mixture of the exciting and daring, such as The Pirate Planet, The Androids of Tara and The Armageddon Factor to the more pedestrian efforts of The Ribos Operation, The Stones of Blood and The Power of Kroll. But between them the six stories succeed in taking the Doctor on an extremely diverse journey. We get to visit Earth only once, whilst we also get to see a wide mixture of societies from feudal to technological to primitive to military. Above all the stories all stand or fall on their own but the overall umbrella theme makes for a sense of continuity.
It is the supreme irony though that after a season of stories in which the Doctor has been given a sense of purpose to his wanderings, he then goes and installs the Randomiser, supposedly to make it harder for the Black Guardian to locate him, but in practical terms now making him once more a random wanderer with no sense of purpose at all. But after having completed one great quest it is a good move to take the Doctor and the series back to one of its original roots. It is possible to view the stories in this season on an individual basis, but as a whole they bring an entire extra dimension. This is definitely one to watch in order. 7/10
The Key to success! by Joe Ford 26/11/02
What is otherwise known as the 'umbrella season' but the reason for that I could not guess. It was very brave to link an entire season along, done only once before (the SF linked season twelve) and once after (the much maligned and underated Trial of a Time Lord). Doctor Who has always thrived on its versatility, so to have a common thread running through six stories threatens to ruin the basic structure of the show but to the credit of the producers and the writers this isn't the case here. The six stories are vastly different and the only real similar element is the abundance of humour they all thrive on.
Season sixteen is justifiably the most popular Graeme Williams season, people who hate season fifteen and seventeen cannot use their complaints on this year (looks crap, too silly) as each story carries a certain charm, the humour is there but it doesn't poison the stories, it merely enhances their appeal.
The Ribos Operation: The Key to Time season starts very promisingly with the introduction of the new companion Romana. Tamm and Baker bounce off each other perfectly and their rapport is very funny. The story itself is excellently written with a real heart of creativity, the planet Ribos and its inhabitants are fascinating and despite it's studio bound limitations it is looks gorgeous thanks to some detailed sets. Garron is my favourite character, his overblown stories about his past are brilliant but the tragic Binro (one of the few characters in the series to elicit real sympathy) and Unstoffe are worthy of a mention to. Dudley Simpson impresses with a superb score, his theme when Unstoffe is sneaking about stealing the Jethryk is great. A clever tale of bluffs and double bluffs: 8/10
"He was an Arab, I sold him Sydney harbour for fifty million dollars! But he thought I should throw in the Opera House as well! Naturally I refused, I couldn't let that noble heritage fall into such disreputable hands now could I? But my refusal upset him... he took the impressive documents I prepared to the government and so my little ruse was prematurely rumbled! He came after me... with a machine gun! A most harrowing experience... I never went back."
The Pirate Planet: Another winner but thanks to an underwhelming production it is less watchable to someone brought up on The X-Files and such like. The ideas are very clever and surreal and the first Douglas Adams script is brimming with witty one liners and characters. The Captain who at first seems blustery and OTT later becomes a tragic character as the true villain of the piece is revealed. And while Tamm is a little annoying this time out (just a little too arrogant for my tastes!) Baker continues to impress, his comic timing proving as perfect as his panache for straight drama. Watch out for the tense scene between the Doctor and the Captain in episode three: 8/10
"For you commit mass destruction on a scale that's almost inconceivable
and you ask me to appreciate it! Just because happen to have made a
brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets!"
"Devil storms Doctor, it is not a toy!"
"Then what's it FOR! Hmm? Why are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?"
The Stones of Blood: The priceless interaction between the Doctor and Amelia Rumford alone makes this an instant classic. The fact that it's an intelligent tale packed with smart dialogue and some the best jokes the show has produced is masterful. Yes the Ogri aren't all that terrifying and Vivian Fey is so obviously the villain but the show is hugely watchable on the sheer charisma of all the actors involved. K.9. (hardly my favourite addition to the show) is even put to good use. The first couple of episodes have the unexpected ability to be spooky too with some very effective incidental music. Episode four is pretty pointless all things considered but the Megara are so funny (and really cute!) it doesn't really matter. A fine celebratory one hundredth story: 9/10
"Now look if you hear the Ogri run as if something very nasty were
coming after you because, well, something very nasty will be coming after
"But what about you?"
"Oh don't worry I'll be doing plenty of that anyway!"
"I still don't understand about hyperspace" - "Well who does?" - "I do!"- "Oh shut up K.9.!"
The Androids of Tara: Another very funny David Fisher story... he has a great talent of creating hysterical and charming characters without belittling the drama one jot. This is probably the most pointless Who adventure ever made which is why it's so much fun. The Key segment is found within minutes of arriving which leaves plenty of time to have a dashing adventure full of sword fights, doppelgangers, androids, brilliantly camp costumes and villains that are so arch it hurts! It looks stunning thanks to some luscious location work and all the actors are on form. The last in a great quartet of stories (who said Williams couldn't deliver?): 8/10
"Next time I shall not be so lenient!"
The Power of Kroll: It's not bad per se but it's poor compared to the previous shows. At four episodes the story of a giant squid worshipped by a bunch of half naked green tribesmen drags somewhat. Shocking really when you realise it's written by the otherwise flawless Robert Holmes (however there are faint traces of his sparkling humour). A lot of the performances are below par and Mary Tamm looks as though she's not even trying (her cliffhanging acting to part one always leaves me cringing!) However Kroll turns out quite convincing (a shock considering this era's track record with it's monsters!) and part four is actually the best (another shock in any period of Who!) with some genuine tension as Kroll attacks the Doctor on the rig. Fairly average: 5/10
"You'd better introduce me"
"Oh I don't know, a wise and wonderful person who wants to help. Don't exaggerate."
The Armageddon Factor: Such a shame to end a generally great season on such a dud! A cheap looking, horribly acted, poorly scripted monster of a story. Even the appealing aspects of the story... the Doctor's hysterical confrontation with the Marshall and Drax, a fun character who talks in good old cockney are swamped by the story's faults. Lalla Ward is so wet here you have to wonder why they chose her to play Romana next year. At six episodes it just goes on and on with endless corridor chases and K.9. pisses me off even more than usual as he gets it on with a weapon of mass destruction! Very poor: 2/10
"Are you listening to me Romana?"
"Yes of course I'm listening!"
"Because 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 universe, there's only my will because I possess the Key to Time!"
"Doctor are you alright?"
"Yes of course I'm alright but supposing I wasn't alright? That's just how I feel about others feeling about this thing! Do you know what I'm saying?"
"What am I saying?"
"Yes, as soon as we give this to the White Guardian???"
Re-watching these old Graeme Williams stories has proved something quite invaluable to me that I had begun to forget. Maybe some of the later, flasher JNT productions are the well remembered for their fab-o location work and FX but it is the stories behind the Williams era that will last a lifetime. You see, it's so easy for special effects and production elements to date, technology is advancing all the time but you can never, ever take away the potency and intelligence of a good story. Attack of the Cybermen, Resurection of the Daleks, Silver Nemesis may full of action, bangs and flashes but in the end of the day who wants these pithy rewards when the story is so damn convoluted and hard to follow? The hysterical double dealing plot of Ribos is marvellously clever, Holmes holds the story up with his magical characters and this wonderful new world to visit. Pirate Planet is chock a block full of zany, imagination bursting ideas and has possibly the most dramatic and thought provoking twist the series ever offered (see my review of that story for more on that). The Stones of Blood trades on its sparkling dialogue and thoughtful characters and the back stabbing shenanigans of Grendel in Androids of Tara are funny in the extreme ("The counts just offered me the throne!"). Maybe some of these stories aren't recorded on film, don't have FX that make you want to show all your friends (like say the beginning of Trial), but they are all well paced, well told stories. I know which stories I accidentally quote in casual conversation with my friends ("How paralysingly dull, tedious and boring" comes in handy in many situations but "Yes but I suppose after the first few centuries things get a bit foggy, don't they?" and "Bafflegab my dear, I don't think I've heard somuch bafflegab in all my life!" also manage to raise a smile.
And what characters! From the outrageously camp Mr Fibuli (surely the campest character in all Who after Benik from Enemy of the World!) to the barmy Amelia Rumford ("In the cause of science I think it's out duty to capture that creature!" "How? Have you got a plan?" "We could track it to its lair!" "COME ON!") this season is considerably enriched by the colourful characterisation each story. Even lesser characters like Rhom Dhutt and Drax (although admittedly they aspire from dull stories so its hardly fair to critisise) have moments to shine. Like I say I would rather listen to a tragic, mistreated character like Binro ("Have you ever looked up into the sky at night and seen those little lights? They are not ice crystals, I believe they are sun, just like our own sun!") than hear Colin spout out continuity about Mondas and Earth (sorry Col, I still love ya!). What marks out the characters of the Williams era is we aren't loaded with too many and get to explore them a little deeper in the stories. We get to see their beliefs, their hopes, and dreams. And there are some clever tricks affot, I love how the Captain in The Pirate Planet is revealed to be a slave at the climax and that his nurse was the true villain all along.
The dialogue defines the characters so well. Garron, The Captain, Amelia and the Marshal are marked by their particularly verbose nature. Fibuli grovels all the time. The Doctor himself is given an especially sarcastic line of dialogue that separates him from everybody leading to Romana's hysterical assessment ("You do realise that sarcasm is an adjusted stress reaction!"). And so much of it sparkles. I cannot think of any season that has offered delights such as -
I have been extremely critical about Mary Tamm's performance as Romana in the past preferring the much juicier Lalla Ward version. I would now like to put on record that she is quite acceptable, but more so in the first half of the season. Her rivalry with the Doctor in Ribos is the best you see of her, they sure send sparks flying around the console in that one. She is basically ignored in Pirate Planet or comes across as a bit of a stuck up bitch. The Stones of Blood gives her more to work with and it's back to the sparkling Doctor/Romana interaction again ("Well you please yourself, I'm no fashion expert" "No" she agrees). Androids gives her a double (actually triple!) role and although she does underplay somewhat compared to the flying egos everywhere else she is still clearly having a hoot and a giggle ("Go charger! Start!"). It's Robert Holmes' terrible mistreatment of the character where it starts to go wrong. He has her tied to a stake, screaming (not very well) at obviously fake monsters and not making any of the astute dry asides she did in Ribos. Armageddon is so weak a story that the return to form for Romana is hardly noticeable. Overall she is okay, I just think Tamm doesn't have the gravity or style of Lalla, but that's just my opinion.
Season sixteen is quite a delight. A sumptuous, colourful delight. The Key to Time was a brilliant idea and the stories manage to have their own induvidual flavours despite the running theme. I take issue to the underwhelming manner in which that plot is tied up by the search for the segments gives the season a purpose, a reason for all these joyful adventures.
Personally I think the season rocks, in a way that only Doctor Who can.
"Never trust gimmicky gadgets" by Terrence Keenan 6/11/03
If season 15 was the transition season between what Hinchcliffe & Holmes thought Who was about and where Graham Williams wanted to take the show, Season 16 is the first full strength season of Williams's literary ideas, dollops of humor, big ideas and literary referencing.
What I always find a bit surprising is that none of the previous creative teams ever tried the concept of an "umbrella" season before this. Technically, you could make an argument that Season 7 is unified under the UNIT/Exile plot devices, and there have been interlinked stories -- Frontier in Space/Planet of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen/The Web of Fear -- within individual seasons, but it took Graham Williams to make it an official concept.
One thing I'm glad is that neither Leela, nor Sarah Jane Smith returned to help in the quest for the key -- Graham Williams had first wanted Louise Jameson to stay, then contacted Lis Sladen and asked her to return -- because if either had occurred, we'd be deprived of one of the best companions, the Lady Romanadvoratrelundar. For the Key to Time season is also about her growth and understanding of the Doctor's ways/methods.
Conventional fan wisdom marks Mary Tamm's Romana as an ice queen. Wrong. She's a bit stuffy, but coming from Gallifrey, that should be expected. What many fans miss is her gung-ho spirit, her earnestness to learn about everything along the way. So, in The Ribos Operation, the Doctor and Romana clash quite a bit on methodology, but by The Armageddon Factor, they are working as partners, not as teacher and student, and are on the same page.
Gareth Roberts's essay on the Graham Williams era (in Licence Denied) brings up a very interesting point about the Doctor's main adversaries in his period being people without a sense of humor. If you think about it, none of the following would know a joke if it bit them on the ass, or have a laugh if their life depended on it: Vivien Fay, The Graf Vynda-K, Thawn, the Captain, Queen Xanxia, and the Shadow all have serious deficiencies in the humor department. You could make the argument that the reason Count Grendel is allowed to live at the end of The Androids of Tara is that he does have some wit and charm.
One of the more interesting things in the Key season is that the stakes are really low in three of the serials. The Ribos Operation is about a con job. The Androids of Tara is about politics (and has only one character die, by accident). The Stones of Blood features a criminal on the lamb. In fact, only The Armageddon Factor has really high stakes, not only in terms of the war between Atrios and Zeos, but also that the final showdown with the Key will go down. Kroll may be a humongous mutant squid, but it's not like it can leave Delta Magna's third moon. The Pirate Planet has planets being destroyed for the most insane of reasons, but the Key is definitely an afterthought, another joke for Douglas Adams to set up and play off.
As far as the individual stories go, two are absolute standouts -- The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara -- while the other four are flawed in various ways, but entertaining and watchable (yes, even Kroll). Characterization within the first four stories are strong, another Williams trademark. And each of the stories, except for The Stones of Blood and The Armageddon Factor, feature strong plots. Tom Baker and the gorgeous Mary Tamm also give strong performances in all six stories and have brilliant chemistry together. By the second episode of The Ribos Operation, Tom and Mary act like they been together far longer than the story shows.
I should touch on the Guardians. An interesting concept, they were meant to take the place of the Time Lords as the "Gods" of the series. Unfortunately, only the White Guardian comes across as such, mainly due to Bob Holmes adding a scary insouciance to the White Guardian, while Bob Baker and Dave Martin make the Black Guardian seem more of a bog-standard villain.
So, I think that the Key to Time season, flaws and all, is one of the better Doctor Who seasons. I don't think of it in terms of show continuity, but in terms of how Graham Williams thought of where the show should be going -- strong characters & plots, big ideas -- and the theme of having a sense of fun and humor is important in the Universe, even when the stakes are really high.
A Review by James Neiro 21/9/10
After previous strong seasons, the Key To Time Saga would prove to be immensely dissapointing. With dull scripts and poor production values, at times what could have been a season-long event just fell flat. The story arc involved the legendary Key to Time and when universal balance was upset, the White Guardian enlisted the Doctor to gather the Key's six segments. And there our story begins.
The Ribos Operation would be considered the season's strongest episode, introducing the viewer to the mythology behind the Key, the existence of White and Black Guardians and a new companion, another Time Lord, played the elegant Mary Tamm. With its high production values - love the snow! - and great casting, the The Ribos Operation would be a deemed a success by long-time fans. The quest for the first segment would take them to the shivering planet Ribos, a medieval world that a galactic con man was to sell to a Prince. And that was the best Season 16 had to offer... it just went downhill from there.
The Pirate Planet followed with a tedious storyline and an enemy so over the top you either loved him or wanted the television turned off...now. In this episode, the Doctor and Romana find that the second segment to the Key to Time is on the planet Calufrax. Arriving on the wrong planet they find the world has been hollowed out and fitted with engines, allowing its insane half-cyborg Captain to materialise it around other smaller planets and plunder their resources. A very cool little plot, but like all stories in this season, just didn't feel quite right.
Searching for the third segment brought the Timelords to 1970s Earth in the dreadful The Stones of Blood. The plot would involve the travellers having to contend with stone circles, Druidic rituals and a not-so-mythical goddess known as the Cailleach. The only part of the story I liked was the 'nod' to previous Baker stories ie. a dead Wirrn from The Ark in Space and the Kraal android from The Android Invasion.
The equally boring Androids of Tara aired next, where finding the fourth segment of the Key was simple enough, but holding onto it was another matter. The Time Lords found themselves embroiled in the political games of the planet Tara, where doubles, android or otherwise, complicate the coronation of Prince Reynart.
The arc dragged on with the following Power of Kroll where the Doctor and Romana arrive on the marsh moon of Delta Magna in search of the fifth segment of the Key to Time, but are caught in the conflict between the native Swampies and the crew of a chemical refinery. The presence of a gunrunner complicates matters, and to make things worse, the Swampies intend to awaken Kroll, the giant god that lives beneath the swamps. I kind of liked this story, a different setting for a change keeping us away from dull corridors, but alas, as with all stories this season, it was a bit of a snoozer.
I celebrated the end of the season with The Armageddon Factor where the quest for the final segment brings the Time Lords to Atrios, a world caught in a perpetual, stalemated war with its planetary neighbour Zeos. This would be Mary Tamm's final episode playing Romana. Tamm was not initially interested in playing a companion to the Doctor as she believed that the role was merely that of the damsel in distress. She changed her mind when assured by the producers that Romana would be different. Mary did however choose to leave, citing that the character had reverted to the traditional assistant role and could not be developed any further.
With a below-average season finally concluded, viewers could expect far better when the show returned for a new series. Or could they...?
Six Perspectives on the Key to Time by Stephen Maslin 16/8/12
The Key to Time: a Cosmological Perspective
"I suppose you think we should be impressed by that..."
It would be unsurprising, in such a fecund source of discussion as classic Doctor Who, if the following has not already been answered more than once but... The Key to Time - the actual key itself, rather than the six programmes of Season 16 which have come to be known under that umbrella: created or uncreated? That is to say, either:
a) it was manufactured or b) it came into existence as a result of natural processes.
If b), then, out of a soup of elementary particles, the Key's basic materials and eventually the Key itself gradually coalesced, just like everything else. In the same way that, say, the planet Neptune just happens to be blue, just happens to have the fastest winds in our solar system and just happens to have one large moon that orbits in the wrong direction (which just happens to suggest that it was captured rather than co-created), thus The Key to Time just happens to keep time in balance. The unlikeliness built into this train of thought is that something that can be held in your hand, the result of natural processes, is capable of such a specific and yet all-pervading function. It's a key after all, not a key's omnipotent owner, nor, it would seem, a force of nature like gravity. (Just ask Madam Lamia, who spent half an episode of The Androids of Tara trying to drill a hole in part of it.)
So we are left with the more believable first option a), that the Key was made, by person or persons known or unknown, its unique properties either intended or an accidental by-product. Which leads on to one further and rather obvious question: made by whom? The likely candidates are The Time Lords (the Guardians' mutual antagonism ruling them out as having sole or dual responsibility) and, Time Lords being Time Lords, the key is almost certainly a form of control. Eternal chaos is just around the corner without it, or so we - and the Doctor - are led to believe. Not for one minute am I saying that the Key is unimportant, just that its importance seems to be as manufactured as the key itself, more a law of the land than a law of nature. The implication is that the Key is not a metaphysical object in any way: it is one of the means, possibly the primary means, by which a powerful elite holds on to power. As such, the White Guardian is their publicity officer, its spin doctor if you will, and the Doctor is a reluctant dupe.
Once the preamble is out of the way, The Ribos Operation, though not that much pacier than its cumbersome, expositional introduction, is a marvellous script peopled with excellent characters. Robert Holmes, yet again, I salute you. The Ribos Operation 9/10
The Key to Time: a Religious Perspective
"I assume you know where we're going..."
For a young child, things like 'Dad' and 'Messiah' and 'TV hero with a Sonic Screwdriver' are not a million miles apart. If there is a problem with the world, it can be solved by someone who is better than you are, a twenty-four hour call-out Reassurance Engineer. (Indeed, the Freudian idea of God is that He functions as a 'magnified father' for those who are unable to take responsibility for their own life choices.) The Key to Time arc, like almost all television and almost all religion, underlines one single point: it is a stimulus toward loyalty. Keep watching, keep believing.
The Doctor has often been considered a kind of messianic figure, arising out of the westernized tradition of monotheistic redemption. Yet the religion with which the character superficially has most in common is Hinduism, specifically the Vaishnavite variety. Vishnu is distinctive as a deity for reappearing in different guises whenever the universe is great peril. (Ring any bells?) The Key to Time is just such a danger. Traditionally, the avatara of Vishnu are ten in number which kind of spoils the drawing of parallels but of all the rather pointless potential equivalences, the Fourth Doctor with the fourth avatar, the half man, half lion Narashingha is the best fit: there's something decidedly unworldly and untamable about both of them though, throughout the Key to Time, we mostly see this avatar's benevolent side, perhaps even his most gentle. Only in The Pirate Planet, amidst all the joking and references to sweets, do we see the leonine side come out, when the Doctor is shown the remains of the planets that have been destroyed. "What's it for?!". It takes a while but is all the more jarring when it does. It not as commanding as "Hydrax!" in State of Decay; or as powerful as "I doubt it, Morbius!"; nor does it capture the petulant dread in almost every utterance during the early stages of The Pyramids of Mars. It is more in keeping with the half-baked religious analogy above; that is, with Narashingha as an expression of divine indignation.
Divine indignation or not, The Pirate Planet is, for the most part, way over the top and far from perfect but it is great, great fun. The Pirate Planet 8/10
The Key to Time: a Biographical Perspective
"I know you're under considerable strain..."
Whenever I think of Tom Baker in the company of children, I think of a particular photo taken during the filming of The Stones of Blood: pen in hand, in mid-autograph, with a huge grin and a gaggle of awestruck children around him. Whenever he was to use the phrase "a hero to children" in later interviews, this is the image I am put in mind of: a national institution that had weathered many a storm and come up beaming, his place in history finally assured. This is not only the time before the presence of Lalla Ward made recording such an emotional roller-coaster: it is also before Shada's cancellation took a huge shine off things and before John Nathan-Turner put his foot down. It is also the time just prior to Tom being allowed to do pretty well what he liked and become the low-grade music hall artiste seen in Nightmare of Eden. The Key to Time is Tom at his least alien, at his most charming and, perhaps even at his happiest, though certainly cowed by his pre-season experience with Paul Seed's dog and by having such an imperious leading lady (and not in any sense the worse for either).
Or perhaps, in the case of The Stones of Blood, imperious ladies plural. There's a lot wrong with the story as a whole (the unpleasant incongruity of the death of the campers, the final court case, Romana falling off the cliff left behind from The Android Invasion - where did that sea come from?) Yet, thanks in no small part to the exceptional chemistry between Tom Baker and Beatrix Lehmann, when it's good, it's very, very, good. Maestro, cellos please! The Stones of Blood 9/10
The Key to Time: a Geographical Perspective
"I thought you'd escaped..."
Scottish and Welsh people quite rightly get upset about something that is strictly speaking 'British' being described as 'English'. Check the end credits to every extant Doctor Who episode and you will see that it's the BBC and not the EBC. Yet even though two later Doctors are actually Scottish, there is something distinctly English about Doctor Who. Even when it was meant to be Scottish, it was recorded in the south of England (The Highlanders in Surrey and Ealing Studios, Terror of the Zygons in Sussex, both about as far away from the Highlands as you could possibly be while still standing on the same landmass). More to the point, even when a story is set far, far away, the setting often remains very 'Home Counties'. It is obvious why: budget restrictions are travel restrictions (it's worth pointing out that the classic show's few foreign excursions had the habit of wrecking the rest of the season in which they featured: Paris & the rest of Season 17; Amsterdam & the rest of Season 20; Seville & the rest of Season 22...) The show's most English story is probably Black Orchid (1982): steam trains, a cricket match, a murder mystery in a big country house... but its most English season of all is, I think, Season 13 (1976). Only Planet of Evil, the worst story of a strong season, is totally without Englishness (Brain of Morbius having that very English notion of Hammer Horror Transylvania).
So where, so to speak, is The Key to Time? The Ribos Operation is perhaps more Russian - all fur trimmings and flurries of snow - though the Graff Vinda K is a very English villain and Garron a very, very English lovable rogue; The Pirate Planet looks exactly like what it is: a studio somewhere in London and a power station somewhere to the west of London, though the cave sequences were filmed in Wales; The Stones of Blood could not be more English if it were sponsored by a tea importer and had a cast dressed in Beefeater costumes and yet it is out-Englished by The Androids of Tara. The Power of Kroll's wetlands are an almost vanished landscape in Britain now, but English it most definitely was (and, once upon a time, there was a famous British environmental protester known as Swampy, though probably not in deference to the primitive inhabitants of the third moon of Delta Magna). The Armageddon Factor is geographically the odd one out, not merely because it is so studio bound (or that it's not very good), but because it so fails to establish any sense of place at all. It leaves no image in your mind whatsoever. Such a shame that, instead of trying to maintain the illusion that Doctor Who doesn't always end up within a fifty mile radius around London, they couldn't have rounded off the entire season with something as absurdly English as Shada should later have been. Alas...
Still we can always content ourselves with Doctor Who's swashbucklingest yarn which not even such a naff monster as the Taran Woodbeast can spoil. Tara is the show's greatest place of refuge. The Androids of Tara 10/10
The Key to Time: a Socio-Historical Perspective
"I think it's this way..."
Say the word 'rat' to an old-school Doctor Who fan and they would immediately think of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Real rats, as opposed to unconvincing giant ones, were rarely seen in Britain back when that story was broadcast. Less than two years later, during the broadcast run of The Key to Time, they were to become a relatively common sight. Industrial unrest had returned to Britain: hospitals were only taking emergency cases and uncollected refuse was piling up in the streets (and there is nothing a rat likes better than a big pile of rubbish to root around in). This was the so-called 'Winter of Discontent', a profoundly disturbing few months for British society. Perhaps it was appropriate that the Doctor Who of that time should be at its most escapist. (At least there were no blackouts - unlike earlier in the decade - so you could at least watch TV to comfort yourself that somethings never changed, or had yet to change.) The necessary lag between events out in the real world and what one sees on screen means that it is Season 17, not 16, that is the real mirror to the Winter of Discontent. The desperate attempts at humour, the equally desperate struggle just to get things done, even escaping the country at one point... Season 16 more accurately has a feeling of relative optimism that pervaded the period after 'Punk is here and we're all going to die' and before 'The rats, the rats!' It didn't last long in the world outside, but hung on onscreen for a little while. The Key to Time season is also the last one pre-Thatcher. However bad things were before she took the reigns of power, there was, in spite of economic turmoil, still some vestige of community, something that Doctor Who thrived on. It is no coincidence that a country whose incoming Prime Minister stated that there was 'no such thing as society' became less attracted to a program with such a patrician air as Classic Who.
Whatever the state of the world, the words 'by Robert Holmes' should be enough to dispel the heaviest gloom. Even the greats have an off day, though The Power of Kroll is nowhere near as bad as everyone says... but the direction is terribly flat, the Swampies are an embarassment and the end result less than scintillating. The Power of Kroll 5/10
The Key to Time: a Cultural Perspective
"End of the road, finito..."
We tend to think of Cricket as an 'English' game. Many people tend to think of Doctor Who as an 'English' program (though, as I said before, strictly speaking it is a British one). For both, the mid-seventies (specifically 1976) were their defining moment: on-field aggression and on-screen violence. It is no coincidence that the Punk movement, in its British variety, arose at the same time. In 1976, the West Indies team, well known for their cheery, 'calypso' cricket, were subjected to an Australian bowling attack of previously unknown ferocity, bordering on rule-breaking, indeed bordering on criminality. Its dual perpetrators - Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson - aimed at nothing else than to frighten or concuss their opponents into submission. Such brutality was almost unknown. Over the next few years, the West Indies - visibly shaken by the whole experience - would rethink their relaxed approach to the game, perfect the Australians' ruthless method and come to dominate the sport for years afterwards. The sport would never be the same again and Caribbean culture would assume a new confidence and vitality. Punk had a lasting effect on whatever it touched, though it was not the music that was transformative but the angsty cynicism, which infected both the anarchic nihilism of its core audience and the reactionary free-market capitalism that became its opposite. A far more durable musical influence from around that time was also West Indian in origin: Dub Reggae.
Now Doctor Who has often been held up as a model for the prevailing Zeitgeist: wherever society went, it either predicted, prefaced or followed tumbling after, a Greek chorus for the late twentieth century. Unlike cricket or the punk movement, it was never a spur to social change; like dub reggae, it was more of a technical and analytic beast. Yet for the first decade and a half of its existence, it generally felt in step with the times. At least until The Key to Time.
There had been increasingly severe stories from around the time of Genesis of the Daleks: a consistently dark tone to Season 13; the intentional strangeness of The Deadly Assassin; The Horror of Fang Rock as a seeming refusal to bow the knee to a moralizing minority; Image of the Fendahl gestured toward some very dark corners; The Sun Makers was the show's most morally ambivalent to date; The Invasion of Time completed The Deadly Assassin's demolition job of Gallifrey by having the Doctor, its most wayward and yet most favoured son, turn villain for four episodes. It has often been thought that the immediately post-Whitehouse, post-Assassin, post-Hinchcliffe era was somewhat of a sanitized affair. In part only.
Yet at a time when Britain was fragmenting into factional ruin, with Punk and the tabloid media doing battle the soul of the nation, when cricket's former gentility had been replaced by a dark shadow more potentially dangerous than almost any other major sport that did not employ the internal combustion engine (and when dub reggae was beginning its mission to add a layer of crazed abstraction to popular culture, at the very root of almost every dance-related subculture right up to the modern day), Doctor Who did... did what, exactly?
By the standards of the day, The Key to Time was toothless and anodyne. Everything of any depth in those days was judged by the stands it took. There were at least two antithetical sides to everything and your place in the world was defined by which side you chose. Certain areas of intellectual life - philosophy and architecture being the two most notable - had begun to stray away from certainty as the basis for cultural expression but the majority were still manning whatever barricades came to hand. Doctor Who, formerly a vehicle for paternal liberalism but increasingly radical as it grew into its own teenage years was, in the year of its fifteenth anniversary, viewed as rather insipid by both progressives and reactionaries. That The Key to Time has four of the show's finest stories was certainly not recognized at the time. The Ribos Operation could not match Fang Rock for its, er, horror; The Pirate Planet had none of the weight of The Ark in Space; The Stones of Blood was nowhere near Assassin's breathtaking iconoclasm; The Androids of Tara was mere whimsy compared to Genesis of the Daleks and nothing but flowery nonsense up against The Sun Makers' political edge. Yet all of them - all of them - are more enjoyable and, viewed as a unity, more consistent. The show was not considered 'relevant' (it was the fashion of the time that things should be so considered) and was thought to have been emasculated by pressures of self-censorship, weighed down by budget restraints and humiliated by Star Wars. Yet, it made television that, now the dust has cleared, can be seen for the quality it was.
The West Indies cricket team, after being the sport's most formidable exponents for many years, are now a generally indifferent entity. Many hope that they return to glory to herald a new golden age for a sport that is in danger of losing its uniqueness under a blanket of money, marketing and popularization at any cost. Punk suffered the indignity of becoming less fashionable than the stock market, without even a coherent nihilism to see it through; merely something to be seen, a uniform to be worn, representing nothing, saying nothing, its music not only lacking sophistication but also originality: like the fifties, only slightly faster and with its anger less well-hidden. Doctor Who suffered decline too: it seemed terminal. Its resurgence is gratifying but, like the dumbed-down versions of cricket that are being touted in the 21st century, or pop-punk without the politics, it is so at odds with the classic era as to have virtually no real points of contact. It is the same show in name and outward appearances only. For one reason or another, I do not feel that the Eleventh Doctor's era, good though some of it undoubtedly is, will have people spending time more than thirty years after the fact on expressing such appreciation and nostalgia as The Key to Time still inspires.
It's just such a shame that there were six keys rather than four. The Power of Kroll had been dull but The Armageddon Factor is all over the place, with not a scrap of wit or charm. Baker and Martin's first script for Doctor Who, The Claws of Axos, had its similarly artless dialogue obscured by a breathtaking visual style (and freak weather) but so little money remained for The Key to Time finale as to deny us even that salvation. The Armageddon Factor 2/10
The Key to Time: a Musical Perspective
Dudley Simpson - the permanently over-worked Dudley Simpson, the permanently overlooked Dudley Simpson - had his ups and downs, lord knows, but his music for Season 16 is some of his best. Stones of Blood's cellos, Tara's horns and harpsichord, Ribos' church organ are so much part of the fabric of it all... Like everyone else involved in the season's production, he ran out of steam but who can blame him? (Twenty-six episodes worth of incidental music, written and recorded?!) His near total ubiquity at the compositional helm from 1973 to 1979 is much more a part of the feel of the show's golden age than he is ever given credit for, to the extent that you only notice him on the rare occasions when he's not there. He is the third major contributor to that time, behind Messrs Tom Baker and Robert Holmes, which really is saying something.