Big Finish Productions
Seven Keys to Doomsday

Written by Terrence Dicks Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2008

Starring Trevor Martin

Synopsis: A newly-regenerated Doctor takes his young companions, Jenny and Jimmy, to the desolate world of Karn. There they must face terrifying monsters and brave fiendish traps to locate seven crystal keys. If they fail in their task, the DoctorÕs arch enemies, the Daleks, will unleash their evil upon the entire universe!


A Review by E. John Winner 24/9/12

This has become one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time. Critics will complain it is full of cliches; they miss the point. The Seven Keys to Doomsday is nothing but cliches, every scene, every line of dialogue, every inflection of performance. But they are Doctor Who cliches; mostly of the classic series, and mostly of the late '60s, early '70s, but some so indelibly imprinted in the Doctor Who phenomenon, they recur in various forms today. If anyone asks, what is the perfect distillation of the Doctor Who formula - at least of the Classic Series - it is this play.

Jenny and Jimmy are attending a play when a blue police call box suddenly appears directly in front of them. A man stumbles out, obviously wounded. He asks for their help getting back into the police box and, reluctantly, they agree. Once inside they find it bigger on the inside... and the door closes, the time-rotor hums and off they all go. The wounded man regenerates and announces himself as the Doctor, on a mission to Karn for the Time Lords, having to do with a mysterious 'crystal of all power.'

On Karn (a planet sounding suspiciously like an abandoned quarry), the trio are harrassed by suspicious rebels fighting an as-yet unknown enemy; hairy, semi-intelligent crab-like creatures call 'clawrantulas'; a rigid, death-dealing super-computer; the decaying intelligence of the last Master of Karn; and, of course, those loveable metallic bugs from Skaro, the Daleks, who need the crystal for a weapon that threatens all organic life in the universe but their own. Along the way, they encounter a lot of running about in corridors and tunnels; captures and escapes; betrayals and redemptions; freeing prisoners and giving new hope to the rebels, logical conundrums, verbal parrying (with a good dose of ironic quipping), plot twists and explosions. Yes, it's Saturday tea-time all over again.

Can any story be more classic Doctor Who than this? It not only summarizes a great number of the elements of the non-Earth-bound Who adventures of the pre-Tom-Baker series, but its occasional innovations themselves reappear in the Fourth Doctor series. (Its basic plot device - the search for the crystal of power - eventually regenerates into the Key to Time sequence.) And, why not? It is, after all, written by the most prolific writer in the history of Who fiction, Terrance Dicks, at the time still deeply involved in the writing and script editing of the television series. There's no doubt that, even with these credentials, Dicks could sometimes fall on his face; his next effort at Who theatrical drama, The Ultimate Adventure, leaves much to be desired. But here he is in fine form and full vigor.

Further, it must be noted that Seven Keys is satisfyingly constructed for a family audience, in a way that is clear and unquestionable (unlike the TV series that had long wobbled between thrills for the kiddies and adult sci-fi, in a manner the would get more problematic as the years went on). For instance: Clawrantulas. I have read fans remarking that they cringe whenever they hear that word. But let's be honest; any kid of ten or twelve would not only love to hide from such a monster, but would enjoy letting the word itself roll around on their tongue: 'Clawrantula, clawrantula, clawrantula!' This is not only traditional Doctor Who, this is whiz-bang, golly-gee Doctor Who; the kind of Who that reminds one what it's like to be an imaginative young person and not a crabby old fart obsessed with diets, bills, annoying neighbors and public-transportation problems.

All of this wouldn't matter if the performance of the play weren't brought off with considerable style and integrity, but it is. The Big Finish production of the play is beautifully done, with a simple but rich sound-design, and an energetic and well-directed cast, including Trevor Martin, who played the Doctor in the original theatrical production. The pacing is even throughout, with just enough thoughtful pauses to remind us that the Doctor is not only highly intelligent but frquently wise as well - and yet, despite his years, an able adventurer.

This is just an exciting and wonderfully traditional Who story. It would serve well as an introduction to the Doctor; it is kid-friendly; it doesn't waste time but truly entertains.

Some complain that it's not 'canonical' Doctor Who, because the regeneration scene technically disrupts the continuity time-line from Pertwee to Baker. Well, it's canon in my Who collection. (See, during the Time War... well, that's a different article.)

Look, put your prejudices aside and just enjoy. I think you'll have a grand old time. I know I do, everytime I listen to it. (And how many audio plays really survive repeated listeing? Well, this one does.)

Strangely Familiar by Thomas Cookson 23/12/12

Big Finish began adapting the old Dalek stageplays around the same time they concluded their Unbound range with Masters of War (no better way to end it than an alternate take on Dalek history), which is fitting since Seven Keys to Doomsday is the grandaddy prototype of the Unbounds. And it nearly supersedes Terror Firma as my favourite Big Finish release.

The script captures Terrance Dicks at what I'd say was the height of his powers. Much like Horror of Fang Rock and State of Decay, it shows that, at his best, Dicks could write to a standard equal to Moffat's best.

That's an apt comparison actually, because the end of the story evokes a similar poignant love letter to the Doctor as The Curse of Fatal Death. Also, the more I listened to this, the more I couldn't help seeing Jimmy and Jenny as a 1970's proto Amy and Rory.

Terrance Dicks' skill has always been in making Doctor Who accessible. Brain of Morbius, Horror of Fang Rock and The Five Doctors could easily be appreciated by someone who'd never seen the show before, and his novelisations always made the show easily digestible to young, up-and-coming fans.

Seven Keys to Doomsday could easily have worked as a second pilot for the show. The viewpoint is kept to the human characters Jimmy and Jenny, for whom all of this is new and frightening (the story and the sound production manage that perfect blend of being foreboding and enchanting, at once, hard-edged and magical). I don't believe that it's necessarily a mistake for any pilot of a Doctor Who revival to start with the Doctor regenerating. Here it's the first thing the Doctor does: as Jimmy and Jenny watch him change while the TARDIS takes them to a strange new world, it really is a lump-in-the-throat moment. It conveys just how strange this show's alien universe must be to these ordinary people. But, like the Doctor and Romana skipping a chronic hysteresis loop in Meglos, it emphasises the uplifting hope that comes with this universe's strangeness and rule-bending.

Even for long-term fans, it can convey a feeling of experiencing it all for the first time again. Like Mike Morris said of The End of the World, it's thrilling to experience a new version of the show where the rules are changed and unknown.

Listeners will spot familiar and reminiscent elements from Terrance Dicks' time as script-editor during the Pertwee years (mainly from Planet of the Daleks, The Green Death and Death to the Daleks), and elements he would reuse later in The Brain of Morbius (the ruined world of Karn), The Five Doctors (unwelcoming ancient psychic forces impeding the Doctor's quest) and The Ultimate Adventure (infiltrating the Dalek base by having one companion disguised as a Dalek). But all these elements feel subverted and warped into feeling no longer familiar. This is a different, slightly more untrustworthy Doctor and we're on a completely different, more frightening Karn; that keeps the story from ever feeling too cozy, but there is a weathered, beautiful warmth to it all the same.

Like The Ultimate Adventure, there's a tendency towards overly expositional dialogue describing their surroundings and each incidental moment of a combat scene (there's also a Terry Nation-ism in how, prior to the Daleks' appearance, there's a lot of hint hint talk about 'them'). But there's something about the delicacy of the performances that makes this delivery of descriptive dialogue somehow serene and evocative, like an artist describing a painting. Somehow, it feels natural.

These characters feel very real, and react to their predicament with very real fraught emotions, which exasperates conflict between them and the suspicious-seeming Doctor. Jenny more honestly so, whilst Jimmy seems to cover his worry with macho overconfidence, but he is markedly more cautious than Jenny too. This really adds to the sense of experiencing it all through them.

It's beautifully structured too. There are various incidental threats that tax the Doctor's intelligence, ingenuity and strength of will and allow him to assert himself as the mentally stronger hero. There is the Clawrantular monsters, the giant crab, the living computer and the last master of Karn. The latter two foes particularly convey the sense of an ancient, once-great empire that's been forgotten and abandoned. There's something deeply poignant about the last master of Karn clinging to life like a grudge, his heart withered by a millennia spent alone and by his own overblown, cold arrogance. In a way, he feels like a has-been villain, but one that haunts the present, and they all serve the sense of being a softening up before the real confrontation with the Daleks. What's particularly well done on audio is how the delicate sereneness and ghostly atmosphere of the world is ever present, but the booming, shrill Dalek voices alone are enough to shatter it and are all the more threatening and unnerving for it.

As the first disc is about the quest to locate the seven crystals, the second is about our heroes' infiltration of the Dalek base. But there's a traitor among them. Earlier the Doctor had overheard the Daleks report that they knew of his presence on Karn, and this had prompted him to split up the team so he could act without being overseen by this traitor. The cliffhanger in which the Daleks surrounded them and they barely escaped pretty much clinched it that the Daleks are being told their every move. We only have two speaking rebel characters at this point. Jeddak and Tara. There are unnamed rebels too who attack the base to help cause the diversion that will help the Doctor sneak in. And whilst this might feel like a flaw, it adds to the sense of unfamiliarity and isolation. The sense of a lone, hopeless struggle against the Daleks, and cruel years that have hardened these people. The Doctor's plan involves capturing a Dalek, removing the creature inside and getting Jenny to climb inside and impersonate a Dalek. This is lifted from Planet of the Daleks, and Jane Howe half-jokingly remarked that Rebec was only put in it to shut her up. But when Jenny pretends to be escorting the Doctor and Jimmy into the base and makes pointed threats of extermination, it really sounds like Jenny is getting a real kick out of this. And this is where I realised her character's likeness with Amy's childlike, teasing playfulness. The moment where she greets Jeddak and Tara with a surprise 'hello' in her Dalek voice to reassure them that she's not a real Dalek illuminates a sense of warmth and spirit of fun in the middle of this oppressive, haunting bleakness which makes the little jewel of a moment shine.

The climax really ties my stomach in knots, as it toys with our heroes who seem on the cusp of winning, only to be defeated by the Daleks, and forced into more and more of a corner. It accentuates the sense of homesickness for Jimmy and Jenny in how gradually hope and home seems further and further away. It's almost disorientating in its prolonged predicament and makes it feel all the more nightmarish and real. When Jimmy is briefly fooled into thinking Jenny is killed when her Dalek disguise is destroyed, it's a devastating moment, because its prolonged. Because he reacts with real grief. His resentment and distrust of the Doctor reaches its climax as he scorns him for being to blame for it all, before breaking into tears. The Doctor's chiding him that the Daleks must be stopped whatever the cost, and that their individual lives don't matter rouses him into action again to ensure Jenny's death wasn't in vain.

But it simultaneously reinforces the cold, alien detachment of this Doctor. That he is not necessarily safe company, which, coupled with his status as an Unbound alternative Doctor whom we don't necessarily know, adds to the sense of unease and unfamiliarity. It reminds us of how it felt the first time we met the Doctor in 1963. Then we get two particular sharp moments of nastiness which give the story a necessary spike and sting that retains its effect in repeated listens. First, when Tara is so overcome with guilt upon hearng of Jenny's death, she confesses everything and is revealed as the traitor. Jeddak is so riled to fury he prepares to execute her even as she weeps before him. The sense is that the long horror of the Daleks' tyranny has made these humans just as cruel, murderous and pitiless. The second is when Jenny is revealed as alive, and in the Daleks' captivity. Their menacing taunts reducing her to tears (reminiscent of Romana's interrogation in Destiny of the Daleks) and the Emperor Dalek, with skin-crawling coldness and gory detail, threatens to use the mind analysis machine to rip through her brain. Much like the Dalek Empire audios and the old Audio Visual story Planet of Lies, Nick Briggs's vocals really convey the insidious, chilling evil of the Emperor. This is why the presence of the Doctor is so reassuring as he reminds Jeddak that killing in cold blood would make him no better than his enemies, and that now Tara's come clean she can tell them what they need to know about the Daleks.

The Doctor's abhorrence of violence comes through very strongly here, in concert with his representing hope to a hopeless people who are lashing out in fear at potential allies and turning on each other. Which again gives a satisfying feeling of the story encapsulating all that Doctor Who represents. He organises yet another rebellion, and they manage to save Jenny. The rebellion is joined by the chants of 'Death to the Daleks!' as the rebels rampage against their foes in a surrender to madness and a battle to the death. Again we think this is going to be the climactic victory. But again they are defeated and there seems no end in sight. However, the Doctor manages to sneak away to the crystal-powered ultimate weapon. But he's ambushed.

I think the adaptation is somewhat spoiled by Nick Briggs' decision to replace the chief 'Gold Dalek' of the play with the recogniseable Dalek Emperor, since it makes no sense for the immobile Emperor to be part of the ambush that quickly surrounds the Doctor. Then things get personal. Again, the Emperor's dialogue evokes the galactic scope and gory horror of what the doomsday weapon will do to all living tissue across the cosmos, through well-chosen dialogue. And this personal edge allows the story to get away with the cliche of the villains making the hero activate the weapon. The Emperor genuinely feels that spiteful that he wants to really break the Doctor before killing him.

The Doctor's solution is a masterplan that Cartmel would have been proud of. Every time I hear the Doctor reveal how he has tricked the Daleks into their own destruction, it never fails to galvanise a smile of hope. Rarely before has the Daleks' evil felt so stripped down, so tangibly real, never before has despair and defeat seemed so inescapeable. To hear hope and victory pulled from its jaws is truly inspiring in our real world where too often evil does win.

The poignant goodbye is beautifully done, as he finally takes them to the comfort of home, but tries to entice them to join him for another adventure. We really sense the bond that's developed between them. How the Doctor is just a lonely old man who's become fond of their company. We saw virtually no beauty or joy on Karn, but the play's minimalism conjures other wonders and beauties out there, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience exotic alien worlds. The danger suddenly seems worth it. Frankly, if you're not on Jenny's side when she's trying to coax Jimmy to agree to come, then you have no soul.

A Glimpse into an Alternate by Jacob Licklider 23/2/22

Doctor Who and the Daleks in Seven Keys to Doomsday was the second of three stage plays to be adapted by Big Finish Productions with the title shortened to just Seven Keys to Doomsday and it is a definite improvement over The Ultimate Adventure. The story follows quite a few of the same story beats by having the Doctor and his companions landing on the planet Karn where they have to find the titular keys to doomsday before the Daleks do then get on to Skaro to defeat the Daleks. It's a simple plot, but it is much less cobbled together than The Ultimate Adventure, and this time the Daleks feel like a threat here, as they are collecting the crystals to take over the universe. It isn't anything new for the Daleks, but it does still feel like something the Daleks would do to try and become the supreme race.

What immediately jumps out to you about Seven Keys to Doomsday is just how much spectacle this play actually was. The planet Karn is a hostile place, not unlike its counterpart in The Brain of Morbius, where there are creatures that are a cross between crabs and tarantulas, an enormous Venus flytrap like alien a la Little Shop of Horrors in control of the planet and of course the Dalek Emperor from The Evil of the Daleks is featured in Act Two. That became the play's downfall: the abundance of spectacle is what caused the stage show to stop touring, as the price of moving the set pieces became too great.

Trevor Martin plays the Doctor in the adaptation much as he played him in the actual stage show. Martin's Doctor is a toned down version of William Hartnell's Doctor, but with the major difference of having the universe's best interests above that of his companions. It's a really interesting way of portraying the Doctor, and Martin really deserves to return if Big Finish ever decide to revive the Unbound range of adventures. While on stage he regenerated from Jon Pertwee, in the adaptation he regenerated from Nicholas Briggs' Doctor which may place this story into the Audio Visuals range of stories. Jimmy and Jenny, played by Joe Thompson and Charlie Hayes, are this Doctor's companions in this story, and they are the weakest point of the story. They're both one-note copies of Ian and Barbara, with Jimmy being the skeptic and Jenny being the realist in the situations. They serve the purpose of companions admirably for the most part, but the real draw to then is the fact that Jenny was originally played by Wendy Padbury in the original show, but now her daughter is taking on the role.

A problem with The Ultimate Adventure that Seven Keys to Doomsday manages to avoid is that its supporting cast isn't too large that you don't remember who everyone is. This supporting cast are the Daleks, who are actually a threat, and four space explorers, who, while without too much in the way of character, at least feel like actual people. Nicholas Briggs of course is great as the Daleks, as he always is.

To summarize, there really isn't much to say about Seven Keys to Doomsday except that it amounts to a good story with a Doctor with the potential to become one of the greats. Nothing too special to see here. 65/100