Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Mind Robber


Chapter The Eighth, which has smoke... and foam.

Plot:
A malevolent computer, which is wired into the brain of a Boys' Own writer from the 1920s, kidnaps the Doctor to take the writer's place in generating a dreamscape populated by fictional characters. This will be the realm to which the whole human race is transported, so the computer - the Master Brain - can have the unoccupied Earth for something. It's not clear exactly what. Probably it just want to invest in the housing market in a big way, unfortunately meaning the property stands empty despite a huge demand from displaced persons elsewhere. Obviously this could never happen in real life... (huge glowing 'SATIRE' banner here for anyone who doesn't live or work in London).

Context:
We watched the DVD as a family, the episodes split over the Saturday and Sunday of a wet weekend.  I have the true Statto anorak mind of a particular kind of Doctor Who fan; so, the decision I made last time to start with one story from each Doctor released all sorts of endorphins. Immediately, though, the middle child, who's most into old Who at the moment, decided he wanted to watch another one of "the first Doctor's".  Well, the best laid plans of mice and men involve me wrestling a DVD off a 5-year old boy and insisting we watch a Matt Smith, shouting "won't someone think of my nerdy sense of order". But in the end, I didn't have to, as he'd remembered wrong. The one he wanted "where the TARDIS explodes" turned out to be The Mind Robber. So, we're still in business: eight randomly chosen stories, and no repetition of a Doctor - and no crying offspring - as yet.

First-time round:
This was one of that glut of monochrome stories I've previously referred to that were released at the start of the 1990s on VHS. I remember buying it soon after it was out, after spotting it in the upstairs racks of WHSmith, Worthing. What surprises me - and the same is true of The Aztecs - was how well I remembered knowing these stories even in those early days. As exciting as it no doubt was to put the tape into the slot and see them for the first time, they weren't brand new plots I'd only just encountered. The reason for this was the Target novelisations, which more and more during the mid to late 1980s were for Hartnell or Troughton stories, as they'd run out of all the others. I collected all the Doctor Who books I could get my hands on too, of course, and read them over and over.

Mind Robber also had an advantage in that it had a number of great production anecdotes,which meant it was featured a lot in Doctor Who Magazine, where I'd have gleaned a lot of information too. In those days, I didn't think of them as spoilers, and I don't remember any disappointment when finally I saw the story play out.

Reaction:

Within a few moments of the start of episode 1, we get smoke and foam - two of the mainstays of the latter Troughton period (see Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts' "Beneath the Masque of The Mask of Mandragora" extra on the Masque of Mandragora DVD for proof). Then, despite his reportedly being exhausted and disillusioned by now, we get another common feature of this era: a toweringly good performance from The Trout. When he says "We're nowhere, it's as simple as that" it is mesmerising. They pulled the shot out and used it in the montage of clips that loops round on the DVD menu, and my little ones wanted to watch it over and again, imitating the Doctor's delivery of the line. This is praise indeed.

Later on there's another mainstay of this period, when Frazer Hines tries to talk his way into a long-haired blonde's bedroom, though this time it's part of the on-screen action (in the Rapunzel sequence).

There's a lot of really good stuff in The Mind Robber that came about just because of production problems; it backs up what Robert Frost maintained in his famous quote about free verse being like playing tennis without a net: sometimes restrictions help to up one's game. Obviously, there's the whole of the first episode, which was scratch written by the script editor Derrick Sherwin. The previous story had had to be shortened, leaving a one episode hole to be filled on a budget of two shillings. It is therefore kept to the main regulars, the standing sets, stock robot costumes and a couple of caption slides. And it's brilliant: its emptiness making it unsettling and eerie.

Jamie suddenly losing his face, and then being played by a different actor, is similarly scary (and all just due to a bout of chicken pox). Smaller things too. In this period, very often the money didn't stretch to any music, so Radiophonic maestro Brian Hodgson had to make his contribution act as both special sound and incidental soundtrack. This results in some very memorable noises, including a personal favourite: the creaking of the toy soldiers walking along - instantly evocative.

The final four episodes, the story proper, is a brave attempt to do something different. It is a bit repetitive in places - you just have to yell that something doesn't exist and it's no longer a threat; that trick is pulled at least three times. And the set-up steers it dangerously close to "it was all a dream" territory without completely running aground. But the final battle, mind against mind, storyteller against storyteller, is a fine idea, realised well.

Does it hang together in some semblance of sense,at least on its own terms? More or less, but there are some inconsistencies. Is the Big Bad a computer or an intelligence (it's referred to as both)? If it is a computer, who built it, and its guardian robots? Or are the robots just fictional characters too (from an old episode of TV anthology Out of the Unknown, maybe)? Is the Land of Fiction a tangible place that the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe have been transported to, or just a dreamscape to which their minds are linked? Every character and story seems consistent as coming from the imagination of someone from 1926, until the Karkus comes along and spoils that idea  It suggests that Zoe's mental powers can influence the 'reality' but elsewhere someone has to actually be physically connected to do that.

On balance, though, it was a crowd pleaser. The children all 'got' the concept and went quiet at the right moments (particularly when Jamie and Zoe turn against the Doctor). Their Dad loved the references to the TARDIS's fluid links and (with apologies to the Better Half) Zoe's catsuit.

 
Connectivity:
Both this story and Flatline are high-concept twists on stock Earth invasion stories which cleverly use other media as part of that concept (children's stories in one, graffiti art in the other). Both stories were also influenced - for the better - by significant production challenges.
  
Deeper Thoughts:
Confused? You won't be, after this week's episode of... Soap. Online moaners since 2005 have oft complained that the focus on human interactions and emotions in new Doctor Who make it too much like a soap opera. This always reminds me of a Doctor Who Magazine interview with Peter Ling, writer of The Mind Robber, and the only Doctor Who writer before 2005 to have been a soap creator (Compact, Crossroads). The interview was around the time of the aforementioned novelisation of this story, and Ling was asked whether Doctor Who by that time, the mid-1980s, constituted a soap. He said that only when people aboard the TARDIS started getting married and having babies would that be true. It amuses me that all these years later, for better or worse, that's been achieved.

So, is Doctor Who a soap? No, the most cursory examination will show little similarities to Eastenders or Coronation Street. Is it a sci-fi / fantasy / soap hybrid? No. This has been done; Twin Peaks and Jupiter Moon spring to mind, and they don't have much in common with Who either. What Doctor Who has, and has always had, is a grounding in real life as a counterpoint to its flights of fancy. This is why it starts with two secondary school teachers, or a London shop girl, before expanding our minds with time and space.  It's odd then that a story by a writer of Ling's experience is one where reality is not referenced at all, and the whole thing is a pure fantasy. Or is it?

At first glance, The Mind Robber does look like the least grounded story ever, and in a very Sixties fashion: the use of childhood images and stories, including the toy soldiers - which from the production photographs we know are brightly coloured - makes this seem like a belated trip to a psychedelic Pepperland, being broadcast a year after the Summer of Love; but, the chilly, threatening use of these images is more in line with the immediately contemporary White Album, which was released a few weeks after the broadcast of the final episode. Clearly there was something in the air in 1968 about loss of innocence. Because, just like John Lennon's song Revolution from that album, The Mind Robber is a wake up call.

For all its trappings, this story is anti-fantasy. It's a piece that casts a unicorn as a threatening, destructive force, and posits that being trapped in a land of stories would enslave humanity. I'm not sure I agree with the thesis, and it's very odd coming from the imaginative powerhouse that is Doctor Who but it's clear that it is intentional (rumour has it that Ling wrote the piece after being dumbfounded that viewers of soaps could not tell that the characters therein were not real).

In Summary:
With a sort of dreamy logic, this is a full-on escapist fantasy warning of the dangers of escapism.


Sunday, 19 July 2015

Flatline


Chapter The Seventh, which takes us from one 56-year-old actor playing the Doctor to another.

Plot:
The Doctor continues his sabotage of Clara's relationship by dropping her off in Bristol instead of Shoreditch, then getting stuck in a shrunken TARDIS leaving her to defeat an invasion by some 2D nasties, instead of eating lunch sat on a park bench with Danny.

Context:
Flatline is one of a few in last year's batch that we decided was too scary and gruesome for our younger kids; 3-year old girl and 5-year old boy have not seen it to date, so - to avoid stirring up interest and starting arguments - I watched the Blu-Ray late on a weekday evening, when they were abed.

Seven stories into the blog, and there's been no repetition yet of any Doctor. I may have to tweak the parameters to ensure I start off with one story from each of the 12 different leading men: an only two Bakers dozen, if you will.


First-time round:
The Better Half and I had got into a pattern by the time Capaldi's first series rolled around last year: timeshift each episode, screen it on Saturday evening without the kids, gauging acceptability; then, if okay, I'd watch it again with them on Sunday.

This is never an exact science, and every child is different. So, our choices might surprise other parents. It's notable, though, that there were only five stories we deemed unsuitable from 2005 to 2013 (Blink, Midnight, The Waters of Mars, Night Terrors, Hide) but in Capaldi's first year there's already been three (Listen, Kill the Moon, and Flatline). Our lot particularly don't like too much emphasis on psychological horror tropes, such as characters creeping around a dark, lonely space waiting for something to jump out at them. Series 8 had that stuff in spades. There will be a wonderful opportunity, though, in a number of years time to catch up on all of those back-to-back over one weekend!

Reaction:

The killer graffiti angle is a clever high-concept twist on the standard tale of a mismatched bunch of characters getting picked off by relentless, lumbering monsters. Nicely, these monsters have to teach themselves how to lumber; before that, they kill invisibly, stuck as patterns on the walls. This also allows a new spin on the slow-reveal of the monster - at each stage, the Boneless are evolving as they become more visible to the characters and the audience. There's scope for some great effects work too: the fabrics and patterns of humdrum suburbia shifting like quicksand as they become lethal, and the mo-cap work of the jittery, not-quite-correctly-rendered corpses moving around with their distinctive gait.

Making an asset from a production limitation, Jenna Coleman as Clara gets to lead the action - Capaldi's time on this story was limited, and the majority of his scenes filmed on one set on a single day. Clara gets to use the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, and gets her own companion in the lovable Rigsy. Coleman rises to the challenge effortlessly, and despite being separated for most of the story, Clara and the Doctor play off each other with their usual sparky chemistry.

There's a rich vein of leavening humour, with lots of 'meta' gags examining the plot of the locked room mystery, and debating aloud what to call the story's monsters and gadgets. The writer Jamie Mathieson clearly knows his genre, and must have had many influences; but, with the police box shrinking, the Doctor having to activate an emergency circuit to take the TARDIS out of play, and the cloister bell going off, one feels that someone involved in the production had the Tom Baker story Logopolis at least subconsciously in mind.

Despite being sidelined, Capaldi is having a ball playing his take on his own childhood hero. His face is a wonderful, expressive, lined thing like the surface of a moon upon which anything can be reflected back; but his whole body in performance is a wonder to behold too: he pecks about the TARDIS control room set like some sort of wading bird.

One bum note: something that really took me out of the action, despite it's being fleeting, was the Doctor referring to the Boneless as "monsters". I always thought this was a no-no, and indeed am sure I read that Russell T. Davies when he was in charge had a rule insisting that this never should happen. The Doctor should not deal in moral absolutes, and despite doing his best to keep an open mind as to the Boneless' intentions beforehand, and despite softening it a bit afterwards with "that is the role you seem determined to play" he does still say it.  In my book, he shouldn't be labelling anyone or anything a monster. There's no such thing as monsters, only monstrous actions.
 
Connectivity:
Aside from having the age of their highest billed actor in common, this and The Aztecs both also see the female companion take centre stage, though Clara does this by emulating the Doctor rather than being her own person in conflict with him. Also, the TARDIS is inaccessible for much of the running time.

Deeper Thoughts:
Arcs take up space. In 21st Century Who, there has to be an overarching plot or two threading through the episodes of any season. This is par for the course in the current TV environment in which the programme is made, and - as I've commented before - wasn't unknown in the 20th century incarnation either. In Flatline, we have three plots intruding: first, the ongoing tale of Clara and Danny and how it is impacted on by - and provides counterpoint and complication to - her adventures with the Doctor. Second, the season-long analysis of the Doctor's morality: is he a good man? This is highlighted by Clara's efforts to ape him when dealing with the situation in his absence. As he summarises at the end, the Doctor is not greatly pleased by this projection of his methods: lying to people to give them false hope, having to keep the balance between saving the world while the wrong people might be getting killed, and so on. Third, there is a tease of the season's Big Bad, Missy, and her plans.

All these will come together somewhat successfully in a few episodes time for the season finale, so it's a useful investment for the season to give them house room now. But it's a mixed bag when it comes to the impacts on the story of the week. The piece is undoubtedly given extra depth by dwelling on the Doctor's morality through Clara's eyes; and, involving the companion's interpersonal relationships is always good for grounding the action and stopping it getting too far-out with its science fantasy concepts; but, Flatline is a single 45 minute episode already jumping through enough hoops separating the Doctor and Clara. Once all those other long-running plots are factored in, it just doesn't have time for the audience to get to know the non-regular characters, so we don't care that they are being picked off by the Boneless. This is its major failing.
 
Joivan Wade is well served as Rigsy, and Christopher Fairbank gives his all to make an impression with very few lines. But Matt Bardock is wasted, and the rest of the crew don't get much more than a line apiece. The train driver, one of the survivors, comes into the action far too late in the day. Maybe it would have been better to cut out some of the investigation material early on; after all, the audience is way ahead and already knows what's happening by the end of the pre-credits teaser. This would have meant that everyone got into the train tunnels sooner. It's not a huge issue, and I still very much enjoyed the story. But it's telling that Mathieson pulls off the trick much better second time around, getting us to care for the mismatched band getting picked off one by one (in Mummy on the Orient Express, which was shown first but written after Flatline). Was this because he had much less of those plot arcs to squeeze in? Perhaps this is a meta exploration of the Doctor's morality, in it's own way: the needs of the season outweigh the needs of the episode; but is that right? 

In Summary:
Could have been a bit flat, but was given an extra dimension.


Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Aztecs


 Chapter The Sixth, in which everything goes monochrome.

Plot:
The original time-travelling team - like always - arrive somewhere and get separated from the TARDIS - like always - then spend a few episodes trying to get back to it - like always - so they can leave. This time, they are trapped in a 15th century Aztec settlement. Barbara is mistaken for a God after some judicious tomb-raiding, and tries to use her influence to steer the Aztecs away from human sacrifice in order to save them from Cort├ęs when he arrives. With hilarious consequences.

Context:
We're back to random selection after our planned detour to Atrios. This was watched by the whole family from the 'revisited' version of the DVD on a Sunday afternoon. And there were times when you could hear a pin drop, which is rare enough in a household of five, let alone when there's some creaky black-and-white TV on that was made more than 50 years ago.

Coincidentally,  The Aztecs being the sixth watched story means it is in exactly the same position as if I'd watched in order from the beginning.


First-time round:
When the Doctor Who VHS range started, each release cost about the same as a Mini Metro; luckily, the family didn't own a player in those days, so I wasn't insisting on buying them on the first day of release! The Beeb wised up, and re-released those early ones at prices that didn't require anyone to remortgage their house. Once they'd done that, and put out a few other colour ones, an odd thing happened. For about a year from early 1990, every Doctor Who video they brought out seemed to be a black-and-white one. This was great for me; I'd not been born in  the 1960s, and it was rare to get any of these episodes repeated on telly proper. All those fantastic tales that I'd seen in washed-out, grainy images in Doctor Who Magazine, I finally got to see for real (i.e. in washed-out, grainy moving images on tape).

I was sure the Aztecs was one of that year's worth, but looking it up I find I've remembered wrong. They chose to put out stuff like The Dominators first, even though it's not fit to lick The Aztecs' boots, just because it has monsters in. Pah! The Aztecs VHS didn't come out until late 1992, when I was in my second year at university in Durham. This presents me with a problem, as that's a year I can't remember well with regard to Who watching. In my first year, I watched all my Who in my friend Mike's room, as he had a little portable colour TV and a video. In my third year, I was in a shared house, and we clubbed together and got a big screen TV from Radio Rentals, which was hooked up to an old toploader VCR that someone's Mum no longer wanted and they'd brought up from home. My second year? I'm racking my brains, but no clue. Maybe I was out living my life, but I doubt it!

Then all of a sudden I remember! That year, I was going out with a first-year archaeology student, and we watched The Aztecs together in my room on the pretext that it might be interesting because of her chosen subject. It was a special effort too; I had to borrow the equipment from someone, God knows who. But thanks to whoever it was, as - unlikely as it may seem - it was a successful evening. So much so that we had a follow-up where I showed her (I know, I know) The Dominators. The affair did not endure.

Reaction:
An absolute copper-bottomed classic, and very much in my personal top twenty. After this last watch, in which it seemed even better than I'd remembered, I may even revise that upwards.

Episode 1 is a little slow, setting things up.  It begins with a cold slab of educational exposition which might seem too earnest, if what followed wasn't so clever and engaging. The big famous scene of the Doctor warning Barbara against interfering with history falls a little flat, perhaps because of over-familiarity, but it's also not paced properly.

Then, episode 2 starts. The Doctor and Barbara have a slight retread of their earlier scene together, and Hartnell really goes full-throttle on the ferocity of his performance, before backing off and apologising so we still love him. It's a great scene. It's followed by another great scene between Barbara and Tlotoxl. Then another between Ixta and Ian where the latter defeats the former using only his thumb (they built schoolteachers better in the Sixties). Then there's some great Tlotoxl scheming, and then a nice light comic scene between the Doctor and Aztec Cameca... oh, it's basically all great scenes, one after another, until the credits roll on episode 4.

Jacqueline Hill must have been most happy with the script. She consistently gets surprising gutsy moments that propel the story forward: pulling a knife on the high priest when challenged, turning the tables when she's offered poison to drink, and finally - in aggressive desperation - telling Tlotoxl the truth; she has been lying to him all along, she's not really a Goddess.

Every one of the regular and guest cast gets to be intelligent and well-motivated; everyone gets
material to sink their teeth into, even the one that was on holiday for half of it. Carole Ann Ford, who's hidebound with a committee-created character that can't work as she has to simultaneously be a super-intelligent alien and an idiot that gets everyone into trouble - does get everyone into trouble, but only because she's passionate and strong and can't stand by when someone's being butchered, or when women are traded off to men for arranged marriages. The four regulars have great chemistry here, and make their travels seem like fun without ever deflating the drama.

If there's a criticism, it is that the drama is all on a level without quite enough of a sense of escalation towards the end, but all told it was still the best the family had seen so far: 10/10 from the adults, 7/10 from our eldest - it lost three points for him by not being in colour!

The Doctor is definitely in love with Cameca, by the way! I've only just spotted at the end when Hartnell leaves an object in the tomb only to have second thoughts and grab it up again, that the object in question is the memento that Cameca gave him earlier, which gives the moment a different and wonderful dimension. Hartnell's spluttering comic business when he realises he's inadvertently proposed by making cocoa for her is actually more about popping the bubble of his intellectual arrogance, as he's not been listening when she's been hinting to him what the gesture might mean; they still both play it before and after as if the two of them are in love, and their parting seems to cause regret on both sides.
Connectivity:
They're both theatrical and studio-based, and the sets are on the small side, but there the comparisons end. The Aztecs is superior to The Armageddon Factor in every conceivable way. Jackie Hill as Barbara wasn't always served well by a Doctor Who script, of course, but here she gets the star role, with the Doctor becoming effectively - and I mean very effectively - a dark mentor character. Barbara drives the plot and Hill gets to play the gamut of emotions from arrogance to heart-break. Fifteen years later, Mary Tamm as Romana gets to follow the rest of the cast round and occasionally ask a question. What happened?

Deeper Thoughts:
It's obviously about the Iraq war, isn't it?! This is the first Doctor Who story to worry itself at all with the ramifications of time travel. No one's bothered about affecting the future by giving fire to cavemen, or magic cabinets to Kublai Khan. But The Aztecs is about changing history. Well, a bit.  Mostly, the time travel worry appears to be a metaphor about intervention. Barbara tries to impose her values on a more primitive culture, and ends up making a mess of things. This is obviously a message that still has resonance today.

The moral uncertainties are front and centre in the action; the culture of the natives is highlighted up front as one that is perfectly legitimate, albeit flawed. The Aztecs possess creative and intellectual knowledge, as well as political smarts. They just happen to like killing people, but people who want to be killed. Interestingly, the script has the women of the piece as the interventionists, and the men not wanting to get involved. "Leave them alone," advises Ian (forgetting perhaps that he didn't hold back so much when it came to interfering with the lives of Thals a few weeks earlier). Susan, on the other hand is quick to judge: "You're monsters, all of you - monsters." Barbara is implored by her only real Aztec ally not to be false to him, but she's been lying to him all along. Her changing the mind of this one man, Autloc, is held up at the end as something of a victory, but it's pretty hollow.  Autloc's loss of faith drives him to take solitude in the wilderness where he surely won't last long.

It's a shame that, however entertaining it is, John Ringham's performance as Tlotoxl isn't played straighter, as it would become more obvious that he's basically the hero. When Barbara comes clean to him, telling him she's no Goddess, she uses the bad guy stand-by of "But who's going to believe you?"  This is not how the goodies are supposed to behave. Tlotoxl meanwhile has consistently mistrusted her, as it turns out with good reason, and just wants to protect his way of life. All in all, a complex character, one of many in a complex piece that offers no happy get-out clauses and no easy answers.

In Summary:
A divine manifestation.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Armageddon Factor


 Chapter The Fifth, wherein Sisyphus stumbles over the six episode log that is the Key to Time finale.

Plot:
Nearing the end of their quest to find all six disguised pieces of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana find themselves in the middle of a nuclear war between two planetary neighbours, Zeos and Atrios. The Atrion troops are led by the Marshall, who is bloodthirsty and reckless because he's simultaneously being controlled by a hypnotic implant, bribed by a sinister third party, and bonkers (talk about overkill). The long-gone Zeons have their war run by a computer Mentalis, built by mockney Timelord Drax. The final segment turns out to be Princess Astra of Atrios, and Romana really likes the look of her body (from a deleted scene that may have only existed in my imagination).

The whole fracas is being stirred up by that sinister third party, the Shadow, who is an agent of the Black Guardian, and it's all part of the latter's plan to get his hands on the Key to Time. Except it isn't, he expected the Shadow to fail, and in the end just tries to get the Key with a simple impersonation con. He could have just done that in the first place and saved the Atrions, and the audience, a lot of misery.

Context:
In contrawise fashion, this being the story that introduces the concept of the randomiser, this was the first time a story was deliberately chosen for viewing. Middle child, a 5 year-old boy, picked out the DVD to watch with me for Father's Day. We managed only the first episode. Over the course of a week and a bit, we got through the rest, joined by most of the family here and there, but it was hard going for everyone, and I came close to giving up midway through.

This may be the first instance I can think of where watching Doctor Who strictly in transmission order might have been less of a slog. I love the Key to Time series, particularly the early stories, and riding that wave of good feeling previously must have helped me keep afloat through the - it has to be said - horribly dull denouement. The Armageddon Factor has a bad reputation, but I've never before agreed with it this strongly. I'll be interested when I get to see the penultimate story, The Power of Kroll, another one I've always liked more than most do; maybe it too has been buoyed up by artificial inflation.

Full disclosure, though: middle child thought it got better towards the end, was fascinated as to what the sixth piece would turn out to be, and surprised at the reveal (despite the best efforts of his brother to spoiler).

First-time round:
I would have watched for the first time on VHS in the Nineties. As you've heard, I had less sense than money back then, and would buy every video release as soon as it came out. Then I did it all over again when the stories were re-released on DVD. Except once. In late 2007, when the limited edition box-set of all six Key to Time stories came out in the UK for the first time, we were moving house and the family was a bit cash-strapped. My better half persuaded me to cancel the pre-order, save the 50 quid, and get it at a later date. After all, you don't need to buy everything the first day it comes out, do you Stuart? I capitulated, because usually back then "limited edition" when applied to a Doctor Who product meant "one for every fan we expect to sell it to, plus a few extra for the crazies that buy two but leave one in the cellophane, and a few more that'll end up in the sales".

The Key to Time sold out faster than any other Who DVD I've ever known. By the time we'd moved it was unavailable to order, and was selling on ebay for up to three times the 50 quid price I had it for on pre-order. I waited years - years! - for it to be re-released, and even drunkenly harangued Dan Hall - who was managing the DVD range at the time - when I met him once down a pub, to get it put out again. But it didn't come out until maybe a year after I'd crumbled and ordered the Australian import version. And every time I get the individual DVD cases out of the box, they look different, and have truncated artwork, and odd symbols on the spines. It gets my completist nutjob spidey-sense all a-tingling, and I want to cry just a little bit.

I realise that this is the dictionary definition of a first-world problem, and a spoilt brat; for this I apologise. But I don't regret sharing, because my small tale of a very, very slight bump in the road of my Doctor Who DVD collecting contains fourteen times more dramatic incident than all six episodes put together of The Armageddon Factor.

Reaction:
The very first scene has duff acting and bad green-screen replete with fringing; are we back on Metebelis Three? No such luck. It's actually a pastiche of wartime propaganda which is immediately undercut by the savage realism of a blitz-ravaged hospital... well, savage very near realism, anyway... alright, alright, it's immediately undercut by the savagely cheap staginess of a blitz-ravaged hospital. This is one of The Armageddon Factor's problems in a nutshell: it wants to show the difference between myth and reality, but both are presented using the same limited budget and thus aren't in sharp relief as the writers intended. It wants to show us that war is hell, but it just looks like war is a few actors having enormous fun with somewhat large performances, and no doubt a couple of gins at lunchtime.

And it's so, so boring, which Doctor Who should never be. Armageddon Factor makes Arc of Infinity look like Mad Max: Fury Road. Lots of the running time is taken up with wandering in caves or corridors: Atrios is grey, the Shadow's planet, black, Zeos is browny-beige. The action's poorly staged; sets are threadbare; the Mutes are some extras in bovver boots with a black sheet thrown over them; the Shadow's wearing a pair of stockings over his head as if he's going to demand you open the safe containing the Key to Time while waving around a sawn-off and humming the theme to The Sweeney.

What makes this more frustrating is that all this dross surrounds some of the best dialogue in the series up to that point, like a chalky pill constraining a small but active ingredient: "We all make mistakes sometimes, don't we, K9?" "Negative"; "...jackdaw meanderings..."; "There is only one ship left, sir. Your escape, er, your command module, sir."; and one of my all time favourites - "We must have the weapon that will wipe the Zeons clear of our skies once and for all. Can you provide it?" "Yes, I think so." "What is it?" "Peace."  Reportedly, Douglas Adams took over script-editing duties during this production, so perhaps some of this is down to him. Certainly there's an echo of Zaphod's  "What does the Z mean?" in the Doctor's "What a lot of zeroes", both responding to some long, silly sci-fi coordinate bafflegab. But the writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin are more than capable of being witty on their own too.

Other good stuff: Mary Tamm as Romana; great performance, great outfit. John Leeson as K9 shines as always, with excellent delivery and comic timing; his getting taken over and calling the Shadow "Master" is a great cliffhanger, and the use of him as a scaled-down Trojan horse is also fun. Tom Baker has his moments. And I like Drax too - so there! But it's not enough, alas.
  
Connectivity:
Another six episode season finale from the 1970s revolving around the acquisition of a lump of crystal. Another old Timelord acquaintance from the Doctor's youth turns up. In one episode, the Marshall is said to be meditating.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who sends the Doctor off on his quest for The Key to Time? It's one of the unanswered questions of Doctor Who. The quest appears to begin quite simply in The Ribos Operation. The White Guardian summons the Doctor and sends him to find all six pieces of the Key. The universal equilibrium is upset, and the Key needs to be assembled so that the whole universe can be stopped, and the balance reset. Or else there will be eternal chaos. He also warns the Doctor of his opposite number, the Black Guardian, who also wants the key for his own evil purpose.

In The Armageddon Factor, the Black Guardian's servant waits near the last segment for the Doctor to catch up and bring all the others to him. Why does he need to engineer a war while he's waiting? Particularly one that might end up blowing up Princess Astra, who's key to his plans (see what I did there)? Okay, let's just explain that away by playing our "he's nuts" joker. The Shadow fails, so the Black Guardian instead impersonates the White, and tries to get the Doctor to hand over the Key. The Guardians can can change their form or shape at will. The Doctor sees through this, and disperses the Key again rather than hand it over.

So, was the 'White Guardian' who instigated the Doctor's quest the Black Guardian all along? He does explicitly threaten the Doctor in that first encounter. But it seems doubtful: why after all would he warn the Doctor about himself? And why would he put the Shadow as an obstacle in the Doctor's way? Well, he's nuts, I suppose. Oh, I already played that card. Okay, so let's assume it was the White Guardian at the beginning. In which case, why didn't the universe fall into chaos? During the time the Key is assembled, there's no opportunity to reset the universe, assuming the operator needs to actually hold the key (which is a fair assumption, or else the Black Guardian wouldn't need to have the Doctor hand it over). One theory - I think from an early Virgin New Adventure novel - is that the universe was affected, and that's why it's approaching collapse in Logopolis, two seasons later. Maybe.


Here's my theory: the White Guardian doesn't actually say he has to be the one to reset the balance. In the middle of this final Key story, it is assembled using a faked-up sixth segment, and works enough for the Doctor to stop everything, for a brief moment only, just as Whitey said was required. The Doctor realises this can't be sustained, so he then keeps a time loop going in a localised area, sufficient to avoid the mutually assured destruction of Zeos and Atrios. Was that 'job done'? Would that one event that the Doctor averted - the destruction of two planets and millions of people - have started a chain reaction that led to the universal chaos warned of at the beginning of the quest? I like to think so; it makes this story, and the whole season, just a tiny bit more worthwhile.

In Summary:
StephenWe want you, if you can, to sit down and watch the entire six episodes of The Armageddon Factor.
HughYou're out of your mind.
StephenListen to me, Alan. It's never been done. No one has ever watched the programme from start to finish, and we desperately need someone to do it. Sure, we've all seen bits, but no one has ever gone the distance.