Doctor Who: The Key to Time Review

Story arcs were not unknown in Doctor Who. Early on, one story flowed into the next. At the beginning of The Reign of Terror, the final story of the first season, Ian, Barbara and Susan have a short scene where they refer back to some of their earlier adventures. There’s also the series of events that helps bring the Third Doctor’s era to a close, involving the planet Metebelis 3, the blue crystals that are found there, and the eight-legged inhabitants’ attempts to bring one back that the Doctor has taken.

But for the 1978-1979 season, the show’s sixteenth, producer Graham Williams devised something a bit more complex. In the opening episode, the Guardian (Cyril Luckham) gives the Doctor a mission to recover the six segments of the Key to Time which are scattered and hidden throughout the universe. The Key, when reassembled, is “a perfect cube, which maintains the equilibrium of Time itself” and is the source of the Guardian’s power, over and above that of the Time Lords’. Each of the season’s six stories (five four-parters, one six-parter) centred around the search for one of the segments. Along with K9, the Guardian gives the Doctor an assistant from his own race, Romanadvoratrelundar, or Romana for short (Mary Tamm).

The late Graham Williams presided over a troubled era in the programme’s history. Certain periods have an identity given it by the producer and/or the script editor: we’d had Hinchcliffe and Holmes, before that Letts and Dicks, and afterwards John Nathan-Turner was to become the longest-serving producer of them all. The Williams era is less easily defined. One reason is that there was not a consistent script editor: first Robert Holmes, then Anthony Read, then Douglas Adams. Secondly, Williams’s three years as producer seem more a transitional period than anything else. The show was on the rebound from Mary Whitehouse’s attacks on it, and under pressure to tone down the Gothic horror that came from Hinchcliffe and Holmes. It’s hard to see a figure like the robot dog K9 fitting into Hinchcliffe/Holmes Who, but it did its job by appealing to a younger audience. An increasing jokiness, or flippancy if you prefer, was taking hold – some of it due to Tom Baker’s input, and some of it down to Douglas Adams.

The problem with The Key to Time, Williams’s middle season, is not that the stories are necessarily bad – far worse was to come – but that they do not live up to the ambitious concept they form a part of. All are certainly competent, but none of them show that vital spark which marks out the best Who stories, past or present. The established writers – Robert Holmes on two stories and Bob Baker and Dave Martin on the six-part finale – are all writing at a level below their very best. I saw this season on its original broadcast and haven’t seen any of the stories again until this DVD release. Scenes and entire stories dating as far back as 1971 are engraved on my memory from first viewings, but The Key to Time has vanished. I can remember the Doctor’s encounters with the two Guardians (the second one is played by Valentine Dyall, in the final episode), and I do remember Mary Tamm’s Romana, but sadly the rest of it has proven entirely forgettable.

Tom Baker was in his fifth year as the Doctor, equalling Jon Pertwee’s stint. By now he was the Doctor for the viewing millions, but cracks are beginning to show, if maybe only with hindsight. Offscreen, he was becoming restless and not always easily manageable, and or so has to take some of the blame for the descent into silliness which made this once-avid fan stop watching the show over the next year.

As for Romana, Mary Tamm’s performance in the role has been overshadowed by Lalla Ward’s second incarnation. Mary Tamm (then best known as the female lead in the 1974 film The Odessa File) left the series after a year and went back to being a working actress, which she is to this day, with far less baggage attached to her than other actors playing Who companions. She deserves a lot of credit for holding together a character who doesn’t really add up: intellectually gifted but less than worldly-wise, semi-Ice Queen who despite all intentions ended up screaming and being rescued like the rest. Especially at the beginning there’s some nice sparring with Baker, somewhat after a Tracy and Hepburn movie. Everyone remembers Lalla Ward’s take on the character, which benefited from undeniable chemistry with her leading man (she went on to marry him) but Mary Tamm deserves her share of the limelight. She’s also the star of this boxset’s extras, but more about that later.

The Ribos Operation (99:34)

It’s Robert Holmes’s name on the credits, but the opening sequence setting up the Key of Time premise, was the work of script editor Anthony Read. Once the Guardian has sent the Doctor on his mission, Holmes takes over. The Doctor and Romana land on Ribos and find themselves in a complex plot involving two galactic conmen (Iain Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt) and their attempts to sell the planet, supposedly a rich source of minerals, to deposed warlord the Graff Vynda-K (Paul Seed). There’s also a monster called the Shrivenzale, which is really only there to provide a cliffhanger to Part One. This is entertaining if mid-range Who, showing Holmes’s less-obvious lighter side (see also Carnival of Monsters). There are enjoyable larger-than-life performances from Iain Cuthbertson especially, some impressive Russian-themed costumes and designs (June Hudson and Ken Ledsham respectively) and a lush Dudley Simpson score. There’s nothing much wrong with this story, which is an enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, just not outstanding.

The Pirate Planet (101:54)

The second segment of the Key is on the planet Calufrax. But it isn’t. It’s actually on Zanak, a planet hollowed out so that it can be transmatted across the universe to materialise around planets so that they can be plundered. Calufrax has met this fate. Earth is next in sight. In charge is the Captain (Bruce Purchase), partly cyborgised after a crash, and his hapless assistant Mr Fibuli (Andrew Robertson). But who is the nurse (Rosalind Lloyd) who is always at his side?

The Pirate Planet was Douglas Adams’s first script for Doctor Who. Within a year, he had become script editor, but was torn between the demands of this show and the rapidly-burgeoning phenomenon that was The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’ll say up front that I’m not a fan of Adams’s work, both here and elsewhere: ideas in abundance, certainly, but undermined by a lack of discipline and shot through with an irksomely studenty sense of humour. (Adams’s scripts for The Pirate Planet were twice as long as what was broadcast.) City of Death is a good story but not one I hold in as high esteem as other fans do. This tendency towards jokiness – which at its worse commits the cardinal sin of any show by failing to take it seriously – helped kill my interest in Who at the time, and it began to take root here.

As for the guest cast, Bruce Purchase is in full Brian Blessed mode as the Captain, and is given the most purple of Adams’s lines. Andrew Robertson makes for an amusingly hapless Syd Little-like underling. However, Rosalind Lloyd makes less of an impression as the Nurse. Some of the production values seem a little wobbly, such as the distinctly underpopulated planetary surface.

The Stones of Blood (96:04)

Things pick up again with The Stones of Blood, the first of two consecutive stories from new writer David Fisher. The TARDIS lands on present-day Earth, near to a set of standing stones. Also on the scene is the elderly Professor Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann) and her “friend” Vivian Fay (Susan Engel). But what is the secret of the stones?

Possibly taking on board criticisms about the lack of good female roles in Who, Fisher produces a story where the only male of significance – once Chief Druid De Vries (Nicholas McArdle) is dispatched early on – is the Doctor. It’s been pointed out before that this story is a checklist of female gothic themes – hunted virgins (Romana?), caves, blood, and so on. The story takes an odd turn halfway through when it shifts to a spacecraft marooned in hyperspace and the Doctor and Romana find themselves on trial for their lives from disembodied intelligences known as the Megaera. Another minus is that ambulatory stones don’t make for especially scary monsters and some of the process work is distinctly dodgy.

On the plus side is a delightful performance from Beatrix Lehmann, a distinguished actress from one of those families that produce distinction (her sister was novelist Rosamond, her brother John was a newspaper editor and their father Rudolph was an MP). By all accounts she got on extremely well with Tom Baker, who was astonished to find someone more eccentric than he was. A lifelong dog-lover, her main motivation for taking the part was a fascination with K9. Susan Fay, as her enigmatic “companion” (in quotes as there are quite a few hints to something more). The Stones of Blood, nicely directed by Darrol Blake in his only contribution to the series, was the hundredth Doctor Who story, and on balance it’s probably the best of the Key to Time season.

The Androids of Tara (98:12)

Doctor Who frequently drew on classic genres, but The Androids of Tara goes one step further by being heavily based on a classic work. David Fisher’s second script for this season is a SF reworking of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. This time, however, it’s Romana who turns out to be the double, of Princess Strella. Mary Tamm plays both parts, as well as the android double of Strella. She and the Doctor find themselves in the midst of a plot by Count Grendel (Peter Jeffrey) to usurp the throne with the aid of said android double.

The Androids of Tara is an entertaining runaround – the Key segment is found early on – and not much more than that. It’s nicely put together by director Michael Hayes on some attractive locations, with good work from the guest cast, but ultimately it’s inconsequential.

The Power of Kroll (91:23)

The TARDIS arrives on the third moon of Delta Magna. The Doctor and Romana (K9 remains in the TARDIS, due to the location conditions, though John Leeson appears in person as Dugeen) find themselves in the middle of a conflict between offworld methane miners, the green-skinned natives (the Swampies). And what is the huge squid-like creature stirring in the swamp?

The answer is Kroll, which at some five miles across, is Doctor Who’s largest-ever monster. Robert Holmes is often thought of as one of the best writers who worked on Doctor Who - and, along with Terrance Dicks, is one of the default voices of 70s Who - but he had his off days. The Krotons, being the only surviving Second Doctor four-parter at the time, rather unfairly had to represent the whole Troughton era in the 1981 Five Faces of Doctor Who repeats, and it was a bore. His next script, The Space Pirates, though only one episode survives, tends to find itself near the bottom of popularity polls. The Power of Kroll certainly has him firing on less than all cylinders. Although the marshy Suffolk locations are attractive, there’s a sense of tiredness to this serial. Some poor special effects – a very visible matte line whenever Kroll appears, a cheap-looking countdown clock – received some criticism at the time within and without the BBC. It’s hard to disagree: there’s something distinctly uninspired about The Power of Kroll.

The Armageddon Factor (148:28)

Things pick up again for the six-part finale, The Armageddon Factor, written by “the Bristol boys” Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Atrios and Zeos are planets engaged in a long-term war – but as you might expect nothing is what it seems at first. And where is the sixth and last segment of the Key of Time? Or who is it – and there’s a clue.

On a trivia note, The Armageddon Factor was the last-ever six-part story to be broadcast. It wasn’t intended to be: the following year’s Shada had to be abandoned. You could also mention The Two Doctors, which consists of three 45-minute episodes. Whichever way you cut it, at their best six-parters allowed for more substance and more complexity – and at their worst, more padding. Like other longer stories, The Armageddon Factor splits into smaller units. We begin on Atrios, with the warmongering Marshal (John Woodvine) in conflict with the more pacifist Princess Astra (Lalla Ward). Three episodes in, we meet The Shadow (William Squire), the agent of the Black Guardian, the computer Mentalis which only K9 can communicate with, an old Time Lord friend of the Doctor, Drax (Barry Jackson, with an odd Cockney accent)…and finally we come face to face with the Black Guardian himself.

For much of its length, The Armageddon Factor is solid, mid-range Who, with a slightly dour feel to it. As well as telling its own story, it has the job of rounding off the series and the completion of the search for the Key of Time. The ending felt a little anti-climactic at the time, and it still does now, though what ending couldn’t is a good question. There are good performances from John Woodvine, Lalla Ward and William Squire, not to mention Valentine Dyall (a veteran radio actor, known as the “Man in Black” in the 1940s) as the Black Guardian. (He and White Guardian Cyril Luckham would return in these roles.)

Mary Tamm tells the story that one evening in the bar, once she’d decided not to do another year as Romana, she suggested Lalla Ward as her replacement. This was only a semi-serious idea, but, she says, maybe it sowed a seed in the producers’ minds…

The Key to Time was previously released in Region 1 in 2002, but not so far in the UK. Given the chance to revisit the six stories, 2Entertain have packed this with extras. As a package, this is one of the DVDs of the year – what lets it down is that none of the stories are really top-flight. The set comprises seven discs (two for The Armageddon Factor), which are encoded for Regions 2 and 4.

Apart from The Stones of Blood, shot on OB video throughout, and the all-studio Ribos Operation, these stories were shot on the usual mix of videotape for interiors and film for exteriors. Given the inevitably sub-standard definition source material – which looks distinctly soft by today’s standards – these stories have been restored to quite probably the best you’re ever likely to see them, so full marks to the Restoration Team. The soundtrack is the original mono, and has also been cleaned up and restored. Subtitles are available for the features and the extras, though not the commentaries.

The 2002 set had little more than commentaries as extras. These have been carried over to the new version. For three stories, a new commentary is also included, so that Tom Baker – whose primary contribution to the extras this is – can talk about each of the six stories. All the stories have a coming-soon trailer for the forthcoming DVD release of Planet of Evil (1:00), cuttings from Radio Times in PDF format and production subtitles, the work of Richard Molesworth and Martin Wiggins.

The Ribos Operation
The commentary involves Tom Baker and Mary Tamm, recorded in 2002. We’re familiar with Baker’s eccentric approach to commentaries from previous DVDs, but the surprise is how much Mary Tamm is up to the task of not being entirely overwhelmed by him. There are a few luvvyish “darlings” thrown about, but she’s an ideal sparring partner, funny with an ironic edge, making for a very enjoyable listen.

The first featurette is “A Matter of Time” (60:00), an exhaustive account of Graham Williams’s era. Beginning with the Whitehouse controversies which came to a head with The Deadly Assassin. Williams has passed away, but its represented by convention footage and the appearance of his widow Jackie. Likewise, the late Douglas Adams appears in archive interview footage. This is an excellent documentary which makes a case for rehabilitating these three years, by pointing up its strengths without denying its flaws. Some of its freshness comes from less-familiar interviewees: not just Jackie Williams and Mary Tamm, but also Lalla Ward and Dave Martin, interviewed before his death.

Some of this is inevitably repeated in “The Ribos File” (19:39), which is a piece along more familiar lines: a retrospective on the making of this particular story, with contributions from the cast and crew. (All the stories in the set have one, except for “The Power of Kroll”.)

The rest of the extras on this disc are off-air continuity links (2:08), or instant nostalgia for anyone who saw these series at the time, a trailer for the new season (0:42), and a self-navigating stills gallery (6:04).

The Pirate Planet
There are two commentaries on this disc. The first is the 2002 one, featuring Bruce Purchase and director Pennant Roberts, and its rather forgettable, overshadowed by the second, new one, which reunites Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and script editor Anthony Read. As with their other commentaries, Baker and Tamm could have carried this on their own, but Anthony Read is able to bring in some gravity to the chat.

“Parrot Fashion” (30:30) is this story’s making-of documentary, though it also serves as a short tribute to Douglas Adams. The man is featured in an archive interview, but also appearing are his half-brother James Thrift and friend and biographer Nick Webb. There’s a poignant moment where they play a cassette tape from 1978, and hear Adams’s voice again.

“Weird Science” (17:26) is a spoof 70s science show, featuring David Graham, TV effects man Mat Irvine (not forgetting Stevii the Supercomputer) and looking at some of the science (fact or fiction) in Doctor Who. This is mildly amusing but too long.

Also on the disc are Film Inserts, Deleted Scenes and Outtakes (13:58), continuity links (3:42) and a stills gallery (7:02).

The Stones of Blood
Two commentaries again. The first is with Mary Tamm and director Darrol Blake. This is more subdued than the Tamm/Baker chats and as such probably more informative, especially with the director on board. Tamm and Baker tend to dominate the other commentary, with also features Susan Engel and David Fisher, the latter not seeming to get much of a look in.

The making-of featurette is “Getting Blood from the Stones” (26:34). Along with much of the cast and crew, there are contributions from Doctor Who Magazine’s Clayton Hickman and SFX’s Steve O’Brien.

“Hammer Horror” (13:07) is a look at Hammer Films’s influence on the series. It begins with Inferno,written by Don Houghton, who went on to write for Hammer. Robert Holmes needless to say has most of the attention here. Pleasant, but nothing most Who fans won’t already know.

In “Stones Free” (9:03), Mary Tamm revisits Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire, the real location for the story. “The Model World of Robert Symes” was a 1979 TV series, and on the disc is a brief extract (2:43) where FX man Mat Irvine demonstrates some models from The Stones of Blood.

A Blue Peter extract makes a welcome appearance (6:05). Simon Groom and Lesley Judd present a short feature to mark Doctor Who’s fifteenth anniversary. This is along similar lines to the tenth anniversary item (which can be found on the DVD on The Three Doctors) and shows again the clip of Peter Purves as Steven Taylor which is the only remaining footage from The Daleks’ Master Plan Episode Four.

Also to mark the fifteenth anniversary is an extract from Nationwide (8:52), the BBC’s popular early-evening magazine programme of the 1970s. After some clips – including again the first meeting in The Three Doctors, Frank Bough interviews Carole Ann Ford and Mary Tamm, but meets his match with Tom Baker.

Also on the disc are a couple of deleted scenes (2:03), continuity links (2:25).and a stills gallery (8:03).

The Androids of Tara
The commentary this time features Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and director Michael Hayes. The latter’s presence, as it does on the track for The Armageddon Factor seems to act as an effective counterweight to the others’ banter. The result is entertaining but has a better balance of informative content.

This does mean that much of the information is repeated in “The Humans of Tara” (21:13), this disc’s making-of. Also present is “Now and Then” (10:20), the latest in an intermittent series across Doctor Who DVDs which revisits the locations of particular stories. In this case it’s Leeds Castle in Kent, and this featurette points out the places in the castle where individual scenes were shot.

“Double Trouble” (11:05) is a runthrough of doubles, doppelgangers and shapeshifters in Doctor Who. Some of the earliest examples are handicapped by the lack of material: there is no known footage, or even a still, of William Hartnell as the Abbot of Amboise in The Massacre. (The still used comes from another story.) We also see Patrick Troughton as Salamander in The Enemy of the World and visit the parallel world of Inferno. As before this is a pleasant extra, but nothing fans won’t know already.

This disc is completed by the usual stills gallery (7:47).

The Power of Kroll
The commentary this time is between Tom Baker and John Leeson, and it’s a drier business than some of the other chats in this box set. Perhaps a frisson of flirtatiousness enlivens the Baker/Tamm commentaries, which is inevitably absent here.

There is no making-of documentary as most of the participants in this story are dead. However, in its place, we have “In Studio” (11:28), a black-and-white timecoded video of a recording session. “Variations” (6:27) is a location report made by BBC East at the time of production, interviewing Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and one of the Swampies.

Two of the cast members who are still alive are profiled. “There’s Something About Mary…” (9:50) is a look back over Mary Tamm’s one year as a Who companion, how she gained the role and why she resisted all attempts to appear for another year. Mary Tamm’s contributions have added enormously to the extras on these DVDs, so it’s a pity that she’s unlikely to be used again.

“Philip Madoc: A Man for All Seasons” (9:44) is a featurette about Madoc’s five appearances in Doctor Who, usually as a villain, notably as the War Lord in The War Games and Morbius in The Brain of Morbius. He also appeared in the feature film Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD.

The usual continuities (2:51) make their appearance. This story was broadcast over the Christmas period in 1978, and that Janus-faced gargoyle-Santa the BBC used to replace their usual globe must have been quite scary if you’d had a few. Finally, there is a stills gallery (4:55).

The Armageddon Factor
This is a two-disc set, with the episodes on one disc and most of the extras on the other.
There are two commentaries again The 2002 track features Mary Tamm, John Woodvine and director Michael Hayes. As before, Hayes tends to anchor the conversation, admitting upfront that he does not have happy memories of making this serial. He directed its six episodes back to back with the four of The Androids of Tara, so no wonder he was exhausted. Woodvine makes some interesting contributions early on, but disappears when his character does (Part Five) and doesn’t return with him in Part Six. The new commentary features Tamm again with Tom Baker and John Leeson. This is a lively chat, the rapport between all three quite evident. Inevitably, given Mary Tamm’s presence on both commentaries, some anecdotes are repeated, such as the Lalla Ward story I refer to above.

Disc One also has the Coming Soon and the Radio Times listings, plus a reproduction of the 1978 Doctor Who annual in PDF format.

Disc Two begins with “Defining Shadows” (15:40), this story’s making-of featurette. Among the less-frequent interviewees are designer Richard McManaman-Smith, who receives praise for his excellent work on a minimal budget.

After that, we have an alternative/extended scene (2:52), on black-and-white timecoded video. Then there is the latest in the occasional “Directing Who” series, this time showcasing Michael Hayes (8:27). After admitting he was at first reluctant to work on what he thought was a children’s programme. He talks about his three serials, two of which are in this box set and the third was City of Death, which involved a location shoot in Paris.

“Rogue Time Lords” (13:12) is a featurette explained by its title. The first villain of the Doctor’s own race was the Meddling Monk, played by Peter Butterworth in The Time Meddler with a return appearance in The Daleks’ Master Plan. This item starts there, via Philip Madoc’s War Chief to the Master, the Rani and others. As before, pleasant enough but nothing most Who fans won’t have seen before. Some contributors here don’t feature elsewhere on these DVDs, such as Nicholas Courtney and Pip and Jane Baker.

Pebble Mill at One was a popular BBC lunchtime magazine programme. Two items from this source follow. First is a Tom Baker interview by Donny McLeod (8:31) from 1978, also to mark the fifteenth anniversary. (And that clip from The Three Doctors appears again. Ever wondered why Doctors Two and Three defer to Hartnell’s Doctor, even though he’s actually a younger version of them?) From another edition of the same programme is “Radiophonic Feature” (4:29) in which interviewer Tony Francis talks to Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson of the Workshop about the music and effects they produced for Doctor Who. Brief, but not uninteresting. Mills appears also in “The New Sound of Music” (0:59), an extract from a BBC documentary about the Workshop, in which he creates a sound effect for the show.

“Merry Christmas, Doctor Who” (1:11) is a short sketch recorded on the set of The Armageddon Factor and used on that year’s BBC Christmas tape. K9 has a drink, sings a song and reveals what he wants for Christmas. As does the Doctor...

Reading a story to an audience would seem to be more suited for radio, but it’s a television perennial, especially on children’s shows like Jackanory. Every once in a while it’s done for adults, and is a format particularly suited to ghost and horror stories. In 1978, at midnight on BBC2 over Christmas week, it was Tom Baker’s turn to read five classic chillers on the theme of childhood, though only four were actually broadcast: “The Photograph” by Nigel Kneale (14:33), “The Emissary” by Ray Bradbury (13:45), “Nursery Tea” by Mary Danby (14:20) and “The End of the Party” by Graham Greene (15:02). The unbroadcast one is Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” (12:54). Interestingly, the series producer was Tony Harrison – the poet, possibly?

The extras on the disc are concluded by the usual continuity links (2:57) and photo gallery (4:48). Click right on continuities to find this disc’s Easter Egg. On 17 February 1979, as 8.6 million watched Part Five of The Armageddon Factor near its climax…a break in transmission which lasted several minutes. Presumably derived from an off-air video recording, this is a presumably cut-down (1:26) reproduction of it, complete with apologetic continuity announcer and temporary music. This is both shamelessly geeky and the kind of quirky touch that makes these DVDs stand out, and the ideal way to bring the extras to an end.

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