The Key To Time

The Ribos Operation

When I was a kid, the marvelous script, sparkling relationships, hilarious plot and premise, terrific performances, etc. went right over my head. I thought it was OK, but at the time I was fooled by the tasteful but subdued costuming, the talkiness, and the rubbery Shrivenzale into thinking this was an average story, a light jog around the park. It wasn’t until many years, several viewings, and to be honest, a few in-depth reviews (notably the treatment of it in About Time) had sunk in before I picked up on all the nuances and subtleties, and was mature enough to appreciate them. At the time I had a sense that Doctor Who was always more or less like this, when in point of fact it was all too rarely up to this standard. These days…I get it.

The Pirate Planet

Unfortunately, this one hasn’t clicked for me yet. As soon as the Captain bellows his first lines, my heart sinks and it’s an effort of will not to turn it off. The dynamic he has with Mr. Fibuli is supposed to be a hilarious double act, but it really suffers after the Shakespearean panache of the previous story. The Mentiads are somehow just as dull and their behavior even more inexplicable. I’m a confirmed Douglas Adams fan, and it’s a shame that the one extant Doctor Who story written entirely by Douglas Adams is so hard for me to enjoy. I do like the Queen’s reveal, though, and Romana makes everything better — it feels like a breath of fresh air for a companion to be so fearless, competent, and willing to help. The concept is mildly interesting (the usual Adams tactic of turning the quotidian into comedic SF through simple exaggeration of scale), but we’re told so much more than we’re shown (even of the Captain’s true motives and mindset) that it never feels dramatically significant. This is at least more visually appealing than the end of the season, but the story somehow seems less urgent or meaningful.

The Stones of Blood

I first saw this story when I was a kid, maybe 10, 11 years old or so. I was staying at my grandparents’ house and sleeping on the sofabed in the living room. I watched this at bedtime, after everyone else had gone to sleep. Behind the TV was a wall with big windows through which I was absolutely certain the Ogri would come crashing any second. It’s one of my best Doctor Who memories by far, and proof that however bad an idea the monsters were on paper, for the right audience they absolutely, undeniably WORKED.

And frankly, even today I still don’t think they’re nearly as bad as everyone makes out. They certainly look more convincing than the Shrivenzale, and arguably more so than the robotic parrot. I love the way we see one rumbling past the window while Leonard freaks out on his wife, just heaving past in the background of the same shot—how often does that happen on this show?

It’s slightly frustrating that the kind of story this is changes two or three times, but it’s also slightly brilliant because none of the modes ever outstays its welcome, not even the Megara scene, which I’d remembered as a little tedious but which now seems quite fun and witty. The Megara effect looks better to me now than it used to—there’s a real elegance to it, and though they’re meant to be machines, why shouldn’t they look mostly like floating lights?

This is easily my favorite story of the season, and one of my favorite stories of the classic era (definitely top 20, maybe top 10) despite the undeniable hiccups: some awkward edits, some flubbed lines with no retakes, and so on, but those are all over this season for some reason.

The big thing I’d never noticed about this story before was that apart from the Doctor, there are only two other male characters, one of whom lasts fewer than two episodes and the other of whom lasts maybe a minute or two. Unless you count some anonymous cultists or three machines with male voiceovers, this is a refreshingly female episode.

The Androids of Tara

This story is too modest, charming, and good-natured to hate, but also too dull to write much about. There’s nothing inherently wrong with low stakes, but when the main difference between the hero and the villain is that one of them keeps people locked up in his cellar and the other has a guard who’s ready to stab people at a moment’s notice, you almost can’t tell who to root for. I lost track of how many different plots the Count had going at any given time, and I never quite understood why he needed Romana just to make an android duplicate of her. The climactic swordfight is eerily quiet and weak, and it’s one of the few times in Doctor Who when there’s a nighttime shoot and it doesn’t improve the atmosphere. I imagine fans calling this a “romp,” a fandom cliché I really detest. It means “a pointless and unambitious story made entirely to be fun,” in this case inaccurate because this isn’t even fun.

The Power of Kroll

People hate on this story mercilessly, but I honestly can’t see anything seriously wrong with this that isn’t also a problem elsewhere in the season. It’s one of Robert Holmes’s weakest scripts, I guess, but even weak Holmes is still pretty damn good. I love the Kroll design, and I think it works at least as well as (sorry to keep picking on it, but) the Shrivenzale. The tentacle attacks are a lot more convincing than those in Spearhead from Space, and no one seems to think that story is hurt by its effects. Okay, so Philip Madoc is wasted as Fenner, and it’s hard to tell how much of his performance is the character and how much is his own frustration, but Dugeen and Thawn are just fine, and the Swampies are no worse than most other “noble savages” we’ve had on this show. The flubbed lines and awkward editing are par for the course this season, and the memorable set pieces — the silly business on the rack, for instance — come along as soon as things threaten to get dull. It’s nice that the plot is actually about something, unlike the previous story, though even without the interlopers vs. natives politics you’d still be left with Doctor Who doing Jaws with tentacles, and that’s a pretty solid foundation.

The Armageddon Factor

Here’s another story that gets short shrift, and this time I can see why. Frankly, though, I enjoy it — drab corridors, Shapp, Drax, and all. The Shadow’s mask is pretty inspired, if unsubtle, and the business with the makeshift fake segment is brilliant. If the Doctor’s passionate speech in “The Pirate Planet” about the monstrousness of mining planets is one of the reasons to love that story, his “are you listening, Romana? Because if you’re not I can make you listen” speech is worth the price of admission to this one. I’ve read that both should be credited to Adams, and good on him. Less is made of Romana’s outrage at what happens to Princess Astra, but frankly that’s pretty excellent too; Mary Tamm (who makes this whole season bearable and is one of my favorite companions of all time) really sells it. I couldn’t help thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Dawn, another key disguised as a pretty girl. While I’m not that excited about the introduction of Manichaean deities into the Doctor Who cosmos, I do like the Doctor’s refusal to be entirely servile toward either one.

2 Replies to “The Key To Time”

  1. The Stones of Blood…I still love them, and the episodes. Love. Serious childlike love.

    I have such great memories of the Key to Time, all tied up with some of the better parts of my childhood. I will love them forever, without solid, thoughtful reasons.

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