We’re back, with another season of Classic Doctor Who! After an indeterminate break since the last season, the Doctor returns, planning a vacation; but he’s immediately caught up in a new struggle: The search for the all-powerful Key to Time. Let’s get started!
This season is a rare Classic Series example of a season-long story arc, something we’ll see again with the Sixth Doctor’s Trial of a Time Lord. It wouldn’t be unusual today—most NuWho seasons contain an overall arc—but it was mostly unheard of in the 1970s, with even arc-driven shows such as Battlestar Galactica failing to complete what they started. There will be none of that here, though, as we’ll wrap up these events in six stories.
We open with The Ribos Operation. It appears to begin shortly after the last serial, as the Doctor behaves as though K9 Mark II (introduced last time) is still new; but that can’t be the case, for one notable reason we’ll see. Planning a vacation, the Doctor and K9 are interrupted by a powerful being, the White Guardian of Time, who sets them on the quest to find the six scattered pieces of the Key to Time. He warns them that there is also a Black Guardian, who wishes to find the Key for evil ends. We don’t get a solid date for this serial in any of its parts; A History of the Universe places it in 3078, but admits this is arbitrary, based on the apparent human technology level (the planet Ribos is near the Magellanic Clouds, requiring intergalactic travel).
The White Guardian provides the Doctor with a new companion, the Time Lady Romana, played by the fantastic Mary Tamm. Properly, it’s “Romanadvoratrelundar”, which even she has trouble pronouncing; the Doctor gives her a non-choice between “Romana” and “Fred”, then chooses for her. She brings with her the core of the Key, for use as a tracer to assist with finding the other segments. She claims the President of the Time Lords sent her, but this isn’t the case; it was actually the Guardian in disguise. This is what leads me to suggest a gap in the narrative; when the Doctor left Gallifrey at the end of last season, he WAS the president, nominally, but they have apparently had time to elect a new one. At any rate, Romana gives us a valuable piece of information: A rare third-party view of the Doctor’s age. She says he is 759, and despite his arguments, she’s probably right, as the Time Lords have the ability to track such things on Gallifrey (and as well, she has no reason to lie). In the next serial she will also say that he has been flying the TARDIS for a very specific 523 years, with which he agrees. That would make him 236 when he left Gallifrey. Enjoy it; these may be the last accurate figures we ever get.
The story here is a messy political story, and I found it a bit dull and hard to follow. A deposed tyrant, the Graff Vynda-K, wants to buy or conquer Ribos for military use; he is thwarted, and surprisingly, directly killed by the Doctor. The first segment is found in the form of a chunk of rare mineral.
With the next serial, The Pirate Planet, Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) joins the pantheon of Doctor Who writers. In fact, this is the only story credited solely to him, though he will be involved with the series for some time. The hollow planet Zanak, with other planets cannibalized inside, is clearly inspired by the planet-building world Magrathea in Hitchhiker’s Guide (or maybe the other way around, I’m not certain). Several names in this serial also bear resemblance to that series.
Zanak plunders other planets by materializing around them, and then destroying them for mineral wealth and energy, then compressing the final remains as souvenirs. This, as it turns out, is a plot by their ancient queen, who maintains her life by manipulation of time via a dangerous Time Dam—hence the need for rare elements to maintain the equipment. It becomes personal for the Doctor when Earth is next on the list.
The segment is actually located on the planet Calufrax (not to be confused with Calufrax Minor, one of the stolen planets in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, though they are likely from the same system). However, the Doctor, Romana, and K9 arrive too late to save the planet. Its compressed remains, however, are found to be the second segment. A personal note: While I didn’t remember ever watching this serial before, I instantly recognized the character of the Captain of Zanak, so maybe I had seen it before. It’s not a bad story, and well worth a watch.
The Doctor only makes one appearance on Earth this season, and it’s in the third serial, The Stones of Blood. It’s 1978 Boscombe Moor, in Cornwall, and the doctor must face a dangerous cult. It’s another story in the long tradition of serials which appear to be supernatural, but are actually based on alien technology. It’s fitting to return to Earth for this story; it happens to be the series’ 100th story. It’s not a UNIT story, however, despite the contemporary setting. It is a K9-lite serial, however, as he doesn’t travel well on soft ground; his appearance is even briefly written out due to damage.
The villain in this story, Cessair of Diplos, is an ancient criminal who uses the disguised third segment of the Key to obtain godlike powers. She’s been on the run for centuries, having trapped and contained the beings—the Megara—who would be her judge, jury, and executioner. In purpose and function, the Megara bear some similarities to the Shadow Proclamation; however, they are advanced robots, with a disdain for the morality of living beings. They have numerous long-deceased convicts on their hyperspatial ship, one of which appears to be a Wyrrn, as last seen in The Ark in Space. The titular Stones of Blood are standing stones on the moor, which are actually stonelike aliens who are brought to life in the service of Cessair by a sacrifice of blood. Overall, it’s a good and creepy story, reminiscent in atmosphere to The Daemons.
The Doctor tries again to take a day off in The Androids of Tara. As usual, he’s unsuccessful, even if a probably-definitely-faked Gallifreyan law entitles him to a vacation. He says their journey (from Earth) has been “four hundred years and twelve parsecs”, placing the story in approximately 2378, on the planet Tara. Given that time frame, the Tarans are probably not humans from Earth, despite the Doctor calling them human; they’ve been here for centuries, enough time that the population has begun to recover after a plague that wiped out ninety percent of the Tarans. The culture resembles Earth feudalism, with the addition of some advanced technology.
Mary Tamm gets quite a workout here, as she plays four roles: Romana, the princess Strella, and the android duplicates of each. I couldn’t help thinking that, given the cavalier attitude Romana will display toward regeneration next season, she could have thwarted the villainous Count Grendel’s plot simply by changing her appearance, as it hinged on the resemblance between herself and Strella; but of course, at this point Mary Tamm had not decided to leave the series.
The story is said to be based on The Prisoner of Zenda, but as I haven’t seen or read that story, I can’t comment. It’s a good story, with a cunning villain who is ultimately defeated not by trickery or cunning, but by simple swordsmanship on the part of the Doctor. Interestingly, Grendel isn’t killed; he escapes at the end, and though disgraced, it’s not a stretch to think that Tara will deal with him again.
The preceding story was the 100th of the series; this one, coincidentally, marks the 15th anniversary of the series, though it’s not a special for that occasion. The fourth segment of the Key to time was part of a statue, claimed and changed to its real form in the first few minutes, but then confiscated by Grendel; it’s recovered only after his defeat.
It’s been suggested that the next story, The Power of Kroll, is contemporary with The Androids of Tara, in 2378; but I think that date is far too early. The Doctor says that Kroll, the giant squidlike creature that serves as a god to the primitive Swampies, appears every couple hundred years, and this is his fourth appearance since Delta III, the moon in question, was colonized. But the planet around which Delta III revolves, Delta Magna, was stated to have been identified by the Earth Empire, which did not exist early enough for this chronology.
While Kroll is definitely a threat, he’s not the villain; that would be Thawn, the man in charge of the methane refinery on Delta III. His actions, in addition to endangering the native Swampies, awaken Kroll and send it on a blind rampage which will eventually cost him his own life. The Swampies, meanwhile, find themselves caught between Kroll and the fringe group known as the Sons of Earth, who want to limit humanity to Earth (which, ironically, none of them have ever visited). The persecution of the Swampies gives this story clear environmental and human-rights themes. Kroll’s giant size is due to him having eaten the fifth segment of the Key, along with the Swampie high priest who was carrying it; in the process of absorbing its power, he essentially becomes the segment, allowing the Doctor to defeat Kroll and reclaim the segment all in one blow.
K9 is absent from this story; as he can’t function at all in a swamp, he is stranded on the TARDIS. Ironically, his voice actor, John Leeson, has his one and only turn onscreen here, as a methane worker named Dugeen.
The Key is finally completed in The Armageddon Factor. I could find no date whatsoever for this story; we can’t even say with certainty that it’s in the future, as the Atrians and Zeons are not human, only humanlike. The longstanding conflict between Atrios and Zeos is a bit of a commentary on the cold war, with the concept of mutually assured destruction (the titular Armageddon Factor) and leaders of both parties who are blind to what is really happening. The Black Guardian finally makes an appearance, having set his servant the Shadow to watch over Princess Astra, who is the final segment of the Key to Time. Ironically the White Guardian does not appear; however, the Black Guardian disguises himself as the White, allowing for the possibility that the real White Guardian was never actually involved at all. Maybe the Doctor and Romana were deceived from the beginning.
In the process of obtaining the final segment, the Doctor averts a devastating end to the war. Astra sacrifices herself to complete the Key, giving the Doctor ultimate power for a moment. However, the Doctor figures out that the Black Guardian is masquerading as the White; and therefore he tells the Key to disperse again, allowing Astra to return to life and to her lover. The Doctor is then forced to put a randomizer on the TARDIS, preventing himself—and the vengeful Black Guardian—from knowing where he will go next.
Noteworthy: Another Time Lord, Drax, appears here, having been taken captive long ago by the Shadow. He’s a former classmate, and knows the Doctor by an old school nickname, Theta Sigma. Much has been made of that name over the years; however, it appears to be only a nickname, and not even one the Doctor is fond of anymore. Lalla Ward makes her first appearance, as Princess Astra; next season she will assume the role of the newly-regenerated Romana. K9 gets a bit of spotlight here, and showcases his abilities, as he is briefly controlled by the Shadow. This is the final six-part story of the classic series; Shada, if broadcast, would also have been six parts. As well, The Two Doctors was not filmed in six parts, but was redistributed in that form internationally. Part one of this story is the 500th episode of the series.
Next time: New challenges for the Fourth Doctor, Romana, and K9! See you there.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.