Doctor Who: The Key to Time review, Doctor Who: The Key to Time DVD review

Tom Baker, Mark Tamm,
John Leeson, Lalla Ward

Doctor Who: The Key to Time

Reviewed by Ross Ruediger



urely there isn’t a slice of “Doctor Who” with a more bloated reputation than Season 16, also known as “The Key to Time.” Oftentimes remembered as a jewel in the classic series crown, such an opinion can only be the result of someone who hasn’t seen this material in a long time. Don’t get me wrong, “The Key to Time” isn’t bad; it’s just wildly uneven, lacking in focus and objective. The season of six stories is united by the Doctor’s quest for the all-powerful MacGuffin, which is split into six pieces and spread out across the universe. The pieces of the Key are disguised and could take any shape, and so part of the fun is in the unexpected forms they take. And, of course, it’s never just simply a matter of the Doctor showing up and collecting each piece. He manages to find himself embroiled in six very different adventures along the way. Accompanying him on his journeys are the Time Lady Romana (Mary Tamm) and his faithful robotic computer K-9 (voiced by John Leeson).

The introduction of Romana was a move intended to give the Doctor an equal to travel around with. It was a move that started off well, but ultimately devolved into the standard screaming companion who has very little to do. Mary Tamm, in fact, left at the end of the season for these very reasons, as the character wasn’t drawn the way it was promised to her when she signed on. Produced on the watch of Graham Williams, this season also sees the series sliding further into the realms of comedy. In the previous season, the jokes were still awkward, and in the season that follows this one, it was often times just too much. The Williams mixture of comedy, drama and sci-fi is at its most balanced in Season 16 and as such should be considered something of a minor triumph in that department, although there are still sections of the season let down by a reliance on sight gags and stupid jokes. Already the season comes across as a mixed bag and I haven’t even gotten to the individual stories yet.  

The journey begins with “The Ribos Operation,” a truly oddball installment, and certainly an even odder way to begin the season. The Doctor (Tom Baker) is hailed by the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham), who is essentially the “Who” equivalent of God. He more or less orders the Doctor to find the six pieces of the Key, and join them together so the Guardian can restore balance to an ailing universe. But he warns the Doctor to be wary of the Black Guardian, who will no doubt want to use the assembled Key for his own nefarious purposes. Against the Doctor’s wishes, he assigns him a new companion and gives the duo a tracer, which looks suspiciously like a cheap magic wand.

Their first stop is the wintery world of Ribos. There the Time Lords encounter Garron (Iain Cuthbertson) and Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt), a couple of conmen out to swindle the Graff Vynda-K (Paul Seed), the deposed ruler of Levithia. The con involves getting the insane Graff to believe that Ribos is rich in a rare mineral called jethryk. Of course, since it’s a con, only one piece of jethryk exists. There really isn’t much more to the story than that, except that the lump of jethryk just so happens to be the first segment of the Key to Time. If only the Doctor and Romana could just grab it and leave, but alas, the task isn’t that easy, and the duo are sucked into dealing with a situation that’s well below their talents (although it could be argued that the situation is an ideal intro to the Doctor’s crazy world for the novice Romana). “The Ribos Operation” doesn’t sound like it’s got a whole lot going on, but it is actually a wonderful piece of “Who,” ripe with excellent characterization, sparkling dialogue and outstanding set and costume design. Written by Robert Holmes, it’s probably one of his most indulgent scripts, as he seems less interested in telling a good “Doctor Who” story, than he does in simply spinning a clever yarn under the “Who” banner. The result is something very different for the series, and while it excels in stretching the format, admittedly, the material will not appeal to everyone.

Next stop: the planet Calufrax. Only Calufrax isn’t where it’s supposed to be – Zanak is. “The Pirate Planet” was the first “Who” contribution from the great Douglas Adams, and he was in fact writing it at the same time he was writing “Hitchhiker’s.” The Doctor and Romana discover a civilization slave to the Captain (Bruce Purchase), a boisterous figure who appears to be half-man, half robot. The Captain promises a “New Golden Age” to Zanak’s inhabitants with alarming frequency. Each time this happens, the sky glows, the stars change their positions, and fresh supplies of rubies, gold and other treasures appear in abundance. Only the Mentiads, a group of gloomy, psychic dissenters, sense the wrongness of the situation. Into the mess stride the Doctor, Romana and K-9, and it’s up to them to put things right. “The Pirate Planet” may be the love it or hate it story of the bunch. It just so happens I adore it. It’s chock full of Adams’ trademark humor, while at the same time has a deadly serious storyline going on. The scene where the Doctor confronts the Captain about his evil deeds is an unquestionable highlight, as Baker wails, “But what’s it for!?!” Of course I’m not doing the line any justice here, but you’ll feel its power when you see it for yourself. The story is loaded with plot, and there are twists and turns all the way through. Admittedly, “The Pirate Planet” may have been a tad more ambitious than the production team was capable of fully executing, but look past the frequently cheap effects and there’s a real gem beneath the obvious problems.

With “The Stones of Blood,” however, the season begins to unravel – which is a shame, because the story gets off to a cracking, gothic start, and it sure looks like it’s going to be a season highlight. The Doctor and Romana’s search for the third segment of the Key takes them to Earth and an ancient stone circle called the Nine Travellers. There they meet the elderly Professor Emelia Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann) and her assistant Vivien Fay (Susan Engel), who are researching the circle. Also on the loose are a group of Druids (of course) who partake in the occasional sacrifice to the stone circle (of course). But in this instance, the sacrifices are given the “Who” twist, as the stones are actually aliens called Ogri, who survive on soaking up human blood. Somewhere in the third episode, all the action moves to a spaceship existing in hyperspace (literally a few feet above the circle, but unseen by the human eye) where the Doctor wears a silly wig and is put on trial by a couple of floating aliens called the Megara. It’s all very silly and feels inconsequential, and worst of all, it’s played for one too many laughs. On top of everything else, the Ogri are just plain silly as there’s no getting past the feeling that it shouldn’t be too difficult to outrun a giant, glowing rock. It’s also in this story where the character of Romana begins her downhill slide into helplessness – most notably via a literal cliffhanger at the end of Episode One.

With half of the Key collected, the Time Lords are off to the planet Tara, in the appropriately named “The Androids of Tara,” which is really just a “Who” riff on “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Here the fourth segment of the Key is quickly found, but our heroes inevitably find themselves caught up in the petty politics of the planet’s ruling class. Strange place, Tara. Everything about the society feels classically swashbuckling – except for their technology, which includes androids that appear to be human, and swords and crossbows that deliver little bolts of electricity. The problems begin when it just so happens that Romana bears a striking resemblance to Princess Strella, who is supposed to marry Prince Reynart, who is supposed to take the Taran throne. But plotting on the sidelines is Grendel, a moustache-twirling bad guy who’ll go to whatever lengths it takes to nab the throne for himself, including kidnapping and creating an android version of Strella (thus giving Mary Tamm three roles to play). “Tara” is a good “Doctor Who” story, but not as great as I’d remembered it being. It’s very soapy in its twists and turns and, given its roots, unsurprisingly feels very old-fashioned and perhaps an episode too long. By this point in the ongoing story, the quest for the Key itself is getting very long in the tooth (much like this review).

“The Power of Kroll” has a very bad reputation. Often times regarded as the low point of the season, I was surprised to find that while still not very good, it was better than reputation suggests – perhaps even slightly superior to “The Stones of Blood,” for whatever that may be worth. The TARDIS arrives on the third moon of the planet Delta Magna. The entire place is just one big swamp, and the indigenous population are called – wait for it – Swampies. They’re barely clothed natives who have green skin. And they worship a giant squid called Kroll, which should no doubt appease “Watchmen” fans who feel cheated by the movie version that has no squid. “Kroll” overflows with squidness, and the aim of the story was to deliver the biggest “Doctor Who” monster ever. There are moments when the stop-motion animated Kroll looks passable, and there are times, such as when it’s little more than a tentacle poking through a pipe, when it is positively dire. What saves the story is how much location shooting was done, hence much of the tale is shot on film. It’s also amazing to realize that “Kroll” came from the pen of Robert Holmes, making it easily the worst “Who” story he ever wrote.

Finally, we reach the end of season with “The Armageddon Factor,” a six-part tale that certainly sounds as if “The Key to Time” is going to end with a big finish. The planets of Atrios and Zeos are engaged in a nuclear war, with the Marshall (John Woodvine) of Atrios poised to end the war for good. But who is it he keeps talking to behind the mirror? And how does Princess Astra (Lalla Ward) tie in to everything? Eventually, it’s revealed that an agent for the Black Guardian known as the Shadow if pulling quite a few strings, and into the madness stumbles a third Time Lord, Drax (Barry Jackson). The biggest problem this story has is a distinct lack of urgency, on just about every count. What should almost literally be a race against time turns into something more along the lines of a leisurely stroll to the finish line. Worst of all, “The Armageddon Factor” is really quite boring, and there’s barely enough story for four episodes, let alone six. Still, there’s an amazing scene between the Doctor and Romana when they finally manage to assemble the Key, but one great scene does not a story make. It’s also mildly interesting to see Lalla Ward in the role of Astra, since she would ultimately be taking over the role of Romana the following season.

Essentially what you have in “The Key to Time” is a strong beginning, a decent middle, and a weak ending. Oddly, despite all its problems, it’s something of a no-brainer to recommend to “Doctor Who” fans simply because it’s a great deal of fun much of the time, warts and all. Baker and Tamm work very well together, and most of the stories (save for “Kroll”) manage to make good use out of K-9 as well. This isn’t the first time “The Key” has been released on DVD. It was, in fact, one of the first “Who” releases here in the States back in 2002, but it was a Region 1 exclusive, and therefore didn’t receive the usual attention from the Restoration Team, and the extras were minimal. The original release of “The Key” didn’t look bad at all, and so, despite the restoration work here, it’s very difficult to recommend double-dipping to those who already own the previous release, unless you’re a special features hound. The good news is that these stories can be purchased individually, in the event you don’t want to buy the entire season. If you’re considering picking up at least half the season, though, you may as well spring for the entire set as buying the six individual releases adds up to a retail pricetag of $160, versus $100 for the box set. Further the set collects all six stories into a box that’s about the size of two regular DVDs, so it’s a nice space saver for the shelf.

Special Features: The set retains the extras from the previous release and adds quite a few new ones as well. Although the back of the box claims there are eight commentary tracks, there are actually nine. Six tracks have been carried over from the previous release, while three new ones (on “The Pirate Planet,” “The Stones of Blood,” and “The Armageddon Factor”) have been recorded so that Tom Baker can chime in on every story. Each story (except for, inexplicably, “Kroll”) has a nice “Making of” featurette. “A Matter of Time” on the “Ribos” disc is a great overview of Graham Williams’ entire tenure as producer. There are probably no less than a dozen other featurettes spread out amongst the season, not to mention all sorts of archival BBC news footage. Half the stories offer up deleted and/or alternate scenes. The “Armageddon” set features Tom Baker reading five short stories from a program called “Late Night Story.” In addition to all the usual production notes options, Radio Times billings, photo galleries and so forth, the last disc also features the infamous Christmas clip of Baker, Tamm and K-9 getting drunk on vodka on the TARDIS floor, which is endlessly amusing and a welcome inclusion to the set.

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