You’ve got to love a good doppelganger story.
The formula is almost always the same: the hero finds a copy of their trusty companion, must question how well they really know them, loyalties and friendships all hanging in the balance while the villain uses the copy for their own diabolical purposes, etcetera.
When watching The Androids of Tara—just one part of the epic Key of Time series that helped define Tom Baker’s tenure as Doctor Who—many familiar “doppelganger tricks” are used, but, fortunately for us, there’s just enough smart ideas and fresh twists in this David Fisher-penned serial that the resulting episodes remain some of the breeziest, most enjoyable adventures that the Doctor has ever taken part in.
After losing to K-9 at a game of chess (you have to pass time on the TARDIS somehow!), the Doctor and Romana (Mary Tamm) land on the planet of Tara, in search of a piece of the Key of Time. As the Doctor goes off fishing, Romana hunts diligently for the artifact, eventually encountering the dreaded Taran Bear that guards it (another truly classic low-budget Who costume) and being saved from its grip by Count Grendel (Peter Jeffery, in a fantastic display of scenery-chewing), a local noble who has devious plans of his own for the forthcoming coronation of Tara’s new king: Prince Reynhart (Neville Jason).
Despite the fact that Tara has castles, horses all dressed up for combat, and other Renaissance-era details, the technology that the Tarans possess is actually quite advanced: instead of rapiers, the soldiers all don “laser rapiers”, advanced energy-rays are used for killing people, and—oh yeah—the Tarans are quite fond of androids. Though Grendel has it out to take the Taran throne, he must first make sure that Reynhart never sees the coronation room, and thus locks him in his dungeon. The Doctor, meanwhile, is taken in by Reynhart’s men, asking if he has any ability to repair androids. The reason? Since they can’t find the real Reynhart, they figure that a robotic duplicate might be enough to convince the public that Reynhart is all well and good, ultimately, preventing the diabolical Grendel from becoming.
Meanwhile, Grendel has the Princess Strella also under his guard (his “Ace in the hole”, if you will), and Grendel can’t help but notice that Romana looks exactly like the Princess, which leads to only further twists and turns in this surprisingly twisty political cat and mouse game.
As complicated as this plot may seem on paper (having Tamm play Romana, robot Romana, and the Princess Strella in this serial doesn’t help—nor does the fact that all three characters are wearing the exact same outfit), the dexterous political intrigue is actually briskly paced and quite digestible.
In a Who-context especially, the various games of political one-upmanship are a wonderful change-of-course for a show that often relies on action sequences and philosophical diatribes to get its point across. Baker gets some of the best lines, there’s just enough use of K-9 for the kiddies, and—perhaps best of all—there’s the lingering uncertainty of how the episode will actually end, something which Whovians aren’t always afforded in a serial.
Yet if this particular story feels deftly crafted, that’s because, well, it was. The various behind-the-scenes portions of the disc (the short doc “The Humans of Tara” and the feature audio commentary with Baker, Tamm, & director Michael Hayes) show that the script was based on—interestingly enough—the classic tale The Prisoner of Zenda, originally written by Michael Hope in 1894, itself a tale of mistaken identities being used to seize political power under the most unruly of circumstances.
The cast and crew describes how this particular tale was not only a breeze to write, but a breeze to film as well, as Kent had picaresque weather the whole way through and the owners of the Leeds Castle graciously allowed the crew to film for a whole week on location.
Though some of the details on the behind-the-scenes features aren’t really all that interesting (revisiting Leeds Castle ‘lo these many years later doesn’t give all that much insight onto the episode at hand), one of the most interesting docs included a short featurette called “Double Trouble”, which goes through all the uses of doppelgangers during the “classic” Who years, playfully showing just how frequently the show has used this “evil twin” premise (to great effect).
As with the best Who episodes, a very simple archetype is given a slight sci-fi tweak, and the end result is some of the most thrilling tales in the Who canon. Apparently, when you double your danger, you do, in fact, double your fun.