Let's Do the Time Warp (Again)
An arrogant general leading troops into battle against insurmountable odds, refusing to give up even when looking defeat directly in its steely, unwavering eyes. People around him are telling him to pull the troops out, but the general refuses to listen, caring little about diplomatic etiquette and instead worrying one thing and one thing only: victory.
If it does, it’s either because A> you’re reading this right now, fully aware of the current world political climate, B> you lived through the Cold War, in which standoffs and threats of imminent destruction were more than rampant, or C> you’re watching The Armageddon Factor, the final part of the epic Key of Time arc that helped define Tom Baker’s tenure as the iconic Doctor Who. Truly great sci-fi transcends era, giving us a startling look at the here and now through a fresh perspective, and with The Armageddon Factor, we get exactly that.
At the start of the Key of Time debacle (also known as the Doctor Who‘s 16th Season), an omniscient figure named the White Guardian gives the Doctor and Romana (Mary Tamm, in her last go-round in the TARDIS) a specific quest: find the six pieces of the “Key of Time” before the universe descends into chaos. Not much is known about the object in question except for the fact that Key of Time presumably possesses great powers, allowing its owner the ability to alter the very fabric of time at their whim. The Doctor—ever the renegade—merrily takes on the Herculean task of finding this mysterious object, traveling across dimensions and worlds to get the pieces (with his trusty robotic pooch K-9 in tow) and getting in his usual low-budget, high-stakes adventures in the process.
When The Armageddon Factor starts, things are remarkably bleak: the planet of Atrios is taking on heavy losses in its ongoing war with the planet Zeos. The TARDIS winds up on Atrios, the Doctor keenly noticing that the war has gone nuclear and no one is going to survive if things continue in this fashion. The military commander known as The Marshal (a stone-faced John Woodvine) is attempting to lead Atrios to victory, even as he sees his best pilots wiped in wave after wave of attack. He keeps Princess Astra (Lalla Ward)—who holds the only sound diplomatic reasoning on the planet, apparently—by his side simply for good political standing, even if most of the people on the planet are too busy dying in hospitals to care.
The Doctor is brought in, his life is threatened by the Marshal, and secrets are slowly revealed: what if the Zeon threat isn’t a threat at all? What if it’s all an elaborate rouse by The Shadow (William Squire), the dark urban legend of a figure who runs his own planet of evil henchmen? Could The Shadow actually be an agent of the Dark Guardian, the very figure who the Doctor is trying to keep the Key of Time away from? Though all these questions do get answered across The Armageddon Factor‘s six episodes, K-9 encounters a near-death experience, the true nature of the Zeons are revealed, and—most astoundingly—the Doctor meets another Time Lord ...
What makes The Armageddon Factor work so well isn’t just its endless political intrigue (though the writers reveal that this particular arc was supposed to reflect Cold War paranoia, it’s eerie how much it reflects America’s current military engagements), but the sheer depth and scope of its characters. Romana questions many of the Doctor’s decisions, the Princess is harshly interrogated for her knowledge on the final piece of the Key of Time (which is all the more tragic given how she knows absolutely nothing about its whereabouts), and even the Marshal’s direct subordinates defy their leader when he insists on counterstriking against an enemy that appears to have already surrendered. Throw in laser gunfights, mind control devices, and a dwindling “time loop” that makes the universe repeat the same 10 seconds of time over and over again, and you got yourself one remarkably fascinating Who adventure.
Though some “classic” Who elements are all in place this time around—like low-budget sets and even lower-budget effects (including some of the worst green screen usage of all time)—this story works largely due to its brisk direction and smart script (some of which was penned by an uncredited Douglas Adams). Michael Hayes had already proven himself a worthy Who-helmer with the excellent Androids of Tara, and pulls some of that kinetic energy here as well. In the DVD featurette “Directing Who”, he goes over how he resisted doing anything Who-related simply because as a younger man he thought this youth-oriented show was “below him”, but finally came around to doing it—and loving it—after much persistence by producers.
Though some of the DVD featurettes are utterly pointless (the “Alternate/Extended Scene” serves no purpose at all, nor does the continuities), the “Defining Shadows” doc gives great insight into the genesis of the episode in question, and the fantastic “Rogue Time Lords” gives a great look at some of the fellow Time Lords who have gone morally astray in Who serials before and after (thankfully not forgetting the all-important revelation behind the villain featured in the Colin Baker season-long arc The Trail of a Time Lord). Most delightful feature? A drunken K-9 Christmas singalong (“Merry Christmas, Doctor Who”). Strangest? All five-stories of the Baker-narrated “Late Night Story”, a weird-ass little show (that never got broadcast) in which Baker stares directly at the camera and monologues some spine-tingly Halloween-styled stories that would be creepier were it not for the fact that it’s the Doctor who’s telling them to you.
All in all, The Armageddon Factor is one of the more enjoyable Who romps, and a fitting end to the epic Key of Time arc. You can read into the political nature of the proceedings as much as you want, but just don’t forget to be entertained by them, too.