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The Key to Time. In one sitting.

August 10th, 2008 (12:41 am)

I'm fairly recently returned from watching the entirety of the Key to Time season, in sequence. There are much worse ways to spend a wet and windy day. I was not alone - the venue was a college TV room secured by a non-LJer I refer to as PlayerKing, who was already waiting at about five past noon when I arrived along with crouchinglynx; widsidh and then calliope85 followed soon after. poppylt arrived during The Androids of Tara but left during The Armageddon Factor. PlayerKing himself had left after The Pirate Planet. All of us deserve doughtiness points for sticking with what is one of the more variable Doctor Who seasons, with fewer outstanding moments.

Seeing the season all in one go underlined some of my existing impressions while alerting me to more connections between the stories. I still think that The Ribos Operation is curiously lacking in incident for a season opener, let alone a definite hook. The Pirate Planet is emerging now as my favourite of the season; its more media- and technosavvy than the others which probably helps it age well. The other stories seem more clearly written by writers of another generation to Douglas Adams, who was not yet 26 when the story was broadcast. The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara are both charming in their way but both suffer, the first from the cutting-off of the Druidic strand to leave most of the action in the fourth episode on a rather generic spaceship, and the second from the ultimate sidelining of the androids from the plot.

The story which gained the most was The Power of Kroll, which seems lacking in memorable incident and has parallels with The Ribos Operation - Rohm-Dutt might as well be Garron with a career turn, and he even has the same business with a receipt to perform. His name, though, echoes that of Romesh Chunder Dutt, the nineteenth-century Indian writer and administrator whose name Robert Holmes may well have come across during his military career, or as part of his obsession with Victoriana. Kroll is a broad anti-imperialist story with a line against assumptions of cultural and racial supremacy. Reservations were expressed at Fenner being the only survivor of the refinery crew; he's the most representative, perhaps, of the average viewer, having been dissatisfied with the methane extraction project but unwilling or unable to define his attitude to Thawn's ruthless business plan.

Broader themes included the reliance on close-ups of the Doctor and/or companion to emphasise the cliffhanger well ahead of it becoming firmly embedded as part of the formula in the 1980s (though The Androids of Tara 3 remains one of the worst ever, as Romana is carried off by Grendel having presumably hung around outside Zadek's forest lodge waiting to be kidnapped rather than staying inside in safety); and the decline of Romana, barring a rally in Kroll. Mary Tamm's Romana is generally best written by Robert Holmes, and there are points in Armageddon Factor where she seems exceptionally dim. When as limp a character as Merak has worked out that Astra is the sixth segment of the Key to Time before Romana, it's clear that this companion is in trouble.


Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: August 11th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I still think that The Ribos Operation is curiously lacking in incident for a season opener, let alone a definite hook.

I think that Doctor Who didn't feature 'season openers' in the modern sense until the mid-eighties (at the earliest). The main exception is Barry Letts, but even he prefered to showcase a new regular or returning character/monster; it's debateable whether The Time Warrior or Terror of the Autons feel like season openers in the modern sense.

Incidentally, The Ribos Operation is probably my favourite story of the season, while the season as a whole is my favourite season of Doctor Who.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: August 11th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)

I think that Spearhead from Space is the first 'season opener' as such, defined as a story which sets out to make an impact and keep people watching. The Pertwee era follows this strategy all the way through, with the exception of season 11 which buries The Time Warrior, with which Barry Letts seems to have been disappointed, in mid-December, so that the spectacle of Invasion of the Dinosaurs could be included in the 1974 'new season' launch.

Otherwise things do become lower-key in the late 1970s, I concede, with the exceptions of The Masque of Mandragora - space, then Renaissance Italy as recreated using the exotic Portmeirion - and Destiny of the Daleks.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: August 12th, 2008 05:16 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure I agree about Spearhead being a season opener. Viewed episodically, rather than in one sitting, the first half is rather slow and a lot of time is given over to establishing the new format, rather than to memorable set pieces. In that sense, it feels more like a stand-alone pilot episode than an action-packed season opener.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: August 12th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

Sorry, that last comment was me.