Timestamp: Sixteenth Series Summary

Doctor Who: Sixteenth Series Summary

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I remember when Doctor Who did a season-long arc. I liked the Eighth Series a lot more.

Sure, the final scores between the two reflect this, but it goes deeper, much like how I like the Second Doctor more than the Third (even though I scored the latter higher).

The concept seemed solid enough: The Key to Time Arc is a fight between good and evil – literally, the White Guardian versus the Black Guardian – with the Time Lords doing the legwork to maintain the balance of time, order, and chaos. It seems like something that Doctor Who should excel at, especially in how the eternal battle of angels and demons relates to humanity.

But it didn’t.

As I mentioned in The Power of Kroll, one of the biggest failings in this arc is how they handled the fragments of this powerful artifact. Instead of treating them along the same lines as the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the writers here treated them like museum pieces that would be hunted by Indiana Jones. Except that they even shortcut that as well because the fragments didn’t have any real power on their own.

Instead of making the fragments powerful enough to literally bend the story’s narrative – the tale of disparate criminals breaking out of prison becomes a quest to save the universe; a betrayed archaeologist decides to break up a cult, free slaves, and restore the village’s livelihood; a super-powered squid terrorizes a tribe of natives and their mining oppressors – five of the six pieces were effectively impotent and completely random.

The arc even had a chance to redeem itself in The Armageddon Factor by revisiting the ethical discussion from Genesis of the Daleks. The final Key Fragment was literally a human being, and in order to complete the mission and prevent the Black Guardian from enslaving the universe in eternal war, Princess Astra had to die. Is one human life worth completing the mission and saving the universe? That answer is no. What about when there is a completely viable alternative?

The Doctor had the ability to disperse the Key Fragments at the end to stop the Black Guardian from getting the completed Key. There was a perfect opportunity to pit Light and Dark against each other with the Time Lords protecting one human life in a discussion on how important it was. It was an opportunity to explore the human condition through metaphor, and it was missed by a long shot.

Sadly, the story execution was not the only failing in the Key to Time Arc.

I haven’t said a lot about Romana, and there is a really good reason for that. From the beginning, the role of the companion has been as a gateway to understand the Doctor. The Doctor has a cosmic understanding of time and space, and with that comes immense power. The companion balances the Doctor’s power (and his susceptibility to corruption by that power) by introducing an limited knowledge and an eagerness to learn more. We learned back in the Fourteenth Series that the Doctor cannot carry the responsibility (or the franchise) alone. He needs someone to temper the deus in the deus ex machina.

Unfortunately, Romana is written in this series as the Doctor Redux. Sure, she’s not as experienced, but she’s just as (or more) witty and capable, and shortly after her introduction, the pair is operating as equals instead of counterweights. It’s a case of double deus, and it removes our sympathetic window into understanding the Doctor and his adventures.

It’s certainly not Mary Tamm’s fault. She had so much potential in the role, but I feel that the screenplays prevented her from reaching it. There was also the opportunity to introduce the Doctor’s views on Time Lord society to a new recruit, maybe fixing the problems in the system that make the Doctor (and the audience) dislike his own people so much. Sadly, no. It’s unfortunate because there was some good chemistry between her and Tom Baker on screen. It’s doubly unfortunate because of her immediate departure from the role.

On a related note, I sincerely hope that Lalla Ward is better as the next companion. I’m willing to give her a shot, but I wasn’t impressed with her role as Princess Astra. Maybe it was the script? I’ll find out soon. I love the idea of a sympathetic Time Lord, but the character needs to be better.

So where does this put the Timestamps Project? The Sixteenth Series is just under the Fifteenth Series, and continues the decline since the Fourteenth Series. It is one step above last place.

I’m really hoping things turn around.

 

The Ribos Operation – 4
The Pirate Planet – 4
The Stones of Blood – 4
The Androids of Tara – 3
The Power of Kroll – 1
The Armageddon Factor – 3

 

Series Fourteen Average Rating: 3.2/5

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks

Timestamp #103: The Armageddon Factor

Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor
(6 episodes, s16e21-e26, 1979)

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The end to the Key to Time arc begins with melodrama in a hospital.

The target for the sixth and final segment of the Key to Time is Atrios, the twin planet to Zeos, which are engaged with each other in a brutal nuclear war. Princess Astra, the leader of Atrios in name only, is appalled at the carnage and the conditions for her people. She is also disturbed by the actions of the Marshal, who holds all of the power because of the hostilities. The Marshal confesses to his aide-de-camp Shapp that they are actually losing the war and is searching for any way to win, and the Marshal leads the princess into a trap. To silence her, perhaps? Or is it something more?

The TARDIS arrives in parking orbit around Atrios, but the Time Lords determine that they are way off course. They take the TARDIS in manually, which provokes the Atrians to launch a nuclear missile to intercept. The TARDIS de-materializes moments before impact to confuse the Atrians, then arrives on the planet.

The Marshal is also communicating with an unseen entity. Are we finally coming to the Black Guardian?

Since the planet is engaged in nuclear war, the Time Lords decide to move quickly. They track the fragment to the room holding Princess Astra, but are soon ambushed by the Marshal. He leads them away as another bombardment buries the TARDIS in rubble. K9 takes the opportunity to hide.

The Marshal declares the Time Lords, along with Merak (the princess’s sort of secret lover), as spies against the government. The Doctor tricks the Marshal into summoning K9, who provides a distraction for Time Lords to escape. The return to the landing site only to discover that the TARDIS is buried, and unbeknownst to them, the princess has been transmatted away by a mysterious masked figure.

Merak follows the Time Lords, and together they breach the room where Astra was being kept. Due to the high radiation, the humanoids leave K9 to stand guard while they continue the investigation. The Marshal uses the opportunity to lure K9 into the recycling complex. He also sends guards to retrieve the trio and bring them back to the command center, intending to treat them as guests. The Marshal asks the Doctor to help Atrios win the war, and he suggests a shield to block Zeons from attacking. The Marshal demands a weapon instead, intent on destroying the enemy. The Doctor says that he’ll need K9 and the Marshal reveals the robotic dog’s fate. The Doctor rushes to the recycling complex and rescues K9 at the last second. In the confusion, the Marshal reveals a small device attached to his neck. Romana tells the Doctor of this device later on as they brainstorm a solution. The Doctor deduces that something is blocking Zeos from Atrios, and the Doctor proposes going to Zeos to investigate.

Princess Astra appears on a transmission from Zeos demanding an Atrian surrender, and the Marshal sends the Doctor to a transmat for transport. Romana and Merak sneak into the room behind the Marshal’s mirror and discover a stone skull and the Marshal’s plot to trap the Doctor. As they arrive with the information, the trap is sprung, and the Doctor is transmatted away with two masked men.

The entity controlling the Marshal ends the Zeon attacks on Atrios, leaving the Marshal open to any course he chooses. Meanwhile, the Doctor is brought before the entity, the Shadow, who reveals that he has the TARDIS. The Shadow demands that the Doctor open the TARDIS and retrieve the segments to the Key to Time. Meanwhile, Romana and Merak discover that the TARDIS is missing, and then decide to follow the Doctor. Merak tricks Romana into surrendering the Key Core before transmatting away.

The Shadow leaves the Doctor, confident that the Time Lord will eventually make a mistake that will lead to the other fragments. The Doctor begins to search for the final segment while the Shadow interrogates Princess Astra. The Shadow reveals Astra is on his ship while Merak is on Zeos. Romana and K9 follow to Zeos, as does the Marshal’s aide Shapp. Shapp finds the Doctor and is convinced to follow K9’s tracks to the rest of the group. K9 has been communicating with the Zeon commander, which is actually a supercomputer named Mentalis. The computer has been instructed to conceal all information about Princess Astra, but reveals that the war is over and obliteration of everything is the next step.

The Marshal launches a plan to destroy Zeos with a missile assault. The computer cannot counterattack since it believes that it has won. If the computer is destroyed, it will implement the Armageddon Factor and destroy both planets. The Time Lords set to work in reprogramming Mentalis, but this triggers the computer to start a self-destruct sequence. Meanwhile, Romana deduces that the Shadow is located on a third planet in the star system. With the self-destruct clock still ticking the Time Lords seek refuge in the TARDIS.

The Shadow returns to Astra and fits her with a control device. He forces her to project an image of herself to distract Merak, and Shapp is stunned by one of the Shadow’s henchmen and transmatted away. Merak ends up falling down a hole after chasing the apparition.

The Doctor and Romana attempt to construct the Key to Time, but without the remaining fragment the artifact is useless. The Doctor constructs an artificial piece to fill the gap which places the Marshall’s ship in a time loop and prevents him from attacking. Since the one segment is artificial, the time loop is steadily degrading.

The real Astra (under the Shadow’s control) rescues Marek. The pair run into K9 and the dog fights off the henchmen as the pair head to the TARDIS. The villains lure K9 into the transmat with a distress call and the pooch is beamed away to the Shadow’s ship where he is reprogrammed. Meanwhile, Astra reveals her allegiances to Marek and he is beamed away as she tries to fool the Doctor. She gains access to the TARDIS and accompanies the Time Lords to the Shadow’s location.

K9, now working for the Shadow, goes to greet the trio. Inside the TARDIS, Astra is directed by the Shadow to take Romana to him. The Doctor finds the distress signal that trapped K9 and follows it, plagued the entire trip by illusions of Romana, Astra, and himself. He eventually confronts the Shadow, who reveals that he is the agent of the Black Guardian, and is captured.

FINALLY! The Black Guardian arrives!

In his cell, the Doctor encounters another Time Lord named Drax (who refers to him as Theta Sigma – that can’t be his real name, can it?). Drax was forced under threat of death to build Mentalis. He has since been trying to tunnel out and find a way to his own TARDIS on Zeos. The Doctor determines if Drax is trustworthy as the Shadow tortures Romana for information. After gaining everything he can from her, the Shadow sends K9 after the Doctor. The Doctor tricks K9 into the cell with Drax where the threat is stopped. The Doctor makes his way out to the upper levels and is captured by a henchman and taken to the Shadow. There, the Doctor is forced to retrieve the Key to Time so the Shadow can add the Sixth Fragment and set the cosmos at war. When he reaches the TARDIS with his henchman escort, the Doctor is surprised by Drax’s arrival. Drax shoots him with a shrink ray, miniaturizing both of the Time Lords. Since the TARDIS doors are open and the time loop is crumbling as the artificial Key Fragment is burning up, they decide to create a distraction.

The Shadow leaves to retrieve the Key, and Romana discovers that Princess Astra is the Sixth Fragment. The Doctor and Drax fix K9 and hitch a ride to the wall outside the Shadow’s chambers. After Merak transmats back to the Shadow’s ship, he joins the group in the chamber where Astra is transformed into the fragment. As K9 blasts in and the Time Lords are restored to normal size, the Doctor retrieves the Key and takes Romana back to the TARDIS. They travel to the computer room where Drax – who rescued K9 – helps them disarm Mentalis. Free of the time loop, the Marshal fires on Zeos, but his missiles are deflected into the Shadow’s ship.

Drax leaves to find his next construction job and the Doctor is briefly enthralled by the power of the Key. As the Shadow dies, the Black Guardian disguises himself as the White Guardian and attempts to trick the Doctor into surrendering the Key. The Black Guardian callously disregards Princess Astra’s sacrifice, and the Doctor figures out who the Guardian truly is. The Doctor disperses the Key Fragments across the universe, thus reuniting the restored Princess Astra with Marek, at the same moment as the TARDIS dematerializes.

To prevent the Black Guardian from following and seeking revenge, the Doctor has installed a randomizer on the TARDIS. Not even the Doctor knows where they are going next.

The ending is iffy. If the White Guardian had successfully restored the balance between good and evil throughout time, then the show would theoretically be over since it relies on the Doctor battling evil. But the dispersal of the key feels like it invalidates the entire journey to assemble it. It’s a hollow victory capped by a last-minute convenience. It’s almost as if the writers had no idea how to put a lid on this whole season’s story.

That said, this episode was mostly solid. Mostly.

 

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

 

UP NEXT – Sixteenth Series Summary

 

 

 

 

Timestamp #102: The Power of Kroll

Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll
(4 episodes, s16e17-e20, 1978-79)

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Before now, I had never seen a squid stumble.

The common thread throughout the serial was the weak story. There was very little meat on the bone, and it shows in how detailed my notes are. The story opens in a methane catalyzing refinery where we’re introduced to the crew and their servant, Mensch. The servant, who they treat like swamp scum until he dies, is a native of the planet.

The planet is really a moon orbiting Delta Magna. Taking a cue from The Empire Strikes Back, the moon is one big swamp. Instead of a single green Jedi, the moon’s inhabitants are a group of green natives called the “swampies.” For the record, that’s the last time I’ll mention that name because the narrative treats it in the ugliest manner for the duration.

The commander is returning from somewhere, and the tracking officer notes that a spacecraft followed in the commander’s shuttle. They presume that it must be Rohm-Dutt, a gun-runner who is supplying the natives with weapons in the name of The Sons of Earth. Who are they? A missed opportunity for the plot.

The refinery workers take up arms in pursuit of the smuggler. Coincidentally, the TARDIS arrives at that same time, and as the Doctor and Romana search for the next Key Fragment, Romana is abducted by the natives and the Doctor is ambushed by the humans. K9 gets to stay in the TARDIS since he cannot navigate the swamp. Lucky dog.

Rohm-Dutt questions Romana about her presence and intentions, and the Doctor gets a similar treatment from the workers. After he convinces them that he’s not a threat, the refinery personnel decide to keep the Doctor at their facility. He accompanies them to watch an orbit shot, the purpose of which is, well, not really explained.

Romana, on the other hand, gets to meet the local god since the natives decide to sacrifice her to the mighty Kroll. She’s tied to a stake, subjected to the local interpretation of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and gets scared by a native in a squid suit. With the Doctor’s quip that “it probably looked more convincing from the front,” it’s apparent that this serial is mocking itself.

After freeing Romana, the Doctor reveals that he has (somehow) recovered the Key Core. They decide to investigate further for reasons and discover a text that references Kroll, a creature that consumed a previous High Priest, and has made three appearances. It’s due for a fourth, which happens in short order. The refinery workers note that something has caused the moon’s surface to move up briefly and then settle again. They find that the Doctor has left the complex, decide that he’s a sympathizer who is going to warn the natives of a pending human assault on them, and set out in pursuit to kill him. Everything converges as the humans hunt the Time Lords, the natives attack the humans, their weapons explode on use, Kroll eats Mensch, and the natives retreat to settle the score with Rohm-Dutt and seek a blood sacrifice to appease the god.

The god Kroll is a giant squid. How Lovecraftian.

The natives capture the Time Lords, bundling them with Rohm-Dutt as a massive sacrifice under one of the “seven holy rituals.” The Doctor finds it lucky that they get to participate in the seventh, which is the swamp equivalent of torture by the racks. The second episode ends as Kroll seeks out the refinery, which apparently has been harvesting methane produced by the creature when it hibernates and has been drilling right into it, and eats one of the crewmen after breaking through a pipe.

The Doctor questions the native High Priest about Kroll, trying to hypnotize him so the man will free them, but all he gets is some backstory. Rohm-Dutt also admits that the refinery foreman paid him handsomely to sell the faulty weapons to the natives and discredit The Sons of Earth. See above, re: missed opportunity.

Luckily, the captives break free courtesy of two conveniences: The Doctor shatters a window with his singing and the ensuing storm loosens their bonds. Seven really is his lucky number. They make their way across the swamps and encounter the Kroll once again. It eats Rohm-Dutt and a native, leading the Doctor to deduce that it hunts by vibration.

Those two paragraphs were Episode Three. Yes, really.

The refinery commander, who is going insane in his need to eliminate his opposition, decides to aim the next orbital shot (whatever that is) at the Kroll, but his crew afraid that it will ignite the thin atmosphere and kill all of the natives. The Doctor stops the launch and the Kroll escapes, but the Time Lords do not as the commander catches up to them.

The natives invade the refinery, ending the commander’s threat at the surprise end of a spear. Kroll resumes its assault on the refinery, but the Doctor and the remaining refinery worker distract it by engaging all of the platform’s equipment and alarms. The High Priest offers a prayer to the tentacle emerging from the broken pipe. He ends up becoming a sacrament.

The Doctor takes the Key Core topside, testing his theory that the source of the Kroll’s power is the Fragment. After getting a hug from the squid, he transforms it into the Fifth Segment. The story ends with an aborted bang as the Doctor short circuits the computer to prevent the next orbit shot, which would have been into a plugged firing tube.

The Doctor and Romana make their way back to the TARDIS and take off, thankfully ending this adventure.

Why thankfully?

This one is stretched thin across the board. The refinery crew is acted poorly, as are the natives, and they have the extra baggage of the Savage Indian trope. The special effects are bad, and so is the script, especially when thin atmosphere and weak gravity are explicitly called out but neither is readily apparent in the acting. Even the regulars are poorly written with jokes that fail so hard at landing that they reach escape velocity without a push.

This could have easily been turned serious as another Doctor Who allegory on colonialism, capitalism, racism, slavery, and religion. It could have been as deep as The Mutants. Instead, we get a self-effacing farce that doesn’t even take advantage of the groundwork to the Key to Time arc. We’ve had one or two hints, but the warning to beware the Black Guardian hasn’t had any payoff at all.

The tremendous positive here is how the Key Fragment was handled. In the previous four stories, the fragments have all been random objects like a lump of jethrik ore, the remnants of a compressed planet, the Great Seal of Diplos, and a piece of a statue. The rub is that the Key was sold to us as a powerful and legendary artifact that maintains the equilibrium of time. This story treated the Key Fragment like one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Infinity Stones, making it so powerful that it warped the narrative around it. The Time Lords couldn’t just theoretically arrive, identify and snag the treasure, and then leave. Instead, they had no choice but to literally fight the monster to solve the story’s conflict and earn the reward. In this story, they had to work for it.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

I’m surprised at how thin and disengaging this story is. Robert Holmes has been the writer behind some of the highest ratings in the Timestamps Project – Spearhead from SpaceTerror of the AutonsThe Time WarriorThe Ark in SpacePyramids of MarsThe Talons of Weng-Chiang, and The Ribos Operation – but this one turned out more like The Krotons and The Space Pirates.

 

Rating: 1/5 – “EXTERMINATE!”

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor

 

 

 

 

Ad Astra Per Aspera: Fifty Years

 

Ad Astra Per Aspera: Fifty Years

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The crew of Apollo 1: Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Lt Col, USAF), Edward White II (Lt Col, USAF), and Roger B. Chaffee (LCDR, USN)

 

Fifty years ago today, tragedy struck the Apollo manned lunar landing program and claimed the lives of three brave explorers. Their memory lives on, but their spirit carries us higher.

Rest in peace, gentlemen.

 

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Timestamp #101: The Androids of Tara

Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara
(4 episodes, s16e13-e16, 1978)

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As a bookend to the fifteenth anniversary, it could have been so much more.

With the TARDIS in transit, the Doctor challenges K9 to a game of chess. Romana uses the Key’s tracker to steer their course to Tara. While the Doctor goes fishing, Romana hunts for the next fragment. As she locates it, she is attacked by a wood beast and rescued by a knight with a electrified sword. He identifies himself as Count Grendel of Gracht, and he confiscates the fragment under the law for identification. To compensate her, the count takes Romana to his castle to tend after her twisted ankle.

The Doctor, asleep on the riverbank, is found by Zadek and Farrah, two swordsmen, and they recruit him to fix their android. The Doctor is taken to Prince Reynart who offers him a reward for his services fixing the android, which looks like the androids from a different Fourth Doctor adventure. After a face is attached, it is designed to look like the prince and act as a (life model) decoy for his coronation the next day.

Upon arriving at the Count’s castle, Romana is tended to an engineer named Lamia. The engineer and count admire her “construction” and decide to disassemble her. The swelling in her ankle convinces them that she’s not an android after all. Instead of being disassembled, she is drugged. Similarly, he ends up drugging the retinue and kidnapping the prince.

When they come to, the Doctor and the retinue develop a plan to use the android decoy to stand in until the prince is rescued. The Doctor calls in K9 for support and learns that Romana has not yet returned. In Grendel’s castle, Romana awakens and is taken to see Princess Strella and Prince Reynart. Both are Grendel’s captives, and Romana is physically identical to the princess. If Reynart is not crowned as king at the proper time, Grendel may be chosen to ascend in his stead. The count leaves Romana and the prince in their cell and heads to the coronation.

The Doctor sends K9 to Count Grendel’s castle to search for Romana and the prince while he and the rest of the retinue carry on with the decoy plot. As they journey, the retinue explains how a plague attacked ninety percent of the population and the androids were built to keep the civilization moving. The culture has become a mix of feudal and futuristic elements. They are attacked by Grendel’s men, but still manage to arrive in time for the ceremony. In a somewhat Weekend at Bernie’s sequence, the android is crowned, but as Princess Strella approaches to pledge her fealty, the Doctor grabs the royal scepter and strikes her dead.

This really isn’t a very good cliffhanger since we know that Romana and Princess Strella are still in captivity.

The princess is really an android. Count Grendel convinces Zardek to postpone the oath-taking until the next day on the premise that other android assassins may be in the court. Grendel retreats to his castle and orders Lamia (who is experimenting with the Key Fragment) to build a Romana android that will assassinate the Doctor. Grendel then offers the Doctor a chance to collect Romana, which he knows is a trap, but chooses to spring anyway. The real Romana escapes and makes her way on horseback to the Doctor, but arrives to find Lamia dead after the Doctor and K9 have thwarted the assassination attempt.  She escapes with the Doctor to the prince’s home, with Grendel in hot pursuit. In private discussion, the count stalls by offering the throne to the Doctor, but then destroys the decoy prince and escapes with Romana.

Count Grendel explains his new plan for usurping power: Romana will marry the king, who will then die as a matter of convenience so Grendel can marry the widow and assume the throne. The Doctor knows that a full siege of the castle would take too long, so he and K9 sneak in through the moat and tunnel system to disrupt the wedding. After a sword duel, during which the gates are opened and the prince’s forces storm the castle, Count Grendel escapes by diving into the moat and swimming away, presumably into exile. Meanwhile, Romana rescues Princess Strella from captivity.

Putting the wrap on the adventure, Prince Reynart reunites with Princess Strella, the Doctor reunites with Romana, and the Time Lords reunite with the Key Fragment. On their way back to the TARDIS, they make one more stop: They must retrieve K9 from the boat in the middle of the moat.

The positives: Mary Tamm and her four distinct roles (Romana, Romana-bot, Princess Strella, and Princess-bot). I mean, it was fun to see her range and skill beyond being a snarky foil for the Doctor.

The negatives: Pretty much everything else. It was a lackluster story, and while the rest of the season hasn’t been exactly stellar, at least the other tales were fun. This one felt paint-by-the-numbers and, dare I say, boring. I wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either.

Remember how I said that Louise Jameson saved Underworld from joining the ranks of failing grades for me?

Thank Mary Tamm for this one.

 

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll