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Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Armageddon Factor originally aired in 1979. It was the sixth and final part of The Key to Time saga.

The Key to Time was perhaps the first conscious attempt to tell a season-long story in Doctor Who. Sure, we’ve had elements of an arc before. The first season, for example, gave the Doctor himself a character arc where he evolved from cowardly curmudgeon into an unlikely heroic figure. Jon Pertwee’s second season was given the Master as a linking element. Tom Baker’s Doctor embarked in a pretty much unbroken series of adventures from Robot through to Terror of the Zygons, with the ending of one serial seemingly leading directly into the next. None of these were necessarily that ambitious and you could argue they evolved more by chance than by design.

So, The Key to Time represented a bit of a learning curve, an attempt to tie a season’s stories together using an over-arching concept. As I’ve discussed quite a bit in my reviews of the season, the result was a little clunky, with those concepts seemingly clumsily shoe-horned into a separate bunch of adventures. That leaves the finalé, The Armageddon Factor to do the heavy-lifting with regards to The Key to Time saga. Unfortunately, the pay-off feels a bit jumbled, over-wrought, disorganised and non-sensical, as it juggles a wealth of elements that never add up to more than the sum of their parts.

While a great many Doctor Who six-parters suffer from being too long, too padded, too stretched for their story and concepts, The Armageddon Game feels curiously over-stuffed, lacking a tight focus on the interesting elements and too many distractions clogging up the story.

The problems are crystal clear...

The problems are crystal clear…

To be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a lot of the elements in and of themselves, it’s just that the execution feels somewhat sloppy, and a lot of the elements exist almost at odds with one another. I love, for example, the idea to contrast the grim reality of war with the romanticism and patriotism of propaganda. Opening the episode with a chest-thumping soap opera is a great idea, and one of the more memorable visuals of the serial, but it never really goes anywhere. It’s a clever concept, but one that the script makes no attempt to really connect – thematically or literally – with the rest of the story.

I’m generally quite forgiving about the budgetary constraints of Doctor Who. I think of it as flexing my imagination, and I’m fond enough of high concepts and larger-than-life ideas that I can look past the obvious cardboard walls and the dodgy supporting cast. That said, a story like The Armageddon Game – about two cultures locked in mortal combat – does require some sense of scale or stakes. Instead, it seems like the bulk of the war comprises the Marshall and his mate just cruising through space looking to start a fight.

No bones about it...

No bones about it…

It just seems a little… tonally wrong. The decision to open the show with a clip from a soap opera (that isn’t immediately revealed as such) and the decision to focus on a grim hospital for the wounded suggests that the story might focus on the societal cost of such a large-scale conflict. While I’ve learned enough to be cautious of a six-part Doctor Who adventure, this sort of set-up seems like it could sustain an adventure running over two hours.

The problem is that the scope hinted at is almost immediately jettisoned. A stronger serial would have peeled away the layers as the Doctor and Romana got to the heart of the conflict, starting at the periphery and digging in, like slowly pulling back the layers of an onion. In contrast, The Armageddon Factor does the opposite. It starts on the edge of this horrifying conflict and then gets further and further and further removed.

The key problem...

The key problem…

By the time we’re a third of the way through, this is a conventional middle-of-the-road adventure at best. Far from an all-encompassing conflict, it’s becoming clear that this isn’t a war between two rival planets sitting on opposite sides of a system, but a disagreement between two rooms built on opposite sides of a BBC soundstage. We even get the typical campy guest performers, like Davyd Harris as Shapp, who seems to be doing pantomime. Suddenly any hint of gravity and importance is drained from the story. However, it gets worse from there.

It’s worth noting that this primary plot of The Armageddon Factor is workable, if hardly inspired. The show has done metaphors before – The Sunmakers being an account of Robert Holmes’ battle of wills against the Revenue – but the Cold War overtones are laid on a bit thick here. “How can we have peace until we have the ultimate deterrent that will ensure a lasting peace?” the Marshall demands, with the subtlety of sledgehammer. Just in case you didn’t get that a long-running conflict between two massive power blocks is a bad idea.

Multiple Mary...

Multiple Mary…

Still, it’s hardly unsalvageable. After all, some of the best Doctor Who plots are simplistic ideas executed remarkably well. Sure, Blink might be innovative, but The Caves of Androzani and The Talons of Weng-Chiang are fairly standard plots that are beautifully written and produced. The Armageddon Factor isn’t an unholy mess because the idea at its core has been done quite a lot and lacks any real insight or nuance. In contrast, the problems stem from the fact that the idea is executed in the most convoluted and cringeworthy manner possible.

The Doctor discovers that the Black Guardian is behind things here, and is cleverly anticipating the Doctor’s arrival. Having figured out the location of the sixth piece, the Black Guardian actually has a half-decent idea. Instead of chasing the Key to Time through all of time and space, he can just find the last, and wait to ambush the Doctor after he collects the other five. It’s a pretty shrewd tactic, and I give the Black Guardian credit for that scheme.

The final frontier...

The final frontier…

However, any nuance to the scheme is undermined by the fact that he positions a “planet of evil” between the two warring worlds and sends his scenery-chewing lackey to manage things. I’m not kidding, by the way. The characters actually refer to the Black Guardian’s base as the “planet of evil.” That should give you an indication of the level of subtlety we’re talking about here, and that’s before we encounter the Shadow.

Ah, the Shadow. Again, part of me imagines there’s a context where the Shadow might work as a villain. Kind of like I’ll argue that Adric worked as a companion in Warriors’ Gate, I’m sure that there’s some adventure out there which really needs a serious dose of the melodramatic capital-VILLAINY villainy of the Shadow. Sadly, a serial that opened with a satirical look at propaganda watched in a triage centre during a devastating war is probably not the place for a character like this.

A shadow of better villains...

A shadow of better villains…

The Shadow is a glorified henchman, but he seems to be auditioning for the role of chief villain, to the point where even the Black Guardian seems understated in comparison. And that is a character whose name is “Black Guardian.” Highlights from the Shadow include:

  • “You fool, Doctor. The Key to Time is mine! Bwahahahahahaha!”
  • “Light! Too much light!”
  • “The Doctor has eluded me, but he has made his last mistake. See, the door is open! The Key to Time is mine! Enough! Bwahahahaha!”

He’s a character who feels the need to depart the scene in a fit of evil laughter, just so you know that he’s gone.

Back against the wall...

Back against the wall…

We get some vague nonsensical mumbo-jumbo about how the Shadow is apparently “the Shadow that accompanies you all.” That would seem to suggest that there might be something going on here, but I can’t hear it over the sound of William Squire chowing down of styrofoam rocks. Hey, an actor’s got to eat.  Seriously, I wouldn’t be surprised if the character’s description amounted to “is evil, and makes the audience aware of the fact that he is evil.”

The wonder of Doctor Who is that the excitement and the energy are generally enough to convince you to overlook the absurdity of almost any premise. When the show is dull and boring, the rather obvious flaws become more glaring, because… well, you’re no longer distracted by the running around and the performances and the fun. It doesn’t help that The Armageddon Factor is not only the weak link of the season, but the only one to really deal with the whole The Key to Time thing. (And, for the record, I suspect the two are related.)

Factoring in the arc is one of the bigger problems...

Factoring in the arc is one of the bigger problems…

Why does the Black Guardian need a henchman in the first place? I get why the White Guardian can’t be seen to interfere, but the Black Guardian isn’t really subtle about the whole thing. More than that, if the White Guardian can hijack the Doctor’s TARDIS and force it open, why can’t the Black Guardian? Maybe those defenses that keep the Shadow out are new, but it seems a bit strange that the Black Guardian is so much more impotent than his good counterpart.

And then there’s Princess Astra, who is the sixth segment of the key. I haven’t questioned the plot logic too much over the past year. After all, The Pirate Planet revealed that a compressed planet was that segment of the key. If I hadn’t been entertained, I might have wondered if the uncompressed planet had also been the same segment, or if the planet had to be compressed to be the key. If the uncompressed planet were the key, what about any life that might have developed on it? Would that have been forfeit? Again, the logic isn’t too strong, but I don’t mind. The whole Key to Time thing seemed so forced that I just acknowledged it and moved on.

She's a little tied up at the moment...

She’s a little tied up at the moment…

However, The Armageddon Factor pushes the issue to the fore. The notion that a living creature is a part of this whole raises some nice ethical issues, but also makes me question the logic. The Shadow explains to Astra, “The sixth child of the sixth generation of the sixth dynasty of Atrios. Born to be the sixth and final segment of the Key to Time.” Merak elaborates, “A molecular anomaly buried in the genetic structure of the Royal House of Atrios and passed from one generation to the next, until finally, Astra.”

This raises several logical questions. Given the emphasis on the number six, does that mean that the key has to be assembled in order? It seems like a strange requirement, but it makes sense for the Black Guardian to just skip to the end and try to ambush the Doctor. How does the molecular anomaly affect only the sixth child? What if Astra’s parents (or grandparents) had stopped after having five children?

They look as bad as I felt fafter watching this...

They look as bad as I felt fafter watching this…

My head hurts just thinking about it. It isn’t as if the sixth segment just became Astra, as the White Guardian implied in The Ribos Operation. When outlining the quest to the Doctor, he suggested that the six segments had been “scattered and hidden throughout the cosmos.” Instead, Astra became the sixth segment – it didn’t exist until she did. It feels quite weird, from a plotting point of view.

And then there’s the ending. The Doctor unites all the segments of the Key to Time… and then disperses them again. The result is that we’ve just watched The Key to Time for absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing has changed at the end of this year-long arc, and the Doctor has simply reset things to the status quo. It raises the question of why the Black Guardian doesn’t simply try to reassemble the key on his own time – which is precisely what the White Guardian was trying to prevent. It feels like all this was for absolutely nothing, which is a bad way to end a six-part adventure, let alone a whole season.

Stop in your Drax!

Stop in your Drax!

The climax and the Shadow represent two of the biggest problems with The Armageddon Factor, but they aren’t the only ones. Everything else feels a bit mismatched as well. The final episode treats us to a shrunken Doctor for some reason. I can’t help but feel like this was a bit of an inside joke from the production crew, hoping to literally cut an increasingly egotistical Tom Baker down to size.

Baker had become quite tough for the producers to deal with, threatening to quit and demanding that his next companion be a parrot or a talking cabbage. With that in mind, the Doctor’s egomaniacal breakdown seems distinctly uncomfortable. Baker at that time (rightly or wrongly) considered his performance to be the key to the show, so it’s surreal to watch the Doctor declare, “As from this moment there’s no such thing as free will in the entire universe. There’s only my will, because I possess the Key to Time!”

Maybe the script writers were rather green...

Maybe the script writers were rather green…

The show also features perhaps the strangest Timelord to feature in the entire show, with Drax showing up and assisting the Doctor for a while. Like the Doctor, he’s revealed as yet another renegade Timelord, making me wonder what the emigration figures are on Gallifrey. He also reveals not only the Doctor’s fraternity nickname (“Theta Sigma”), but also that the Doctor is an actual doctor. (“Still, you did well, mind, getting your doctorate and all that.”)

Like everything else int his serial, Drax is a half-decent concept executed terribly. I quite like the idea of a Cockney Timelord, in contrast to the more staid officials we’ve seen since The War Games. Drax seems almost like a Timelord version of Delboy, providing an interesting contrast with the Doctor. The Doctor might be a rogue, but he certainly has stronger ethics than Drax’s “buy a bit, do it up, sell it” philosophy. I like the fact that he wears runners with he future jumpsuit as well, suggesting that all Timelords have a little bit of fashion eccentricity. (The robes on Gallifrey either ride or demonstrate it, depending on your perspective.)

Let's try to keep things (Magi)strate...

Let’s try to keep things (Magi)strate…

However, his inclusion here seems ill-advised, and the encounter seems far too casual for a glimpse into the Doctor’s history and an exploration of Timelord society. It doesn’t help that he’s a painfully unfunny comic relief character. I remember a time when the arrival of the Timelords in The War Games was a massive and earth-shattering event. Now they just seem mundane, almost cluttering up the universe. It’s the use of characters like Drax that make me glad that the reboot did away with that aspect of the Doctor’s back story. By the time of The Armageddon Factor it already seemed a bit too convoluted and messy.

To be fair, even Graham Williams realised that the Timelords were being overused by this point in the show’s history:

In The Key to Time, we couldn’t make any use of the Time Lords, because in the last two stories they’d been totally debunked and made rather corrupt. I didn’t, in any case, want to return to that whole ball game again, at least not so soon. Thus it was that I created the characters of the Black and White Guardians, out of a general desire to establish some higher, more basic and more pure type of authority than the Time Lords.

The fact that Williams needed to create the Guardians illustrated how much of the mystique had been stripped away from the Timelords, and I think the character of Drax really just exemplifies that.

He looks like he got here by the red eye...

He looks like he got here by the red eye…

Still, there are some nice touches. Even though the Astra-as-segment dealio raises a whole host of logical questions, at least the show touches on the moral implications of using a person as an object. “She was a living being,” Romana observes of Astra, “and now what is she? A component. And Merak thinks she’s still alive. No power should have that right, not even the Guardians. We must do something!” It’s hardly the most universal of moral issues, but at least it follows through on the logic of turning a character into part of an all-powerful apparatus.

Similarly, the dilemma it presents speaks to the Doctor as a character. He’s presented with a situation where he can have ultimate power at the cost of one life – where the fate of the universe comes down to his willingness to let one innocent suffer. This issue is neatly summarised in an exchange between the Doctor and the Black Guardian (posing as the White Guardian):

Well, I mean, as you know, sir, the sixth segment was in fact a human being, and I mean, if the pieces are maintained in their present pattern it means that she’ll be imprisoned forever, sir.

That is, of course, regrettable…

Very regrettable.

… but with the fate of the universe at stake.

Quite.

It might be a moral dilemma for other characters, but the Doctor’s individualism makes it an easy problem to solve. It also allows him to determine who he should trust, and proves to be the Doctor’s moral north, so to speak. It feels strangely appropriate that sacrificing one innocent for “the greater good” serves as moral touchstone. It’s logical, given the Doctor’s decision to distance himself from any form of society and the value he places on his own self-determination. It also makes the events of the Great Time War seem more ironic and bitter in hindsight.

Piecing it all together...

Piecing it all together…

Still, these minor moments of interest aside, The Armageddon Factor represents a massive disappointment. It’s a shame, because the rest of the stories from this season are reasonably entertaining, even the much-maligned The Power of Kroll. Perhaps the loose nature of the arc allowed the writers a bit more freedom than they had here. Either way, I’d argue that the Key to Time worked best as a template for a season-long arc, and to prove that it could be done within the context of the show. I’d argue that later season-long thematic arcs (from Baker and Davison’s final years) were handled much better, but at least The Key to Time proved that the show could lend itself to that larger serialisation.

The Armageddon Factor is a bad story on its own terms, but it fails utterly as the conclusion to a year-long epic. After watching the Doctor assemble the eponymous macguffin, it seems a bit trite to see him disperse it once again. The White Guardian might wonder what the point of it all was. The audience certainly empathises.

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