Romana has the key to my heart.
The year was 1978. Doctor Who had been on the air for several years, and four actors had portrayed the title character. After a long history of daleks, cybermen, and bizarre fashions, producers needed some way to keep the series fresh, and to keep viewers invested instead of going back to the well. The answer? A season-long serialized epic, one that has the usual time-tripping antics, but with a single thread running through them all. That’s how the key to time made history.
The Doctor (Tom Baker, Dungeons And Dragons) is a Time Lord, who travels through time and space having crazy adventures. While preparing for what he hopes will be a nice, long vacation, the Doctor is contacted by the White Guardian, an angelic being who charges him with finding the key to time. This single object has the power to stop time itself. To keep it from falling into the wrong hands, it’s been broken into six parts, disguised, and scattered across the universe. The Doctor must find all pieces so the White Guardian can make a repair to the flow of time.
Fortunately for the Doctor, the White Guardian has provided help. Romana (Mary Tamm) is a fellow Time Lord armed with a device used to track the pieces of the key. Also along for the ride is K-9 (John Leeson), the Doctor’s faithful robot dog. Meanwhile, somewhere out there is the Black Guardian, a sinister force who wants the key for its dark purpose.
• “The Ribos Operation”
In a castle on the snow-covered planet of Ribos, the Doctor and Romana get caught up in a plot featuring a couple of con men, some visiting dignitaries, and a very hungry green-skinned monster.
• “The Pirate Planet”
While on route to one planet, the Doctor and Romana find another, larger planet in its place. There, the people live off of constant wealth provided by work done in underground mines. The menacing presence of a cyborg space pirate, however, shows that not all is well.
• “The Stones of Blood”
It’s back to Earth-England, to be specific-for a mystery regarding an ancient stone circle. Before it’s over the Doctor is put on trial with Romana’s life on the line.
• “The Androids of Tara”
The Doctor and Romana come across a scheme involving robot duplicates being used to help one man ascend the throne of planet Tara. When Romana gets involved, suddenly there’s more than one of her running around.
• “The Power of Kroll”
It’s a tale of the haves versus the have nots on a muddy swamp world, with conflict between humans and the primitive, green-skinned natives. Both groups, however, live in fear of the giant monster, Kroll, who might make the Doctor and Romana its next meal.
• “The Armageddon Factor”
The Doctor and Romana find themselves in the middle of nuclear war being waged between two planets. Also involved is a creature called the Shadow, an agent of the Black Guardian who is after the final piece of the key to time.
First the stats: The episodes in this seven-disc box set contain all of Doctor Who‘s 16th season, episodes 98-103. They were originally broadcast in half-hour segments from Sept. 2, 1978 to Feb. 24, 1979, and were then reedited into two- and three-hour complete episodes upon rebroadcast. This was Tom Baker’s fifth season as the fourth Doctor.
Season-long arcs were not as common in the 1970s as they are now, and they certainly weren’t common on Doctor Who, where each four-part or five-part episode was normally a stand-alone adventure. The key to time was the show’s attempt to mix things up after being on the air for so long. While it’s true that for most of these episodes, the key is merely an excuse to go to a certain planet, allowing the Doctor to stumble onto an adventure, as he so often does. Still, the question of where the key is and what will happen once it’s reassembled hangs over each episode.
Many people believe Tom Baker looked burned out during his latter years playing the Doctor, but I don’t see it here. During these episodes, he gives a performance full of the quirks and charms that made his Doctor so beloved. It doesn’t hurt that he’s helped along the way by Mary Tamm as Romana. Everybody knows that the Doctor was notoriously chaste up until the Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor shocked the world by snogging. That said, it certainly looks to me like there’s a lot of sexual tension going on between the Doctor and Romana. Perhaps it’s because they’re equals. Unlike the Doctor’s other traveling companions, she doesn’t need everything explained to her, and she’s not overwhelmed with wonder or terror at the thought of time and/or space travel. The companions and the Doctor normally have a parent/child relationship or a student/teacher relationship. With Romana, it’s more like a “buddy cop movie” relationship, which leads to verbally sparring and always trying to one-up each other, and this, then, leads to that sexual tension. You might not agree, and that’s fine, but seeing the sparks fly between the two of them was certainly my favorite part of these episodes.
The kickoff episode here, “The Ribos Operation,” was, in my opinion, the clunkiest on this set. Trying to keep the various characters and their motivations straight had me reaching for the Excedrin. The dreary snowy landscape and drab castle didn’t make for a very visually exciting tale, and the lizard-like rubber monster was pretty laughable, even for Doctor Who standards. Romana’s introduction is the highlight, naturally, as is the surreal opening in which the Doctor confronts the White Guardian.
Things pick up marvelously with the craziness of “The Pirate Planet.” Written by the one and only Douglas Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this episode is filled with the outrageous concepts and witty humor Adams is famous for. The Pirate King is an inspired creation, with robot parts filling in for pirate clichés, such as a cyborg eyepatch, a mechanical hook hand and peg leg, and a murderous robot parrot. The episode also features flying cars, jetstream tunnels, and more. The bonus features reveal that this script sat on the shelf for several years because producers felt it was too ambitious to film. Later, they decided to try it rather than take the time to craft a brand new script in its place. In terms of effects and production values, it does appear that the script was a little beyond what the show’s budget and schedule could handle, but the story itself is great, high-adventure stuff, with no shortage of winning one-liners for Baker.
To celebrate the show’s 100th episode, “The Stones of Blood” was crafted to combine the two different types of Who stories, the spacebound adventure and the earthbound adventure. Here we have the Doctor and Romana in the English countryside, sipping tea inside quaint cottages while solving a mystery, only to end up in space, terrorized by monsters and put on trial by higher life forms. As the episode bounces back between Earth and space, it becomes wonderfully unpredictable, and you never know where it’ll take you next. Plus, the running joke about Romana’s shoes answers years of fans’ complaints about the female companions always wearing high heels when exploring unfamiliar terrain.
Created as a sci-fi version of The Prisoner of Zenda, “The Androids of Tara” overflows with nods to the classic novel and film, such as the Doctor starting the story by going fishing, just as the hero of Zenda does. Zenda, on the other hand, had fewer killer androids. This episode has a lot of the same “castle intrigue” that “The Ribos Operation” had, but this one does it much better. Even though it gets plenty talky at times, the plot nonetheless zips right along, with a number of interesting characters, and a number of robots impersonating those interesting characters. Mary Tamm really gets a workout here, portraying numerous characters. Not one but two escapes on horseback add to the excitement, making this one a real winner.
After all these far-out concepts and throwbacks to the classics, it’s time for some good old fashioned B-movie giant monster fun, and “The Power of Kroll” delivers. When the title beastie appears, it doesn’t look “real,” exactly, but it does look cool. The big guy would look right at home duking it out with Godzilla. As for the rest of the episode, the green-skinned primitives provide a lot of unintentional humor. You can’t blame the actors and their unfortunate body paint, though. The location filming for this episode was done in an actual swamp, and it shows, with the actors slogging their way through a lot of actual mud. As such, K-9 sits the episode out, but actor John Leeson, who did K-9’s voice, got to appear on screen instead, as one of the meddlesome humans causing trouble for the natives.
“The Armageddon Factor” begins with a lot of dire warnings about nuclear war, as a planet is so ravaged by nukes that population must flee underground. This was a few years after the heyday of anti-cold war sci-fi, and doesn’t really bring anything new to the table regarding the dangers of big-ass bombs. This merely proves to be background for the real story, though, because the key to time finally gets its big moment in the spotlight during the second half of the story, as the Doctor and the Shadow compete for the final piece, with the fate of all existence at stake. There’s another Time Lord waiting in the mix, K-9 harbors a few secrets, and the White Guardian finally makes his return appearance. In this extra-long six-part episode, the creators really pulled out all the stops to ensure that the key to time arc had an ending that was appropriately huge and dramatic.
Once again, the folks doing the restoration work on these old Who episodes have outdone themselves. The picture is sharp, and the colors are bright and vibrant. The sound is good, but not exactly booming.
Good Gallifrey, there are a lot of bonus features in this box set. The only way to have this set packed with more extras would be to have Tom Baker come to your house and watch it with you. Here’s a rundown:
* Nine commentaries. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm contribute to tracks on every episode, occasionally joined by Leeson, as well as episode directors, script editors, production designers, and more. They look back fondly on the episodes, while poking some gentle fun at it as well. Some of the best moments in the commentaries, though, are when they go off-topic, such as the actors sharing stories from their live theater days.
* Production Notes Subtitles. Also known as text commentaries, you read these while watching the episode. They’re filled with all kinds of trivia, as well as comparisons between the original scripts and the finished products. They’re on every episode.
* “A Matter of Time” featurette. Producer Graham Williams discusses his three-year run on the show, including the key to time series. Several actors and writers chime in as well.
* “The Ribos Factor” featurette. Guest actors from “The Ribos Operation” share memories from that episode.
* “Parrot Fashion” featturette. A look at the making of “The Pirate Planet,” including interview clips with Douglas Adams.
* “Weird Science.” A spoof of old-timey classroom filmstrips looks at the “science” of the key to time series.
* “Getting Blood from the Stones” featurette. Interviews and behind the scenes of the 100th episode.
* “Stones Free” featurette. Mary Tamm visits an actual historic circle in England.
* “The Model World of Robert Symes” featurette. Interview with the show’s chief model maker.
* “Blue Peter and Nationwide.” Footage from the Doctor Who 15th anniversary celebration.
* “Now and Then” featurette. A visit to the locations used in “The Androids of Tara.”
* “In Studio” featurette. A glimpse at the raw footage of the making of “The Power of Kroll.”
* “There’s Something About Mary.” Interview with Mary Tamm about the season she spent as Romana.
* “Variations” featurette. A short look at locations used during filming of “The Power of Kroll.”
* “A Villain for All Seasons” featurette. Interview with actor Phillip Madoc about the different characters he’s played on Doctor Who over the years.
* “Defining Shadows” featurette. Actors, producers and more reminisce on the key to time finale.
* “Directing Who” featurette. Director Michael Hayes talks about his career, including his work on Doctor Who.
* “Pebble Mill at One”. A 1978 interview with Tom Baker.
* “The New Sound of Music” Featurette. A very short examination of the show’s sound effects.
* “Merry Christmas Doctor Who.” A sketch from a 1978 BBC comedy show.
* “Late Night Story.” Tom Baker reads a collection of suspense short stories as part of a BBC series that never aired. Writers include Ray Bradbury and Graham Greene. Great stuff here.
This time-loop huge collection is rounded out with deleted and extended scenes, photo galleries, continuities, and classic print material and ads on DVD-ROM. Whew.
You can probably tell I’m a fan, and I really dig these Who classics. For some viewers though, the low budget cheesiness and overall non-seriousness of it all might be too much to take. If you’re looking for dark sci-fi where everybody dresses all in black and frowns a lot, this is not the sci-fi for you.
There’s a reason why Doctor Who has been around for as long as it has—it’s just a lot of fun. The “Key to Time” series is a legend from the show’s glory days. Matt Smith better pay attention.