Monday, 31 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Armageddon Factor

Part One

“Don‘t say it, please! Don’t say ‘Another underground passage!’”

The beginning is fantastic- an ersatz Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in a spoof piece of propaganda which contains the line “Men out there, young men, are dying for it”. Unfortunately, as the camera pulls back to reveal the joke it also reveals a general cheapness of the kind which was so ubiquitous last season but which has been far less on obvious show recently. And, of course, this is a script by the Bristol Boys, and I fell out badly with them last season. This is not a story I’d been looking forward to, frankly, as the last time I watched it about four years ago I absolutely hated it.

But actually, some so-so acting and a bit of visual cheapness aside, there’s not a lot wrong with this first episode. The premise seems simple at first- Atrios is at war with its neighbour, Zeos although, naturally, this being a Baker and Martin script, we shouldn’t expect the “nuclear” part to in any way reflect scientific fact. The Marshal, who seems to be in charge, is a stereotypically trigger-happy military type who owes a fair bit to Jack D. Ripper and, surprise surprise, wants to carry on with the war. Princess Astra (the lovely Lalla Ward- yay!), meanwhile, wants the war stopped, and has been trying to negotiate with the Zeons, alongside her medic boyfriend Zerak. Except that Zeos doesn’t seem to be there. And, this being a sci-fi concepts heavy Bristol Boys script, we instantly know that’s important.

And then more mysteries pop up: the Marshal is talking to a mysterious mirror, and the Doctor and Romana can’t see Zeos from the TARDIS. But it’s not all big sci-fi ideas- there’s some great dialogue between the Doctor, Romana and K9 towards the end of this episode, which makes me suspect the hand of Anthony Read, who’s had an unexpectedly fantastic season as script editor. K9’s description of optimism as “Irrational, bordering on insane” is priceless.

Part Two

“I think one of us is being extremely stupid.”


I love the Doctor’s dialogue when the Marshal unexpectedly becomes friendly towards him, claiming that his coming has been foretold. His mockery of the marshal’s cod-Shakespeare dialogue is great, and I love the way he spends much of this episode gently mocking the Marshal in ways that go over his head. In fact, the awesomeness in this episode pretty much centres on the dialogue; I love K9’s silly yet bathetic “Temperature unacceptable!” as he trundles to his fiery doom.

Oh, and the space invaders scene is brilliant, as is the very fact that Atrios has only six- er, three- ships. The mystery continues, too, with the suggestion of something between Atrios and Zeos. Once again, a surprisingly good episode.

Part Three

“I have watched you and your jackdaw meanderings!”

Suddenly things really start happening and we get some total changes of setting and situation which, rather unfortunately, strain the budget a little, but still show this to be a surprisingly great plot which tends to foreground the Big Ideas- the very things that Baker and Martin are good at.

Our heroes are transmatted to the mysterious third planet we get to meet the Shadow and his similarly hooded underlings. Things start getting rather epic as the Shadow demand the five segments of the Key to Time which are in the Doctor’s possession, and he has the TARDIS. He also has Astra. And, incidentally, if Astra is the only surviving member of Atrios’ royalty, why isn’t she queen? Presumably at some point the Marshal became military dictator and ended the monarchy.

The Doctor manages to talk his way out of trouble- and the Shadow simply walks away declaring he’s just going to wait for the Doctor to make a mistake! Bizarre though it may seem, this scene actually works through clever scripting.

The episode ends on a bombshell- there are no Zeons on Zeos as they’ve all been killed in the war, but their automated defence system, under the control of K9’s new computer friend Mentalis, have carried on prosecuting the war anyway- a brilliant concept. The next stop is “obliteration”. Of everything…

Oh, and I love Shapp’s description of Zeons as looking just like the Atreusians(?) aside from their clothing. The cheap depiction of alien races in this season extends even to verbal descriptions!

We end with the Marshal’s ship, clearly based on the Millennium Falcon- this is our first blatant influence from Star Wars. And, as another aside, it occurred to me while watching it that it’s probably the influence of the Bristol Boys who pretty much caused the word “transmat” to become a Doctor Who standard- they were using it back in The Sontaran Experiment and they’re still using it here in their swansong story as a team.

Part Four

“I’ve stopped the universe.”

So, the Marshal wants to blow up both worlds for some reason, but Mentalis won’t defend itself as it’s won the war- the clichéd military mind versus the clichéd machine mind- “the armageddon factor”. How very cold war. Why was all this not explained at the end of last episode? It certainly would have helped improve the cliffhanger.

After spending a comically long time panicking, the Doctor and Romana finally remember they can take shelter in the TARDIS. Rather cleverly, the Doctor knocks up an ersatz sixth segment so he can use the Key to Time to create a time loop, delaying Armageddon for a few hours.

Great cliffhanger here, as K9 calls the Shadow “Master”!

Part Five

“Your silliness is noted.”

The Doctor and the Shadow get a rather pleasing confrontation scene here, as the Shadow reveals, to no one’s surprise, that he’s an agent of the Black Guardian, and so the Doctor’s counterpart. Rather more of a surprise is the appearance of Drax, a technician coerced into helping the Shadow, who turns out to be not only a Time Lord but an old classmate of the Doctor’s.

We’re told that the Doctor and Drax were both in the “Class of ‘92”, and that the Doctor’s uni nickname was “Theta Sigma” or “Thete”! And all this was 450 years ago, 73 years after the Doctor first stole the TARDIS, if Romana’s comments in The Pirate Planet are to be believed! Drax spent five years in Brixton Prison, where he picked up not only a cockney accent but a complete set of cockney stereotypes, and is now trapped, with his TARDIS on Zeos. He’s a Time Lord, not just an ordinary Gallifreyan. And apparently the war’s been going on for five years, so they’re a lot more efficient at this nuclear war business than, say, the people of Skaro. 

The Shadow, dastardly fellow that he is, wants to do with the whole cosmos what he’s done with Atreus and Zeos, causing a nuclear war between the two sides of the cosmos like a proper Dr Strangelove. The fiend!

Part Six

“Any second now, beautiful mushrooms will blossom and burst!”

So, Astra is the sixth princess of the sixth dynasty of the sixth royal house of Atrios. Good job the Doctor and Romana happened to come across her sixth, then. But the idea of an actual person, with as much right to live as anyone, being a segment of the Key is pretty horrible, and I’m glad we get some dialogue in which Romana says so. It seems even the White Guardian is not necessarily very nice from the perspective of a mere mortal.

The Black Guardian is great. I care not that he’s just the White Guardian with the negative reversed, as we get to hear Valentine Dyall’s magnificent voice. I shall gloss over his silly attempts at disguise and move straight to the Doctor’s “absolute power” speech- another great piece of acting from Tom Baker. The ending doesn’t quite work, which is disappointing- after all this, the Doctor just scatters all the segments through space and time again? What happened to this great crisis we were told about in The Ribos Operation? Surely the White Guardian will be highly displeased? Still, Asdtra’s back, and after a season of the Doctor having absolute control of the TARDIS he’s now obliged to fit a “randomiser”. No doubt he won’t be landing anywhere we’ve heard of for a good while, then.

Surprisingly entertaining stuff, that. Not one of the greats but some great sci-fi concepts and lots of wit and humour make this a strong 4/5. And doing that comes as a shock to me, frankly- before the Marathon I’d have had this down as a dead cert for a 1/5.

And just as shockingly, after last season’s car crash, this season scores a solid 4.667/5, making it my favourite season so far! Now that I was not expecting.


  1. This is my favorite season as well. You have good taste.