As it happens I had rewatched the first episode of The Ribos Operation quite recently, giving my eleven-year-old son a taste of each of the Old Who doctors in a sequence that somehow ended up with a lot of Robert Holmes scripts, so I was prepared for the cracking dialogue and scene-setting. It gets off to a cracking start with the White Guardian scene, and the Doctor hiding behind K9 as Romana appears, and then the Holmes trick of paired characters sparking off each other - apart from the Doctor and Romana, also the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh, and even more so Garron and Unstoffe, with a balancing commentary on science and religion from Binro the Heretic and the unnamed Seeker.
But what really jumped out at me, after the disappointments of the previous season, is that once again Doctor Who actually looks good. And a lot of this is due to the superb costume design of June Hudson - she more than anyone else turns Ribos into an alien Russia, and also reinvents the Doctor and dresses Romana as an ice princess. Other bits work too, but I remember feeling as an eleven-year-old that the spark had returned to the show, and I felt that again this time.
The Pirate Planet is much more interesting now as journeyman work for Douglas Adams, teetering on the brink of his success with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, than it was at the time; we fans of the Guide can recognise the odd line here or there, the ruler frozen at the point of death, the hollow planet inside which other worlds are reshaped, all elements which recurred in Adams' most famous work. Unfortunately it really doesn't make a lot of sense. Why should the citizens care about new mineral wealth, if everyone is getting it? Who is it being traded with? If the captain and Xanxia are so worried about the Mentiads, why didn't they do something about them earlier? (They resemble the NatSci's of Dirk Gently, now that I think about it.) Nonsense of course can be a strength, and Baker and Tamm seem to love the technobabble (and Adams does capture a spark between them in a way we don't really see again). The K9 / Polyphase Avatron fight is a high point as well. But The Pirate Planet is both minor Who and minor Adams.
We are back on firmer ground with The Stones of Blood. This just shows the difference that a decent plot (as opposed to a decent script, which Adams was capable of doing) and good casting and direction can make, though unfortunately we are now slipping into Romana as screamy girl rather than smart aleck, which is a shame, especially as the story has two excellent female leads in Beatrix Lehmann and Susan Engel. (I must also add that the viewing experience on DVD is greatly enhanced by the extras, which include a documentary with Mary Tamm exploring the Rollright Stones where it was filmed.)
It's a story of two halves, Satanic cults (as previously seen in Image of the Fendahl and The Masque of Mandragora) and then the abandoned prison spaceship with the ruthlessly homicidal justice machines. The story wobbles a bit at times - Beatrix Lehmann, who died a few months after filming, is notably shaky on some of her lines - but stays just the right side of the quality divide. The location filming around the stones is particularly memorable, (including particularly K9 on one of his few field outings) and well blended in with the studio scenes. I am really looking forward to the new novelisation by David Fisher, the author of the original script; the original Terrance Dicks novelisation is workmanlike but not terribly memorable, but Fisher's two previous novelisations of his own stories - The Creature from the Pit and The Leisure Hive - are particularly good, among the best Fourth Doctor books and certainly better than the TV originals.
The Androids of Tara is one of the most shamelessly derivative Who stories ever, so obviously ripped off from The Prisoner of Zenda that apparently even some of the lines are the same. But it's done with great style and affection, with particularly the guest cast enthusiastically in it - most especially Peter Jeffrey's evil Count Grendel, but the others as well (and a special shout-out for Declan Mulholland's Ulster/Mummerset accent as Till). In a season where every story isa quest for a segment, it's refreshing to have the segment found in the first ten minutes and then get on with the planetary intrigue. Mary Tamm doesn't have to do much as Princess Strella, which again is a sign of the times.
The Power of Kroll is certainly the worst story of the season, and one of the worst stories by the great Robert Holmes. It is notable that the previous season's utter turkey of a story, Underworld, had the same director, Norman Stewart, and perhaps one need look no further for an explanation. But it's really not one of Holmes' better scripts either. It is missing his trademarks of humour, banter between minor characters, and making the Other comprehensible. The dullness of the swamp, the dismal failure to do the giant squid effect properly, the fact that Who is often not very good at colonialism, combine with more unexpected problems: despite several of the better recurring actors to appear on Who (John Abineri, Philip Madoc, John Leeson on his own two legs for a change) it simply fails to catch fire at any point. The most dramatically effective moment, tellingly, is when the Doctor and Romana escape the Seventh Ritual of Kroll simply by screaming.
After that, I was surprised to find that four out of the six episodes of The Armageddon Factor are actually rather good, and that if you simply drop parts three and five you end up with quite a decent story, with even K9 displaying interesting depth to his character. The first episode in particular does some briliant scene-setting, with the heroic telecast drama contrasting with the grim life of the command centre and hospital. The fourth episode has the marvellous teaser of Princess Astra clearly (as we realise in restrospect) realising that she herself is the final segment of the Key to Time. The sixth episode has the Doctor making the grand refusal to implement the end of the quest (though one wonders what the real White Guardian was up to in the meantime). The fifth episode, unfortunately, has Drax. But this is an example of how watching an episode at a time can make a story feel rather better than if you allow a single block of 150 minutes of your precious time to be stolen; and perhaps I might feel differently if (as was usual for the weaker stories of this period) the final episode had been weaker rather than stronger.
And Mary Tamm gets written out at the end of this story, to be replaced by
While we're on the subject of Big Finish, they also brought back the White and Black Guardians (the latter played brilliantly by David Troughton) for a series of three Fifth Doctor stories a couple of years ago - also strongly recommended.
It's a bit rocky in places, but this season feels on a bit more of a sure footing than the previous one. I think the bold strategy of having a single narrative arc, tried here really for the first time (arguably developing in part from the Master sequence of stories in Season 8), did help to give a coherence to the show that had been lacking since the abandonment of UNIT, and the idea that the Doctor is deliberately rather than just accidentally selected for heroism is interesting too. Also the lowest point - The Power of Kroll - is nothing like as bad as the awful stories of the previous season. (Sadly, I believe that there is worse to come.)
By peculiar coincidence, the month in which I was watching the Key to Time season was also the last month of a recently departed Estonian intern's time in my office (Mary Tamm is Estonian). I lent her The Ribos Operation, partly to explain the Tardis multiple USB port which graces my desk. She was politely enthusiastic about it.
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