Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Armageddon Factor

 Chapter The Fifth, wherein Sisyphus stumbles over the six episode log that is the Key to Time finale.

Nearing the end of their quest to find all six disguised pieces of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana find themselves in the middle of a nuclear war between two planetary neighbours, Zeos and Atrios. The Atrion troops are led by the Marshall, who is bloodthirsty and reckless because he's simultaneously being controlled by a hypnotic implant, bribed by a sinister third party, and bonkers (talk about overkill). The long-gone Zeons have their war run by a computer Mentalis, built by mockney Timelord Drax. The final segment turns out to be Princess Astra of Atrios, and Romana really likes the look of her body (from a deleted scene that may have only existed in my imagination).

The whole fracas is being stirred up by that sinister third party, the Shadow, who is an agent of the Black Guardian, and it's all part of the latter's plan to get his hands on the Key to Time. Except it isn't, he expected the Shadow to fail, and in the end just tries to get the Key with a simple impersonation con. He could have just done that in the first place and saved the Atrions, and the audience, a lot of misery.

In contrawise fashion, this being the story that introduces the concept of the randomiser, this was the first time a story was deliberately chosen for viewing. Middle child, a 5 year-old boy, picked out the DVD to watch with me for Father's Day. We managed only the first episode. Over the course of a week and a bit, we got through the rest, joined by most of the family here and there, but it was hard going for everyone, and I came close to giving up midway through.

This may be the first instance I can think of where watching Doctor Who strictly in transmission order might have been less of a slog. I love the Key to Time series, particularly the early stories, and riding that wave of good feeling previously must have helped me keep afloat through the - it has to be said - horribly dull denouement. The Armageddon Factor has a bad reputation, but I've never before agreed with it this strongly. I'll be interested when I get to see the penultimate story, The Power of Kroll, another one I've always liked more than most do; maybe it too has been buoyed up by artificial inflation.

Full disclosure, though: middle child thought it got better towards the end, was fascinated as to what the sixth piece would turn out to be, and surprised at the reveal (despite the best efforts of his brother to spoiler).

First-time round:
I would have watched for the first time on VHS in the Nineties. As you've heard, I had less sense than money back then, and would buy every video release as soon as it came out. Then I did it all over again when the stories were re-released on DVD. Except once. In late 2007, when the limited edition box-set of all six Key to Time stories came out in the UK for the first time, we were moving house and the family was a bit cash-strapped. My better half persuaded me to cancel the pre-order, save the 50 quid, and get it at a later date. After all, you don't need to buy everything the first day it comes out, do you Stuart? I capitulated, because usually back then "limited edition" when applied to a Doctor Who product meant "one for every fan we expect to sell it to, plus a few extra for the crazies that buy two but leave one in the cellophane, and a few more that'll end up in the sales".

The Key to Time sold out faster than any other Who DVD I've ever known. By the time we'd moved it was unavailable to order, and was selling on ebay for up to three times the 50 quid price I had it for on pre-order. I waited years - years! - for it to be re-released, and even drunkenly harangued Dan Hall - who was managing the DVD range at the time - when I met him once down a pub, to get it put out again. But it didn't come out until maybe a year after I'd crumbled and ordered the Australian import version. And every time I get the individual DVD cases out of the box, they look different, and have truncated artwork, and odd symbols on the spines. It gets my completist nutjob spidey-sense all a-tingling, and I want to cry just a little bit.

I realise that this is the dictionary definition of a first-world problem, and a spoilt brat; for this I apologise. But I don't regret sharing, because my small tale of a very, very slight bump in the road of my Doctor Who DVD collecting contains fourteen times more dramatic incident than all six episodes put together of The Armageddon Factor.

The very first scene has duff acting and bad green-screen replete with fringing; are we back on Metebelis Three? No such luck. It's actually a pastiche of wartime propaganda which is immediately undercut by the savage realism of a blitz-ravaged hospital... well, savage very near realism, anyway... alright, alright, it's immediately undercut by the savagely cheap staginess of a blitz-ravaged hospital. This is one of The Armageddon Factor's problems in a nutshell: it wants to show the difference between myth and reality, but both are presented using the same limited budget and thus aren't in sharp relief as the writers intended. It wants to show us that war is hell, but it just looks like war is a few actors having enormous fun with somewhat large performances, and no doubt a couple of gins at lunchtime.

And it's so, so boring, which Doctor Who should never be. Armageddon Factor makes Arc of Infinity look like Mad Max: Fury Road. Lots of the running time is taken up with wandering in caves or corridors: Atrios is grey, the Shadow's planet, black, Zeos is browny-beige. The action's poorly staged; sets are threadbare; the Mutes are some extras in bovver boots with a black sheet thrown over them; the Shadow's wearing a pair of stockings over his head as if he's going to demand you open the safe containing the Key to Time while waving around a sawn-off and humming the theme to The Sweeney.

What makes this more frustrating is that all this dross surrounds some of the best dialogue in the series up to that point, like a chalky pill constraining a small but active ingredient: "We all make mistakes sometimes, don't we, K9?" "Negative"; "...jackdaw meanderings..."; "There is only one ship left, sir. Your escape, er, your command module, sir."; and one of my all time favourites - "We must have the weapon that will wipe the Zeons clear of our skies once and for all. Can you provide it?" "Yes, I think so." "What is it?" "Peace."  Reportedly, Douglas Adams took over script-editing duties during this production, so perhaps some of this is down to him. Certainly there's an echo of Zaphod's  "What does the Z mean?" in the Doctor's "What a lot of zeroes", both responding to some long, silly sci-fi coordinate bafflegab. But the writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin are more than capable of being witty on their own too.

Other good stuff: Mary Tamm as Romana; great performance, great outfit. John Leeson as K9 shines as always, with excellent delivery and comic timing; his getting taken over and calling the Shadow "Master" is a great cliffhanger, and the use of him as a scaled-down Trojan horse is also fun. Tom Baker has his moments. And I like Drax too - so there! But it's not enough, alas.
Another six episode season finale from the 1970s revolving around the acquisition of a lump of crystal. Another old Timelord acquaintance from the Doctor's youth turns up. In one episode, the Marshall is said to be meditating.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who sends the Doctor off on his quest for The Key to Time? It's one of the unanswered questions of Doctor Who. The quest appears to begin quite simply in The Ribos Operation. The White Guardian summons the Doctor and sends him to find all six pieces of the Key. The universal equilibrium is upset, and the Key needs to be assembled so that the whole universe can be stopped, and the balance reset. Or else there will be eternal chaos. He also warns the Doctor of his opposite number, the Black Guardian, who also wants the key for his own evil purpose.

In The Armageddon Factor, the Black Guardian's servant waits near the last segment for the Doctor to catch up and bring all the others to him. Why does he need to engineer a war while he's waiting? Particularly one that might end up blowing up Princess Astra, who's key to his plans (see what I did there)? Okay, let's just explain that away by playing our "he's nuts" joker. The Shadow fails, so the Black Guardian instead impersonates the White, and tries to get the Doctor to hand over the Key. The Guardians can can change their form or shape at will. The Doctor sees through this, and disperses the Key again rather than hand it over.

So, was the 'White Guardian' who instigated the Doctor's quest the Black Guardian all along? He does explicitly threaten the Doctor in that first encounter. But it seems doubtful: why after all would he warn the Doctor about himself? And why would he put the Shadow as an obstacle in the Doctor's way? Well, he's nuts, I suppose. Oh, I already played that card. Okay, so let's assume it was the White Guardian at the beginning. In which case, why didn't the universe fall into chaos? During the time the Key is assembled, there's no opportunity to reset the universe, assuming the operator needs to actually hold the key (which is a fair assumption, or else the Black Guardian wouldn't need to have the Doctor hand it over). One theory - I think from an early Virgin New Adventure novel - is that the universe was affected, and that's why it's approaching collapse in Logopolis, two seasons later. Maybe.

Here's my theory: the White Guardian doesn't actually say he has to be the one to reset the balance. In the middle of this final Key story, it is assembled using a faked-up sixth segment, and works enough for the Doctor to stop everything, for a brief moment only, just as Whitey said was required. The Doctor realises this can't be sustained, so he then keeps a time loop going in a localised area, sufficient to avoid the mutually assured destruction of Zeos and Atrios. Was that 'job done'? Would that one event that the Doctor averted - the destruction of two planets and millions of people - have started a chain reaction that led to the universal chaos warned of at the beginning of the quest? I like to think so; it makes this story, and the whole season, just a tiny bit more worthwhile.

In Summary:
StephenWe want you, if you can, to sit down and watch the entire six episodes of The Armageddon Factor.
HughYou're out of your mind.
StephenListen to me, Alan. It's never been done. No one has ever watched the programme from start to finish, and we desperately need someone to do it. Sure, we've all seen bits, but no one has ever gone the distance.

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