Thursday, September 5, 2013

"The Armageddon Factor"

"Anyone else have a thirst?"
I could go to enormous lengths doing some complete review series of the "Key to Time" season of Doctor Who but frankly I couldn't be arsed. I watched "The Armageddon Factor" for the first time in probably about eight years or so the other day and I suppose my question is this: does it hold up? As the anti-climactic and, I believe, rather unloved finale to one of the Classic Series' few seasons with a major over-arcing plot, I think it's fair to say that "The Armageddon Factor" is going to be in few people's lists of all time classic Fourth Doctor serials (although I could understand it holding a place in the heart of some). There's a fine art to penning the six-part season finale of Classic Who, but during Tom's tenure it's a bit hit and miss, isn't it? We've got the episodes allocated to "Genesis" for Season 12, "Shada" unfinished and "Logopolis" only a four-parter, which places "Armageddon Factor" in competition with "Seeds of Doom", "Weng-Chiang" and "Invasion of Time." I don't think "The Armageddon Factor" is really in competition with the first two, to be honest. I'd have to rewatch "The Invasion of Time" to be sure but I seem to remember that one being rather underwhelming, so maybe in that regard "The Armageddon Factor" takes pride of place as the most mediocre season closer of the Fourth Doctor era.
"You're next! You're next!"
"The Armageddon Factor" seems to take its cues from a few noteworthy sources I would argue, particularly "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and the science-fiction of Isaac Asimov with a hearty dose of pulp good-vs-evil fantasy thrown in as thickener. Opening on the beseiged world of Atrios, where the deliberately bad propaganda film is barely of a higher standard of production or acting than the programme itself, I got a distinct Orwellian vibe, although it might appear to some as being a bit of a cut-price "Genesis of the Daleks" as well. The surface has been bombarded with nuclear warheads and the population is confined to a complex of bunkers all under the control of the sneering Marshal, John Woodvine making me think of a slightly pantomime British Kevin McCarthy for some reason, while his subordinate Shapp looks more like The Inimitable Jeeves than a military adjutant. Simultaneously we have Lalla Ward's introduction to Doctor Who as the rather wet Princess Astra, matched only by Astra's even more sodden boyfriend Merak the chief surgeon. I notice that the hospital set only gets used in the first episode. Could they not afford to pay the extras after that?
"K-9, your nose laser will show them that I can't be banned for life."
I don't know what to say about Tom Baker. What is there left to say about him? He gets the job done no matter whether he's overplaying it or completely steaming. I never find a point where I'm watching Tom and want to knock some sense into him. He's just watchable, albeit relatively unremarkable in this one. I'm not sure how much love there is around for Mary Tamm's Romana but frankly I like her and I think she's a good companion for the Doctor, although I suppose I find her a little superfluous in this one and in some regards I can understand why she was unsatisfied with the role. The main villain of the piece, the Shadow, is like every generic Dark Lord character imaginable rolled into one, and I honestly don't see the point of him. He's boring and completely undeveloped, and has an evil laugh which he seems to utter at every conceivable opportunity just to ram home how evil he is. I don't quite understand why he just sat on his arse this whole time letting the Doctor and Romana assemble the rest of the Key. Was it part of his plan all along? It seems rather fatuous to think that you'd just be able to outwit the people who got all five other segments and not have to do anything yourself but there you go.
Has the show already peaked?
So Atrios is at war with Zeos and the Marshal is getting desperate for victory. There's a lot of stuffing around on Atrios for the first two episodes more or less, we head for Zeos in the third and fourth episodes and finally to the Shadow's planet in the fifth and sixth, which resembles a planet in the same way they do in Bomberman games, which is to say a space station on the outside which is inexplicably a cave on the inside. I guess the Shadow is just a fan of naturalistic interior d├ęcor. I like the Atrios costumes and weapons, to be honest, and I quite like the exterior shot we get of the Marshal's ship - I'm surprised they bothered - but too much of it is just plodding around studio set corridors. There's absolutely no location work in this serial so we're relying on the production team to be as convincing as possible. Do they manage it? Enough for my purposes, but not in a way that holds up to much scrutiny. The sets on the Shadow's planet seem positively lazy, every jagged tunnel having a flat studio floor, but I understand that time and budgetary considerations must have been horrendous. Zeos probably gets the worst of the lot, being nothing more than some empty, drab beige corridors and the command room.
"Almost as good as a Prime."
I must say I do like the Mentalis prop, and I really like the idea that Zeos is deserted and that Mentalis is running the whole show on its own. I particularly like the way K-9 interacts with Mentalis, to such a degree that this box with flashing lights on it has a touch of character all to its own, revealed through K-9's pomposity regarding the computer. That being said, I would have preferred had the mystery been as a result of the Zeons having all pissed off early on in the piece and left the computer to do the work, or that they'd installed the computer but then all been killed (little to the knowledge of Atrios) rather than having Drax install it on behalf of the Shadow. The scenario where the war is engineered by the Shadow, as unpleasant as it is, is to my mind far less disturbing than the initial implication that the war is being fought to no purpose whatsoever, at no one's design. Beyond that the journey to Zeos seems to mostly exist to just cause the other characters to be transported to the Shadow's planet in the most staggered manner possible to better drag out the plot over six episodes.
"Birds and bees, Gallifreys..."
While the Doctor actually using the Key to Time to trap the Marshal in the time loop is, I think, a reasonably interesting idea, I find the notion of causing this to happen just by slotting in a piece of squeaky polystyrene which Tom knocks up in about five seconds between scenes utterly implausible and ridiculous, especially given that he walks in wearing an apron and forging gear like he's been working at the smithy or something. As for events on the Shadow's planet, well, it's all a bit pointless really. The Shadow controls Astra, then he controls K-9, then a guy called Drax who is conveniently a Time Lord shows up from behind some green polystyrene and builds a shrink gun for no particularly necessary reason, Romana gets trapped in a box and a guy in a black robe stomps around in front of a miniaturised Tom completely oblivious to the two doll-sized Time Lords squeakily conversing at his feet. What's the deal with Drax, anyway? He just sort of shows up and then pisses off again, and with his non-RP accent and buzz cut he's like Eccleston from before Eccleston was Eccleston, which is no mean feat. Did they really need to hide inside K-9 to enter the Shadow's inner sanctum? When they get there he just stands around like an absolute plum while the Doctor grabs the Key to Time and shines a white light from who knows where in his face.
"Yes, Mr Wooster, sir."
As for the resolution of the season arc, well, it's shit, isn't it? I like the idea that Astra is the sixth segment of the Key to Time, although it seems to give the altogether more reserved Romana pause than it does the Doctor from an ethical standpoint. I almost feel like it would be good if she didn't get restored at the end. Might knock some spine into Merak. Speaking of which, there's a hilarious bit at the beginning of episode six where Shapp and Merak stand around like tape recorders recapping plot points about which they knew absolutely nothing prior in the story purely for the benefit of the audience. I like Shapp. I like the way he's on the one hand a bit of a stuck up bureaucrat but on the other he's kind of curious and helpful. His pratfall into the transmat chamber after being stunned by one of the Shadow's servants is absolute gold as well. He staggers back in shock and topples over like he's just been shown how little he's going to get paid at the end of shooting. Shapp would have been a good companion. Speaking of which, I forgot to say anything more about K-9! Well, he's K-9. He appeals to my inner eight year old boy. He's okay.
"Bring my pile cream at once!"
I like the Doctor's ruminations, exaggerated and otherwise, about the kind of power they get to wield with the Key to Time, but honestly these questions of the corruptive nature of power really get glossed over in a story that really doesn't know what it's about. I suppose we're meant to admire the Doctor's savvy and moral conviction in outwitting the Black Guardian but honestly, he was just some funny-looking old man on the TARDIS view screen. How was he even going to get the Key? Would Tom have to press it up against the glass? That's it, then. The Doctor disperses the Key again, installs the randomiser in the TARDIS and off we go. We never actually see the White Guardian again and balance doesn't get restored to the universe. Why did they bother gathering these things in the first place? Was the guy who Tom spoke to back at the start of "The Ribos Operation" even the White Guardian? Who knows. They don't care, and neither do we. It was just a rather half-arsed McGuffin thread linking the serials together anyway. Their main strength is as Tom adventures.
Thinking of that next crisp beer.
In the end I've got to say that "The Armageddon Factor" is, to my mind, not a very noteworthy piece of Doctor Who. As a resolution to a season-long storyline it really doesn't resolve anything in a satisfying way, it's about two episodes too long, the villain is an idiot, characters show up and vanish for practically no reason and it all looks and feels rather cheap. That being said, I think it opens in a rather confronting way, and that the bare essentials of something worthwhile lie deep beneath. As a four-parter concerned exclusively with the war between Atrios and Zeos it might have been an interesting story, but sadly that was not to be. Perhaps the resolution of the arc needed a whole separate serial to itself independent of finding the pieces, but I dread to think what a six-part finale would have been like under the obvious limitations if they didn't even have the plot-momentum of finding an additional segment. It's not an amazing send off for Mary Tamm's unfortunately short stint in the role of Romana, either. "The Armageddon Factor" is one of those archetypal Doctor Who stories, really, the kind that everyone's forgotten about and where the scope and ambition is to a greater or lesser extent undermined by the execution. Still, much like the sixth segment, it's not without its place.

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