A big climax to a 26 episode story arc needs to be epic, and that’s exactly what The Armageddon Factor shoots for. It has a mixed reputation and maybe I’m just a sucker for the tricks the story plays, but I can’t help but love this. Yes, it is epic in very obvious ways, with an interplanetary war and a creepy super villain (well, two of those really), but there is a sense that the stakes are being raised higher than ever before. When the story goes bleak, it goes really bleak, and it does scary very well.
There is also a lot of interesting stuff going on. We are shown the futility of war and where it leads, and the Doctor is the perfect person to stroll into a war zone and question why all the pointless killing is happening:
MARSHAL: Three ships left out of a once proud battlefleet of hundreds. Three. You see now why we need your help. We must have the weapon that will wipe the Zeons clear of our skies once and for all. Can you provide it?
DOCTOR: Yes, I think so.
MARSHAL: What is it?
Then we have the Shadow, who is one of the most frightening Doctor Who villains we have ever seen, especially scary for children. He is “the Shadow that accompanies you all”, which sounds supernatural and terrifying. Steven Moffat was not the first writer to make shadows frightening.
The Key to Time is made integral to the story, but not in a straightforward way. The creation of a fake temporary segment and use of the Key to hold a time loop in place is a clever idea, and seeing the time loop gradually stretching builds the tension with a very real sense of time running out. Despite the use of some obvious plot developments, the whole thing feels fresh and inventive. Even the idea of one of the Doctor’s old school friends turning up just slightly skews Doctor Who to a place we haven’t really been before. This is not a friend turned archenemy, just an old pal from his Academy days. It’s prosaic, and it makes the Doctor seem that little bit less significant and more ordinary than he normally does. That’s an important distinction within this story, because he is being set against godlike beings and ultimately it is they who are shown to be absurd and trying to impose a flawed order on the universe. The Doctor, with his most ungodlike anarchist tendencies, is quite deliberately set up in opposition, and when offered the chance of supreme power just makes fun of it:
DOCTOR: We have the power to do anything we like. Absolute power over every particle in the universe. Everything that has ever existed or ever will exist. As from this moment are you listening to me, Romana?
ROMANA: Yes, of course I’m listening.
DOCTOR: Because if you’re not listening I can make you listen, because I can do anything. As from this moment there’s no such thing as free will in the entire universe. There’s only my will, because I possess the Key to Time!
ROMANA: Doctor, are you all right?
DOCTOR: Well of course I’m all right. But supposing I wasn’t all right. This thing makes me feel in such a way I’d be very worried if I felt like that about someone else feeling like this about that. Do you understand?
Then when he finally gets the whole Key, he simply breaks it back up again. This tends to be viewed as a cop-out or an anticlimax, and I can see why some people think that. The problem is that although exactly the right thing happens, it happens without much in the way of explanation. There is a very good ending here but that good ending is rushed and confusing. It avoids the boring resolution a lot of writers would have gone for: handing the Key to the White Guardian and completing the quest, which would have been infinitely less satisfying.
There are two possibilities here, both of which are interesting, but one absolutely brilliant. The more obvious, and the one that really comes across on screen without thinking too deeply about what is going on, is that the Doctor rejects the whole idea of “balancing things” and ultimately refuses to play his intended role in the whole quest. There is some handwaving about the White Guardian somehow managing to restore the balance in the few minutes that the Key is assembled, despite not actually putting in an appearance, but the Doctor doesn’t seem to be too worried about that one way or the other. The whole series has been effectively challenging the idea of the necessity of balance and order.
The much more interesting interpretation is that the White Guardian wasn’t actually anything to do with this whole series. Just like the White Guardian in The Armageddon Factor turns out to be the Black Guardian in disguise, the same could have been true in The Ribos Operation. If it weren’t for the Fifth Doctor Guardians trilogy, I would be tempted to say that the White Guardian doesn’t even exist, and this is just another case of a power-grabbing plot from a big bad. This raises the possibility that the Doctor was always working for the Black Guardian by mistake, and the Key should never have been assembled. The segments are sometimes disguised as things that one would assume require murder to turn them back into segments: a whole planet, and here an actual person. That doesn’t feel like the kind of job a “White Guardian” would send our good Doctor on: go assemble this mcguffin for me and don’t worry who dies along the way. If anything, the Key seems to be something that has deliberately been scattered and placed in forms that would deter anyone from putting them all back together, especially someone like the Doctor. There is a philosophical point to all this: the imposition of order comes at a cost, and it is not something the Doctor can ultimately support. He may or may not be a force for chaos in the universe, but he is certainly not a force for order. He stopped being that the moment he left Gallifrey. RP
The view from across the pond:
In 1980, Flash Gordon hit theaters. It starred a soundtrack from Queen (an entity in its own right), Max Von Sydow, Sam Jones, Timothy Dalton (Rassilon in Doctor Who), Brian Blessed (King Ycarnos in Doctor Who) and Peter Wyngarde (Timanov in Doctor Who). Wyngarde played Klytus and he should get special mention here. I knew he looked familiar and it finally hit me why. He’s the Shadow from The Armageddon Factor, which aired a year earlier. In that, he is believed to have died, but it looks like he just lost some weight, got a slight upgrade to the costume and got a job with a guy named Ming, working some truly merciless hours. Sorry… I can’t resist. (What, they don’t look that similar? Have you seen Omega between The Three Doctors and then Arc of Infinity? All apologetic now, are we?)
When Doctor Who gave us a taste of Armageddon, the writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, wanted to cover everything from A to Z. Or more appropriately, Atrios to Zeos. You’ve got the standard formula of two warring planets, an evil villain in dark robes called the Shadow, a maniac in charge who wants to “fire” at everything, a total nut who went to school with our hero and an adorable princess who may actually be a piece of glass. I don’t mean this in the 1960’s way that women are delicate, I mean she’s actually a piece of glass when the magic divining rod touches her. And if this sounds like a dreadful euphemism, just know that if you wanted the actual review, you could read it elsewhere. You come here because it’s more fun here (and we had cookies, but I ate them all)!
So rather than break the story down, let’s just focus on those elements. The two warring planets has been done over and over again. There are two sides to every story – true enough, but that shouldn’t be the plot point of so many episodes! Plus when you title an episode you should be careful not to draw too much attention to similarities to other shows that have done the same thing. Those observant readers may have realized I dropped the title of a classic Star Trek episode above, also about two warring planets. There are too many similarities between the two Armageddon’s. The Shadow, on the other hand, is actually a terrific villain, all joking aside. I think he buys his shoes at the same place I do. I’m surprisingly partial to him and he does have a truly menacing appearance, barring his shoes. But the most potent memory of the episode for me is the one my kids and I still quote when playing video games. “Fi-rrrr” or is it “Fa-ar”? Listening to the Marshall saying “fire” while stuck in the time loop becomes a classic trope that we can have fun with, over and over and over and over and… sorry, I was stuck in a time loop. FA-AAR!
Then there’s Drax. The significance of Drax cannot be overstated. We’ve seen Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin, but never have we encountered a random friend of the Doctor’s outside of Gallifrey who is actually going to give us some background into our hero. This is like when you meet your spouse’s family and they start showing you those embarrassing childhood pictures and talking about all those long forgotten and hidden parts of their past. We eat that up! Theta Sigma is put out into the lore of Doctor Who very casually, but it’s far from a casual thing to learn. It influences so many stories and it’s done in such a cavalier manner. Drax is also utterly mad and totally fun to listen to. He may not warrant his own show like Garron and Unstoffe, or Jago and Litefoot, but he was tremendous fun.
And then there’s the key to time itself. I was able to get a picture of it from the incredible Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. Seems I was wrong, some villain did go and recreate it. Probably that evil incarnate: Michael Grade. We finally get to the last segment and it’s a woman. Here we go… It’s not that I can’t accept the fun of fantasy; but where did she come from? Has she no family? How do we have a discussion about the birds and the bees if we have to include the crystals?? It doesn’t make sense. What happens if she died? Would we find the segment buried in a graveyard? Oh, my word, what would have happened if she had “cremation” in her will? The planet blows up? Kroll might have been a giant animal that got bigger from eating a key segment, but what’s Astra’s excuse?
In typical Doctor Who fashion, Tom Baker gets a delightful scene at the end and breaks up the key thereby giving Astra back her life as a crystal person. She can marry, have children and maybe one day give birth to glass beings who she will eventually have to explain about the birds, the bees, and the glass. The Testimony, perhaps? I guess she’ll have to handle that with kid gloves. Those could certainly be some delicate kids! It’s nothing to get cracked up about. I sure hope they don’t go to pieces over it. It’ll give them something to reflect on. I’m sure mom will really see herself in those kids.
I should probably stop now. ML