The Androids of Tara

Written by:
David Fisher
Directed by: Michael Hayes
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1978
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The real hit of The Key To Time season, The Androids of Tara is perhaps the only one of the six stories to really "click" and showcases the Williams approach to intertextuality perfectly.

It doesn't distract from the story if you didn't know it was a pastiche of The Prisoner of Zenda. (Did you ever read the sequel - Return to Zenda?) - I loved the story anyway. But when I found out and made an effort to read the Anthony Hope work, it added even more nuance to what is already a cracking yarn. In Zenda the lead character escapes from being surrounded in a hut with a silver tea tray. Here the Doctor does the same by using K-9. That's witty. It's not the only reference, of course, but one of my favourites.

Tom does bug me with his unapplied performance in this season (his worst in terms of his acting) but here it all falls into place and it's fun fun fun all the way. Daddy doesn't even take the T-Bird back in a story so silly and indulgent the first two minutes feature a chess game between the Doctor and K-9. This also has what Douglas Adams wanted for an entire story: the Doctor taking a day off from saving the universe. Here he goes fishing, while Romana finds the fourth segment in the first ten minutes. It's a twist to the usual way they've been finding the segments, but things soon take a downward turn.

Yet while Michael Hayes is underrated as a director and Dudley's music suits the jaunty action, the Were Beast is the shittest thing I've ever seen. Thankfully, unlike the Gel Guards or the Ergon, we're not supposed to take it seriously, so it can get away with being sillily hilarious. Peter Jeffrey is also famously excellent in his role as the chief bad guy. It all makes you wonder why - despite rising in popularity somewhat since its video release - this was derided at the time and came last in the DWAS season poll.

Mary Tamm carries this first episode actually. Her wooden and misplaced attempts at humour really start to work in this lighter tale, while Tom is left in the second fiddle role. He tries - and largely fails - to make his co-stars laugh, while there seems to be some curious ad-libbing around the "you look better without your helmet" scene. Perhaps tellingly, Tom didn't have any memories at all when shown a clip of this story for The Tom Baker Years tape. Interesting though to see that when the four of them are given knock-out drink, it's The Drunk that stays on his feet the longest.
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Note how Tom goes to say "that's worth a shot" but changes it to "try". A totally irrelevant observation really, but I just noticed it for the first time and I don't really have anything else to say. That's not that this episode isn't good, just that it's more of the same: fun sets, nice location filming, light hearted political intrigue and lots of doubles. This is Doctor Who at its most base level in some respects, as its plotline - while a clever pastiche of classic literature - is reproduced in a child's-level sophistication. But don't mistake it as being childish. No, what Androids of Tara has is a joie de vivre, a delight in its own mythological fantasy trappings of robotic doppelgangers and laser swords.
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"He'll know it's a trap." "Of course, that's what gives the situation such a delicious edge." Some great lines, well delivered by Jeffrey, and I also think Neville Jason has charm as the would-be King. Yet for a story that I have such a good time watching I find myself surprised to have very little to say about it.

Maybe it's that Tara operates on such a surface level (though isn't shallow). In terms of subtext then you'd think an Irish hunchback who seems to pronounce "Count" without the second letter would give me plenty of material, but in a story as wilfully daft as this it doesn't really seem to take hold. My favourite scene is in this episode, too, with the aforementioned hut sequence, while Hayes really is a thoughtful director, something not really noticed when his material is so frivolous. A point of note is that when Tom shuts and later slams the hut door a crewmember can be visibly seen shutting it for him both times. And the cliffhanger is a little lacklustre, what with Tamm's lifeless cries for help and that genuinely pathetic dummy android.

And there's the episode three review, really. No great discussion, no cynical derision: it's just a good laugh.
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More fun, though the nagging sense of verging a little on the too silly/not quite as riotously funny as you'd like it to be does come to the fore here. Padding gets shifted into a new dimension with a sword fight between the Doctor and Grendel that lasts for over four minutes. What this sequence also does is highlight Dudley Simpson's outrageous lack of judgement. If anything required incidental music then surely it would be a near-soundless action sequence? And yet it goes by largely unaccompanied, even though it is well staged.

One thing about this story is that it's the one I've seen the most out-takes for. I have no idea how many out-takes exist for Doctor Who and even less clue why they haven't been released onto tape or DVD as I'm sure fans would love them. Yet I do remember many clips of Mary Tamm blowing all her lines - was this a regular occurrence, do you think? Why don't the BBC just release The Key To Time onto DVD in the UK so we can see them with the fluffs as extras and hear the commentaries (recorded for the US releases of these stories) which are purported to be uproarious?

It really is easy to overlook the pleasant location filming in this one, and while the comedy K-9 ending has been slated by some, personally I love it. Tom cracks up and he really seems to be laughing. Maybe not at K-9 - he was just laughing at anything as he pissed his trousers after a tenth bottle of gin. In story terms this is actually the weakest episode, but in terms of laughs it's my favourite. Tom's boat dialogue with K-9 just cracks me up and "next time, I shall not be so lenient!" has to be the best-ever parting line.
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While the Williams mix of drama and comedy perhaps still hasn't been honed to perfection at this stage, The Androids of Tara is easily one of his five biggest successes as producer. The high point of the sixteenth season, it's also surprisingly well made, with only the shattered android and the Were Beast really blighting what is a well-constructed romp.
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