The Armageddon Factor

Written by:
Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by: Michael Hayes
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1979
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The least of Tom's completed six parters, The Armageddon Factor is a tale of star-spanning intergalactic war set in three rooms. In many senses it's the worst of season sixteen, which, as it's a season that includes Kroll and The Ribos Operation, is no mean feat.

I won't dwell on the opening shot as it's been done to death, most notably in The Discontinuity Guide. Suffice it to say that having a poorly written, badly acted and badly shot introduction that turns out to be a film within the story only works if the actual story itself is well made, well acted and well produced.

While Davyd Harries is weak (and gets really silly from episode four on) I love John Woodvine's low-key bonkers playing. (Fans of accidental gobbing should check out his "it's clear to me" line). This is also the story to introduce Lalla something or other, not the best actress to hit the series, but she has presence. Best of all, she has enormous rapport with Tom, something clearly lacking between him and Tamm.

There's some rubbish support in this one, actually, particular that old buffer that plays the guard. I'd imagine he'd be elevated to Jenny Laird levels of derision, if only anyone could be bothered to remember him.

Not much to say here: for a story about impending nuclear war then it's astoundingly flippant, and Tom doesn't even leave the Tardis until nine minutes before the end credits. Still, while no great, it's not actually awful yet, either, and Tom's "care for a blow?" line is hilarious.
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"It's been a long hard struggle, production is slow, losses are crippling". Hmmm… Here we see vast starcraft engaging in battle. Well, we see some flashing lights moving on a screen. And forget what I said about John Woodvine's accidental gob - the man's a spit machine. If you look closely you can see Tom involuntarily moving back to avoid the kinetic flob that's on offer.

If you wanted to really delve into the Key To Time you could come up with some penis envy theory and how Romana uses the Tracer as a phallic substitute. But instead you'll probably just come to the conclusion that while this is passable entertainment, it's inessential. For Tom, "inessential" is a sin, and the lack of a credible enemy means there's no tension. And so, the episode ends, Tom transmatting out of the Marshal's lair in desperate hope of finding the plot.
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By their very nature six part stories are perhaps difficult to endure, but this one fairs less well than most. This is real bargain basement Who, the perfect embodiment of what people assume cheap Doctor Who to be. It's all plastic caves and wooden floors, stock studio flats standing in for a foreign planet.

This is the episode to introduce the Shadow, laughably described in The Fourth Doctor Handbook as "an excellent portrayal of suppressed evil by William Squire". This will come as something of a surprise to those who watch it and think he's acting as a warm-up man for Stephen Thorne. Yet he's panto AND wooden, both at the same time - that's an astonishing feat. Maybe if he'd appeared menacing the Doctor at various points in the season - as was planned - it would've worked better. By having him wait around for the Doctor to get five segments uninterrupted it makes him come over less the personification of evil, more of a lazy fat bastard.

It's all okay, and isn't offensively crap like the two Holmes endeavours, but this is really genre television that you tolerate. Science fiction should never be something you just tolerate - particularly not when it stars that nutter in the scarf.
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While Bob Baker and Dave Martin may have had many weaknesses in their writing, a lack of ideas wasn't generally one of them. The Armageddon Factor is clearly a four-part story at best, yet here they try and expand it by chucking new ideas at it. Narratively speaking it's unsatisfying because things like Drax don't arise naturally out of the inherent situation, but it does at least keep the thing moving. Though why did the director suddenly decide Davyd Harries had to be a comedy character from this episode? In fact, with wooden bit-part guards, misfiring comic acting, booming Shadows (as opposed to boom mike shadows, though there's enough of them too) this is the worst acted story of season sixteen. Yet it isn't the worst story full stop. I wasn't particularly looking forward to a six-episode trudge again, but … it's okay.

Amidst all the Dr. Stangelove antics here is that old stock SF staple of a time loop. Or time held in check, at any rate. Yet despite the pulp leanings, (and Tom's diabolical overacting) it's an intriguing concept, and is, in effect, the first sign of a plot all story. Also interesting to see Tom acting against Lalla for the first time - note how he makes more of an effort when playing opposite her, as if his libido is desperately fighting through the gin.
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Five Mary Tamms at the start of this one, and not one of 'em can act. That bit where the Shadow's face is huge in the door reminded me of kid's show Knightmare… not a good thing, obviously. Quite nice Biblical allusion with the proclamation "you are in the valley of the Shadow…" but Tom's overacting again kills it.

Thankfully this is the episode to introduce Drax, the Cockney Time Lord. He doesn't actually add anything at all to the flow of the plot, but does divert. And, while The Happiness Patrol tried to rewrite it as his "nickname" there's no suggestion here that Theta Sigma isn't the Doctor's real name.
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The most appalling thing about this story is that all the sets (particularly the Shadow's lair) look like… sets. With clearly divided walls and floor, they're cheapo knock-ups with no pretence of realism. This is expounded here when one of the Mutes accidentally kicks the set floor up… which turns out to be an old mat. Did they bother to retake? Don't be stupid.

Am I just reading into it or does Drax's line of "you, fly over there and shut the door" have interesting connotations when you think of the opening lines of City of Death? Anyway, it's always a pleasant surprise to get to the second half of this story, because while nothing really happens for the first three instalments, after the halfway point it all starts to get moving.

While this was probably the most lax season of the first eighteen or nineteen years, it's also one of the most original. In fact, it's staggering to think that this is just one of three seasons that doesn't feature some form of recurring character - and that's only if you don't count UNIT for season seven, and the fact that no recurring characters in the first season would be a given. Not necessarily something to be commended, but interesting nevertheless.

The Shadow simply has to be one of the most inept villains ever to grace the series. Anyway, here comes the end, which unsatisfies most and sees Bob and Dave get many a slagging. (Intriguingly, arguably their best work for the series - Nightmare on Eden - came the following year after they'd split and Baker started working solo. So was Dave Martin the weak link?) It's a shame, because Douglas Adams was actually script-editing these scenes uncredited, so it was probably down to him. But listen to the words (or read it, as I did first, in The Unfolding Text). "If you're not listening I can make you listen" - it's actually great stuff, but abominably, atrociously performed by The Drunk. This was actually the worst performance in the lead role by anyone up to that date. Even now it's rarely been bettered, with only Colin's Trial scenes or Sylvester gurning at Light and Davros topping it. As for the answers to The Key To Time, the answers are all there - just not spoon-fed. The more I see it, the more I like it, even if it is very rock and roll. "You've watched us find the Key for 26 weeks, now we're chucking it back, bye bye, the end." Overall, I still like this episode as there are some decent concepts and themes running through it. It could have been so much better, but then that could be said of most of Who, couldn't it?
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Most Tom stories are good, some are great, and a handful are poor. But this has to be the most mediocre, indifferent serving he ever offered up. Yet, say what you like, as a six-part epic and the conclusion to Who's first umbrella season, it's.... adequate.
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