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The middle part of a long connected series of stories is often where it spins its wheels, since the most important links in the chain are usually at the beginning and end, first to set the stage with a strong establishing hook, then for the grand finale. The middle part can coast, confident that barring some disastrous turn the audience will stick around so they can get to the ending coming up later. “The Androids Of Tara,” fourth of the six serials linked by the Fourth Doctor’s quest for the Key To Time, is a textbook case of a middling middle section. It’s not done badly so much as it just doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. Which makes it oddly fitting that it begins with the Doctor trying to play hooky for the day, sending Romana off to look for the fourth segment of the Key so he can go fishing, and not joining the action until he’s literally forced to at swordpoint.

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And to be fair, Doctor Who circa 1978 was very much looking to embrace its escapist side and not take itself too seriously. The basic idea here, a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi homage to the classic swashbuckling novel The Prisoner Of Zenda, fits that bill perfectly. It’s sort of the Whovian version of an old 1930s Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks movie (maybe literally, since Fairbanks played the villain in a 1937 adaptation of Zenda). The Doctor and Romana become embroiled in the palace intrigue over the royal succession of a feudal kingdom where questions of honor are settled via duels between gentlemen wielding that courtliest of swords, the rapier—and, even deadlier, rapier wits. The original novel’s chief gimmick revolved around improbable doubles—a lookalike prince and commoner. Here, the androids of the title do the doubling—not only impersonating Tara’s royal Prince Reynart and Princess Strella, but Romana too. And to make matters stranger, Romana and Strella look exactly alike as well.

Like a lot of the lesser Fourth Doctor-era stories, “Androids Of Tara” shores up its weaknesses by relying on the charisma of its character actors—the sheer force of Tom Baker’s stampede of personality, and in this case a wonderfully hissable performance by Peter Jeffrey as the villainous Count Grendel of Gracht. (And points also to John Leeson as the voice of the Doctor’s robot dog K9, who serves as both straight man and low-key sardonic counterpoint to his flamboyantly eccentric owner.)

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In a way it’s a pity this couldn’t have been made a few years earlier when Jon Pertwee was the star, since his elegant and dashing Third Doctor would have been right in his element. On the other hand, it would also have probably been a more straightforward version of Zenda than this one, since Baker’s more anarchic Doctor can’t help but treat Taran pretentiousness and officiousness with irreverence and mockery. Which is not a bad thing, since Baker is rarely more fun than when he’s taking swipes and talking in circles at authority figures like the stuffy, entitled aristocrats who populate Tara.

This is a light-hearted and low-stakes story, mostly ignoring the supposedly cosmic significance of the season’s arc in favor of the dynastic squabbles of what even the Tarans would probably admit is a backward, backwater planet. The Key quest is almost irrelevant, in fact—Romana finds the segment just a few minutes into the first episode, after which it never again has any real relevance to the plot. (It seems like it might, for a while, but that’s basically a red herring.) Instead, she and the Doctor are caught in the middle of the fight for the Taran throne, in which the honorable legitimate heir, Reynart, seems hopelessly outmatched by the devious, ever-conniving Grendel.

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Reynart’s motivation is simple enough: Get past Grendel’s men to the throne room in time for the ceremony that officially makes him king. If he’s late, the job goes to the next person in line. His ace in the hole is “George,” an android duplicate of himself who can act as a decoy—or, if needed, take his place temporarily. With the Doctor’s help, George saves the coronation by posing as Reynart after Grendel kidnaps the real prince. Though Grendel is fully aware George is a fake, he can’t speak out, since it would mean revealing that he knows why the prince went missing in the first place. George needs constant repair, though, so he’s only useful to buy time until Reynart can be rescued.

The back-and-forth between the two sides is, at least superficially, classic fast-moving swashbuckling intrigue and action: dastardly kidnappings, daring escapes and even more daring recaptures, crosses and double-crosses, and a duo of deadly, deceptive duplicates. Exciting stuff, right?

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The problem is that the story is so full of plot holes and clangingly dropped subplots that the most potentially interesting material goes nowhere or is unceremoniously left to die like a fish flopping and gasping on the floor.

Take Grendel. He’s far and away the best and most richly developed character in the story, the sort of villain who you can’t help liking even though he’s clearly a murderous tyrant. Possessed of a genuine if twisted sense of honor and far more clever than any of the people on Team Good Guy (until the Doctor shows up, anyway), he’s charming and urbane even as he’s scheming to kill and usurp. He’s too overtly evil to be an antihero, but you could maybe call him an anti-villain: Just like Roger Delgado’s Master was to Pertwee’s Doctor, you don’t want him to win, but he has so much style you don’t really want him to lose either. That said: As compelling as it is to watch him deviously spins his webs, he seems to have several different schemes running at cross-purposes to each other. Why keep Reynart alive when Grendel plans to marry Strella to get closer to the throne? Why force Reynart to marry Strella (or at least, Romana pretending to be Strella)?

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Not to mention that Grendel very nearly gets himself crowned in Reynart’s absence simply by posting his guards in the palace and insinuating that the archimandrite had better play ball. If that’s so easy to pull off, why does he need Princess Strella at all? Why not just arrange a convenient accident for Reynart and then make his own move? There doesn’t seem to be any point in marrying her so he can jump up a few spots in the succession if he can just do it by throwing his political weight around.

Then there’s Grendel’s roboticist, Lamia, who in the early episodes looms large as a possible important lynchpin not just for this particular story but the whole Key To Time arc. For one thing, she’s got conflicted loyalties: She’s in love with Grendel, an affection he’s happy to cynically exploit even though he frequently and cruelly reminds her she’s too far below his social rank. Will her heart finally break, and will she turn against him? Lamia is also the only character so far this season to become curious enough about one of the Key segments to actually try to figure out what it is. But because she’s abruptly killed in episode three, both of these subplots just vanish. It’s particularly a wasted opportunity in the case of the Key segment, because this was a golden opportunity to shine some light on this mysterious cosmic thing that’s supposed to be terribly, terribly important, and yet whose nature is almost as obscure now as at the beginning of the season. The weird thing is that the story lays the groundwork for a discovery of some kind with a couple scenes showing her recognize that something is odd about the segment, then try to study it scientifically with her equipment. So far even the Doctor hasn’t been all that interested in the Key itself beyond collecting it—this was a chance for that to start changing, which ought to be happening as the quest moves into its final stretch.

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Maybe I’m nitpicking about tangential points. Still, the fact that I find them more interesting to write about than the twin Reynarts and the quadruple Romana/Strellas says something about how dull the main android plot often was. It’s a particularly bad showing for Mary Tamm, who is handed the classic actor’s challenge of playing multiple roles in a single production and fails to make an impression with any of them: She plays two emotionless robots and two people who might as well be. Maybe it’s not a bad thing Romana No. 1 was a one-season companion.

Stray observations

• Originally broadcast Nov. 25-Dec. 16, 1978.

• “Do you mind not standing on my chest? My hat’s on fire.”

• When Grendel first meets Romana, who’s ankle has been hurt, he gallantly carries her to his horse—which, in what I think was probably a mistake, looks just like a horse. The dialogue implies something more unusual than what we see:

ROMANA: What’s that? Is it yours?

GRENDEL: My favorite charger. Strong as a tree and swift as the wind.

ROMANA: Well, how does it go? What makes it work?

GRENDEL: Good heavens, I don’t know, my dear.

ROMANA: You don’t?

GRENDEL: I’m a knight, not a farrier.

Romana surely knows what a horse is, so the only way this scene makes sense is if it wasn’t supposed to look like a real horse but a robotic one—an introduction to the concept that this seemingly low-tech civilization makes frequent use of high-tech machinery like the human-doubling androids we see a little later.

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• When the Doctor is given wine to toast his new partnership with Reynart, note how he surreptitiously hands his own cup to Zadek instead, not quite trusting his new friends yet and protecting himself from a possible poisoned chalice. Too bad he didn’t think to wonder if the whole bottle had been drugged…

• Upcoming schedule:

Doctor Who Classic reviews will publish monthly at 2 p.m. CST on the first Saturday of the month. For the next few months, every other review will tackle the Fourth Doctor’s “Key To Time” arc from 1978, skipping around to other seasons inbetween. Coming up:

• Jan. 3: “The Robots Of Death”

• Feb. 7: “The Power Of Kroll”

• March 7: “The Sea Devils”

• April 4: “The Armageddon Factor”

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