Now that we’re all the way to the end of the Key To Time saga, it’s obvious that this experiment in telling a single story that spanned all 26 episodes and 10-plus hours of the 1978-1979 season was far less ambitious than it might have seemed back during “The Ribos Operation.” Although the season has its moments, in the final analysis the story of the Key quest itself is so thin and underdeveloped that there is very little actually connecting the six individual serials. It’s s black mark on producer Graham Williams, who presided over Tom Baker’s middle three years as the Fourth Doctor, that the series consistently failed to do anything with the central quest that supposedly inspired the whole year’s events. And with “The Armageddon Factor,” it limps its way through long, drawn-out disappointment, maybe three episodes’ worth of actual story excruciatingly over-stretched to six, into a mediocre anticlimax. The DVD case of my copy of “Armageddon Factor” says the serial is 91 minutes long when it’s actually more like two and a half hours, and I take that as a sign that even Doctor Who itself thinks this one should have been radically shorter.

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I’m not expressing a heretical opinion here; “Armageddon Factor” has a pretty terrible reputation in Doctor Who fandom. To be blunt, it’s often appallingly dumb. And worse, because it’s the capstone of a season that made a big deal about how the entire year was really one big story, its failure to deliver drags down everything that came before it, calling into question the idea that the Key To Time “arc” was anything more than a lazy, cynical, hollow shell of an idea in the first place.

But let’s focus on the good parts first. One thing that I do love in this story, even if more in concept than execution, is how it capitalizes on the manic Fourth Doctor’s resemblance to Groucho Marx by sticking him in what’s basically a science-fiction version of Duck Soup. In search of the sixth and final segment of the Key, the Doctor and Romana land in the middle of a devastating nuclear war between the twin planets Atrios and Zeos. The Zeons are winning, though mysteriously uncommunicative. The Atrians, led by the warmongering Marshal—it’s typical of the story’s shallowness that he never gets an actual name, just a military rank—are losing badly indeed, down to just six ships after years of attack and counterattack that have left most of the planet a radioactive wasteland. The Marshal seems to have gone insane, making all his decisions by staring for hours into a black mirror and refusing to consider any strategy other than aggression even as those half-dozen ships are reduced to just one—his own escape vessel. Meanwhile, Atrios’ political leader, Princess Astra (played by future Romana II Lalla Ward) and her boyfriend, a surgeon named Merak, are willing to risk execution to try to negotiate with the Zeons for an end to the war.

Hey, wait, did I say this resembled a Marx Brothers comedy? Well, it does for a few minutes, anyway, when the desperate Marshal, who’s been told by his mirror that the Doctor can win the war, puts this anti-establishment space hobo in charge of his planet’s military. Like Groucho, the Doctor refuses to take the situation seriously and constantly undercuts it with flippant sarcasm. It’s too bad that “Armageddon Factor” didn’t stay focused on this part, which is basically abandoned one-third of the way into the running time. But it does give us the best line of the story:

MARSHAL: 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?

DOCTOR: Peace.

MARSHAL: Very funny.

It’s worth noting at this point how much Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor, here in his fifth season, has changed from his first few years in the role. More than any other Doctor, Baker’s version was markedly aloof and disinclined to treat his enemies with undue respect, playing the clown to show them up as vain, pompous gasbags. Groucho’s surrealist sarcasm, combined with the Aspergery cold intellect of Sherlock Holmes. His glibness, flippancy, and dominating flood of conversational babble hid a darker and more serious side—deep reserves of moral outrage, and a sometimes shocking disinterest in the mundane world around him. It made him fascinatingly mysterious and flawed, and it’s one of the main reasons that Baker’s first three seasons are my favorite era of Doctor Who. By this point, though, that aloofness has crept into Baker’s performance on a broader scale, and it’s hard not to get the impression that the Doctor thinks of himself as superior not just to the Marshal and his boss the Shadow, but the series itself.

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Can you blame him, though, at least in this particular case? Especially once we get to the dreadful middle three episodes, this is a story loaded with logical errors, unexplained or sloppily explained events and cheap contrivances masquerading as clever plot developments, with endless running down corridors and shameless running-out-the-clock time-wasting instead of scenes that build on each other and progress toward an exciting conclusion. During its early episodes, “Armageddon Factor” seemed like it was aiming to be a darkly comic antiwar story in the vein of Dr. Strangelove, but soon enough it degenerates into the kind of trash where the bad guy cackles “YOU FOOL! BWA-HA-HA!” without the tiniest shread of shame or irony.

Because of the story’s unusual structure, there are three main villains here, appearing one after another. First, the Marshal, played with intensity by Shakespearian actor John Woodvine. Very quickly, though, the war between Atrios and Zeos is shown to be nothing more than a trap for the Doctor laid by a masked figure calling himself the Shadow. We’ve been waiting for this guy to show up now for almost the entire season, because he is the Doctor’s chief adversary in the quest for the Key. Just as the Doctor is supposedly working for the White Guardian, the Shadow is the main agent of White’s opposite, the Black Guardian. And that Guardian steps in for the last few minutes of the story in a brief cameo by the growly-voiced Valentine Dyall, who oozes menace despite being just a talking head on the TARDIS’ communications scanner screen. Dyall and Woodvine both make terrific antagonists, elevating their often banal dialogue and making something memorable out of their underwritten characters. (It also helps that the scene was written by Hitchhikers’ Guide author Douglas Adams, who was learning the ropes of the script editor job to take it over for the upcoming season.) It’s too bad, then , that it’s the odious Shadow who gets the bulk of the screen time, played with enough ham and cheese by William Squire that he could open up his own sandwich shop if supervillainy ever stops making sense as a career choice. The Shadow is a pompous and overbearing toad, which is not a bad quality for a villain to have, except that he’s also a corny, shallow cliche, and oddly passive at that—his entire plan, it seems, was to wait for the Doctor to show up and then just ask him to hand over the Key. When that doesn’t work, kidnap Romana and then ask him to hand over the Key again.

This is about par for the course with writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, whose seven previous Doctor Who scripts were usually more noteworthy for being cheap to produce than having anything interesting to say. (Baker later went on to co-create Wallace and Gromit, though, so respect where it’s due.) And to their credit, their original draft, as described on Shannon Sullivan’s essential Whovian history site A Brief History Of Time Travel, sounds much more interesting than what was eventually filmed. I suspect a big part of the problem was that not only did their longtime writing partnership break up during rewrites on this one, but script editor Anthony Read had already decided to leave the series as well, so the poor state of the final script may have been the result of neglect as much as anything.

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Certainly it’s hard to say what tone they were shooting for: Melodramatic adventure? Caustic satire? Goofy comedy? It’s an open question how much of this was intended to be funny, or even a send-up of Doctor Who’s more melodramatic tendencies. There is “refusing to take things too seriously” and then there is “deliberately doing a lousy job because you don’t think this is worth taking seriously.” Despite the occasional gems like “City Of Death” and “The Ribos Operation,” too much of the Graham Williams era feels like the latter.

Certainly nobody could possibly expect us to take the Shadow’s literal “bwa-ha-ha-ha” evil-guy laughter with a straight face. And then there’s Merak, Astra’s hapless boyfriend, who is most definitely the Zeppo to the Doctor’s Groucho—like the youngest Marx Brother, he’s saddled with the thankless task of trying to be a square-jawed romantic hero when he’s really not cut out for it, and instead of saving the day he’s a constant complication, whether he yanks the tracer away from Romana to go off on his own search, or simply gets himself injured and needs rescuing of his own. “I was on my way to the transmat when I heard [Astra] calling. Then I fell and hurt myself.” That’s an admirably cutting joke, but it’s one of the few jokes in the story that actually lands.

None of the secondary characters are developed beyond the most superficial sketches, except to the extent that they are more annoying the more we get to know them. Merak, as noted, is a wet fish. At least the Cockney Time Lord Drax, who pops up in episode five, actually causes the story to take some unexpected turns; irritating though he is, he’s also the only thing giving that final stretch of the story any particular oomph. The unexpected little curve the story takes when Drax foolishly shrinks himself and the Doctor to a few inches high comes too-little-too-late to save the boredom of the Shadow-Planet sequences, but I wish there had been a lot more strange curveballs like it. It’s exactly the kind of bonkers weirdness would have made this one fun to watch.

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But the key disappointment here, pun intended, is the lightweight treatment of the Key To Time itself. After 26 episodes of buildup, we finally get to see the cosmic cube in action. Great? Kind of, yeah. I love the Doctor’s clever trick of bottling up the Marshal and the computer Mentalis in a time loop before they can blow each other up. But as for any exploration of the Key as the driving thematic force in the story, forget it. There’s no exploration of what the Key is, why it was built, or anything else beyond what we learned basically all the way back at the beginning of the season. What is it? A cosmic artifact made of six interlocking crystals. What’s it for? To “restore balance.” Why? Because things are apparently out of balance. What things? I dunno, universe things, I guess. Well, how do you fix them? OH WAIT YOU’RE NOT THE WHITE GUARDIAN, QUICK SCATTER THE KEY AGAIN AND LET’S GET OUT OF HERE, ROLL CREDITS. What? Wait, come back, I still have questions…

In the end, the Doctor didn’t really go on six adventures in order to collect the segments of the Key so that “balance” could be restored to the universe, whatever that means. He went on six adventures because that’s what the Doctor does—he goes on adventures. They just all had this Key quest grafted on to them. He would have gone on six adventures during season 16 whether or not there had been a connecting element between them all—so the failure to make the story about that connecting element have any kind of depth just makes the whole thing feel pointless.

Stray observations

• Originally broadcast Jan. 20-Feb. 24, 1979.

• Upcoming schedule:

• There are two Doctor Who Classic reviews remaining, one later this month, then one in June, before I hook up my own randomizer and dematerialize to somewhere the Black Guardian can’t find me. Thanks to everyone who’s posted kind things in the comments. I’m glad you’ve been joining me here, and I hope you stick around for the next two.

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Coming up:

• May: “Pyramids Of Mars”

• June: “Survival”

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