Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by Michael Hayes
Doctor Who is a British science-fiction television series that has been around off and on since 1963. The main character is just known as “The Doctor” and is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. This means he travels through time to various places. One of his favorite places to visit is Earth. Typically, he has a companion traveling with him, usually female, sometimes male, sometimes one of each. He travels in a time machine known as a “Tardis” which is disguised as a British Police booth.
A Time Lord can regenerate if fatally wounded, which has accounted for all the different actors who have played The Doctor throughout the years. In this episode, he is portrayed by Tom Baker. Baker was one of the most popular incarnations of The Doctor, and by many fan’s assessments, he was the most popular.
In The Armageddon Factor, the Doctor is traveling with an assistant ostensibly on an almost equal playing field. Romana (portrayed by Mary Tamm) is a fellow Time Lord, although not of the stature of the Doctor. They are also traveling with the robotic “dog” known as K9.
While attempting to locate a segment of the device known as The Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana arrive in the middle of a nuclear war between the planets of Zeos and Atrios. Although Atrios is ruled by Princess Astra (portrayed by Lalla Ward), it is the Marshall (portrayed by John Woodvine) who is controlling the war.
Although his mission is clear in regard to obtaining the sixth segment of the key, the Doctor soon becomes involved in the political maneuvering on Atrios. Both the TARDIS and Princess Astra disappear, as does K9 for a time before he is barely saved from being melted in a furnace. The Doctor soon learns that a being known as “The Shadow” is controlling the Marshall and behind most of his decisions regarding the ongoing war. This is why all of the Princess’ efforts toward peach have been thwarted.
I can’t remember ever seeing this story-arc before. I certainly didn’t remember the character of Romana as the Doctor’s traveling companion, so this was new to me. It was also six episodes instead of the four episodes comprising most of the arcs.
There were a lot of good moral quandaries in The Armageddon Factor. Aired in 1979, it tackles what was in the minds of many at the time as there was still great fear of Russia and the United States duking it out with nukes. In this arc, the Doctor finds himself in the middle of an ongoing nuclear war between two worlds and we see the results in the societies. The people on Atrios have been driven deep below the surface due to all the fallout.
Then there is the moral ambiguity the Doctor faces when he learns the sixth component of that all-powerful Key to Time is a living being. Does he have the right to force a living being into being a mere component in a device? Once this person’s identity is known, how can he protect them from being endlessly pursued by forces which desire The Key for their own nefarious purposes?
The acting is very good. Tom Baker is excellent and I remembered with a fresh story that I hadn’t seen previously just why I enjoyed the series all those years ago on my snowy, rabbit-eared television. He takes what is thrown at him in stride and pulls it off with a cool confidence that really makes the entire situation believable to the audience. Some of the humor is a bit off the mark here, but that can also be attributed to the difference in cultures between the Brits and us here in the States.
What I really enjoyed was Mary Tamm as Romana. I never cared for Sarah Jane, one of the Doctor’s traveling companions who seemed more suited to The Perils of Pauline. Leela, the Xena-like primitive from another world was a big improvement. Of the companions I’ve seen, though, Romana had the most potential to be on an equal footing with the Doctor. Tamm carries herself with beauty, grace, and confidence throughout the story. It’s nice to see a good, strong female character from this era as male chauvinism still seemed to dominate a lot of the science fiction being produced at this time. It’s a shame she left the show following this episode as she felt the character was being written too weak. Compared to what else was out there, the character is wonderfully refreshing.
The other characters serve the script well, the only other really notable performance is that of John Woodvine as The Marshal. He’s sinister without giving away too much and often borders on being one-dimensional, but that’s really a good place to be for this character and what’s eventually revealed about him. The robotic dog K9 might be cheesy to some, but I’ve seen it before in the series and he provides a good bit of comic relief in the show without it being too forced. A sarcastic robot is definitely a twist!
The effects are of the endearing cheesiness Doctor Who is known for. By 1979 there were better effects available, but they cost more money. However, the low-budget effects are a part of what makes the show fun. The scenes in space as the Marshall attempts to launch missiles at Zeos are particularly bad but in a fun sort of way. The makeup and costuming aren’t much better, although I thought The Shadow was handled rather well.
I watched The Armageddon Factor with an 11-year-old and 13-year-old. Both of them liked it a lot and sat through the entire six episodes giving them a lot of attention. They weren’t bored by the complicated story nor distracted by the not-up-to-current-expectations special effects. It was a lot of fun to see them enjoying this show the way I had all those years ago.
While the story is somewhat complicated with its morality questions, The Armageddon Factor is a good arc in the ongoing adventures of my favorite Time Lord. If you’ve never seen the series, you might want to start someplace else before testing the waters with the Key to Time series.
NOTE: Although I’m viewing them out of order, the Key to Time series should actually be viewed in the following order:
KEY 1 – The Ribos Operation
KEY 2 – The Pirate Planet
KEY 3 – The Stones of Blood
KEY 4 – The Androids of Tara
KEY 5 – The Power of Kroll
KEY 6 – The Armageddon Factor