Written by David Fisher
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 Androids of Tara, 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. They are searching for something known as The Key to Time and journey to the planet Tara in search of the fourth piece of the key.
Since they are halfway through their retrieving the pieces of The Key to Time, the Doctor is enjoying a game of chess with K-9 while Romana watches. He doesn’t see a pressing need to hurry with their mission and even wants to take time off for fishing when they arrive at the planet of Tara.
Romana immediately heads off in search of the fourth segment of The Key to Time. Just as she finds it, Count Grendel of Gracht (portrayed by Peter Jeffrey) arrives. Although he appears to be friendly at first, he has another purpose for helping her. He confiscates the segment of the key and takes her back to his castle, believing her to be an android. Once he learns that she isn’t he imprisons her with Princess Strella, who looks just like Romana.
The Doctor, meanwhile, runs into some of the local knights. Zadek and Farrah (portrayed by Simon Lack and Paul Lavers) convince him to help Prince Reynart (portrayed by Neville Jason). Reynart is the rightful heir to the throne, but Grendel is determined to take it from him and has kidnapped the woman Reynart is betrothed to. Unfortunately, Grendel is also one step ahead of them and has them all drugged, then kidnaps Reynart. The two knights and the Doctor decide to use the android copy of Reynart at the coronation to thwart Grendel’s plans.
The planet of Tara and the society is an oxymoron in many ways. They seem medieval and feudal in structure. Yet they are able to create androids which are exact duplicates of living beings and the knights carry swords with electrical charges in them. Yet the castles are lit by candles. It’s all quite perplexing and more than once I found myself thinking that if they could create androids and weaponry like this, why weren’t they advanced in other ways.
If the plot recap sounds familiar, it is. It’s been done many times before, and better. The plot is based on The Prisoner of Zenda and makes no apologies for it. In fact, several of the working titles for this story arc were The Androids Of Zenda, The Androids Of Zend, and The Prisoners Of Zend. The complication of androids is something different and instead of dealing with just one doppelganger, there are now four. In addition to Romana, the Princess has two android copies as well as the android coy of Reynart.
The actors look like they had fun here. Mary Tamm does a terrific job in all of the roles. She seems to put her heart and soul into making the audiences believe the situation she finds herself in and it works to the degree it does largely because of her. Likewise, Tom Baker falls into the typical amused sincerity the Doctor seems to display through many of the light-hearted stories and that is also the perfect tone for this piece. Everyone seems to have a lot of fun with the medieval setting for the piece, wandering around the English countryside acting like kings, knights, and princesses of yore.
The music is like attending a Renaissance Faire, and that’s how I found I had to approach The Androids of Tara. Trying to overthink it would be the same as wondering why someone at one of those Faires was wearing Reeboks. It’s just something you have to relax, enjoy, and really suspend disbelief. Sometimes it’s hard not to look at these shows with a critical eye and expect them to be perfect. It’s easier with Doctor Who than many other science-fiction shows because of the fact that it usually doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The Androids of Tara even embrace some of the quirks of the show. The cheesy special effects are made fun of even here with the continual fear of the androids breaking down and having that actually happen at the most inopportune moments. Rather than being a sophisticated piece of weaponry, the laser which the Princess Strella android attempts to use to assassinate the future king is only effective from five inches away!
While certainly not one of the best-written episodes of Doctor Who, The Androids of Tara is a lot of fun if only because the cast seems to be enjoying themselves and it’s infectious. It’s not the greatest copy of a well-worn plot, but it works most of the time and is a lot of fun for fans of the 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
• Information Text
• Commentary with Director Michael Hayes, Tom Baker, and Mary Tamm
• Photo Gallery
• Who’s Who