In four short years, Tom Baker had gone from relative nobody, working on a building site, to one of the most popular and recognizable faces on British television, as well as abroad, and had the hit show to prove it. While Season 15, which saw the arrival of producer Graham Williams and script editor Anthony Read, had been an almost across-the-board fight between the old regime and the new, it was still must-watch Saturday viewing and introduced young fans to a tin dog with lasers in his nose.
For Season 16, Williams and Read decided to try something new with their very well-worn commodity. Instead of having six loose-or-completely-disconnected serials, they would make the entire season a quest so that the disparate adventures all gained a sense of cohesion and the reasons for going on them had purpose. They introduced the notion of gathering pieces of an ancient and powerful device that, if in the wrong hands, could spell doom for the whole universe. This device, which became the unofficial-official name for the whole year, was The Key to Time.
Season 16 – 2 September 1978 – 24 February 1979
To begin this unprecedented arc, Read and Williams turned to a writer they and the show knew very well: Robert Holmes. The former script editor contributed two stories to this season, the first of which, The Ribos Operation, kicked things off by introducing a brand new companion and infusing humor and satire into its story of grifters and heretics.
The Doctor and his brand new K-9 sit in the TARDIS when a mysterious white light begins emanating from outside. The Doctor goes to investigates and finds himself in a strange deserted landscape with a man all in white sitting in a wicker chair. This, he soon finds out, is the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham), a being outside of time and space and of insurmountable power. He recruits the Doctor on a quest to locate the six pieces of the Key to Time, which have been spread throughout the universe, hopefully never to be found. However, the Black Guardian, the equal but opposite number to the White one, wants these pieces to bring about total destruction. The Doctor agrees to help (after being threatened with not existing) and the White Guardian brings him some help, in the form of a glamorous, young, and brilliant Time Lady, Romanadvoratrelundar (Mary Tamm), who immediately refuses to be in awe of the Doctor. The Doctor demands she be called by a shorter name, so he chooses “Romana,” though she’d much prefer “Fred.”
The Guardian has provided them with a wand-like device that, when plugged into the TARDIS, will give the location of the pieces. The first beep brings them to the icy medieval planet Ribos, whereupon two galactic hucksters, the large, well-spoken Garron and the small, good-with-accents Unstoffe attempt to sell the planet to the wealthy but exiled tyrant, the Graff Vynda-K. The Graff is interested in the planet because of its supposed stockpile of jethrik, a rare and valuable mineral; However, this was all a ruse by Garron, using a piece of the metal as bait. The planet really has no jethrik, as far as anyone knows. However, that piece of jethrik, it turns out, IS the piece of the Key to Time. The Graff, having provided a large sum of money as a down payment for the planet, realizes Garron’s ruse when Unstoffe makes off with the money and the piece of jethrik, and he has the Doctor and Romana imprisoned as accomplices. Meanwhile, Unstoffe is hiding with a poor outcast, named Binro the Heretic, who was shunned by his people for believing Ribos to be just one of many celestial bodies orbiting a star. Unstoffe informs Binro that he was right.
This is a really lovely story and a great way to start the season. It’s a very simple and straightforward narrative but populated by incredibly interesting and engaging characters. Garron and Unstoffe represent another in Holmes’ cadre of double-acts, usually consisting of a pompous boss and a crafty underling, and they are a delight. He is able to also make a point about the lack of knowledge of people during medieval times in the character of Binro, who is cast aside and thought crazy simply for having a new idea.
In Romana, we finally have a companion who is the Doctor’s intellectual equal, and who is actually much more book smart than he is. She thinks he’s a fool and it’s the Doctor’s task, though he doesn’t really want it or know he has it, to convince her he knows what he’s doing. After all, he’s been adventuring for many hundreds of years more than Romana has. Eventually, a respect is reached between the two, but she still doesn’t kowtow to his insanity. Tom Baker’s companions, for a long while anyway, were usually very capable or at least not damsel-ish most of the time. Where Leela had been the physically capable learner, Romana is the intellectual who’s never left Gallifrey. Before too long, Romana would be able to carry a story on her own with the Doctor as her ostensible companion. But that’s later.
For the next story, we get the first Doctor Who script by comedian, author, and former Monty Python contributor Douglas Adams, well known nowadays for creating The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His contribution this season is The Pirate Planet, a sci-fi story with weird concepts, wacky characters, rampant silliness, and a whopping great body count. The Key to Time locator points the TARDIS toward the cold and boring planet Calufrax, but when they arrive, the Doctor and Romana find a bustling and bright civilization full of prosperity. The people on the planet fear ethereal beings called Mentiads, but the Doctor learns that they are quite nice. He, on the other hand, is concerned about the Captain, the leader of the planet, who supplies it with its wealth. He quickly learns that the planet they are on isn’t Calufrax at all, but Zanak, a hollowed-out world that materializes around other planets to loot and plunder them.
The Captain, despite his insanity, is actually being controlled by the evil Queen Xanxia, who is using the energy from the conquered worlds to achieve immortality. The Mentiads’s power also grows with each consecutive destroyed planet. The Doctor and Romana discover that the Captain keeps a trophy room full of the tiny remains of the planets they destroy, and that Calufrax, now little more than a jarful, IS itself the piece of the Key to Time. But getting it, and stopping the pirates, won’t be as easy as that.
This is a story that sets the stage for the following season in a lot of ways. It has smart but stupid humor, grand sci-fi ideas reduced to small and insignificant things, and over-the-top characters who seem too silly to be believable. You can tell Douglas Adams wrote this, and if you’re a fan of his, you’re probably more likely to enjoy than if you aren’t. However, the ideas are quite interesting, and truly never seen before in the program. Adams’ strengths are coming up with big ideas and character names and then making fun of them. I defy anyone to watch this story and not spend days, if not weeks, thereafter yelling “Mr. Fibuli!” in the Captain’s voice to his put-upon underling. Oh, and the Captain’s robotic parrot gets destroyed by K-9’s nose laser, making this one of the few times I don’t roll my eyes at something K-9 does.
The next two stories were written by new writer to the show, David Fisher. The first of these is The Stones of Blood. The search for the segments of the Key takes the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 to Cornwall, near the “Nine Travelers,” a group of nine standing stones, being studied by archaeologist Professor Amelia Rumford and her friend Vivien Fay. The Doctor goes to talk to de Vries, the head of a local druidic sect and gets promptly knocked out to be used as a sacrifice. Rumford is able to save him. Romana, meanwhile, is walking by the cliffs when she is accosted by something that appears to be the Doctor, but is actually some kind of apparition.
The Doctor decides he needs to go back and talk to de Vries, but finds him and his maid crushed to death and the house surrounded by mobile rocks the size of men. It is determined that the stones are alien beings that need to feed on globulin in human blood to survive. And, unfortunately, it’s Vivien who is supplying them with it, and she, an alien, sends Romana to her spaceship as prisoner. The Doctor is able to follow, but is immediately put on trial by two floating orbs called Megara, who are the judge, jury, and executioners of hyperspace.
This is a very weird story which starts out like an eerie monsters-on-the-moors movie and ends up in outer space on trial. It’s not bad, in fact I rather enjoy it, despite a silly literal-cliffhanger at one point, but it’s just rather uneven and has tonal shifting aplenty.
Fisher’s next story is The Androids of Tara, which I think might be my favorite of the season. The quest for the Key takes the TARDIS to the planet Tara, a society with a strange mixture of past and future. There are castles and courts and horses and swords, but there are also highly advanced technology and robotics. For once, finding the piece of the Key is easy, and Romana does it herself while the Doctor is off fishing in a nearby stream. However, Romana is soon attacked by a Taran bear and saved by Count Grendel. He takes her back to his castle under the pretense of tending to her wounded ankle; However, it soon becomes clear he believes her to be an android. You see, Romana perfectly resembles Princess Strella, whom the Count already has imprisoned in his dungeon. When he finds her not to be an android, he locks her up as well.
The Count wants to rule the kingdom himself, but Prince Reynart is the rightful heir to the throne. The Doctor has been recruited by a couple of the Prince’s swordsmen to help repair an android copy of him, which is used to divert the Count’s attention so he can assume the throne. Confused yet? Well, to make things more confusing, there really is an android copy of Strella out there which looks exactly like Romana, and the Doctor has to try to free Romana, stop Strella from being killed, help the Prince get crowned, and stop the Count from being an ass. The story ends with a really awesome sword duel between Count Grendel and the Doctor.
This is a sci-fi version of The Prisoner of Zenda, with its impersonations, king-crowning, and behind-the-scenes plotting. The production here is really wonderful as well, with the sets being lush and lovely and the location scenery really looking both very old and otherworldly. Mary Tamm plays four different characters in this story, Romana, Strella, and their android duplicates, and does them all incredibly well. She really makes Romana and Strella feel like different people, which makes them looking identical that much better of a trick. If the Graham Williams era does anything well, it’s pseudo-science fiction stories set on planets that resemble England’s history. Very specific, but there we are.
Robert Holmes is back for his second story of the year, and his last one until 1984. Unfortunately, it’s probably his worst outside of “The Space Pirates.” This, of course, is The Power of Kroll. Evidently, Holmes was given two requirements for the story: that he include the largest monster the series had ever seen, and that he minimize the humor that had been so prevalent under Williams, the second one coming from BBC big shots. The result is a story that really feels like it doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t know what to do now that it is.
It concerns the Doctor and Romana on the moon of Delta Magna where the crew of a methane refinery are at odds with the green and leafy indigenous people, called “Swampies” by the crew. The Swampies believe the crew is responsible for disturbing the waters and awakening the ancient beast Kroll. Kroll is a giant squid creature that has swallowed the fifth segment of the Key to Time which has made it its current size. The Doctor must destroy the beast, save the people, and retrieve the segment.
Does it sound boring and not innovative? Well, it is that.
Finally, we come to the six-part season culmination, The Armageddon Factor, the final story to be written by the prolific duo of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Anthony Read had also stepped down as script editor after Kroll, leaving this last chunk of the season in the hands of Douglas Adams, who had stepped in. As a result, “The Armageddon Factor” suddenly becomes sillier than it probably otherwise would have, and, mixed with the often dodgy writing of the Bristol Boys, creates a long and confusing six episodes.
The Doctor and Romana arrive on the planet Atrios which is locked in a war with the neighboring world Zeos. Atrios has incurred a great deal of damage by a recent attack and the Marshal, who is in charge of the war, is planning a counterstrike. The Doctor discovers, though, that Zeos is entirely empty, save for a massive supercomputer called Mentalis which is controlling the war effort. There is a third planet at play, called “The Planet of Evil,” and its ruler The Shadow is an agent of the Black Guardian. Maybe you’d assume “The Planet of Evil” would be behind bad things going on, given it’s an entire planet of it, but what do I know?
The Shadow has captured Princess Astra (Lalla Ward) of Astrios and is threatening to torture her if she doesn’t tell him where the final segment to the Key to Time is. She has no idea, of course, so her torture seems imminent. The Doctor, having disabled Mentalis, constructs an artificial sixth segment out of chronodyne, which gives the Key enough power to put the Marshal, who is about to launch the counterstrike, and Mentalis, which is about to self-destruct, in a time loop. This allows the TARDIS crew the opportunity to go to the Planet of Evil, where the Doctor meets Drax, a Time Lord with whom the Doctor went to the Academy and who is now working for the Shadow under duress. There’s all sorts of silliness that goes on from here, but it’s eventually learned that Princess Astra is herself the final segment of the Key to Time, and now the Shadow and the Black Guardian knows it.
For such a great idea for a season to end with two clunkers is a real shame. The first four stories of the season are good-to-great and are really entertaining, but “Kroll” and “Armageddon Factor” are just dumb. However, that being said, the actual culmination to the season, which has the Doctor contemplating (albeit for joke purposes) keeping the Key to Time for himself and becoming the most powerful being in the universe, is really terrifically done and very well played by both Baker and Tamm. The Doctor decides to break the Key apart again and send it to different parts of the universe, much to the ire of the Black Guardian, and then he installs a randomizer into the TARDIS so that they truly will never know where they’ll end up next, making it all but impossible for the Black Guardian to track them. Fairly ingenious, don’t you think?
Mary Tamm chose not to continue as Romana after this season, claiming she’d done everything there was to do with the character. However, Romana had proven very popular and they wanted to keep her. What could they do? Well, she’s a Time Lady, so have her regenerate, of course! But into whom? With Douglas Adams running the show now, you can bet the answer will be silly. Next time, we’ll be looking at the controversial and divisive Season 17, which Adams controlled and Baker ran over in his wildest and weirdest performances yet. Oh, joy.