Doctor Who – The Key to Time Part Three
28, Oct – 18, November 1978
In 1978, Tom Baker was at what many consider the height of his popularity. Fandom was at a fever pitch and the program riding a high from the controversial Philip Hinchcliffe era that rankled the nerves of parents with its over the top violence and terrifying monsters. Solidified as a worthy successor to the mantle of the Doctor, new producer Graham Williams took over the program. After a series of adventures that started as a near-homage to the previous year with a moody and tense drama set in a lighthouse, Williams’ freshman outing concluded with a comedic political romp, The Invasion of Time. The following series would operate under a story arc bringing six adventures together in a unifying concept, the search for the Key to Time.
Series 16 is far more fantasy-based and has a high level of comedy to off-set the loss of violence seen in previous years. The Doctor’s Harpo Marx-like persona is in overdrive against the regal and glamorous Romana, as played by Mary Tamm. The scripts are far wittier than they had ever been, but the production values are lackluster (even by Doctor Who standards). Guest actors and directors seem confused at how to convey the humor without the program becoming a send-up of itself, resulting in a most undignified loss of integrity that would only get worse in the following year. Tom Baker himself seems to be taking the whole thing as a laugh, which is a major loss given the high level of dramatic acting skill that he had portrayed previously.
All that said, the Key to Time is a lot of fun if you are up to it. Released in the United States long before it hit the shelves in its native land, The Key to Time was the first year-long box set of Doctor Who available to fans in DVD format. A celebration of boyhood memories, it served a unique purpose in recapturing memories of my generation that had grown hazy over time. Not in the same ballpark as other classics, the Key to Time nevertheless entertains as a whole.
After Robert Holmes’ excellent Ribos Operation and Douglas Adams’ rather lackluster Pirate Planet, the third installment had to not only pick up the long thread of continuity but also bring with a bit of breathing room. Searching for the third segment to the Key to Time, the Doctor takes a moment to recap the umbrella concept of the series and to finally reveal to Romana that the mission is vital to all of life in the universe. It’s a clever trick that brings the audience up to speed and provides a pretty major plot point by having Romana brought into the Doctor’s confidence.
The TARDIS lands on contemporary Earth next to a stone circle. A clan of scholarly druids are offering up sacrifices to their goddess, the Cailleach. Researching the circle is the charming Professor Rumford and her close friend Vivien Fay. Beatrix Lehmann is a welcome addition to the cast and brings with her a warmth that had been lacking in the Key to Time. Her character is full of whimsy and spunk along with far too much knowledge that makes her a kind of lovable foil to the Doctor. Her companion Vivien is like a viper in a pants suit in contrast played no less magnificently by Susan Engel. The location footage, amazing guest actors, superlative musical score and an atmosphere of mystery and danger make the first two parts excellent viewing.
It’s all high quality stuff… until the stones fight the toy dog.
‘Walking Stones’ Clip
After some steady build-up, the whole plot comes crashing together with the revelation that not only is Vivien Fay the Cailleach, but above the stone circle is a space craft housing the perfect justice machines called the Megara (flashing lights). Vivien is actually an intergalactic crook that the Megara are hunting down but they have no knowledge of what she looks like and are tripped up by their own pedantic adherence to the legal process. The Doctor frees the Megara from their cell (where Vivien had trapped them) and they put him on trial for tampering with an official seal. While the Doctor tries to fight logic with logic and trick the Megara into recognizing who Vivien is, K-9 holds back a steadily growing army of Ogri who attempt to crush him and Professor Rumford.
Stones of Blood is a very weird adventure. I adore the first half focusing on the mystery of the Lady Morgana Montcalm, but the ‘walking stone’ Ogri are silly by any standards and the trial sequence where Tom Baker steals the remaining dignity of the story by producing a judge’s wig then finding his light in the studio is just embarrassing. In the previous adventure, the Pirate Planet, the first two parts are far too silly to be taken seriously or otherwise while the conclusion is excellent. In this case, the opposite is true. A mystery involving Druidic cults and overlapping space is cast aside for silly nonsense banter and sillier special effects that take the viewer into the realm of pantomime. Doctor Who often walks the fine line of panto, but the Key to Time prances all over that line in a kind of absurd blend of science fiction and comedy.
Watched with a group of friends and a few drinks (what a great way to watch Doctor Who!), this is a perfect party piece, particularly the moments with the Megara. Inviolate justice machines, the Megara are difficult to grasp. As a serious threat they are just too silly and as a joke they go on for far too long.
The third installment of the Key to Time is also the 100th story of Doctor Who. Screenwriter David Fisher (Creature from the Pit) was reportedly instructed by the BBC executives to write stronger parts for women, an aspect that many have pointed out. It’s true that Doctor Who is mainly a male-oriented show in which women predominantly play a subservient role and this story seems to have been chosen to reverse that trend at least temporarily. If Fisher was indeed given such edict, it certainly influenced his later addition to the Doctor Who mythos, the equally goofy Creature from the Pit which featured a matriarchy clad in leather garb.
Apparently Fisher was also pushed to include K-9 which proved comical on the terrain that the crew was shooting on. The prop could barely make it across a flat surface, and in the end had to be pulled along via a length of fishing line on location. The reliance on K-9 to solve a problem in general never sat well with me and greatly hampered the program’s intelligence. It essentially placed the Doctor into a position of shooting his way out of a problem without ever putting the gun in the hero’s hands. John Leeson is an amazing voice actor and managed to create a bond of sorts of with his co-stars, but the character is more often than not a replacement to the Doctor’s ingenuity at dealing with a situation.
A charming adventure with some wonderful camera work and direction, the ‘monsters’ and poor trial sequence are so opposite the mood of the first half of Stones of Blood that it makes for an unusual experience. For a mid-way point, The Stones of Blood is an accomplishment as it renewed the story and heightened the tension with the reminder of the Black Guardian, but the substandard production values combined with a convoluted idea hamper the overall success of this one.
Doctor Who by its nature is a mixed affair of comedy, drama, fantasy and science fiction performed by classically trained actors against blue screens and rubber monsters. Occasionally it transcends this with an ambitious script, impressive effects or even an unusual setting. Stones of Blood is one of those stories that nestles comfortably into the accepted norm of a silly entertaining program created by clever individuals with an unusual sense of humor… and that’s not a bad place to nestle.