DOCTOR WHO – THE KEY TO TIME PART SIX
20 January – 24 February 1979
“Still… nuclear war. It’s always difficult walking into these situations. Never know who’s fighting who.”
The planets Atrios and Zeos are at war and it isn’t going well. The fighters for Atrios cannot find their enemies in space which is suspected as the result of superior stealth technology. The Princess Astra struggles to hold up the spirits of her people while the Marshal continues the fight against impossible odds. A strange and blood thirsty individual, the Marshal sees dissent and betrayal all around him, even in the eyes of the beautiful Princess. He sets her up and has her led to a dangerous radiation zone called K Block as a way to be rid of her. Her lover, the medic Merak is also brought in for questioning along with two strangers found in K Block alongside a dead guard. The Doctor and Romana, searching for the final segment of the Key to Time, have really stepped in it this time.
The notion of the war between Atrios and Zeos is key to this story. The people are asked to hold on and hope for a better tomorrow as the casualties rise. Propaganda programs show how resilience and fortitude are romantic and noble even while the medical facilities are overwhelmed with the wounded. Radiation seeps through from the surface and threatens the few remaining sections of the underground dwelling where the Atrions struggle to survive. It’s a bold statement on the futility of war and the cold heartedness of the powers that be who continue to drive their people toward absolute destruction.
While the Doctor, Romana and Merak try to escape the Marshal’s grasp, he conspires with a dark mirror, seemingly in a trance. They find that the Princess has disappeared from K Block and the Key Tracer reacts positively to a circlet left behind by her. Thinking the Princess must have the Sixth Key Segment with her, the Doctor and Romana are as anxious to find her as Merak. They are soon intercepted by a group of guards and brought back to the Marshal who has had a change of heart. No longer suspecting the Doctor and Romana as Zeon spies, he now proclaims them as saviors.
In the heart of the Atrios military control, the Doctor witnesses the pathetic waste of the deep space war, casualties once again multiplying before they finally retreat. The Marshal implores the Doctor provide an ultimate weapon to which the Doctor responds with a defensive maneuver, a force field that would end the war. During a moment of great distress, Romana sees a strange device sticking out of the Marshal’s throat. Romana and the Doctor suspect that the device is a clue to his strange behavior and an implication that he is a puppet of a far more dangerous foe, the force behind the war itself.
While the Doctor and Romana try to work out why no one can see Zeos and the Marshal demands the Doctor deliver his force field, the Princess Astra appears on a signal from Zeos, urging them to surrender. The Marshal communes with his dark mirror while Romana and Merak witness the event from within a hidden chamber where a strange skull acts as a receiver.
Looking for a way to visit Zeos, the Doctor stumbles into a trap and is transmatted away under the guard of two ominous looking creatures. The strange skull informs the Marshal that the war is over, causing him to launch an all out assault using the Atrion’s finest fighter. Meanwhile the Doctor is prisoner of the Shadow, the master planner behind the Atrios/Zeos war. He is also looking for the segments of the Key to Time, hinting at a deeper darkness to his nature.
A lot of transmatting takes place as characters travel from one place to another which gets a bit dizzying. First the Doctor then Merak then Romana and K9 then the Marshal’s toadie Shapp travel from Atrios to a space station hovering between it and the planet Zeos then to the planet Zeos itself. And back again.
The Doctor and Shapp find K9 in the corridors of Zeos who tells them that he has been communing with ‘one of my own kind.’ They reunite with Merak and Romana who all follow K9 to the main battle computer, the ‘commandant’ called Mentalis. Mentalis informs them that the war is over and the next step is universal obliteration. The Marshal is hovering outside Zeos, ready to attack and Mentalis is ready to let it happen, self destructing and taking both planets in the resulting explosion.
Shapp and Merak are ambushed on their way back to Atrios to warn them of Mentalis’ plans. A guard exchanges laser bolts with Shapp and Merak is enthralled by an image of the Princess Astra. The Doctor tricks Mentalis into attacking itself but the self destruct mechanism continues to count down. Desperate for a solution, the Doctor decides to use what he has of the Key to Time (and a makeshift sixth segment) in order to create a time loop around Mentalis and the Marshal’s ship, thus holding back Armageddon.
Under the Shadow’s control, Princess Astra is sent off to collect the Key to Time. There’s a lot of silly raygun play between K9 and the Shadow’s thralls as the robot dog is tricked onto the Shadow’s satellite with the Doctor in hot pursuit. On board the TARDIS, the Princess Astra is drawn to the Key to Time, which the Doctor hopes will unravel some mystery to her connection to the sixth segment. They arrive ready to face the Shadow, however, like Astra, K9 is also the Shadow’s thrall.
On the run from the Shadow on the satellite, the Doctor meets the roguish Time Lord Drax, a kind of fix-it man. We also get a name drop of the Doctor’s nickname in University, Theta Sigma. Drax was hired by the Shadow to do some contract work, including Mentalis, but after the work was completed he found himself on the chopping block. Hiding out, he has been searching for the transmat off of the satellite to his TARDIS for five years. Even though Drax was ordered to gain the Doctor’s trust to get at the Key to Time, the Doctor talks him into joining forces to fight the Shadow.
The Doctor is captured by the Shadow who once more demands the Key to Time, threatening to torture Romana if the Doctor doesn’t hand it over. The Doctor reluctantly agrees and is marched off to the TARDIS. Drax intercepts him and, using some pieces knicked from his TARDIS, shrinks himself and the Doctor into miniatures… completely missing the point of the Doctor’s cunning plan. The pair gingerly dodge the boots of the Shadow’s henchmen and find a refuge inside of K9.
Triumphant, the Shadow extracts the Key to Time from the TARDIS and recites to the Princess Astra that she is the sixth child of the sixth dynasty of Atrios, born to be the sixth segment. She is transformed into the sixth segment just as the Doctor and Drax arrive inside K9. Before the Shadow can combine the six segments, the Doctor and Drax resize themselves and rescue the key from the Shadow’s grasp into the TARDIS.
Romana argues that she and the Doctor are just pawns, no better than the Shadow, just doing the White Guardian’s bidding. With the sixth segment transmuted from the Princess there is such a price that has been paid in order to build the Key completely. But there is no time for such niceties as the Doctor has to squash the Marshal’s plans and destroy the satellite where the Shadow hides.
While Bob Baker and Dave Martin wrote the Armageddon Factor, it was up to Graham Williams and Douglas Adams to write the conclusion. The finale involves the White Guardian appearing to the Doctor just after he has stated that he can do anything he likes with absolute power over everything. It’s more than a bit hammy but what can you do?
While it appears that the Doctor is ready to deliver the Key to Time directly to the White Guardian, it is the identity of the sixth segment that sticks in the Doctor’s craw. He refuses to deliver the key as the White Guardian is actually the Black Guardian in disguise. His total lack of concern over human life is a giveaway. Simply, the Doctor destroys the locator, splitting the key segments across all of creation.
On the run from the Black Guardian, the Doctor installs a randomizer that makes it impossible to guess where they are headed next.
Directed by Michael Hayes (Androids of Tara, City of Death), The Armageddon Factor was the finale to a season of interconnected adventures and as such had a lot riding on it. A season of fantastical stories, this installment raised the bar of drama and tension while keeping the fantastical nature of the previous adventures. It introduced a near story book villain with the Shadow, a creature who lurked in a secret base pulling the threads of a galactic war spanning two planets. The story creaks at times (it IS a six parter and suffers from all that ails such stories), but all in all is a cracker of a tale.
It has only taken me several years to finally finish my review of the Key to Time but I hope at least a few readers have hung on to see the finish.