As we are done with the Spider-Man rewatch, let’s delve back into Classic Who with Season 16, which is more commonly known as “The Key to Time”.
With his first season under his belt, it was high time for show runner Graham Williams to be able to get a better grip on the show, and to try to put more of a mark on “Doctor Who”, and so he did.
Season 16 of Classic “Doctor Who” ran from 1978 to 1979, under the supervision of producer Graham Williams, alongside script editor Anthony Read, and later on, Douglas Adams. This was Williams’ second full season as producer, and finally, he was able to get the right balance and the right tone that defines his era- adventure stories with a lot of humor in it, and the combined powers of the TARDIS team that was the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), Romana I (Mary Tamm), and K-9 (John Leeson).
This season also saw Williams trying to experiment with form, as he decided to try having a season long story arc that connects all of the serials within the season together. To be honest, it was a good attempt, but not perfect. This, however, was brought back again by Russell T. Davies when he brought back the show to the small screen in 2005.
So, Season 16 saw the Doctor, Romana I and K-9 going on adventures while looking for the pieces of a powerful artifact called the Key to Time after a powerful entity called the White Guardian gives them this particular task.
This series had six serials and twenty-eight episodes all in all. It also featured the two last stories that Robert Holmes would write for “Doctor Who” (“The Ribos Operation” and “The Power of Kroll”), the very first episode that Douglas Adams ever wrote for the show (“The Pirate Planet”), and it also featured the very first episode in which Adams was the script editor for (“The Armageddon Factor”).
I did like the fact that they tried doing a season long arc to connect all the serials together, and I did really enjoy this particular TARDIS team. Mary Tamm was gorgeous and stunning as Romana I, and often played the straight man to Baker’s Doctor, while K-9 also did the same most of the time. It is also very noticeable that Baker’s attitude towards the character of K-9 changed drastically from how he treated K-9 this season, although he would still tell K-9 to “shut up” at times.
I also enjoyed most of the serials in this season, but felt that the season long arc, wasn’t really executed as well as it is executed today.
I think my particular favorites from this season were “The Ribos Operation” and “The Androids of Tara”.
Before we delve into spoilers, you know the drill……
Robert Holmes definitely had his work cut out for him in the first serial of the season, “The Ribos Operation”, as it had to introduce a new companion in the form of Romana I (Mary Tamm), a much younger Time Lady, and had to set up the entire premise of the season- the Doctor and Romana receiving a mission from the White Guardian (Cyril Lukcham) to collect the six segments of a powerful artifact called The Key to Time. He definitely succeeded at this, while providing us with a great romp involving a pair of con artists, and a tyrannical fallen despot. Of course, aside from the talents of Baker, Tamm and Leeson, Holmes’s script was helped out by the direction of George Spenton-Foster, and script editor Anthony Read.
As I mentioned earlier, this is one of my favorite serials in this season, because aside from the con-man romp that was happening, I loved the fact that this serial managed to get me emotionally invested in two secondary characters who had emotional and heart-warming scenes with each other, and they had less than twenty minutes of screen time together.
“The Pirate Planet” was Douglas Adams’ first ever “Doctor Who” script. This was directed by Pennant Roberts and the script editor was Anthony Read.
Douglas had a a lot of interesting concepts for this serial, such as a planet that literally swallows and mines planets and that there are people living on that particular “pirate planet” who are sensitive enough to feel the dying life forces of the planets. It tackled themes such as a fallen ruler wanting to be young and whole again, capitalism, and the dangers of a society becoming too complacent that they forgot how to think out of the box. Add to that the usual Adams sense of humor, strong performances from Tamm and Leeson, and a great performance from Baker, and you have all the makings of a classic.
However, Adams, good though he is, was still pretty raw, and sometimes, some of his vision and concepts, I think, weren’t fully understood by the director. Add to that the fact that they were operating on a tight budget, and you get a serial that is great at times, but at some times felt a little bit too comical.
I did love Baker’s performance here though, as he ran the full gamut, from talking his way to escape, being clever enough to trick the Pirate Captain and figure out what is really going on, to being emotional and indignant at the Pirate Captain and Queen Xanxia (Rosalind Lloyd) for what they are doing. I also loved that scene in which K-9 goes after and defeats a mechanical bird that shoots death rays at people.
David Fisher’s “The Stones of Blood” was quite different in tone, and could have easily been part of the Hinchcliffe era. Just think of it- it had foggy moors and a cult of druids who performed blood sacrifices in a ring stones that have been there for around 4,000 years.
I was surprised to discover that the pacing of this serial wasn’t slow at all, so all props goes to director Darrol Blake and script editor Read. Also, aside from it being a gothic mystery story, it was also a courtroom drama in space that only Baker could have pulled off.
Baker was in his element here firing off witticisms here and there, and his dialogue with K-9 just sparkled, especially when he was trying to insist that K-9 wanted to be a bloodhound and with K-9 telling him off in the most sassy way a robot dog can do.
The aliens themselves were also surprisingly interesting, and that’s saying something as the Ogri were basically giant stones that moved around on wheels and had a pulsating light inside of them.
“The Androids of Tara”, which was written by David Fisher, directed by Michael Hayes and script edited by Read, is also one of my favorite serials of this season.
A direct homage to “The Prisoner of Zenda”, this was a swashbuckling adventure that also allowed Tamm to stretch out her acting legs a little bit by also portraying a princess that looked exactly like her, as well as portraying an android duplicate of herself.
I love fantasy adventures, so this one was definitely right up my alley. This, I think, pulled off the political intrigue better than the “Masque of Mandragora”, and was definitely more fast paced than it.
“The Power of Kroll” was Holmes’ last story for “Doctor Who”, and it was also co-produced by future “Doctor Who” producer John Nathan-Turner. It was also directed by Norman Stewart.
This tackled heavy themes such as following religion blindly, capitalism and racism all in one blow. This was also the episode that Holmes had to write with the caveat that he had to write a huge monster in the from a gigantic squid called Kroll, which actually had decent enough special effects aside from that horrible split screen effect that was done at the beginning of the third episode.
However, unlike the previous episodes, at least this time around, the Key itself was crucial to them as Kroll had the key inside of him.
“The Armageddon Factor” was co-script edited by Adams, was directed by Michael Hayes and was written by long time “Doctor Who” writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin.
To be honest, I wasn’t really a fan of this serial as I felt that a certain point, the story dragged out too long for my taste. However, this story did feature Lalla Ward (the future Romana II) as Princess Astra, who ended up turning out to be the last piece of the Key, which allowed Romana to question the ethics of whether what they were doing was right based on that situation.
However, the Doctor, clever as he is, was able to use this to his advantage, and used it to figure out that the Guardian they were working for was really the Black Guardian, and decides to scatter the pieces again, which allowed Astra to be reunited with her lover, Surgeon Merak (Ian Saynor), pining after the princess.
My annoyance with this serial, aside from Merak, and it being too long for my taste, is the fact that the ending made the search for the Key To Time pretty pointless.
I liked the way they used it to connect the episodes, although I would have preferred that the segments would be crucial to their adventure, such as in “The Power of Kroll”, and “The Armageddon Factor”, and that there would have been a better build up and a better conclusion to it.
Acting wise, Baker was on fire in this season, to the point that he began to enjoy himself a little too much. Baker’s Fourth Doctor was no longer the Doctor from Season 13 and 14 who was pleasantly surprised whenever his plans worked out. He was now a more confident Doctor who had no qualms about talking down his enemies if need be. Both this season and Season 17 saw Baker truly at the height of his powers.
Tamm did well as Romana, a character I really like as she can bring the Doctor down a peg or two because she is academically smarter than he is. I feel that Tamm could have given more to the role, but the writers and the directors didn’t really consistently write her well. I also didn’t like how her exit was handled, with her regenerating with no explanation whatsoever off screen. Despite this, and having watched Ward’s Romana II, Romana I is still my favorite incarnation of this character.
Leeson was also on point this entire season, whether he’s being sassy to the Doctor, figuring things out, to him becoming weak because his power is running out or he’s almost burnt up in a recycler.
All in all, “The Key to Time” arc is a fun ride, especially after watching Season 15, which was definitely tough to go through, especially as Williams has finally found the right tone for his vision of the show, and is aided by both Anthony Read and Douglas Adams as script editors.
Did you enjoy “The Key To Time” arc? What were your favorite and least favorite moments and serials of the season? How did you like Mary Tamm’s Romana? Let me know what you think in the comments below!