When you come to the end of the Key to Time series, it is sadly obvious that the whole arc was far less ambitious than it had been let on in the beginning of The Ribos Operation. And while the series had it's moments, in the final analysis of the story concerning the quest, it is so thin and underdeveloped that there is actually very little material connecting the stories together. Sadly, it is a black mark on producer Graham Williams who presided over the middle three years of Tom Baker's era, as this story failed to do anything with the overall story which had been built up over the entire year's run that Doctor Who in the classic era had. The Armageddon Factor limps its way through three episodes worth of material, stretched to an excruciating six and leads into an anticlimactic finale. Running at two and half hours, it is a sign that even this Doctor Who story thought that it should have been radically shorter.
And this isn't just me expressing an opinion, The Armageddon Factor doesn't have the best reputation in Doctor Who fandom. To be perfectly blunt, this story is just dumb. And its failure to bring to a proper conclusion a story which had been featured through the entirety of the sixteenth series, drags down anything that came before it. And this calls into question that maybe the entire Key to Time saga was nothing more than a hollow, cynical and lazy idea in the first place.
But I am going to focus on the good parts first. One thing that I do like in this story, if in its concept rather than its execution, is the way the Fourth Doctor's resemblance to Groucho Marx by sticking him in a story which is basically a science-fiction version of Duck Soup. In their search of the sixth and final part of the Key to Time, the TARDIS brings the Doctor, Romana and K9 to the planet of Atrios. But Atrios is currently in the middle of a devastating nuclear war with its twin planet Zeos. The Zeons are winning but are unnervingly silent. Atrios is being lead by their leader, The Marshall. This is the first sign of how shallow the story actually its, the authors, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, don't even bother to give him a proper name. The Marshall is losing and badly. He is down to six ships to launch a devastating counter attack and he seems to have gone terrifyingly insane, spending hours consorting with a black mirror and refusing to accept any other option but violence, even when all those ships, save his own scout ship, are destroyed. Atrios's political leader, the Princess Astra, played by future Romana, Lalla Ward and Astra's boyfriend, surgeon Merak, are both willing to risk execution by trying to negotiate peace with the Zeons and bring the devastating war to its conclusion.
And it is worth noting how much Tom Baker's performance has changed here, five years after he initially took up the role in 1974. Even more so than any incarnation of the Doctor before or after, Baker's Doctor was markedly aloof and disinclined to treat his enemies with undue respect, often resorting to clowning around to show them as the vain, pompous gasbags that they were. By this point in his tenure though, his aloofness had crept into Baker's performance on a much larger scale and it isn't hard to believe that this Doctor thought himself superior to The Marshall, his enemies and to the series itself.
But looking at this story, it isn't hard to understand why. And we can let him get away with it, especially when we get to the terrible middle three episodes. In fact, this story is loaded with logical errors unexplained and sloppily explained events and cheap contrivances that masquerade as interesting plot developments. There is endless running down corridors and shameless time wasting instead of having scenes that build on each other, bringing the story to a successful conclusion. During its opening two episodes, it does look like The Armageddon Factor is going to work as a darkly comic take on an anti-war story. But it soon disintegrates into a story where the baddie shouts, "BWA HA HA. YOU FOOL.", without the tiniest shred of shame or irony.
Because of the story's unusual structure, there are three baddies here. The Marshal, played by actor, John Woodvine. But it is very quickly shown that the war between Atrios and Zeos is nothing more than a trap for the Doctor and Romana, laid by the sinister Shadow. This is a character we have been waiting for an entire series to show up, because he is the chief antagonist in the Doctor's quest for the segments of the Key. Just like the Doctor being an agent of the White Guardian, The Shadow is an agent of the Black Guardian. And that is which Guardian steps in at the last minute in a brief cameo from Valentine Dyall, who manages to ooze menace just by appearing as a face on the TARDIS scanner. Both Dyall and Woodvine make brilliant baddies, often managing to elevate the banal dialogue and making something memorable out of the terrible characters they had been given. It isn't too bad either that it is the villainous Shadow, played with enough cheese and ham by William Squire that Squire could have opened up his own sandwich shop afterwards. Basically, The Shadow is a pompous and overbearing toad, which isn't a bad quality really for a villain to have. But he is also corny, clichéd and oddly a little too passive, while he's at it. His plan is to wait for the Doctor to turn up and then just to ask him to turn the Key over. And if that doesn't work, then he will kidnap Romana and then ask for the Key again.
Of course, all of this is part and parcel of a story from Bob Baker and Dave Martin who had submitted several story's to the series before this. The only reason this story was probably chosen was because it would be cheap to produce. But to their credit, the original draft sounded a lot more interesting than what we were eventually given. Probably the biggest part of the problem for this story was that their writing partnership broke up during the rewrites for this adventure and that script editor, Anthony Read had decided that he too, would leave the series at the end of this story. So really, the resulting script could have been due to neglect rather than anything else.
Though it is still hard to guess the tone of the story. Was it a melodramatic adventure? Caustic Satire? Or a goofy comedy? I suppose it is an open question as to how much of this story was supposed to be a comedy, or even playing up to the show's more melodramatic tendencies. So often in the show's history there has been a tendancy to take things far too seriously, or not take them seriously enough. And with the exceptions of City of Death and The Ribos Operation, sadly, most of the Graham Williams era seemed to focus on the latter.
Surely we were never expected to take the Shadow's evil without a smile on our faces? And then there is Astra's boyfriend, Merak who is saddled with the role of square-jawed romantic hero, when he really isn't the right character for it. Instead of saving the day, he is a constant complication in the Doctor and Romana's plans. He literally pulls the tracer away from Romana and sets off on his own to find Astra and manages to get himself injured and in need of rescue.
There isn't one of the secondary characters who get developed beyond the most superficial of sketches. Expect to the extent that they get more annoying the more we get to know them. Merak is a wet fish but at least the discovery of the cockney Time Lord, Drax who takes the story down some unexpected twists and turns during episode five. And as irritating as he is, he pushes the story with some oomph into the final act. There is an unexpected surprise when he foolishly shrinks himself and then the Doctor to the size of half an inch but it comes a little too late to save us from boredom. It was exactly the kind of random bonkers-ness that this story needed all the way through.
However, the biggest disappointment of this story is the rather lightweight treatment of the Key to Time itself. After sitting through 26 episodes worth of buildup, we finally get to see the cosmic cube in action. Well, kind of. I really like the Doctor's idea of putting the Marshal and Zeon's robotic war-machine, Mentalis is a time loop to stop them from killing each other. But if you are looking for any further exploration of how the Key actually works, then I would look somewhere else. We are never told why the Key was built, what it is or anything beyond what he we learned in the opening story of this series. Just what exactly is it? Some cosmic artefact made up of six interlocking crystals. What is it for? To restore the cosmic balance of things. What things? We never get told, but how do they resolve the storyline. It turns out the being posing as the White Guardian is actually the Black Guardian and the Doctor just scatters the pieces throughout the galaxy once more before getting the hell out of there! One is left shouting for him to come back, there are still so many questions that need answering!
So in the end, the Doctor didn't go on a series of six adventures to find the segments of the Key, so that the cosmic balance could be restored, whatever the hell that means. He just went on six adventures which the segments of the Key happened to play a part of. Because that is what the Doctor does, he goes on adventures. Surely he would have gone on six adventures during series sixteen whether or not he had been given this 'quest'. The failure to make the story about the connecting element makes the whole thing feel rather pointless really...