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The Androids of Tara

Reviewed by Graham Howard

After the rigours of obtaining the first three segments of the Key to Time the Doctor believes he and Romana deserve 'a bit of a break'. The tranquil environment of Tara would seem to be ideal for this purpose, and so Romana - who is anxious not to delay the search for the remaining segments - is given the task of obtaining the fourth segment, while the Doctor engages in a spot of fishing. Somewhat miffed at the Doctor's lax attitude, Romana declares she will find the segment and return to the TARDIS in the space of only one hour. I can still remember, at the time of the original screening, being surprised when several minutes into the first episode the fourth segment is uncovered and collected. Of course, the flexibility of the Key to Time theme means individual writers need not make the search for the Key a significant part of their story, as The Androids of Tara ably demonstrates. Even though the search for the segment does not play any further role in the story (and the need to reclaim the segment is very incidental to the plot), it is my opinion that the events making up the remainder of the story form the highlight of the Sixteenth Season.

Aural and Visual

Part of the appeal of The Androids of Tara is visual: the idyllic rural location of Leeds Castle in Kent, doubling for Tara, gives the impression of a country unspoiled by progress, while it also enhances the fairy-tale allusions inherent in the story. The colourful costumes add a certain period style suggestive of, I would guess, 18-19th century Europe, although the apparent lack of industrialisation and the prevalence of knights and castles, along with a society which is essentially feudal in nature, gives the story a definite medieval flavour. In stark contrast to the historical-type setting is the presence of an advanced technology in the shape of electrified swords, lasers, brain scanning equipment and, of course, androids. (In a way, such items could be seen as replacing the use of magic and sorcery, common in fairy tales.) All of this is superbly complemented by Dudley Simpson's evocative incidental music. It is difficult to imagine that the often sterile sounding synthesizer music of post-Seventeenth Season Who would have come close to capturing the mood of the story in the way that Simpson is able to do. The only real visual let-down is the beast which stalks Romana in episode one. However, its appearance is brief, and its role in the story trivial.

Peasants and Nobles

Taran society is a prominent feature of The Androids of Tara. While Tara appears to be more technologically advanced than us (at least in select areas), in most other ways their society is firmly rooted in the past. This is most evident in Tara's social structure. There are two 'classes' on Tara: a monarch and a small coterie of nobles and their entourage - the ruling class - and a larger population of peasants - the working class. There are a number of disparaging comments scattered throughout the story indicating that in social terms there is a sizable gulf between the two, e.g. Zadek: 'If we had been meant to have been peasants, we would have been born peasants'. Of note, it is the peasants who have all of the technical know-how; the nobility are ignorant of such matters. The depiction of an advanced technology within a primitive culture is different from other Doctor Who stories, such as State of Decay and The Face of Evil, in the sense that the situation on Tara has developed naturally, without the interference of an outside force.

The Tara we glimpse is conceivably little more than a privileged enclave (we do not really see anything of Tara away from the royal intrigues) within a more mundane Taran society, yet the general impression is that what we see of Tara is intended to be representative of the society as a whole. The composition of Taran society and its contrasting technological evolution is an important backdrop to the story as it provides the framework through which the plot operates. Furthermore, the blending of an advanced technology with a society structured like some pre-industrial feudal monarchy tinges Tara with a quaintness, which I believe is a contributing factor in explaining The Androids of Tara's unique charm.

Androids

At the pinnacle of Tara's technological achievements, and the most strikingly incongruous, are the androids. In my review of The Android Invasion I noted that the inclusion of androids provides an opportunity to allow duplicates of central characters to impersonate their look-a-likes, with suspense being derived from the sinister nature of the androids' impersonations. In some ways the presence of realistic humanoid androids makes the use of impersonation in a Doctor Who plot almost obligatory, and The Androids of Tara is no exception. However, there is little that is sinister about Taran androids, probably because they are not inherently hostile, and their programming seems more basic than those of The Android Invasion. In addition they are a lot more fragile, more prone to breaking down and don't appear to think for themselves. I don't imagine that the Doctor would have given any of the androids in The Android Invasion a semi-affectionate nickname, as he did the android duplicate of Prince Reynart in this story!

The impersonation aspect of this story is given a novel twist through the inclusion of two 'real' characters that happen to look identical, i.e. Romana and Princess Strella. In the course of the story Romana impersonates Princess Strella, while androids impersonate both Romana and the Princess! The use of doubles on such a scale must have caused some headaches for the director and the actors and actresses concerned. Yet Mary Tamm handles her multiple role with a deft surety, ensuring that at no time do we doubt that she is indeed Romana, or the Princess Strella, or the android copy of Romana/Princess Strella. Likewise, Neville Jason manages to make his android prince/king ('George') to be a believable separate entity.

The Cast

Director Michael Hayes assembles a fine cast for The Androids of Tara, and all the major players turn in notable performances. Indeed, characterisation is one of the story's greatest strengths.

Grendel
[Count Grendel] The dastardly Count Grendel of Gracht, played with consummate skill by Peter Jeffrey, stands out as a character that, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have gone terribly wrong. Play it too 'over-the-top' and the character risks losing credibility with the viewing audience, and undermining the dramatic impact derived from the character's role as the plot's villain. Play the part too straight and the story would take on an altogether darker tone, which I believe would have spoiled the overall atmosphere. Fortunately Peter Jeffrey's interpretation of the Count is perfect, such that we never believe he is merely an actor 'hamming it up' for the camera. We appreciate the rogue, without ever forgetting the evil side to his character. At times it is difficult not to admire Grendel's audacity - his Machiavellian willingness to use whatever means at his disposal to achieve his desired ends, whether that be bare-faced lying, deceiving, kidnapping or murdering. Yet he does all this with an ersatz charm that just about has you believing he's really not such a bad fellow. In certain scenes (e.g. where Grendel confronts the Prince's men under a flag of truce) one almost bemoans the strict code of honour that prevents the Prince from resorting to Grendel's underhand methods, so as to be able to more effectively combat him. A classic quote from Count Grendel (on the deadly android duplicate of Romana created to kill the Doctor): 'You see before you the complete killing machine. As beautiful as you and as deadly as the plague. If only she were real I'd marry her!' (Romana's delightfully acidic response: 'You deserve each other.')

Lamia
Following Grendel's failure to get himself installed as king at the coronation of Prince Reynart, Count Grendel's plan was to have used an android copy of the Princess Strella to kill King Reynart, marry the Princess himself, and then shortly afterward ensure a fatal accident befalls the Princess, leaving him unopposed as king. Because nobles have little or no scientific knowledge, in order to put this plan into action Grendel needs an accomplice skilled in the creation and operation of androids. Fulfilling this need is the loyal Madame Lamia (Lois Baxter), who is clinging to the forlorn hope that one day she and the Count will be together, apparently fuelled by a 'courtesy' he once showed her. There is something almost pitiful about Lamia's attraction to a man who at one stage threatened to have her flogged if she didn't do as he ordered ('and don't imagine that I won't!'); to a man who needs her skills, but clearly has no respect for her as a person, implicitly because she is a mere peasant ('that's the trouble with peasants these days, they don't know their place'). To Lois Baxter's credit, although Lamia is portrayed as a cold, hard and perhaps bitter character, you can almost sense a warmth beneath the surface, and it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for her. The interplay between Count Grendel and Madame Lamia is an interesting aside to the main action which heightens our appreciation of the Count's sheer nastiness, while it also serves to highlight the great divide between social classes.

Prince and Swordsmen
Neville Jason admirably fills the part of Prince Reynart, and manages to maintain a regal demeanour even while languishing in Castle Gracht's dungeon. Simon Lack's stoic Zadek displays a proud loyalty, as befitting the king's Swordmaster. The impetuous Swordsman Farrah, played by Simon Lavers, completes the trio.

The Archimandrite
Doctor Who stalwart Cyril Shaps puts in an appearance as the remarkably obtuse Archimandrite, a kind of religious high-official who presides over important royal ceremonies. Although he is the one character whom, it would seem, had the power to thwart Count Grendel's scheme to become legitimate King, Shaps convincingly makes us believe that the Archimandrite could never conceive of any wrong-doing by a noble, even in the face of the most appalling treachery by Grendel.

The Doctor and Romana
In my view, the Sixteenth Season represented a peak for Graham William's three seasons as producer of Doctor Who. I guess not coincidentally, I also believe that out of Williams' three seasons (and season eighteen for that matter), Tom Baker was at his best during Season 16, with stories such as The Stones of Blood and The Androids of Tara, standing out as being particularly good vehicles for Baker's inimitable portrayal. Baker is clearly relishing his role as the Doctor at this time and with Androids we see it all: the wide-eyed innocent child, the child-like petulance, the irreverent eccentric, and - not forgetting - the brilliant scientist. Along with an irrepressible wit that only Tom Baker can get away with. Fortunately Androids is the type of story that lends itself to a fair amount of light-hearted banter, and Baker taps the humorous potential of the script to just the right extent. It therefore complements the story without detracting from the drama. ('Prince Reynart? Never heard of him! - decent sort of chap is he?') In this story we also learn that the Doctor is an expert swordsman. The sword fight between the Doctor and Grendel must rank as one of the most impressive duels in the programme's history.

Of all the Doctor's companions through the ages, I can think of none more suited to the role of Princess Strella than Mary Tamm, who makes the transition from elegant Time Lady to princess with ease. At times Tamm's Romana conveys a sense of innocence or naivety (stemming from her previously sheltered life on Gallifrey), that gives her character an air of vulnerability. The trait seems particularly appropriate considering her 'damsel in distress' role in parts of the story. This contrasts with the more confident and arrogant Romana as played by Lalla Ward (though I hasten to add I believe it would have been a mistake for a different actress to simply copy Tamm's portrayal).

Zenda

It is well known that the script for The Androids of Tara borrows heavily from Anthony Hope's novel The Prisoner of Zenda and the 1952 film of the book. The scene where, on hearing of the Prince's scheme to evade Grendel's men at the coronation, the Doctor says 'Well, it has been done before...' is most likely a wink to the audience in acknowledgement of this fact. [Incidentally, the scene in which Grendel is expecting to be offered the crown due to the non-arrival of the prince, where he says he will refuse the crown only once ('I can't be sure the Archimandrite will offer it to me twice'), is probably a send-up of the scene in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where Caesar is said to have refused the crown twice before accepting it on the third offer.]

Writer David Fisher has in effect taken a swashbuckling tale of romance, royalty, political machination and mistaken identity, and skilfully converted it into a crackingly good Doctor Who yarn, but with enough differences to make The Androids of Tara distinctive in its own right. If you stop and think about it, there are questions that could be asked about certain parts of the plot (e.g. Why didn't Grendel kill the Prince prior to the coronation when he had the chance? Why didn't Grendel's men storm the pavilion where the Doctor was holed up? Why doesn't Prince Reynart have more men? Why did Reynart become ill so suddenly?...) Yet skilful direction in conjunction with a tightly paced narrative means the viewer is carried along with the action such that you never think of these things whilst watching, and even if you did it would seem churlish to worry about them. It is tempting to wonder whether the later seasons of Doctor Who might have been more palatable to the general public if, amongst other things, they had maintained a more straight-forward approach to storytelling, as exemplified by Androids.

Atypical

The affairs of Tara are relatively light-weight, a gentle reminder that complexity is not necessarily an indicator of quality in Doctor Who, while the story itself is somewhat atypical of the usual Doctor Who-fare. There are no alien hordes; there is no Evil Since the Dawn of Time, no threat of planetary cataclysm. Of course, Doctor Who's format is sufficiently broad that a story need not include any of these things to be successful. If done well, there is no reason why, from time to time, Doctor Who should not be a little whimsical or tongue-in-cheek.

You could do worse

Although I have been rather gushing in my praise for this story, I am not suggesting that it is the greatest Doctor Who of all time, nor that no one could be immune from its virtues, as I perceive them. Nevertheless, at worst I would think Androids might be described as average or inoffensive. If you only buy one Doctor Who video release this year, in my view you could do far worse than to make that video The Androids of Tara.

This item appeared in TSV 45 (September 1995).

Index nodes: The Androids of Tara