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The Armageddon Factor

Reviewed by Alistair Hughes

As Season Sixteen's final story, The Armageddon Factor had more obligation to deliver a 'grand finale' than perhaps any Doctor Who serial before. For twenty weeks viewers had faithfully followed the 'dynamic trio' (the Doctor, Romana and K9), in their on-going mission to recover the segments of the Key to Time, a task which, naturally, is of the utmost importance to the entire universe. The Armageddon Factor, therefore, had the unenviable task of supplying a suitably climactic 'wrapping-up' to not only its own six episodes, but the entire season's twenty-six! A tall order indeed, so did Season Sixteen end with a big enough bang to reward fans for their faithful vigil? Perhaps the best answer to this question is 'yes and no'.

Journey's End

The Armageddon Factor is a story which at times seems to be three two-parters rather than a six episode story, or indeed a four parter with two stuck onto the end, as Robert Holmes and others claimed was the best formula for these stories. The first two episodes are very doom-laden, opening in a war hospital complete with groaning casualties. As Romana so rightly observes, optimism has 'opted out'. Parts Three and Four concern the Marshall's attempted attack on Zeos, and lighten-up considerably with lots of traditional corridor chasing and transmatting. Interesting ideas such as Mentalis: 'the ultimate War General' (no glory speeches, no blood), and the time-loop are introduced. The final two episodes feature the Doctor's attempts to rescue Romana and Astra from the Shadow. Drax is introduced, as is the Black Guardian, at the story's conclusion. The fact that The Armageddon Factor is completely studio-bound (Graham Williams' 'spend all your money before the end of the season' policy is once again apparent), is probably a good thing in this case, as it gives the story a badly-needed visual consistency. When regarded as a Space Opera, this serial shows the influences of its time, the climactic explosion of the villain's space station and the masked, heavy breathing Mutes recall Star Wars (even the cockpit of the Marshall's command (escape) module is distinctly Millennium Falcon-esque), while K9's computerised conversation with Mentalis is a little reminiscent of the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

References to Greek mythology are also apparent, with the besieged city of Troy becoming the planet Atrios, Astra standing in for Helen of Troy, and K9 becoming the wooden horse. (Or 'little tin dog' as Drax would have it).

It is interesting to note that the subject of the TARDIS's indestructibility once again comes into question, as the Atrian rocket in Part One appears to pose a real threat. And yet, five episodes later, even the omnipotent Black Guardian cannot breach the TARDIS defenses. What do those Atrians put into their warheads? While on the subject of indestructibility, we later see that not only is the Doctor heat-proof when he rescues K9 from a nuclear furnace, but so are his clothes (presumably he uses the same gent's outfitters as Superman).

Another point to note is that if the Doctor had let Astra touch the Tracer in Part Four, as she was about to do, he could have had the complete Key to Time two episodes early!

The Adventures of K9 and another Mechanical Creature

Interestingly, this story can also be seen as an adventure within an adventure for K9, (perhaps not too surprisingly, as he is the creation of the stories writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin). In one respect this could be seen as over-use, in another it is perhaps simply utilising the character of K9 to his fullest extent.

After a very close call with a nuclear missile and the scrap metal furnace, K9 travels to Zeos where he meets a fellow AI; Mentalis. Their rapport excludes everyone else and the metal dog appears to display a hitherto unsuspected disdain for organic life (or our conversational abilities, anyway). He later travels to the 'Planet of Evil' and falls under the Shadow's influence, almost betraying the Doctor before redeeming himself by literally bursting in on the Shadow with a miniaturised Doctor and Drax on board, enabling the timely recovery of the Key. In this scene we discover that K9 cannot act as his dreadful delivery of the line 'The Doctor and Drax have been eliminated', complete with preliminary throat-clearing, amply demonstrates.

Perhaps the universe should be grateful to K9, as he did after all play a crucial role in the recovery of five of the segments of the Key to Time (Delta Magna didn't hold a great enough 'traction' for him).

The Armageddon Factor was essentially designed as a conclusion, paralleling Princess Astra as the sixth segment to complete the whole. The Key is assembled then promptly scattered again, which unfortunately generates a feeling of anti-climax. However, the reason for the scattering is perhaps the most intriguing concept in the entire season. Astra literally is the sixth segment of the Key to Time. For the Key to remain intact Astra would have to become a part of it forever. Can any power, no matter how high, condemn a living person to an eternity of imprisonment? It is obviously what the Black Guardian had in mind, but fortunately for Astra, the Doctor and Romana disagree.

Shady Characters

This story, lacking in most areas is, however, well-served with some truly delightful and well-drawn characters. The roles were certainly good enough to attract such actors as John Woodvine and Valentine Dyall.

Three such characters in particular, make a memorable impression. The Marshal is a perfect study in self-destructive militarism, completely unable to see the use of the Doctor's 'ultimate deterrent' force field unless he can still strike at his enemies, and taking the ironic observation that he has the 'true military mind' as a sincere compliment. As the ultimate soldier it is perhaps only fitting that he is revealed to be the pawn of the ultimate politician ('Shadow Leader of the Opposition'?) There is obviously much scope for going 'over the top' with a role such as this, witness the 'Churchill' impersonation in Part One, but Woodvine plays the Marshal with a relative restraint which somehow conveys the real danger of the character.

The Shadow is another juicy role embellished with a restrained performance, this time from William Squire. The Shadow almost comes across as being more than a match for the Doctor, aware all along of the identity of the sixth segment, and patiently waiting for the Doctor to bring the other five to him.

When the Shadow's first attempt to take the other segments from the Doctor ends in stalemate, his words 'Leave him, he will make his own mistake, and then, Doctor, I shall be waiting...' ring ominously true. He succeeds in literally possessing stalwart K9, killing Romana (if we are to assume that her subsequent regeneration is a result of the Shadow's torture) and does for a brief time hold the entire Key to Time in his emaciated grasp. Surely a worthy opponent for the Doctor.

Finally, amidst all this gloom, we have Drax, a working-class cockney Time Lord. Dealing very shiftily in repair and maintenance, he is an 'ex-guest' of Brixton Prison, the builder of Mentalis, and brightens every scene he appears in, thanks to Barry Jackson's well-timed performance.

His remark when meeting K9, 'Oo's a little tin dog, then...?', is priceless. The character of Drax also provides the essential 'narrative dog-leg' for the final two episodes, giving the story a boost.

On the down-side of characterisation, we have Astra. Lalla Ward's very forgettable performance does make her eventual casting as Romana seem a little mystifying; perhaps the 'aggrievous Mr Baker' had a lot to do with this decision. However, time showed her to be an excellent Romana, so perhaps the blame for insipid Astra lies elsewhere. She does serve to highlight Mary Tamm's Romana, however, who is in fine form in her final appearance, giving the Doctor a severe tongue-lashing in the final scene (who else could call him 'capricious, arrogant and self-opinionated' in a single sentence?) The only indication of the torture which she suffers at the Shadow's hands being slightly messed hair, and this somehow seems very much in-character.

Tom Baker gives his usual post-Season Fourteen performance, at one point grabbing K9's muzzle to quieten him, exactly as Mr Derek used to do to Basil Brush all those years ago.

'Boom! Finito...'

Effects-wise this story does at least attempt to offer everything: a swooping, rocket-firing space ship, a laser-gun fight, shrinking people, transmatting mutes, multiple Romanas, and a spectacular explosion in space. Some of these images are pulled-off better than others. The dream-like dispersal of the Key is a surprisingly effective and elegant sequence, particularly considering that it was literally achieved with a mirror and bits of string! The fiery destruction of the Shadow's lair is also very impressive and the movement of the camera following the deflected missiles ascent adds an extra dimension of scale to this spectacular scene.

'Well, that's that, then...'

As the six-part climax to the six story Season Sixteen, in which our heroes recover the sixth segment of the six-sided Key to Time, only to discover that it is actually the sixth Princess of the sixth dynasty of the sixth royal house of Atrios, what does The Armageddon Factor actually deliver? Initial impressions are of entertaining characters and interesting visuals, but looking beyond that, all that tends to be found is a lot of running around which is difficult to recall in any sequence. Interesting concepts such as Astra's 'destiny', Mentalis and the time-loop are worthy of note, but The Armageddon Factor is perhaps best described as a mediocre story supported by an important premise, with mainly the acting contributions of Messrs Woodvine, Squire and Jackson making it worth remembering.

This item appeared in TSV 45 (September 1995).

Index nodes: The Armageddon Factor