Doctor Who
The Key to Time

Starring: Tom Baker
RRP: 69.99
Certificate: PG
Available 24 September 2007

In 1978, the 16th season of Doctor Who tried something entirely new for the show. All six stories were to be part of one larger story, the Doctor's quest for the all-powerful Key to Time. A novel idea then, if familiar now, it showcases Who at its best - and sometimes worst...

Previously only available as a Region 1 boxed set released in the US in 2002, this is the long-awaited UK edition of the entire Key To Time season from 1978.

Thankfully, all of the worthwhile special features from the original US version have survived intact on this new re-mastered release, along with a frankly staggering amount of brand new material which makes this collection a strong contender for the most exhaustive, feature-packed Doctor Who DVD release ever.

The search for the six segments of the Key To Time spanned the whole run of 26 episodes from Doctor Who’s sixteenth season, and this idea of a linking theme was a bold new concept for the show.

In all honesty though, the story-arc can be fairly described as ‘loose’. With the exception of the first and last stories, the ongoing quest is rarely at the heart of the drama, and just about all of the six adventures can be enjoyed in their own right. Indeed, a casual viewer at the time could have been forgiven for not even realising that a linking plot was running throughout the season.

It’s clear that ‘fun’ was high on the agenda in 1978. The dark horror thrills of the Hinchcliffe years were now just a distant memory, as Graham Williams carved out a more light-hearted approach which continued to attract a huge audience, although fan opinion was becoming divided.

By now, the tense, brooding Fourth Doctor of old had fully developed into a larger-than-life extension of Tom Baker himself, as the Doctor happily blunders his way through joyous adventure, with his trademark grin dominating every scene. It can be mesmerising to watch, even if the portrayal occasionally crosses dangerous territory into The Tom Baker Comedy Show. It’s certainly a far cry from the gloomy traveller of a couple of years earlier who had solemnly announced that he “walked through eternity.”

The Doctor is given a new companion to assist him on his special mission, in the form of Mary Tamm as Time Lady Romana, a rare example of an intellectual equal for the Doctor, a concept which is generally considered not to work very well in the show (on the grounds that they don’t ask “But what’s happening, Doctor?” quite enough).

It’s an interesting new breed of assistant, and Tamm plays the role with a cool, icy elegance, although she often comes across as slightly detached, and there sometimes seems to be a lack of chemistry between the two leads. It has to be said that the relationship would only really crackle into life the following year, when Mary Tamm would regenerate into Lalla Ward, and a dream partnership would be born.

Special mention must go to K9, the third member of this year’s TARDIS crew, who gets plenty of action throughout The Key To Time, and rarely gets left behind in the TARDIS. It’s a bit of a shame that his voice has lost the terrific modulation effect of his earlier episodes and occasionally sounds a bit thin and reedy, but even so, The Key To Time could well be K9’s finest hour.

The story begins with The Ribos Operation, and it’s an unusual season-opener to say the least. After a brief introduction with The White Guardian, who informs the Doctor of his vital mission to locate the six segments of The Key To Time, we are then thrown into a very small-scale affair on the planet Ribos, revolving around dodgy deals, thefts and deception.

Writer Robert Holmes is famous for his wonderfully crafted characters, and here we are treated to another great double-act in the shape of Garron and Unstoffe, the galactic con-man and his apprentice, out on their “last scam” to sell the entire planet.

There’s some sparkling comic dialogue, the whole story is imbued with typical Holmes wit, and the end result almost resembles an old-style ‘caper movie’ with the viewer wondering who exactly will finish up with the plundered loot.

It’s actually a cracking story in it’s own right, but with little in the way of thrills and scares, it’s a strangely low-key opening to this supposedly epic quest.

The search for the second segment takes the TARDIS crew to The Pirate Planet, a typically oddball story from the pen of Douglas Adams.

The premise of the story is so utterly ludicrous that you wonder how on Earth it ever got commissioned in the first place (a half-cybernetic Pirate Captain and his robot parrot preside over a hollow space-hopping planet that materialises around other planets and feeds off them) and you do wonder if Adams was just completely taking the p*ss when he wrote this.

And yet, much of it is hugely enjoyable. Bruce Purchase as the Captain does border on the annoying, as he barks and yells his way through every single one of his lines, but there is something strangely compelling about his performance, and the lethal robot parrot is a nice touch.

As you might expect from Douglas Adams, The Pirate Planet is steeped in wildly imaginative SF ideas, and the gradually unfolding revelations are well paced and often cleverly executed, with some lovely comic moments between the Doctor, Romana and K9.

It’s a shame then, that the story is prone to losing itself in incoherent technobabble. The whole thing is close to being brilliant, but disappears up it’s own backside just a few too many times.

Next up is the 100th Doctor Who story to be produced, The Stones of Blood, and the search for the third segment takes the TARDIS to Earth for the only time this season.

Initially, the story seems to hark back to the Hinchcliffe era, as the Doctor begins to unravel dark mysteries surrounding a circle of standing stones on the moors which don’t seem to stand still for very long. The opening two episodes tick all the boxes that made classic Hinchcliffe stories so memorable - a strange old mansion, a sinister cult, ritual sacrificing, druids, ravens, all wrapped up in a deliciously gothic coating. It’s promising stuff, and possibly the last time ever that the show would reference the Hammer Horror genre quite so blatantly.

Halfway through the story, the action suddenly veers off course into hyperspace and the whole thing goes totally bonkers. The initial atmospheric set-up evaporates into a bizarre courtroom farce in space, as Tom Baker dons a comedy Barristers wig and spends an entire episode defending himself against a couple of flashing lights with silly voices. How much you enjoy it probably depends on how much you’ve had to drink before viewing, but you do find yourself wondering where exactly the plot went.

The Androids of Tara is thankfully much more coherent, a pseudo-medieval adventure with electric swords, laser-firing crossbows, android duplicates and a rivalry for the throne.

It’s basically The Prisoner of Zenda in space, and doesn’t stand up well to too much scrutiny, but it’s very elegantly done. It’s actually a fine example of when the Graham Williams era struck exactly the right balance between gripping adventure and light-hearted fun, without descending into madcap chaos.

The twists and turns with the android duplicates do begin to stretch credibility to breaking point after a while, but it remains a hugely enjoyable swashbuckling tale, and it’s lovely to see K9 get a starring slice of the action.

The penultimate story is the real clunker of the season. The Power Of Kroll was hyped at the time as featuring “the biggest monster ever to feature in Doctor Who.”

The resulting giant blobby squid was met with hoots of derision, and is known notorious in fandom as one of the show’s biggest design disasters.

In all honesty, I don’t think it was all that bad, and I have even been known to comment in hushed whisper that in some shots it actually looks quite effective (Nurse! Fetch me my pills!)

For me, the problem with The Power of Kroll is that it’s dull beyond belief, which is the most cardinal sin that Doctor Who could ever commit. A surprisingly lifeless plot from Robert Holmes brings together a bunch of bored colonists with a bunch of primitive green natives, none of whom are doing anything particularly interesting, and you actually find yourself cheering when the giant squid rises from the sea to attack the cast with it’s rubber tentacles.

Moving swiftly onwards then to The Armageddon Factor, the grand climax to the quest for the Key To Time. This six-part story has garnered something of a bad reputation amongst fandom which I find baffling, as I find it to be a terrific yarn, and my personal favourite of the whole season.

John Woodvine delivers a thrilling performance as The Marshal, a man desperate to gain the upper hand in a nuclear war where nothing is quite as it seems. The opening episodes have a claustrophobic, almost brutal quality, quite unlike anything else in the Williams era, before eventually blossoming out into a full-scale interplanetary epic, which feels like a welcome throwback to the thumping good space adventures of the 60’s.

The Shadow, a genuinely chilling adversary on a rival quest for The Key To Time, is played to perfection by William Squire and adds an eerie menace to this delicious slice of retro heaven.

It’s possibly a little overlong, and the climax to The Key To Time quest is controversial to say the least, but I still regard The Armageddon Factor as a thoroughly rewarding gem in the Key To Time crown.

Onto the special features then, and the sheer amount crammed into this package is positively jaw-dropping.

The original audio commentaries from the Region 1 version are retained here, along with a host of brand new ones, so fans can now happily get rid of their old US editions on eBay without fear of losing anything.

It’s great to hear Tom Baker participate on each and every one of the stories, and also unusual to see that Mary Tamm now sometimes appears on two different commentaries for the same story.

There are a treasure trove of newly commissioned documentaries and featurettes to accompany each adventure, with the notable exception of The Power Of Kroll - possibly because half the cast and crew are now dead, and the other half don’t have a good word to say about it.

Never mind though, to make up for this, there are very nearly eight hours worth of other stuff, ranging from a 60-minute overview of the entire Graham Williams era, to a short documentary on ancient stone circles presented by none other than Mary Tamm.

Throughout the dazzling wealth of features, brand new interviews are mixed with uncovered archive material, including footage of a Graham Williams interview from a 1985 convention, and an old audio recording of a conversation with Douglas Adams.

The sheer scale of all that is on offer here is breathtaking. Some of the highlights include a Kevin Davies documentary on The Pirate Planet, a look back at the influence of the Hammer films on Who, a welcome profile and interview with the brilliant character actor Philip Madoc, a new spoof 70’s science show which examines the science of The Key To Time, lengthy excerpts from Blue Peter, Pebble Mill at One, and a completely priceless clip from Nationwide in which a bemused Tom Baker battles with inane questions from Frank Bough.

There’s even five complete editions of the obscure Late Night Stories series from 1978 (a sort of Jackanory for adults) in which Tom Baker reads short stories from the likes of Nigel Kneale and Ray Bradbury, including one which was never actually transmitted.

I could go on and on but I think that Review Graveyard would have to apply for more bandwidth. Suffice to say, that this is not just a definitive package, it’s one of the most exhaustive and feature-packed DVD collections I have ever come across, made all the more remarkable by the incredible levels of dedication and care that has gone into producing each and every one of the features.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag ranging from the terrible to the brilliant, but this has still got to be an essential purchase for any Doctor Who fan.

Danny Salter

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