There’s only one more segment of the Key to Time for the Doctor, Romana, and K-9 to find. The tracer leads them to the planet Atrios, which is in the midst of a devastating war with neighboring planet Zeos. Despite heavy casualties, the Atrian Marshall believes victory is close at hand. However, Princess Astra, sole survivor of Atrios’s ancient royal family, wants peace with Zeos and for the bloodshed to cease. But her attempts to communicate with Zeos go unheeded. When the TARDIS crew arrive, they are, of course, suspected of being Zeon spies. It doesn’t help that Princess Astra is abducted around the time of their arrival. The Doctor becomes convinced that Astra is the key to finding the sixth segment, so it is critical they find her. But all is not as it seems. Danger is close at hand for the Doctor and his friends as dark forces lurk behind the scenes. Someone will stop at nothing, even to the point of using those closest to the Doctor, to get the Key to Time…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
The final story in the “Key to Time” arc was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a writing team whose previous efforts (“The Mutants,” “The Three Doctors,” and “The Hand of Fear” to name three) demonstrate they know how to do the job. While their Who stories are not always the best, most are good, and I think “Armageddon” is one of these better ones. They manage to keep “padding” down to a minimum (which is always a challenge for a six-parter) by making sure all the various story elements contribute to the plot, and they keep a good pace, with plenty of drama and humor in the script to maintain interest.
Episode one starts with what appears to be a scene from a soap opera, or some kind of propaganda film that extols the virtue of sacrifice for the sake of victory. The fact we see this on the television screens in the ruins of the hospital, filled with the wounded and dying, helps orient us to the situation on Atrios. The power-hungry Marshal will bleed the planet dry to win, but Princess Astra sees only death and destruction, and wants an end of it.
Slowly we peel back the layers of what’s going on. Astra’s messages to Zeos don’t ever seem to get through. Not even a bounce-back. The Marshal’s strange conversations with a mirror, and the little black cube on his neck. The way the tracer, the stick used by the Doctor and Romana to find the segments of the Key to Time, is drawn to Princess Astra, as if she is somehow connected to it. Then there’s the “Shadow,” who introduces himself as the Doctor’s adversary. Like the Doctor, he has been sent by a Guardian on a special quest. But as his name suggests, the Guardian he works for is not White, like the Doctor’s. This is all good use of the six parts, allowing the story time to unfold.
When the Doctor finally seems to figure out where the sixth segment is, one might wonder why he doesn’t simply retrieve it and leave. The way Baker and Martin have woven the plot makes it impossible for the Doctor to leave without dealing with the Marshal and the Shadow. The Marshal pilots a ship to launch a missile attack on Zeos. This will trigger the computer on Zeos to self-destruct, taking Zeos, Atrios, and anything else in its vicinity with it. And even if the Doctor manages to stop the computer, the missile strike will ultimately have much the same effect. The Doctor uses the Key to Time, with a fake sixth segment, to hold off the Marshal’s attack, but because it is impure, it will only hold him off for a limited time. By the time the Doctor is sure of the location of the sixth segment, there’s no time to replace the fake one with the real one. For a Who story to work, the writer needs to find a compelling reason for the Doctor to stick around and not just get back in the TARDIS and leave. Baker and Martin do a good job of that here.
With regard to that sixth segment, it appears as if the Doctor understood the secret early on. But later, he still seems uncertain. Perhaps the look of surprise when the Shadow tells him he’s been looking at the sixth segment all along was feigned, though I’m not sure. Romana certainly seems in the dark, though she notices the way the tracer reacts to things Princess Astra has worn. It’s only at the very end she cottons on. Maybe they both didn’t want to believe it, given what it would mean…?
This story introduces a new Time Lord: Drax, who was in the “Class of ’93” with the Doctor (or “Theta Sigma” as he calls him). Unlike the Doctor, Drax failed his exams in the Academy, and ended up traveling the universe as a repair man. He built the computer on Zeos for the Shadow, but was then imprisoned. Throwing Drax into the story in episode five could be seen as “filler,” but he does play an important part in helping the Doctor defeat the Shadow. He’s an interesting character, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing show up in the New Series.
The conclusion to the story, and the “Key to Time” arc is both understandable and unsatisfying. The Doctor sums up the dilemma well in his creepy “there is no more free will” speech that his gives to Romana with eyes rolled back. “I can do anything I want because I have the Key to Time!” he tells her. And he’s right: no-one should have that kind of power. It’s just a shame it took all this time and traveling to figure it out. If it wasn’t for the fact that many of the stories have been enjoyable, and the Doctor and Romana have been a pleasure to watch, one might be forgiven for calling the whole escapade a waste of time.
To sum up, this is a good story, and worth the Whovian’s attention. Possibly the saddest part is the fact it’s Mary Tamm’s last as Romana. Of the two Romanas, she’s my favorite. I like the fact we see her grow from arrogant academic to being a student again, and Mary does such a good job of showing that growth. In the hands of the right script writer, she could have developed her character further for another season or two. But that wasn’t to be.