Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Armageddon Factor written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin and directed by Michael Hayes

The story in a nutshell: The Key to Time has been assembled at last and the whole universe has been paused. Two worlds are at war and missiles are heading towards one planet and a bomb is waiting to demolish both. Trapped in a 3 second time loop which is bleeding to a conclusion…wow this sounds really exciting on paper!

Teeth and Curls: Another season sixteen story and Tom Baker again at his height. No I don't mean tall, I'm talking about an actor that is showing no signs of fatigue and still giving all that he can t make sure that the final product is as good as it can be. What is immediately obvious from the very first episode is how comfortable Baker and Mary Tamm are at the end of their time together, they fire dialogue at each other like automatic weapons hitting their target and make a wonderfully watchable team (‘As soon as we hand this over to the White Guardian, the better!’). The Doctor always goes into every situation thinking the best but knowing it will always be the worst. That is a pretty good way to live your life. The Doctor is at his improvisational best, telling the Marshall that he has visited a war zone for the purposes of tourism, running a profitable, educational business visiting different battle zones. Baker makes this preposterous material not only convince but make you wish it was true as well because it sounds great fun. Watch the scene where the Doctor babbles about ventriloquism and suddenly realises the Marshall is a puppet for another power, it is a fantastic example of his lunatic intelligence at it's finest thinking through a situation and coming up trumps. The Doctor’s ultimate deterrent to war is peace, which might sound like an obvious solution but not to those who have grown accustomed to such a lifestyle. There is a great visual when the Doctor bursts from the furnace shrouded in steam and holding K.9, every inch the wild eyed lunatic adventurer. There is a want of patience in his nature. What is it about the Doctor that he keeps getting people to give him a good blow? He's not all amiability and smiles though, I was grateful that somebody was cruel to Merak (who takes uselessness to a whole new level) and who better than the Doctor in a bad mood (‘Insects! With stings in their tails!’). Baker and Lalla Ward have instant, intimate chemistry. This might an instance of love at first sight. Theta Sigma was his nickname at school and he and Drax were at tech school together. Baker and Matin have been responsible for filling in more background about the Time Lords than practically anybody (Omega, their ability to time travel, the reason behind their non-interference policy) and now they are sketching in some of the Doctor's background too. The Doctor’s megalomaniac speech over the Key to Time manages to be both over the top hilarious and pretty scary. He has absolutely no sense of responsibility whatsoever; he’s capricious, arrogant, self opinionated, irrational and he never knows where they are going. And yet somehow when he is around everything seems to work out fine. A delightful year where the Doctor is involved in dazzling adventures and at the top of his game, adding much to each one. I love season sixteen and Baker is one of the reasons why. 

Marvellous Mary: Totally comfortable in the role now, it would have been very interesting to see what Mary Tamm would have given us in season seventeen. Romana is now operating the TARDIS on her own rather than the Doctor (I rather suspect he likes standing back and letting her do all the dirty work and making clever comments). She’s observant, patient and intelligent and her icy aloofness has vanished completely (which makes perfect sense for her regeneration into the warm and witty Lalla Ward). Her ‘I’ll explain to you when I’ve got about 2 weeks to spare’ is wonderfully deadpan and epitomises Roman's arrogance. I love it when Romana grips Merak’s neck (I was screaming ‘Snap it already!’ at the telly!). It's brilliant to see Romana reminding the Doctor of the living cost of all this trickery (‘We’re murderers!'), I'm pleased one of them has remembered the little people involved and at times the Doctor is so busy being brave and clever foiling the latest mad scheme he needs a little nudge. I was very impressed overall; Romana doesn’t get a great deal to do in this story (hence Mary Tamm’s departure?) but everything she does here is quite delightful. I wish Tamm could have been this naturalistic throughout season sixteen but it pleases me that we have seen some subtle development of the character under her tutelage. If you are looking for some more action with Tamm then check out her single season of adventures over at Big Finish (especially The Auntie Matter, The Justice of Jalxar and Phantoms of the Deep). They might err on the side of being traditional but it is fantastic to experience some more material with the engaging team of Baker and Tamm. Her death was another tragic blow for the Doctor Who universe but fortunately we can marvel at her adventures in this sparkling year as a reminder of her work.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You could fry eggs in the street!’
‘This blessed plot!’
‘No glory, no speeches, no medal and no blood.’
‘Imagine the amount of power needed to stop the entire universe…’
‘What’s this heap of junk?’
‘Any second now beautiful mushrooms will blossom and burst…’
‘Remember me to Gallifrey!’

The Good Stuff: Standby folks because this section might be a lot longer than you think…The Armageddon Factor comes in for an awful lot of flack and yet when I was compiling a list of my 'top comfy viewing stories' for my friend Paul the other week it made it into the top five. There is a great deal of worth in this tale, from the design to the performances to the witty script and in the direction. Sure it is made on a shoestring but it polishes up far better than other examples of Doctor Who when all the resources have bled away. The opening gives the impression that you are about watch some godawful soap with fringe lines and it turns out to be a cheat, pulling away from a screen showing a godawful soap with fringe lines to a hospital under siege full of sick patients. It's startling in its trickery. In sharp contrast to other all studio adventures in this era (Underworld, The Horns of Nimon) the cameras never stop moving in this story; pans, zooms, fades, tracks and the story feels much more visually interesting as a result. Michael Hayes may have found this story a technical challenge with the lack of funding but it never shows, he has a terrific grasp of how tightly Doctor Who needs to be shot. John Woodville really gives the situation some gravity; his grim faced seriousness is exactly what the story needs at its heart (he’s positively Shakespearean when communicating with the unknown phantom behind the wall). The Atrios sets are dirty, under lit, rubble strewn and claustrophobic. It really feels like a bomb could release the ceiling on your head at any minute. I love the darkness of the first episode; Astra being led into an irradiated zone and the Marshall shooting down her escort, it is drenched in shadows and really rather creepy. A missile heading towards the TARDIS – wow this really does feel like a season finale (The Parting of the Ways anyone?). ‘The corpse on the left however, is recent’ – who ever knew that K.9 had such a dark sense of humour. The first appearance of the Shadow is memorable (and the music is really creepy, Dudley Simpson at his best). Considering how cobbled together it is the Marshall’s bridge is a vast, impressive set. Go and watch the DVD extras to see how this was cannablised from so many desperate sources and boggle at how good it looks. For once a lack of resources on screen matches a lack of resources in the narrative (almost as though Baker/Martin knew that the kitty would be empty at this stage) and the mighty battle fleet of Atrios turning out to be six ships (that soon start winking out of existence on screen) is a disheartening fact. I love the Doctor’s idea of a psychological barrier; study the enemy so they don’t want to attack. He will always go for the bloodless option first. Something between Atrios and Zeos is absorbing the light and energy; this is a script that is continually innovating and boasting interesting ideas. How macabre is the glowing skull in the dark that the Marshall communes with? I bet the menacing purr that emanates out gave a few kids nightmares. ‘One of us is being extremely stupid’ ‘Affirmative’ – I love how John Leeson says that line. The model of the Shadow's domain is imaginatively designed and well lit and the sound effects inside his cave system make it feel far more sinister than it is in reality. I really like the simplicity and the symmetry of the design of Mentalis (especially the sloping walls). Mentalis is a computer that has given Atrios a battering, killed millions without a flicker and is totally invincible – it really helps that we’ve seen the results of its work already. The fact that it is mute is an unusual but very welcome touch. A lump of metal programmed not to accept defeat. An explosion that will take out both planets – the Armageddon Factor of the title. Who says wish fulfillment doesn't come true? Merak trips down the rabbit hole and is MIA for at least an episode. Mentalis is a scorpion stinging itself to death. How can anybody dislike a story with so many terrific concepts like that? I love the pace of episode four; the ticking bomb, the Marshall’s missiles, it’s as climactic as this season deserved. Faking the sixth segment is a clever conceit as is the whole universe trapped in a three second time loop. Can you imagine the ecstasy if you had reached a climax during those three seconds. Oh don't judge, I can think of worse ways to spend a three second eternity. The shot, lit from beneath, where Astra is hypnotised by the Key is bewitchingly done. I can't help but adore Barry Jackson shoehorned into the role of a cuddly rogue, Drax is a delight, cockney accent and all. It adds the finish touch to the narrative (explaining who built Mentalis) and a little dash of ambiguity to the last two episodes - as fun as Drax is, you are never sure if you can quite trust him given his previous (current?) employer. Perhaps a male companion could have been made to work - he and Tom Baker share some delightful scenes (‘It must be synaptic adhesion’). One thing that is surprising me as I work my way through the Williams era, much criticized for its production values, is how this period managed to pull off some effects that left some of the more polished eras of the show scratching their heads. The model work is of a high standard in stories such as The Invisible Enemy, The Invasion of Time and The Armageddon Factor, they managed to pull of a giant squid in The Power of Kroll and another trick that seems to bewilder elsewhere but pulled off with rare aplomb here are miniaturization effects. Via CSO, it genuinely looks as if the Doctor and Drax have been shrunk down to the size of an inch. Lalla Ward somehow manages to salvage the vacuous character of Astra and is enthralling throughout, by simply taking her so incredibly seriously and refusing to let her flounder like Merak. It may have been the reason she secured the role as Romana. The Shadow being blinded by the light of the TARDIS surprised me but makes perfect sense. The Doctor and Drax inside the Trojan Canine with the metal mutt enjoying the experience of hamming it up...this story is capable of odd moments of total delight! I adore the visual of the Doctor and Drax jumping from K.9’s innards! No imagination has been spared in revealing the identity of the segments of the Key to Time and the sixth and final piece turning out to be Princess Astra does not disappoint. Some pace and tension is injected into the final episode as hold on the countdown slowly bleeds away, the Doctor indulges in a bomb disposal sequence and Romana realises that the Marshall's missiles are still on course for the planet. There's some spectacular fireworks as the Shadow planet goes up, the two plot lines (the Marshall and the Shadow) meeting with detonating results. People say that the ending is a disappointment and unworthy of 26 weeks of build up but I think that is a little ungrateful; Bob Baker and Dave Martin integrate the Key into their plot dramatically, there is a lovely double bluff with the Black Guardian and the device is treated with appropriate gravity. Have the keys been scattered into brand new segments? Let's do this whole thing over again because this whole season has been a hoot! The Randomiser works under the principle of potluck and promises much for the next season.

The Bad Stuff: Merak is the drippiest lump of lard to ever slick his way through a Doctor Who story.  His characterisation doesn’t extend beyond calling Astra's name over and over again. It's perfect for a drinking game, watch this and have a shot every time he says it – I promise you this you will be bladdered by episode three and paralysed by episode five. Alcohol poisoning caution, perhaps use chocolates instead. Obesity caution. Turning K.9 into scrap is an extended set piece that whilst looking quite good and may have had the kids screaming at the telly goes on for far too long. The ‘K.9, it’s a trap!’ ‘A trap?’ cliffhanger is pure panto. Shapp is another bumbling incidental character that continually threatens to ruin what is otherwise a well-written story; this is one character that sabotages the story whenever he appears. K.9 gets all snooty after he has hooked up with Mentalis and you really want someone to give him a sharp kick to remind him of his place. The Shadow quickly degenerates into a ranting, cackling panto villain; a shame considering all the effort that has gone into the first two episodes to make him as creepy as possible. The whole bad K.9 sequence is tiresome; clearly the writers have run out of things to do come the fifth episode. It really bugs me how the interesting war plot is put on hold for an entire episode in favour of some party games, albeit pretty funky ones. Suddenly at the beginning of part six the Doctor remembers ‘the time loop must be at breaking point by now!’ as though the writers have suddenly remembered everything they have to wrap up. K.9 bursts through a very polystyrene wall.

The Shallow Bit: It is Mary Tamm’s best costume yet and she looks positively edible! Having two Romana’s together must give the guys in the audience some very bad thoughts. ‘Care for a blow?’ There is five Mary Tamm’s together in one scene to answer to your every whim – down boys!

Result: A perfect representation of the Graeme Williams era; moments of comedy, darkness and imagination interspersed with moments of pure pantomime. The first four episodes are as good as anything in the sixteen season but the story really stutters come episode five and thankfully recovers for a marvellous conclusion. It’s a well-plotted story, at least initially and the script keeps bringing fantastic ideas to the surface and dramatically explores a very unusual war. Tom Baker is driving the show at this point and he and Mary Tamm are completely comfortable with each other by now, indulging in some very witty interplay. Despite some empty moments, I find the Armageddon Factor an extremely watchable story full of inventive touches, thoughtful direction and a general feeling of everybody (aside from a few dodgy performers) trying their damdest to make this end of season oh-shit-the-budget-has-run-out spectacular as impressive as possible. Underrated: 8/10


Timothy Allan said...

Mary Tamm looks absolutly stunning in this story. She was an incredibly beautiful lady and is sadly missed.

Anonymous said...

When reading the info text. I noticed that the draft version prepared by Baker and Martin is a lot better than what ended up on screen.

Joe Ford said...

Are you talking about the gulf between the script and the realisation? If so, I disagree and think they did a great job under the circumstances. If you're talking about the difference between a draft version of the script and the actual script that was filmed...tell me more :-)

Anonymous said...

Watch the production subtitles on the DVD each episode you get a synopsis of an episode of Armageddon.

But to summarise I from what I can remember from the DVD

Zeos has a population

The Black Guardian doesn't appear

As a story on screen it just doesn't work Drax, Shapps, Merak and Astra are terrible characters and Jon Woodvine is wasted. Trapping him in a loop shouting fire all the time is a huge waste of his ability.

Joe Ford said...

I don't agree. I think what is put on screen works to a good extent, especially give the production pressures and lack of resources. I can't say that the two plot differences that you state above would improve the story at all. But it's all subjective.

Ulkesh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Joe Ford said...

Apologies to Ulkesh, I meant to click reply and accidentally clicked delete! That will teach me to do this sort of thing at 5.00 in the morning. I haven't seen the Angel episode Smile Time...but if they pull off the time loop climax, kudos to them! :-)

Ulkesh said...

No worries, Doc! My comment died a painless death. Though the episode was actually "Happy Anniversary" from the second season. And it was a moment frozen in time forever as opposed to a time loop

Just a note on this story, though. Before I had seen "The Armageddon Factor" I had heard the audio clip of the Doctor's "FOR I POSSESS THE KEY TO TIME" speech and my imagination ran wild, thinking that at the end of the quest the Doctor would genuinely become corrupt, with Romana tasked with saving the universe from her former friend. Nothing could have prepared me for Tom Baker's wildly OTT performance (those eyes!) in that scene, though! It goes to show the power that context (and indeed the visuals) holds.

Anthony Pirtle said...

It struck me while re-watching this season that this is Doctor Who as a buddy cop film. Young and eager recruit, fresh out of the academy, is paired off with a veteran with his own, slightly unhinged, ideas about how to do things. They don't particularly like one another when they first meet, but they eventually bond over the case they're cracking together. What's surprising is how well it works.