With the upcoming anniversary of the Doctor’s 50th I wanted to share something with you that I wrote earlier this year. It’s a piece about the world of Who and covers a few apsects that we fans have often noticed but some others new to the wonder that is the Doctor might not know of or not have picked up on yet.
“The Thin Man (in the blue box)” speaks to the many influences and worlds that a show like Doctor Who can open up to fans. The format and the mythos itself leaves it open to allow many different genres to be used to tell its stories. The show itself is influenced many times by films, books, and television that came before it (sometimes during it.) Religion, westerns, film noir, you name it the Doctor has probably either been there and done that or has…or will..or both at the same time.
With this years passing of the stunning and amazing Mary Tamm I felt it only fitting this see the light of day and so I share it with you. It’s focus is on the Key To Time season of Doctor Who, one that was especially epic in the series history and would introduce us to the not only beautiful but brilliant Romana played by Mary. I hope you enjoy it.
The Thin Man (in the blue box)
Or The many facets of The Key to Time
By Jessica Dwyer
Our scene opens on an elegant and beautiful woman in a flowing gown. She has lovely arched eyebrows, an intelligent forehead, and a knowing look in her eyes as she smiles at her companion. He is at once a glaring contradiction to her, and yet the two are a perfect match.
Her companion is a tall man who seems to always have an amused expression on his face. His eyes twinkle with an inner child that has never needed to grow up. Yet despite his somewhat childish exterior, he possesses an uncanny ability when it comes to figuring things out and stopping those who are up to no good.
Finally, our two intrepid travelers are joined on their adventures by their faithful dog. The canine is smart, well trained and, like his master and mistress, has a nose for danger (and sometimes perhaps a dangerous nose).
Now dear reader I’ll pause and ask you a question: who did I just describe in those few paragraphs? The answer isn’t quite as easy as you’d expect.
That description could be applied to the brilliant detective duo of Nick and Nora Charles from the 1930’s film series The Thin Man. Or we could also apply it to the Doctor and his companions Romana and K9 of the SixteenthSeason of Doctor Who.
The Key to Time saga, which was the focus of Season Sixteen, marked a change in the series from what had come before. For the first time we had a storyline that stretched throughout the entire season. The centerpiece of the plot arc was the Doctor and Romana’s search for the key and all its segments.
But there is more to The Key to Time than just these bits of the Doctor’s history (or future depending on how whimey time is being). The Sixteenth Season allowed the series’ writers to give us some of the most dynamic episodes of the show and to pay homage to some classic films and story-telling by using multiple genres, as well as historical and cultural references , to create a wonderfully varied season.
As I noted in the opening above, the relationship between Romana and the Doctor bears more than a passing resemblance to the sleuthing duo of Dashiell Hammett books. Romana’s naïve yet intelligent character and her stubborn determination to show the Doctor that she can keep up with him mirrors Nora Charles almost perfectly (as does some of her wardrobe…but perhaps not so much the drinking). Romana is also able to banter back and forth with the Doctor, being nearly as clever, and in some cases more clever, than he is.
Romana spent quite a bit of the season being saved by the Doctor, constantly falling into the snare of the story’s villain as they sought after another segment of the key. But she was learning from those mistakes as well as showing the Doctor the strength of her tenacity .
Romana grew more daring as their adventures went on taking the Doctor’s spirit to heart. She would adventure out on her own, would fight against the evils they encountered, and would in the end agree with the Doctor’s decision on the fate of the key to time.
When the key is completed Romana becomes a completely new woman…quite literally in fact. Romana regenerates, changing her appearance and becomes a true equal to the Doctor (even borrowing his sense of style).
The Doctor for his part emulates Nick Charles, the seemingly clueless yet sly-as-a-fox detective. He plays at being oblivious, but it is all an elaborate cover for a keen intellect and a tougher-than-nails fighter for what’s right. He just happens to wear a really long scarf, even while sword fighting…but more about that later.
He also has a deep and abiding love for his dog, which as it happens, is not your average mutt. K9 is not only highly intelligent but also helps the Doctor solve many of his cases. He is incredibly valuable to have around in case a fight may break out. The nose laser is always a plus in a dogfight, something that, sadly, Nick and Nora’s dog Asta lacked).
The Sixteenth Season wasn’t just filled with nods to the Charles’s. In fact The Key to Time allowed The Doctor and his companions a trek through other classics of the silver screen as well other sources of inspiration.
The genres it covers are many, stretching from horror to science fiction, to mystery and comedy. The late, great Douglas Adams, who was a master of combining those very genres in his later novels, contributes the first Doctor Who story he’d pen for the series.
The first segment, The Ribos Operation, mixes a fantasy element (there are lizard like monsters that guard a cache of crown jewels and creepy, face painted Seers) and a heavy dose of medieval action. This story owes much of its look and feel to the sword and fantasy films of the 70s and those that would come after its airing in the early 80s. It has all the requirements: dark corridors and catacombs, a creature that was more muppet than monster, and an over the top villain out to kill our heroes and take over a kingdom.
Tom Baker was no stranger to these types of films having starred as a villain himself in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad a few years earlier. Only a few years later we’d see the rise of numerous B-movie fantasies as the 80s let loose classics like Hawk The Slayer, Krull, and the Ator series.
George Lucas’s epic Star Wars: A New Hope had hit movie screens a year earlier and was still making shock waves in the land of science fiction. Douglas Adams’ segment, The Pirate Planet, was a prime example of its influence on Doctor Who. The similarities between their respective planet-sized world destroyers wasn’t the only thing shared by the Doctor and the Jedi. There was the light and dark balance of the universe shown by the Guardians. The Mentiads, the psychics who help the Doctor defeat The Captain, feel the deaths of each planet that is destroyed much like Obi-Wan Kenobi does upon the destruction of Alderaan.
The Pirate Planet is a meshing of great sci-fi and black humor, some of the trademarks of Douglas Adams. Ithas strangely named characters, such as the Captain’s second-in-command, Mr. Fibuli. It’s filled with outright craziness and a slight nod to Monty Python (the dead “Polyphase Avitron” was particularly brilliant). You couldn’t really ask for more out of a Doctor Who story.
The third segment of The Key to Time brings our intrepid trio back to Earth and shows the sinister side of the world of the Doctor. The Stones of Blood has elements of arcane ritual, a bit of Agatha Christie, and a very Hammer studios vibe. It deals with druidic sacrifice and may give us an answer as to how the rocks in Stonehenge were moved to form their circle (they moved themselves).
The Stones of Blood pays homage to the cult horror films of the 60s and 70s. The worship of pagan gods (or outright satanic ritual) in modern times and human sacrifice is always good fodder for a creepy tale. Films like The Wicker Man, The Sentinel, and Rosemary’s Baby are filled with odd characters who are always just slightly off. The outsiders who find themselves surrounded by these characters speak to a fear we all have within us, of never knowing just who is living next door.
These first three segments of The Key to Time all share something quite dark at their core: the villains of the pieces each meet a very final and unkind fate. While we’re used to the Doctor being benevolent and actually giving a chance to most of his enemies (in Genesis of the Daleks he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the race before they began their quest for domination) in The Ribos Operation he knowingly places an explosive on the person of the Graff and in The Stones of Blood he puts Vivien Fay into the line of fire of the Megara’s execution blasts. He’s not pulling his punches here. The Doctor means business and this is a facet of his character we’ve not seen many instances of before.
The fourth segment of The Key to Time brings the TARDIS to the planet Tara, where medieval culture and science go hand in hand. “Androids and Tiara’s” would be a good description of this part of the season.
Tara’s world is a mix of technology and the old world. Androids are commonplace and are kept in repair by the lower classes. The aristocracy uses both androids and commoners in their ploys for power. Subtlety is not the strong suit for the stories message.
This story, while not as deep in plot as some of the others (Romana actually finds the fourth segment in the first few minutes), is actually one of the most fun. It’s a return to the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks action films of old mixed, as always, with that underlying Whovian sci-fi.
Probably one of the most entertaining scenes to come out of The Key to Time is the Doctor sword fighting against the villainous Count. All while still wearing his infamous scarf, the Doctor crosses blades with the bad guy in a rather lengthy fight scene that shows the Doctor still has a few tricks up his long-coated sleeves. The Count manages to escape with his life and isone of the few villains who does so in the season.
The “androids in a castle” storyline was something that can easily be compared to Westworld, a feature film released in the early 70s whose plot focusses on a theme park peopled by robots that turn rogue and start killing the guests. The Park includes a medieval section along with an Old West area and a Roman World.
Both Westworld and The Androids of Tara have, at their core, a message of caution when it comes to abuses of power that can result when creating something in your image. This same message would be pursued even more thoroughly in the film Bladerunner.
The fifth key segment was to be found in the marsh-covered moon of Delta Magna. K9 is unable to leave the TARDIS due to the wet climate (and the fact that John Leeson’s voice, as well as the rest of him, was required in front of the camera this time in the role of a kind-hearted company man). So Romana and the Doctor go in search of the segment without him.
Kroll has many elements taken from the lore of writer HP Lovecraft, the man who gave us The Elders and the god Cthulu. The Swampies, the green skinned and green haired locals of Delta Magna, worship Kroll, a massive tentacle covered creature who has lived for centuries. Kroll’s appearance of a giant, single eyed squid monster could easily be a cousin to The Elders.
This segment was also notable for the subtext about racism and protecting the environment. The villain isn’t the giant tentacle monster who’s eating everything in front of it, the real villain is the group of greedy corporation goons who have come to the planet to open a refinery and drill the life out of the ground. There’s no real subtlety here either in terms of moral. While the messaege is an important one in regards to the evil’s of corporate greed vs. the effect on the world at large, the episode hits viewers over the head with it like a soggy tentacle. It bogs down (no pun intended) some of the action.
The Swampies themselves are treated with disdain and no more regard than a nuisance to be rid of. They are shot without a second thought. The parallels between historical and contemporary atrocities are very clear: clear out the indigenous population and take the land.
The last key segment would be found in the story The Armageddon Factor. The TARDIS lands on Atrios, a world at war with the planet Zeos. The more-than-a-little insane Marshall of Atrios makes it clear he wants to attack Zeos in a final strike. However, the Doctor discovers that Zeos is lifeless save for a computer called Mentalis that is controlling the attacks on Atrios. Bring into the mix an evil being known as the Shadow and the Doctor has his work cut out for him.
The influence of what was, at the time, current sci-fi storytelling on both the big and small screen as well as classics of the genre is evident throughout the story. Once again Star Wars could be seen as an inspiration. The Shadow, a cloaked, rough voiced figure with a mystical ability, is threatening an empire andanswers to an even more powerful “dark side” figure. A princess is at risk and needs to be rescued by a boy who’s not really a hero but will do whatever it takes to help her.
This segment also owes much of its look and style to the original Battlestar Galactica which was on air at the time. The costumes and appearance (especially that of the Marshall) would have been at home in the feature film Flash Gordon which would hit movie screens the following year. (In fact, nearly 30 years later when the Master is thought dead at the end of Last of the Time Lords and his ring falls to the ashes of his pyre, we see a hand pick it up and the sound of his laughter ringing out. This is a direct remake of the ending scene of Flash Gordon)
The Key to Time ends with the key once more lost amongst the universe and the Doctor on the run once more after having tricked the Black Guardian out of his prize. But the story doesn’t end there. The Black Guardian, of course, will returnduring the fifth Doctors run, and try to use Turlough to destroy the Doctor. The key will also be revisited in later episodes of the Big Finish audio dramas with the fifth Doctor searching for the pieces after discovering his actions during the original search has caused the key to become unstable and dangerous.
Doctor Who take elements from brilliant works and makes them their own, borrowingfrom many sources to expand its own universe. Fiction, film, even comic books are all open for the writers and creators to add to the Doctor’s world. The Doctor can literally go anywhere and anytime and so anything is fair game. Andt’s not just fiction that is used. Our own history becomes a character in the series or a set piece for the Doctor’s stage. With him we can be shown both the good and the bad that once was. That image in the mirror may not always be a pretty one to look at (such as in The Power of Kroll) but at other times we get to see heroes peering back at us.
Religion is also brought into the mix. . Discussions of just how Christ-like the Doctor is, arriving to save humanity with his message of “harm no one even when that person would be willing to harm you” has been going on for some time. He’s The Lonely God who can destroy an entire world with the flip of a switch or change someone’s future with only a few words.
In The Key to Time we see powers that are shaping the universe and our destinies. The White and Black Guardians are very obviously the personifications of good and evil in the universe. These sort of balancing forces are the core of many religions with obvious parallels to God and Satan and the Yin and Yang in Chinese culture.
Doctor Who may not be true science, but it’s true science-fiction. It uses that genre as well as others to weave a tale that not only entertains but teaches. We learn about what is right and wrong and that the brain is usually a better weapon than brute strength. The stories are modern parables and the Doctor is our guide and teacher through them. We want to be better because we want the Doctor to be proud of us, We aspire to be like him.
The stories that make up The Key To Time do just that. We see the Doctor take on a task that he knows may cost him his life, but he knows it is right and it is what must be done. We see him save world after world during the journey and we see his influence change Romana. The Doctor opens her eyes to the wonder that is the universe and not just what books and her teachers told her it should be.
And that comes back full circle (ah, an Adric reference) to that same similarity to Nick and Nora. Nick may have helped save the day, unwillingly sometimes (much like the Doctor) but he always came through in the end. He kept Nora safe and helped her family, even when they would have rather he disappeared into the bottom of a bottle (of ginger beer perhaps) and never came out again.
Nora and Romana both went against what society expected of them, choosing to remain with the man (or Time Lord) who showed them not only a great time, but a new view of the world. Explore it and enjoy it, and help those that need to be helped.
That’s why the real Key to Time is the Doctor himself. He unlocks all the magic and all the potential that’s out there for us. That’s what the fans see and why we love it so much.
(For Troy, my own Nick Charles and for Mary Tamm who held her own with the Doctor)