Doctor Who: Revisiting THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR

Moo can make you listen.

Season 16 was a shift in gear for Doctor Who. Opting for the six adventures to have an overarching (if somewhat loose) storyline of the Doctor’s search for the segments of the key to time give each story a sense of continuity that hadn’t been there in nearly a decade. Replacing the noble savage Leela with Romana, a fellow Time Lord, also changed the dynamic by giving the Doctor an equal (at least in theory). The stories themselves had a good mix too. We have period drama in space (The Ribos Operation, The Androids of Tara), off the wall make it up as you go silliness (The Stones of Blood), and even outright comedy with a scenery-chewing panto-villain (The Pirate Planet). With the token dud (The Power of Kroll) as the penultimate story, there’s only one segment of the key left. Will the Doctor and Romana find it before the Black Guardian does? Bring on The Armageddon Factor.

With it all nicely set up for an extended high-stakes finale, what will this last story bring? The answer turns out to be an overly-long schlocky “oh crap we’ve blown the budget” b-movie piece, with hackneyed dialogue, bad effects, dreary sets, and at least three points where it feels like the writers have had to awkwardly insert a twist to pad out the runtime.

But let’s not get disillusioned with it. Those criticisms are legitimate and you’d be hard-pushed to argue successfully that this is a good story. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for stuff like this in the Doctor Who legendarium.

Let’s start with the basic set-up of the storyline: The two worlds Atrios and Zeos are at war. Immediately it’s a very relevant setting to the era this story was produced in. This imagines a scenario where the Cold War has gone into open conflict, scaled up to a planetary level. A strong starting point to build on.

This setting is what gives us some of the best exchanges of the story. The Marshall of Atrios has effectively strong-armed his way into leading the planet in place of the rightful leader, and he is determined to defeat Zeos no matter at what cost. The Doctor of course is having none of it, leading him into trouble. By which I mean the classic “capture, escape, repeat” formula that so much of the classic series strays into. We spend the first couple episodes hanging around on Atrios as the conflict continues and the Doctor finds himself unable to make any progress with tracking down the key. At first anyway.

Eventually the Doctor and Romana find the rightful leader of Atrios: Princess Astra, played by Lalla Ward. Ward famously went on to portray Romana after her regeneration in the very next story (I’m still not sure why she regenerates at all.) which makes this an unusual watch at times. It’s the closest thing we have a multi-Romana story. Mary Tamm is still better though, and arguably never better than here. By contrast Ward’s saddled with an impossibly wet character.

Insert distracted boyfriend meme here.

It’s around halfway through that writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin start to reveal their hand. When the Marshall of Atrios sets off to drop his payload on Zeos to do away with it once and for all, the Doctor retaliates by trapping him in a time-loop. He does this by creating a forged version of the Key to Time that somehow works… not sure why it does, but I can go with it. That’s all well and good, but the big twists come after that. First we learn that Astra is herself the sixth segment of the key. Next we learn that there never were any Zeons in the first place – the whole thing is being run by a computer. And then they go and introduce a third planet to the conflict.

It’s this third planet where The Armageddon's Last last few episodes are spent. Here the Doctor faces off with the Shadow, some kind of mercenary sent by the Black Guardian to gather the key. He’s the Doctor’s opposite number in a sense, where the Doctor was sent to gather the key by the White Guardian, the Shadow was sent by the black one. However he instead tracked down the last part first and then waited for the Doctor to do the rest so he could profit off of the Doctor’s own efforts.

That’s actually pretty clever. I really like that idea. The Shadow himself is nothing special as villains go – he’s as generic a “dark lord” type character as you could hope to find – but he’s tremendous fun to watch, and in a story that’s clearly done on a shoestring budget (even by Classic Who standards) he stands out as looking great. Yes, he is generic, and he is underdeveloped, but when it’s so fun to watch him can you really complain? Loads of praise to actor William Squire for making this character work.

The Shadow is also the entry point for another memorable side character, renegade Time Lord Drax. Armed with his non-RP accent and buzzcut decades before Eccleston did it, he’s a wheeler-dealer type, which is a really unique and refreshing take on the Time Lord renegade character. There’s the Doctor, the Master, the Monk and (a few seasons later) the Rani, but Drax isn’t into the adventures unless there’s something in it for him. He’s essentially Delboy In Space, and that’s not a bad thing. Having the Shadow – a deliberately naff villain – have to rely on this character is a great way of highlighting just how rubbish these dark lord generic types really are.

And right there is the heart of the story. It is everything its worst critics accuse it of being. It is too long, disjointed, cheap, and dissatisfying in how it resolves the Key to Time arc. I can’t in good conscience argue otherwise. Don’t listen to anyone who does. But right there lies the charm, and you do get the sense it’s… well… maybe deliberate isn’t the right word, but it does seem to be self-aware.

Any good writer of fiction (especially in visual media) will tell you that the first scene is crucial to get right to set the tone for what is to come. The Armageddon Factor understands this. It opens with a parody of bad propaganda. Two lovers embrace in the midst of a wider conflict delivering so-bad-it’s-hilarious dialogue against an even worse CSO backdrop. This then zooms out to the hospital setting where Astra’s boyfriend Merak works. The partnership of these two will form a major subplot for the story that follows, told with the same level of production value as that propaganda film. Either this is a happy accident or Bob Baker really knows what he’s doing. Before you decide which, let me remind you that he has two screenwriting Baftas and knew full well that this story would be the last of the season and have the corresponding resources thrown at it.

With this in mind and watched through the lens of “this is objectively terrible but it knows it” then suddenly The Armageddon Factor becomes a riot. Drax’s comic relief undercutting the Shadow’s menace is just one particularly obvious example of when this becomes clear.

Maybe I’m being too kind. You’re probably right. But consider Tom Baker: He knew when a story was worth his effort that he should give it his all. There are countless ones like that through his run. He also knew when it wasn’t though, and that’s why I mention it. He’s clearly having a great time in this one, throwing himself into every scene. It’s not his greatest performance, but he’s not out to do that here. He’s fully aware that this is cheap and schlocky bargain-basement sci-fi trash, and so he settles in and acts accordingly.

The final scene is the best example. He undercuts the Key to Time arc perfectly, pulling faces and chewing the scenery to bits. That thing he does with his eyes in particular stands out. When Romana briefly thinks he’s been corrupted, he plays along just long enough before he breaks character and knowingly states what a stupid plot device it is.

That’s why I love The Armageddon Factor. It’s objectively terrible and I can’t argue with that. Nobody in their right mind would ever place this in even their top twenty Tom Baker serials. And yet it’s almost like it’s in on the joke and plays along with it. The result is a thoroughly charming story where despite everything being of the lowest possible quality it leaves this viewer unable to find anything but love for it.

“Moo” is the pseudonym used by this Doctor Who fan. He can usually be found procrastinating by thinking about Doctor Who. Follow him on Twitter @z_p_moo for more of his unusual takes, but do so at your own risk.

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