As the production notes are sure to tell the viewer several times, this story is "Doctor Who"'s homage to "The Prisoner of Zenda", following the plot twist by twist, and adding only a few modest sci-fi elements (two androids and some electric swords). As Tom Baker points out on the commentary track, visiting guest stars used "Doctor Who" as an opportunity to "do a turn" (or, as the fans say, "chew the scenery"), and this serial's guest villain Peter Jeffrey (playing the aptly-named Count Grendel of Gracht) gives a delightful performance as the scheming nobleman who doesn't kill a soul and is allowed to swim away at the end of the story, uttering the famous face-saving line above.
The DVD production is bare-bones, unusual for the high-quality "Doctor Who" line. The text commentary is notably weak, perhaps because it's not written by Martin Wiggins, who did the notes for the first three DVDs in this set. Now authored by Richard Molesworth (who did notes on a few of the earlier "Who" DVDs), the notes are basically endless lists of the supporting actors' other TV appearances -- most of which will not be familiar to the audience watching these US-release-only discs -- and the dates of location filming. It indeed adds a lot to your enjoyment of Part Three to learn that Romana's stunt double rode her horse on the 27th and 28th of July. The notes spend a good amount of time describing the original "The Prisoner of Zenda" (stating three times that the novel was written by Anthony Hope in 1894), but fail to pick up on a deliriously funny blooper in which Jeffrey walks through the walls of a set, Leslie Nielsen style, as Tom Baker ducks through a curtained doorway.
The commentary track is recorded by stars Baker and Tamm (Romana), and director Michael Hayes. Hayes dominates the early going by reciting the "Prisoner of Zenda"'s original movie cast, while Baker laughs insanely at the sight of the poorly-costumed miniature bear that menaces Romana in the opening minutes. After a while it's obvious that the three aren't watching the story, and I found myself mentally tuning out. That said, the anecdote about Petter Jeffrey's wart is funny, and, as in every other DW disc released to date, a commentator asserts that the low-rent 1970s production values "stand up rather well today". Charming. But wrong.
First of all, the story seems to jar slightly from the usual way that the Tom Baker Doctor interacts with others. Rather than being at the center and driving the action forward, the Doctor takes a passive role for the majority of the tale. He eventually does become a mover in his own right near the end, but for the most part this is a story that he influences rather than drives. ANDROIDS OF TARA is very much the story of the King, the Crown and the fight for the throne rather than having a structure more typical of the average Doctor Who adventure. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. It's interesting to see a more subdued Fourth Doctor, although occasionally I was wishing for him to take a more active stance. It just seemed odd that the Doctor would cave so easily under the threat of violence and that it was only this threat that kept him in the story. It's even more odd when one realizes that the Doctor would usually be predisposed to want to help out the Prince, Zadek and Farrah anyway. The fact that most of the plot points are borrowed from other sources is fairly obvious so perhaps this is an inadvertent holdover from an earlier draft. I'm not quite sure what the solution is, but there's something about those sequences that just don't quite seem to work.
As far as the characters go, the oh-so-bad Count is probably one of the most amusing villains in Doctor Who; he almost makes the story worth viewing just by himself. It's true that he becomes a caricature of himself by the end, but by that point he's an entertaining force in his own right. I love how by episode four he isn't even bothering to put up a pretense around his machinations any more, he's just busy being as evil as he can be -- and he's immense fun.
As professional as the rest of the cast is, they simply don't have a terribly exciting script to work with here. The characters are well played but there isn't much to them. With robotic and dull android duplicates roaming through the story, it can sometimes be difficult to determine when exactly someone is portraying an emotionless machine, and when someone is portraying a bland and uninteresting character.
On the positive side, the picture has been cleaned up quite well, and special mention must go to the exterior shots that now look extremely crisp and clear. The sound is also remarkably improved, with many little whispers and mumbles now audible. Tom Baker, Mary Tamm, and director Michael Hayes feature on the commentary track, and this alone is a big reason for obtaining this DVD. Baker and Tamm are slightly more subdued than they were on the RIBOS OPERATION disc, but still manage to come out with several hysterical comments (I particularly enjoyed Tom Baker's pride at his character's ability to consume vast quantities of drugged wine - "I'm the last one to drop!"). Hayes manages to answer Baker's frequent asking of "Who's that?" as well as offering insights into the behind-the-scenes production. The pop-up production notes are sadly much less interesting than those on the previous three discs. While there was some useful information concerning the development of the script, far too many of the slides simply tell us what day and time certain shots were filmed. Not necessarily bad, just dull compared to the other notes.
If you already liked ANDROIDS OF TARA, then no doubt you'll enjoy the DVD release, which again maintains the very high standards that the Doctor Who discs have enjoyed. Personally, I could have done without picking up this one, and had it not been part of the Key To Time box set, I think I would have avoided it. Still, it's always nice to reevaluate Doctor Who stories that one hasn't seen recently, even if one's original opinion remains unchanged. And with the story physically looking and sounding better than it ever has before, this is probably the best opportunity you'll have to enjoy this particular one. I just hope you find it less boring than I did.
To be fair, theres some well played out scenes, and some good one-liners by Tom Baker. Humour is there, and you get the impression the story isn't taking itself too seriously. The problem is, by the start of Episode 3, you'll probably wish it was all over.
Two and a half stars for Androids of Tara.