Things begin bad, as usual. The Marshall, the military leader conducting the war, mistakes the Doctor and Romana as Zeon spies, yet he does a volte-face and welcomes the Doctor as "the one to head us to victory." However, he's not all he seems. One, he makes his decisions by meditating and mumbling in front of a black reflective surface. Two, he has a tiny black object around his neck. Three, he and Princess Astra, a figurehead in charge of people's morale and comfort, are at odds what with her pacifist stance.
Astra and her lover, the surgeon Merak, are trying to contact Zeos to try to negotiate a peace, but something is jamming their communications. The same jamming that is blocking the navigation system of the Marshall's fleet, perhaps? First Astra, then the TARDIS, and then the Doctor vanishes, kidnapped by sinister masked figures in black robes. On Zeos, he meets his nemesis the Shadow, who's working for the Black Guardian in the same way the Doctor's working for the White Guardian.
The Doctor's condemnation of a war fought by machines is given when he describes the commandant of the Zeon side as a "passionless lump of mineral and circuitry, highly efficient, doing very well, giving Atrios a beating, killing millions without a flicker, just doing it's job, and it's totally invincible." Yet it's programmed to not accept defeat, and as the Doctor says, "there'll be a rather large bang, big enough to take Zeos, take Atrios with with it, and make the whole thing end in a sort of draw. That's the way these military minds work-the armageddon factor." But the story condemns war period; even the lamely romantic patriotic drama in the beginning is a satire on propaganda movies.
I agree with K-9's definition of optimism: "belief that everything will work out well. Irrational, bordering on insanity." And the Doctor lectures Romana on optimism, but doing an about face as he goes on: "Listen Romana, whenever you go into a new situation, you must always believe the best until you find out exactly what the situation's all about, then believe the worst." Romana: "Ah, but what happens if it turns out not to be the worst after all?" Doctor: "Don't be ridiculous. It always is." Classic Tom Baker comedy right there.
John Woodvine does an portrayal of the Marshall as a ruthless leader fanatical on victory. "You don't beg for peace... you win it!" he tells Astra. He's someone who'd use the ultimate deterrent, and when the Doctor ironically congratulates him on having a typical military mind, he takes it as a compliment, missing the irony. His patriotic speeches bear in mind Churchill's morale speeches during WW2, but with a more rabid edge. And Lalla Ward (Astra) would regularly appear as Romana in the next two seasons, replacing Mary Tamm.
But in Episode 5, we meet Drax, a renegade Time Lord who picked up a chirpy Cockney accent, and Barry Jackson's presence lightens things up when the story plods along.
As the final story to the Key To Time season, The Armageddon Factor draws it to a conclusion, but leaving with it an atmosphere of "Is that what it's all been about?" It also suffers from weak characters and continuity errors, such as Merak knowing things about the Key To Time though not told about it, and bad acting, such as the Shadow's diabolical laughter. The weakest of the six stories, although redeemed by the themes of the follies of war, especially total war. Rating: 3.5, rounded to 4.
The episode is pretty funny, if also silly. The plot is a little reminiscent of something you might find in a Douglas Adams' book, with two neighboring planets (the alphabetically opposed Atrios and Zeos) at war, only neither side has ever seen the other... and it turns out that nobody lives on Zeos, anyway. And then you find out that Douglas Adams actually worked on the story, so everything comes full circle.
The DVD was released in North America only, and lacks a lot of the special features you'd find on other "Who" DVDs released worlwide. Other discs in the "Key to Time" box set have a more impressive set of features, but "Armageddon Factor" is basically bare bones. The text commentary is more useful than usual, providing the original story breakdown by episode writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin. It's fun to see how the story was improved by the producers and script editors, although I like the notion that the 6th segment of the Key To Time was the shadow... of a character called The Shadow. Less useful is how the text spends minutes at a time listing the UK film and TV credits of all the guest actors. This is a North America-only release, remember?
The audio commentary can only charitably be described as "strained". There's a funny story from director Michael Hayes about how a typo in the original script led to the inadvertent creation of a race of alien creatures known as "The Gurads". The rest of it is tame bantering by actors John Woodvine (who was only in half the story) and Mary Tamm, appearing for the 3rd or 4th time in this box set.
"Armageddon Factor" is mostly enjoyable, and the text commentary alone makes it a step up from the VHS purchase.
Tom Baker tries to save a lot of scenes with his own brand of bizarre humor. He only partially succeeds, and this just leaves the parts of the story that he isn't in with a huge Tom Baker shaped hole. Despite the threat of universal armageddon that the story presents us with, I simply couldn't feel bothered by anything that was going on. The plot concerning two major power blocs locked in a constant state of warfare is an idea that would barely cover three episodes, yet here it's stretched out to double that number. And while padding Doctor Who serials could sometimes result in sparkling dialog, engaging subplots and memorable extra characters, all that's added on here are excess corridor scenes, repeated time loop footage and clichéd villains.
One of the biggest flaws of this story is the real lack of urgency. Despite the huge stakes that the script offers, despite the endless series of countdowns, and despite the momentum of an entire season leading up to this, the story just seems to be hanging around with no serious weight to it. This is driven home by the inclusion of the Drax character, who enters the picture in episode five. In any other serial he would have been an amusing foil to Tom Baker's Doctor, but he's a bizarre addition here. He's the comic relief, but the story simply isn't as serious and grim as it thinks it is and therefore he's counterbalancing something that doesn't exist. It's a bizarre and haphazard inclusion. A pity, because there are loads of other Doctor Who stories that would have greatly benefited from a goofy character like Drax.
The serial really suffers from the annual "Oh my God, the season's over and we've no money!" syndrome. Their solution to the lack of a set budget apparently includes stripping down an old mainframe and gluing the circuit boards to the wall. Ho, ho, ho, futuristic. Yeah.
The DVD commentary doesn't really tell us anything that we didn't know already, save the fact that the cast and crew evidently found the story to be as boring as the audience did. It's a pity that they don't have much to say, and by the time the final closing credits roll, the three commentators seem utterly burnt out. Clever anecdotes dotted the first five of the Key To Time discs, but on this one the best story is about a silly typo on one of the script pages - a story that gets repeated far past the point of tolerance.
All in all, THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR is a let down after the five serials leading up to it. The production money ran out, the script ideas ran out, and what should have been a massive spectacular ends up looking like an unexciting mess.