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on August 30, 2003
"The Armageddon Factor" is a mostly funny representative of "Doctor Who"s late-1970s over-the-top years. It's the final episode of "Who"'s first experiment with what's now known as the "season-long story arc" -- the search for the Key to Time -- and shows the Doctor and Romana's completion of their task, and final confrontation with the Black Guardian, who it turns out has been opposing their move at every step. It comes from a time when Tom Baker, the Doctor, was reportedly hijacking the show with wacky ideas and random ad-libs.
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.
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on January 31, 2004
In their search to the final segment to the Key To Time, the Doctor and Romana land on war-torn Atrios, which has been fighting a war of attrition against its twin Zeos. As there's variable radiation counts even 140 meters beneath the surface, one can imagine what it's like on the surface. The Doctor jokingly says of the high radiation reading that it might not necessarily be nuclear war, that someone might be holding a huge breakfast party.
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.
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on June 4, 2002
This serial climaxed an entire season spent tracking down the pieces of the fabled "key to time and space". While some episodes were light hearted or satiric (in one serial, the key is located almost immediately, but plot twists rapidly turn the serial into a send-up of "The Prisoner of Zenda"), this serial is downright dark and foreboding.
BACKGROUND: the Dr., an incorrigible 700 year old expatriate of a master race, journeys across time and space (and delightfully bad special effects) in a time machine whose exterior resembles a London Police call box. In the season capped off with this story, the Dr. was recruited by the mysterious but apparently benign "White Guardian" to recover the key to time, the pieces of which have been scattered and their appearance altered. There was a Black Guardian as well, and the search is also a race to recover and complete the key before the Black Guardian. Though the BG makes no appearance until this story, the Dr. (and his comely if brainy assistant Romana) know their luck won't hold out.
In "Armageddon", the Dr, knows that he's on the verge of completing the key and, therefore, knows the BG is around. The story starts out on Atrios, one of two planets caught in an endless and debilitating nuclear war. Under direct control of The Marshal, an agent of the Black Guardian, the planet hurls at and absorbs devastating attacks from its neighbor, Zeos (not to be confused with the similarly situated planet in the Classic Trek episode, "Patterns of Force") while Atrians alleviate their suffering with a steady dose of propaganda TV. Arriving in a dingy corner of Atrios, the Dr. soon learns that the last piece of the keys figures in the interplanetary war that is slowly destroying both planets. In typical "Who" fashion, the Dr. arouses suspicion from those he first meets - the autocratic Marshal and his bumbling aid, Shap. There is a beautiful princess (Lalla Ward) in love with the heroic (but not quite as heroic as the script thinks) Merak, and the Marshal (in league with evil) is bound to exploit them all. The story shouldn't work - it's much too slow and not a lot even happens , and the nominal villain, another BG lieutenant called "Shadow" is unintentionally funny- but the script hints at the darker evil of the Black Guardian, and the tension he exudes keeps it all together.
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