Most helpful critical review
"Are we the only three still alive?"
on November 20, 2002
Probably my least favorite adventure in the Key To Time series is THE ANDROIDS OF TARA. And the main criticism that I have of it is that it commits one of the worst sins that a television program can -- it bored me. Which is a real shame because in-between the long stretches of lackluster material, there are more than a few things to enjoy. But my overwhelming impression of this (and that impression is reaffirmed with every subsequent viewing) is that there is just far too much padding and fluff in this adventure for its own good.
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.