THE ARMAGEDDON FACTOR

"This whole plan depends on how well you can act."

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Oh God, Baker and Martin. Incoming.

Now as we've said before, they can do it if they try (Hand of Fear). But when they're bad, they're very very bad (Invisible Enemy). And Armageddon Factor is definitely at the Invisible Enemy end of the scale.

It didn't help, of course, that Baker and Martin split up around now, leaving Anthony Read and Douglas Adams to pick despairingly over the carcass of the scripts in an attempt to salvage something useable. Between the lot of them, though, they made a serious hash of it.

It'd be bad enough if this was just an ordinary story. But this is the ending to the Key to Time arc. We've been building up to this through five previous stories, and the least we'd expect is a slam-bang finale that richly pays off a season's worth of expectation. Do we get it?

Not even close.

It's difficult to specify exactly what's wrong with Armageddon Factor. Not because it's not obvious, but because there's so bloody much of it. There's hardly an element to the thing that isn't rubbish.

Let's start with the characters. How about a sweet little Princess? That's got a pretty good pedigree. Whaddaya mean, she's insipid? Wait till you meet her boyfriend. Now we need an evil guy. No, two evil guys, that'll really slay 'em. So the story's about this Marshall. No, it's about the Shadow. No, it's about the Marshall. Whatever. Just tell that Shadow guy to keep laughing, okay?

Now for the plot. We'd better have someone kidnap the Princess, yeah? Then she can make a nice speech. Just make sure she says "my people" a lot - there won't be a dry eye in the house. And we don't want Romana to feel left out, so we'd better take her prisoner as well. Who's left? Oh yeah, the Marshall. Better stick him in a time loop or something - that'll fill up heaps of time. Brilliant! No, wait a minute, it's running under. Bugger. Pass me that bag of leftover plot stuff, will you? Okay, what have we got in here? Look, a Cockney! No, of course not a real one, we're on a budget, you know. Bung him in, and while we're at it, let's make him a Time Lord. Why? Why not? And here's some comedy bits we can use, liven it up a bit. What did you say? Uneven tone? Rubbish. Light and shade, that's what it's called. Still running under? I know! Let's shrink the Doctor! That worked brilliantly in Invisible Enemy, didn't it, so we might as well recycle it. And let's have everyone get in and out of the transmat a few times. Damn. Now there are bits and pieces of plot and character that pop up and go away again without any real reason. Oh, well. Nobody'll notice.

So far, so good. Now for the Big Issues. Hey, what about the futility of war? That always goes down well. It worked for Terry in Genesis, so it'll work for us, right? They might not get it, though, so we'd better ram the message home really, really hard. And we'd better throw in some nukes, cause everybody knows they're bad. Okay, war, nukes, genocide... what's missing? Oops! We forgot the Battle Between Good And Evil! Right, so the Doctor confronts the Black Guardian, yeah, and they have this titanic clash that strains the very fabric of the universe... what? The budget's run out? Oh. Quick change of plan - the Doctor has a chat with the Black Guardian. No, just on the TARDIS screen, let's not overdo it. And then the Doctor can, I dunno, throw the bits of the Key about or something, and the Guardian can look a bit miffed. And they all lived happily ever after. Excellent! Make it so.

As for the acting, it's bloody awful, although with a script this languid, stilted and riddled with cliches the actors didn't stand a chance. John Woodvine is usually terrific, but as the Marshall he's forced to spout such appalling claptrap that the odds are stacked against him from the start. It's career-destroying stuff. Merak is terrible, but given that he's called upon to wistfully bellow "Astra!" at regular intervals like a lost calf, we can hardly blame him. The Shadow? Gielgud and Olivier genetically engineered into one couldn't have made that fly. Astra is watery, and so sickly sweet we need fillings, but then we find Lalla Ward's acting intrinsically annoying anyway.

As for the regulars, it's strictly by the numbers. There's a spark of the "real" Doctor in his "K9, lights" speech, but that's about it, and he does a hammy eye-rolling eyelash-quivering "I'm so evil" bit that's hard to forgive.

Romana does her best, and is impressive in her "I'm not afraid to die" scene, but there isn't enough for her to do. This is particularly disappointing given that it's Mary Tamm's last outing as Romana. We're very sad to see her go. Her attitude to the Doctor is a refreshing change from the oh-Doctor-you're-so-clever companions, and we love the way she assumes she's his equal. She's enjoyably cool and intelligent, but she's never an ice maiden: there's a dry ironic wit underscoring her character. And despite the fact that she's a novice at this flitting through space-time thing, she takes it all in her stride and is a genuine help to the Doctor, instead of constantly having to be rescued. As with Leela, the scripts never really do her justice, but she's one of our favourite companions all the same.

Rubbish plot, cardboard characters, appalling script, damp squib ending. This is the way the arc ends, not with a bang but a whimper. Take the Marshall's advice: "Recycle it and turn it into scrap."

MORAL: Sometimes issues really are black and white.

OUTTAKES

SONS AND DOCTORS

Watching that bad TV parody at the beginning leads us inevitably to musings on stones and glass houses.

ADMIRING THE GREENERY

Well, we liked the green jumpsuits in Invisible Enemy, and there one is again in the parody. See, it does have some good things. Doesn't it?

MIND MY PAINTWORK

Why are the Doctor and Romana worried about the nuclear warhead hitting the TARDIS? It's supposed to be indestructible.

I WAS ON MY LUNCH BREAK

Why doesn't K9 stun the Marshall when he takes the Doctor and Romana prisoner?

IT'S ON THE SLIP OF MY TONGUE

John Woodvine gives Tom Baker a run for his money in the pronunciation department, referring to "accomplicees". Not to be outdone, Tom gives us "smith-ereens".

IT'S THAT OR RADIO WAVES FROM MARS

Watching the Marshall staring into the mirror and talking reminds us eerily of Chris Eubanks in Celebrity Big Brother. Wonder if Chris is controlled by the Shadow too?

GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

In the scene just after they discover the TARDIS has disappeared, while Romana's reassuring Merak about K9 you can see the TARDIS behind her.

THAT'S ONE WAY OF SHIFTING IT

If time is of the essence, why does Romana hang about waiting for K9 to try to pick the lock of the transmat before she eventually tells him to blast it?

HIGH ANXIETY

Shapps's squeaky voice when he gets out of the transmat on Zeos is a nice touch.

AND THEN SUTEKH SAID TO ME

Why is it that villains find evil so amusing anyway?

SQUEEEE

No wonder the sixth segment of the Key the Doctor bodges up doesn't last long - it's made of polystyrene. You can hear the telltale squeaking as he wedges it in place.

SPECIAL EFFLEX

When the Marshall's sidekick presses the firing button, the whole control board bends under his finger.

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