Graham Williams came to Doctor Who with a plan to make a season arc called ‘The Key to Time’. However, ‘The Horror of Fang Rock’ had been commissioned and planned for season fifteen, and possibly one or two other stories, so ‘The Key to Time’ was kept over for the following season. This is the opening story, written by Robert Holmes.
And what a wonderful opening story it is. It’s full of charm, rich characters and humour. It’s not a standard Doctor Who tale, perhaps not as much action as fans had come to expect, but the dialogue is rich and colourful, the characters fully realised, and despite a slightly dodgy monster, this was a very very enjoyable tale.
The story starts with the Doctor meeting the White Guardian. I’ve never met the guy, but despite being on the side of good he comes across as a bit demanding when he tells the Doctor if he doesn’t want to search for the Key to Time nothing will happen to him. Ever. Enter Mary Tamm, playing the new assistant Romana. A Time Lady adorned in a stunning but simple white dress. Perfectly cast, and instantly with a wonderful rapport with Tom Baker, Mary Tamm makes an immediate impression. In their very first scene Tom Baker and Mary Tamm bounce off each other wonderfully. Kudos to direct, George Spenton-Foster, for the casting (unless it was Graham Williams).
|Garon and Unstoff|
The director makes a much better fist of his second story compared to his first. It is well cast. No, superbly cast. Paul Seed as the Graff Vynda Kay. What can I say? Has anyone played madness quite as well in Doctor Who history. The character is ruthless, bloody, with a huge chip on his shoulder as he believes he has been greatly wronged. As things go wrong, as he discovers he’s been double crossed, he gets angrier and crazier. His final scene as he walks towards oblivion the madness has reached fever pitch. It’s a huge, amazing performance.
|The Graff and Sherlack.|
In fact, the entire production is very theatrical, which might put some people off. Not this viewer though. The next two important characters are Garron and Unstoff, a wonderful double act played by Iain Cutherbertson and Nigel Plaskitt. They are running the scam they so dangerously tried to ensnare the Graff in. Garron is wonderfully jovial, and despite being a crook his character gets along very well with the Doctor. Unstoff is the side kick, a younger character, who’s more nervous but also resourceful. He encounters Binro the Heretic (Timothy Bateson) who leads him into the catacombs to escape the guard and the Graff. This encounter is wonderfully played by both actors.
|Binro the Heretic|
Add the woman with the bones, played by Anne Tirard. Perhaps the most over the top character of the entire story, her shrieks and premonitions move the second half of the story along. It could have been a purely functional role, but the actress has attacked this with vigour and created a wonderful bizarre character, aided by some great costume and make up. But no cast would be complete without... Prentis Hancock. In his third story, Prentis plays the Captain of the Guards. In this one his character isn’t mad, not quite as central to the plot as in previous tales, and doesn’t die. However, he still turns in a fine performance.
The strength of the story lies not just in the cast, and we shouldn’t forget Tom Baker, who appears to relish the opportunity to work with such a great cast, but the sets are very well done too. They have recreated a sort of medieval citadel on a far off world, ably supported by some wonderful costumes too. My only question mark over the design is the helmets of the Graff’s guards. They don’t see, very practical and are reminiscent of the black night in ‘Monty Python’s Holy Grail’.
The monster – the schrinvenzaal. It’s not the best either. It’s green and functional but doesn’t move very well and is hard to see as a threat. It was performed by two people, so rather like a pantomime horse. Strangely, we see only bits in the dark when it’s guarding the holy relics, but we see a whole one in the catacombs for much longer on screen, and that one is more convincing! It’s not the worst Who monster, but still...
The only other production quibble is the snow. Like ‘Seeds of Doom’ it is clearly little bits of poly-styrene. But that’s how they did snow back then. Oh and it’s always amusing the way the pan up just before K-9 is supposed to enter the TARDIS. All in all though, it’s just a wonderful, a thoroughly enjoyable Doctor Who tale. It’s quite the opposite compared to the previous season, which was often stilted and sloppy. Which is good to see and hopefully and indication of what’s to come in season 16...