Note: This article contains no major spoilers without ample warning – the point of it is to encourage people try to Key to Time series, not ruin it for them. If watching it doesn’t interest you this guide and the included clips will still help you get an idea of what the Doctor, Romana I and this period of Doctor Who in general was like.
For New-Who Whovians, the classic Doctor Who world can be a daunting place. Eight Doctors, 156 stories (or 157, it’s debatable) and nearly 700 episodes…where do you start?
I started at series 16. Well, technically I’d seen Planet of the Daleks, The Silurians, An Unearthly Child, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks, Attack of the Cybermen, Remembrance of the Daleks and the TV movie before I stepped into the Key to Time territory, but they’d sort of been on a whim – I’d never actually attempted to watch classic-Who and properly “commit” to hours upon hours of viewing.
Why did I pick this starting point? Basically, it’s natural for any Whovian to turn to the internet for answers to the many questions they have, and I dare say that, like me, a lot of these are related to Gallifrey and the time lords. I’d assumed for a while that the Doctor had always been the last of his race, and his home planet was sort of a myth woven throughout the show’s history. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that that wasn’t the case at all, and the time lords actually made a number of appearances in times gone by – the Doctor had even had one as a companion! And she was a woman! She was a time lord, and she was a woman. This I had to see, and when I eventually did see it I discovered the introduction of Romana also introduced another story arc I’d been interested in getting into – the Key to Time.
Introduction to the Key to Time
After his working on first season of Doctor Who, producer Graham Williams decided he wanted to shake things up a little and invented a season-long story arc that involved collecting fragments of an object known as “the Key to Time”. The key would be broken into segments and scattered across the universe, and in each story the Doctor would go on a hunt for one, of course getting himself into trouble along the way.
I remember the first time I saw the opening scene of The Ribos Operation, where the arc was introduced. I laughed, it was funny for all the right reasons and at the end of the day the whole concept is quintessentially Doctor Who. You can really see why people love Tom Baker’s Doctor so much.
Introduction to Romanadvoratrelundar
Unfortunately, the above clip doesn’t include the moments where the White Guardian informs the Doctor that a new assistant is waiting for him in the TARDIS, and the rather annoyed time lord complains and swaggers back to his time machine. He finds Romana in an iconic white dress, ready for her assignment (which at this point she believes came from the High Council) to help the infamous renegade reassemble the Key to Time. At first she comes across as a bit snobbish, but you soon realise it’s necessary in order for her to bounce off the Doctor’s childish arrogance and really come across as his equal. Later on she loosens up a bit and becomes a bit more likable and relateable, which in a way is kind of a relief – I do love her in this episode, but too much sass can get tiresome.
I think the next bit is one of my favourite Doctor/Romana moments (although I have so many, she’s amazing). Once again I was laughing in the best way possible, loving the chemistry between the members of the new TARDIS team. Mary Tamm’s Romana has this wonderful thing she can do where she just sticks her nose in the air and mocks the arrogance of the Doctor, and even at times the entire situation they find themselves in, without seeming arrogant herself. The only unfortunate thing about the scene (and the one above) is that she mispronounces her own name.
The Ribos Operation
I’m going to be frank here and say that, compared to the output of the 70s era, the opening story of season 16 is crap. I mean that in a nice way (really, I never can actually outright hate anything Doctor Who), but I’m just warning you that this isn’t exactly Doctor Who, or the writing of the prolific Robert Holmes, at its best.
The Ribos Operation is a kind of story I like to refer to as being set “in the future in the past”. Basically, it’s reminiscent of adventures like The Brain of Morbius, where you’re pretty much watching a slice of Earth history but, because it’s set on an alien planet, the writers can break the rules and make stuff up wherever it suits them. This particular story feels awfully Biblical, with some boring politics revolving around a good-looking king and some conman trying to steal his gold or whatever. It’s not worth even attempting to explain the story, but you may enjoy it the first time (I honestly can’t remember if I did). Basically, the important bit is that after a couple of hours of semi-painful viewing the Doctor and Romana finally get the fragment and get out. While I do find this story boring (and that’s rare, for example I really really love 60s Who) it did have its moments, including the typical “K9 Q & A”.
The Pirate Planet
The Doctor and Romana’s second adventure is probably best known for being written by none other than Douglas Adams – who, in the Doctor Who world, would go on become script editor for series 17 and write two additional stories (one of which he wasn’t credited for for complicated reasons, and another which never made past production). The Pirate Planet gets off to a bit of a shaky start, but after a while it sorts itself out and you realise how clever the whole thing really is. It’s a bit difficult to explain, but if you watch it for yourself you realise that everything in the story happens for a reason, and it all comes to a facinating climax and resolution.
Romana also gets a bit more likable in this episode, which is helped by the fact that the Doctor is more willing to cooperate with her. The story opens with her reading the TARDIS manual before getting into a debate with the Doctor about how to correctly fly his space-time machine. Later on, after they’ve landed, the Doctor unsuccessfully tries to converse with the locals and, much to his annoyance, his female counterpart charms the masses with a bag of jelly babies.
And I’ll take this moment to say that Romana I’s costumes are all amazing, this one especially.
Another thing The Pirate Planet is strong on is humor. Episode three leaves us with the season’s first genuinely baffling cliffhanger, with a resolution that is guaranteed to make any Whovian smile. The story also follows a brilliant yet somehow idiotic captain, who in episode four delivers a hilarious order to his soldiers. On top of all that, the Doctor relates an entertaining story of how he helped Newton come up with the theory of gravity.
(Warning, this will ruin the rather brilliant cliffhanger)
(The real clip ends at 0:33, the rest is just the uploader being stupid)
The Stones of Blood
The third story in the Key to Time series makes me laugh. Some people classify The Stones of Blood as horror, but for me it’s Doctor Who doing one of the things it does best – picking a genre and taking the mickey out of it. The whole concept of “attack of the killer stones” is fantastically hilarious, not to mention the fact that the “local witch” is just the lesbian up the road playing dressups (okay, we don’t actually know if she’s a lesbian but…I’ll leave it for you to decide). Stones isn’t my favourite story of the season, but a large number of fans cite it as theirs.
Like all the opening scenes from this series this one’s fantastic, with the Doctor introducing Romana to his home turf – Earth. The bit where Romana remarks that “everyone knows Earth is your favourite planet,” makes me feel happy for some reason, and the whole concept of seeing her introduction to our home through her eyes is facinating.
And I will say her initial costume is another cracker.
K9 lovers will also enjoy this episode, and I think this the first story of the season where he properly leaves the TARDIS and gets the opportunity to show his full potential as a character. And some of the dialogue between him and the Doctor is just fantastic.
And of course, I can’t go on without mentioning Law & Order: Hyperspace, which features prominently in this story. Basically, the Doctor wears a wig. That is all.
(Warning, this clip does spoil some of the story, if you have any intention of watching it in the near future maybe skip it. Also it’s not the clip I would have picked, there’s funnier ones with the Megara)
The Androids of Tara
Of the six Key to Time stories, The Androids of Tara is my favourite, and, in my opinion, cruelly underrated. It’s another “set in the future in the past” story, but this time it actually works, and for some reason you just find yourself believing that there really is a planet with knights running around with electrically charged crossbows protecting the king who is actually an android replica of the real king who’s trapped in the evil count’s dungeon.
For a start, the opening “meanwhile in the TARDIS” sequence is just perfection, with the Doctor and K9 playing chess and Romana leaning over and remarking “mate in 12” before landing the TARDIS. I think this gives a fantastic snapshot of all the regular characters and their role on the team, and I cannot help but think of the Eleventh Doctor’s remark: “The time lords invented chess. It’s our game”. The following “I get a 50 year break” scene is possibly the best moment whole season, and is so quintessentially Fourth Doctor I believe it’s essential viewing for every Whovian.
Aside from that the story is really nicely paced, and uses the classic “two characters played by the same actor who happen to look alike”. It’s totally ridiculous in a Doctor Who sort of way (“this is Madame Lamia, my Doctor/Engineer”), but somehow manages to have fantastic charm – you can’t help but enjoy every second of it. The scenes were the Doctor has to try and make a semi-working android act like a real person to prevent the evil count becoming King is a particular highlight.
(this clip is also on the spoiler-y side, but I think it can really help you to understand what I mean when I talk about this story.)
The Power of Kroll
The only thing I can really remember about the first time I saw The Power of Kroll was that I’d taken the day off school and watched it, The Armageddon Factor and part one and two of Destiny of the Daleks (12 episodes in total) all in one go. And there’s a good reason I couldn’t remember much of the plot, because the series’ pemultimate story is a bit of funny one – it’s not that bad, but there’s nothing particularly good or memorable about it either. The sets are wobbly, the monster is unconvincing (in fact it’s so bad it’s actually good entertainment) and the characters aren’t used to their full potential – Romana in particular. K9 doesn’t even make an appearance!
Okay, I will admit that after I thought about it a little more another distinct memory did come to mind – the annoying out-of-time chant of the primitive swampies. And really, the fact that that’s all I could remember is saying something.
The Armageddon Factor
The first time I watched the series 16 finale I was engrossed, but I couldn’t remember if that’s because I was so dosed up with painkillers that I couldn’t be bothered moving, or if I actually was enjoying it. But this time around I was just as eager to see the ending, even though I already knew what was going to happen.
I can’t say much about The Armageddon Factor because most of it is spoiler-y – but I will say it’s a fantastic revelation that ties everything together and leaves you feeling like the 11 hours of your life you spent watching series 16 was worthwhile. It’s big, bold, gripping, and completely appropriate for a season finale.
On that note, the story does have it’s weaknesses. There’s some strange pace changes, for example switching from “oh no the universe is in immediate mortal danger” to the Doctor catching up with one of his old buddies from the Academy. Additionally, I can’t say I blame Mary Tamm for wanting to leave, because the way Romana was written in these episodes feels a bit awkward. She’s constantly defenseless, slow to work things out, and one step behind the Doctor on everything – completely different to the time lady we came to know and love at the beginning. It gets a lot better with Romana II, which is most of the reason she’s preferred by fans.
Speaking of the second Romana, this episode is also famous for featuring Lalla Ward in a prominent role, which, like many actors before and after her (notably Peter Purves and Freema Agyeman) subsequently scored her the role as the new companion. It’s a little bit strange watching Romana I and Princess Astra greeting each other, even though we all know she’s not the same character.
The story closes with the Doctor explaining to Romana that he’s installed a randomiser in the TARDIS and therefore has no idea where they’re going next. This marks the last time we’s see Mary Tamm as Romana on our screens, but viewers in the late 70s didn’t know that.
Not quite yet.
Coming soon: “From Skaro to E-Space: The Story of the Doctor and Romana II” (guide to all the stories featuring Romana II, including Shada)
All the clips below are very highly spoiler-y! Don’t watch if you don’t want to know how it all ends.