Nobody loves The Armageddon Factor. Ranked 204 out of 241 stories in the recent DWM poll would appear to be a fairly accurate confirmation of its low standing.
But before we turn our attention to the story, lets have a quick look and see how its rated by some other bloggers. Philip Sandifer considers that it’s “a painful squandering of good will in a way that only deepens the concern that the series has lost its way” whilst the Wife In Space called it a complete waste of time and rated it 4/10.
In his three years as producer, Graham Williams never had much luck with season finales. Season 15 was going to conclude with a story by David Weir, until it was realised that his draft scripts would have needed a Star Wars-sized budget to make them work. So Williams and script editor Anthony Read had to cobble something up at the eleventh hour. The resulting story, The Invasion of Time, was something of a shambles – not helped by a BBC strike which meant that the production lost half of its studio allocation, so they were forced to decamp to a disused hospital to record some of the interiors.
Season 17 was even worse. Douglas Adams’ Shada was also hit by a strike, but this time there was no opportunity to record the material affected by the stoppage, so the programme was never completed or transmitted. But over the last thirty years it has spawned VHS, DVD, audio and book releases – and a notoriety that the original story probably never deserved.
This leaves the last story of Season 16 – The Armageddon Factor. This was not affected by strikes or last minute rewrites, but there does seem to be something somewhat lacking. In late 70’s Doctor Who if you weren’t careful, by the end of the season you may have run out of money so your season finale would end up looking a little threadbare. This is how Armageddon looks – no location filming and rather basic sets.
But the early episodes are helped no end by John Woodvine’s appearance as The Marshall. Woodvine is a quality actor and he also has the welcome benefit of making Tom Baker raise his game. There are other examples of this – Julian Glover in City of Death for example – so casting strong actors in late 70’s Who was clearly a good way to get Tom to focus on the matter in hand.
By this time, Tom had been in the role for five years. No actor had played the part for longer, and he still had another two years to go. Given this, it’s probably not surprising that there were times when he either seemed to go through the motions or dropped in the odd outrageous ad-lib. Having said that, the commonly held view that Baker was playing the fool throughout the Graham Williams era is quite clearly untrue. There’s the odd double take and painful pun, but for most of the time he plays it straight – although not everyone else is on the same page.
For example, Davyd Harries, as Shapp, puts in various bits of business that either director Michael Hayes approved of or didn’t notice. It’s amusing enough though and does help to pass the time during some of the less interesting passages in the first half of the story.
Because apart from Harries and Woodvine, the guest cast are fairly small and not of great interest. Lalla Ward would quite soon prove to be very important both to Doctor Who and Tom Baker, but there’s very little for her to latch on with the character of Astra. And Ian Saynor has even less of a character, if that’s possible, with the irredeemably wet Merak.
That leaves William Squire as the main villain, The Shadow. Squire was a good actor, probably best known for playing Hunter in the two Thames series of Callan. But The Armageddon Factor takes the strange decision to put him in a mask and also treated his voice, thereby making him unrecognisable. The Shadow isn’t much of a part anyway, as he tends to speak only in evil-villain talk and then give the odd maniacal chuckle. It’s a long way from the best villains of the Hinchcliffe era, such as Davros, Sutekh, Harrison Chase and Magnus Greel. The Shadow seems to have no interest beyond obtaining the last segment of the Key to Time, and therefore he can’t expect to hold the audience’s interest.
The story was scripted by Bob Baker & Dave Martin, who had been writing for the series since 1971. This was their last joint story for the series and it’s probably fair to say that very few people have ever expressed any regret that they didn’t carry on writing for the show. They were not always bad, and sometimes quite good, but they tended usually to be pretty average. But a safe pair of hands then, and just what Graham Williams needed to bring The Key to Time Season to a conclusion.
This they do, although the ending in particular has always been viewed as something of a damp squib. After a season of the Doctor and Romana searching the universe for the six segments of the Key to Time, the conclusion of this epic quest is thrown away in such a perfunctory way. Script editor Anthony Read should have been able to fashion something better, but didn’t – unless the original proposal was even worse.
But having said all this, is the story totally unwatchable? No, of course not. The first half of the story is better than the second, since John Woodvine gets stuck in a time loop in episode four and has little to do from then on. We are also denied Davyd Harries’ comedy pratfalls later on, and Barry Jackson – as cockney Time Lord Drax – is no substitute. Remember me to Galifree.
Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are both still giving it their all though. It might have been a long season, but they are committed and do their best to make the most of the thin material. This was to be Tamm’s last television appearance as Romana and although she tended to be overshadowed by Lalla Ward’s portrayal of Romana II, Tamm had a good rapport with Baker throughout the Key To Time season and remained popular with fans right up until her untimely death, at the age of 62, in 2012.
Overall then, The Armageddon Factor is never going to be regarded as a great or even a good story – but there’s far, far worse out there and Tom Baker, Mary Tamm and John Woodvine all do their best to to inject some energy into it. If I had to rate it, then a solid 6/10 would seem about right.