Return of the Saint – The Debt Collectors

debt 01

After Simon comes to the aid of a runaway horse ridden by Jeri Hanson (Mary Tamm), he finds himself embroiled in the murky world of espionage.  Jeri’s sister Christine (Diane Keen) was convicted of passing military secrets and is six years into a prison sentence.  But just one day before she’s due to be released on parole she escapes.

This was engineered by Sir Charles Medley (Geoffrey Keen) of the Ministry of Defence.  Jeri tells Simon she’s convinced her sister is innocent and it appears that Sir Charles arranged Christine’s prison-break in order to flush out a traitor in MI5.  But who can be trusted?  In the world of intelligence, things are not always as they appear to be …..

The Debt Collectors was written by George Markstein.  Given his background (script-editor/writer on series such as The Prisoner, Callan and Mr Palfrey of Westminster) it’s no surprise that he delivered a dense story set in the world of British Intelligence.

And after finding some of the previous episodes to be rather linear and straightforward, it’s a pleasure to have one where people’s motivations aren’t immediately obvious.  Things appear to open normally enough, with Simon coming to the rescue of an attractive young woman.  But she’s under surveillance and when Simon is later told not to speak to her again this only strengthens his interest.

By the time this aired, in December 1978, Mary Tamm was already more than half-way through her single season as Romana in Doctor Who.  Here, she seems to be the archetypal ROTS heroine – her function in the plot being little more than providing a decorative presence and also the excuse for the Saint to become involved in the story – but there’s a twist in the tale later.

Of more immediate interest is Diane Keen as Christine.  An actress who hardly seemed to be off the television screens in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, her first scene (behind prison bars) sees her playing a hard-bitten old lag.  This is rather a stretch for Keen and it’s no surprise that once she goes over the wall Christine becomes much more of a vulnerable character.

With the revelation that there could be a traitor in MI5, several possibilities present themselves.  There’s Sir Charles and also Simon’s MI5 contact Geoffrey Connaught (Anton Rodgers).  Geoffrey Keen, best known today for playing the Minster in the James Bond films, is perfect casting and Rodgers, later to carve a niche as a sit-com performer, shares some decent scenes with Ogilvy.

The story does have a few niggling plot-holes.  Why was Christine stuck in prison for six years before Sir Charles elected to use her to flush out the mole?  And since she was due to be released the following day why engineer a prison break?  If she’s on the run then presumably that makes her more of a target for the mole.  But since she doesn’t know his identity, Christine is ultimately something of a red-herring.

Whilst the looseness of the plot (which is a little surprising given Markstein’s background as a script-editor) is a slight irritation, there’s more than enough happening to negate these quibbles.  Apart from the already mentioned performers, the likes of Neil McCarthy (a familiar television face) and Bob Shearman (best-known for his regular role in The Sandbaggers) help to bolster an already impressive cast.

The Debt Collectors is a cut above the average ROTS script and rates four halos out of five.

debt 02

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Doctor Who and the Armageddon Factor

Tom Baker IS The Doctor
Tom Baker IS The Doctor

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.

Tom restrains his enthusiasm
Tom restrains his enthusiasm

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.

"You never know the answer when it's f*****g important do you?"
“You never know the answer when it’s f*****g important do you?”

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.

"There's no such thing as free will, only my will as I possess the Key to Time"
“There’s no such thing as free will, only my will as I possess the Key to Time”

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.