40 years of The Key To Time

❉ An appreciation of the six segments that make up Doctor Who’s first season ‘arc’, broadcast Autumn 1978.

“The Key To Time is a highly imaginative, witty and clever season. Many people would have a hand in the season’s success both in front of and behind the camera, so get your Tracer ready, let’s go back forty years and find six of the things that made the season such a success…”

Forty years ago, the Doctor embarked on a quest. A quest that would take him all over the universe looking for the six segments of the Key to Time, a perfect cube that would restore the balance of good and evil across the universe.  It would turn out to be one of Doctor Who’s most varied and inventive seasons.

Many people would have a hand in the season’s success both in front of and behind the camera, but there are six things without which it wouldn’t have been so good, so get your Tracer ready, let’s go back forty years and see if we can find six of the things that made the season such a success…

Segment One: Graham Williams, Producer

“The new producer was just as concerned with the ongoing mythos of the show as he was with getting it on to the screen.”

Graham Williams had taken over as producer at a crucial time in the show’s history. With the BBC worried about the fuss Mary Whitehouse was causing about the violence and horror in the show, Phillip Hinchcliffe was moved sideways and swapped assignments with Graham Williams.

Williams arrived with great hopes for the show. In his job interview, he presented a document that laid the foundations of the hunt for the Key to Time. Williams felt that the Doctor’s adventures were somewhat morally irresponsible; he arrives, changes what he doesn’t like and then leaves. In Williams’ mind, the Doctor needed a purpose and that purpose would be a mission from the White Guardian which would see the Doctor and his companions hunting down the segments to help restore the balance between the forces of good and evil in the universe. The new producer was just as concerned with the ongoing mythos of the show as he was with getting it on to the screen.

Due to lack of preparation time when he took over, he was unable to put the theme together for season 15, but given a bit more time and the enthusiastic help of his Script Editor, Anthony Read, his second season would have the overarching theme he wanted. As he said, “the concept itself was easy to get together, but I needed stories which could still be self-sufficient in their own right.”

This is one of the brilliant things about the season; although there’s a theme to the season as a whole, each individual story can still be enjoyed in their own right. These stories would often be small in scale which contrasted nicely with the bigger theme of the season.

This was the one Williams season where everything fell into place and worked. He was able to get his vision of the show onto the screen and produce a highly imaginative, witty and clever series of stories.  He deserves far more credit for that than he ever receives. His version of the show is intelligent and above all, fun.

Segment Two: Tom Baker, The Doctor

“During this season Tom seems to be energised by the material. His righteous anger at the Pirate Captain is generally considered one of Tom’s finest moments in the role.”

The Key to Time season was Tom’s fifth season as the Doctor. Far from being tired and diminished, this season sees Tom at his best in the role. During this season, we see his Doctor at his wittiest, Tom seems to be energised by the material and makes some very good choices with his performance throughout.  That’s not to say that the wit overtakes everything in his performance; there are many moments where we see other facets of his character. His righteous anger at the Pirate Captain in The Pirate Planet for instance is generally considered one of Tom’s finest moments in the role.  Although off screen Tom was perhaps less than happy, tendering his resignation during the making of The Armageddon Factor when his relationship with Graham Williams was rather stormy, this never shows on screen.

There are other moments throughout the season where he’s thoughtful and reflective, and the warmth and charm he brings to his relationship with Emelia Rumford in The Stones of Blood is wonderful to watch.  The respect he has for Beatrix Lehman shows in all their scenes together.

Also great is his relationship with Mary Tamm’s Romana. There’s very much a sense that Tom is a bit intimated by Mary Tamm to begin with, so he’s on his best behaviour (he’d had a famously stormy relationship with Louise Jameson over the previous couple of years) and with a bit of mutual respect the two form a great partnership.

The directors throughout the season cast their parts very carefully, with guest actors coming in to the show that can match Tom at the height of his powers. This strategy works well, as it ensures that Tom doesn’t dominate the screen quite as much as he arguably would at times the following year.  With actors such as Iain Cutherbertson, Bruce Purchase, Peter Jeffrey, Phillip Madoc and John Woodvine acting against him, Tom raises his game and gives his best.  He’s an absolute joy to watch throughout.

Segment Three: David Fisher

“Fisher comes in, writes two consecutive stories and just instantly understands this era of the show. He got the mix of wit, intrigue and adventure just right.”

Few writers come in and hit the ground running as quickly as David Fisher did. Like Chris Boucher a couple of seasons before, Fisher comes in, writes two consecutive stories and just instantly understands this era of the show. He got the mix of wit, intrigue and adventure just right and along with this season’s other new writer, he would perhaps be the writer that best defines the Williams era.

He really understood the relationship between the Doctor, Romana and K9. In his hands, Romana  really does become the Doctor’s acolyte, all at once cleverer but less worldly than he is, leading her to make mistakes he wouldn’t from her choice of footwear to understanding how horses work. His take on K9 is truly wonderful, with him becoming both prissier and more likeable than ever before. He creates a charming relationship between the dog and Professor Rumford, with her calling him dear and him instructing her on how to rebuild the Doctor’s machine. It’s beautiful to watch.

Fisher’s great skill was his inventive characterisation. His two stories feature some of the most memorable characters of the season, from the truncheon wielding Professor Rumford with her love of sausage sandwiches to the villainous Vivean Fay in Stones of Blood to the scoundrel that is Count Grendel and his scorned lover Madam Lamia in Androids of Tara. He also understands the need for jeopardy and adventure, with various chases and swordfights on Tara and the scene with the two campers in Stones, where the viewers know they’re doomed as soon as they arrived on screen.

That Fisher never wrote the show again after 1980 was such a missed opportunity.

Segment Four: Mary Tamm

“Mary Tamm’s Romana is an integral part of The Key To Time and the season would be a whole lot less fun without her.”

After the departure of Leela, Graham Williams decided the new companion should be a complete contrast, so from savage to ice maiden. Williams would remark that the part was “a bitch to cast” but also said that he couldn’t imagine anyone else that he would have cast as Romana, that person being Mary Tamm.

Mary Tamm brings a haughty disregard for everything around her, perhaps not all of which comes from the character. She’s obviously taking her cues from Tom Baker in not taking everything around her totally seriously and so forms a rather good relationship with him, with a rather knowing but warm performance. This suits her Romana, who is at once both ever so clever and ever so naïve. She plays the comedy very well and the scenes of her getting one over on the Doctor are a joy.

What she also brings is an innate glamour, which stems from Tamm herself. She looks magnificent throughout the season with a variety of wonderful costumes from the gorgeous white dress and furs in The Ribos Operation and her own favourite costume, the burgundy riding gear complete with hat for The Androids of Tara. It feels as if Mary is enjoying the dressing up just as much as Romana is!

Doing just the one season, Mary Tamm’s Romana is an integral part of The Key To Time and the season would be a whole lot less fun without her. From her wonderful initial appearance in the TARDIS, disdainfully running a finger over the console and looking for dust to her glorious pushing the TARDIS doors shut in The Armageddon Factor, she’s the only companion who’s superior to Tom Baker’s Doctor and isn’t that a wonderful thing?

Segment Five: Douglas Adams

“At this point, Douglas Adams is young, full of energy and wild ideas, and he hasn’t got enough money to say no. So Doctor Who benefits from this.”

It has to be Douglas Adams, doesn’t it? Anthony Read was justly proud of discovering Adams and bringing him into the show. Where Graeme MacDonald (Head of Serials and Series) was sceptical, Read recognised and encouraged a talented and brilliant writer that could bring a wild imagination to the show.

At this point, Douglas Adams isn’t the Douglas Adams of later years, weighed down by whooshing deadlines; he’s young, full of energy and wild ideas, and he hasn’t got enough money to say no. So Doctor Who benefits from this. The Pirate Plant may be bustling with ideas and wit, but it’s also extremely well plotted. That he wrote this and the first Hitch Hikers radio series at the same time is quite amazing really.

It’s no wonder that the show wanted to harness that talent and he was offered the Script Editor’s position as the season was drawing to a close. It made perfect sense at the time, even if, with hindsight it seems an unorthodox move to take an inexperienced writer and place at the coalface of commissioning and editing the show. He draws the season to a close, writing the final scenes and in a typically clever way, shows the Doctor at his best, realizing that no-one should hold the ultimate power. Adams innately understands the character of the Doctor, especially at this time in the show’s history and gives the season perhaps the only ending it could ever have had.

Doctor Who was lucky to find such a talent at the right time in both their histories.

Segment Six: The Female Characters

“The best supporting character of the season, Professor Emelia Rumford played by the mighty Beatrix Lehman, is simply superb, playing one of the great eccentrics of the show.”

It’s incredible to think that this season features more female characters than the whole of the Hinchcliffe era. So many of those stories had Sarah Jane or Leela as the only female speaking role, so it’s something of a surprise to find such a wide range of strong female characters featuring so prominently this year. Indeed, Stones of Blood is the only story in the classic run of Doctor Who that features more female characters than males. They’re all well rounded, real people too, not just there for the dads, from The Seeker in The Ribos Operation who might be the only character with supernatural powers never to be debunked by the show through to Mula, who is strong enough to disobey her Grandfather and boyfriend to go and find her brother, no matter where it takes her.

We have two great female villains in The Pirate Planet and Stones of Blood. The Nurse in The Pirate Planet is very cleverly used, initially appearing to simply be another cipher, the woman as carer, but gradually comes to the fore as the major protagonist of the story. It’s a real surprise when she turns out to be behind the whole thing and it’s a testament to Rosalind Lloyd’s skills as an actor that she manages to keep this from the viewer by not overplaying her early scenes.

Vivean Fay aka Cessair of Diplos is the other who again is more than she initially seems. At the outset, she appears to merely be Professor Rumford’s assistant, but eventually is revealed to be silver skinned criminal from the planet Diplos masquerading as a Celtic goddess. Susan Engel is fantastic throughout as the sly character, purring every line once her identity is revealed. That she’s spent all her time on Earth killing off her many husbands (and, according to at least one reading, having a lesbian liaison with Vita-Sackville West) and running off with their riches and setting herself up as someone else is really rather wonderful.

Lois Baxter’s Madam Lamia is in one of the most grown up relationships seen in the show up to this point, scorned by Count Grendel, but unable to leave him because she’s still in love with him. It’s a tragic, doomed relationship but feels totally real. Let’s not forget that the sixth segment is also a woman too, Princess Astra of Atrios. Lalla Ward gives her a great dignity and is far from wet, as it’s revealed that she’s behind the resistance movement on Atrios. It’s a very different performance to the one Ward would give over the next two season when she becomes the second incarnation of Romana.

They’re all overshadowed by the best supporting character of the season, Professor Emelia Rumford played by the mighty Beatrix Lehman. She’s quite simply superb, playing one of the great eccentrics of the show. Her open mindedness, bravery and her camaraderie with the Doctor, Romana and especially K9 are a sheer joy and the little touches like her scratching her head with a screwdriver make her feel so real.

The Key to Time season is Graham Williams’ most consistent season in tone and what appears on screen. Although there is some over the top acting and a lot of comedy, neither take over the show nor destabilise it. The stories may not hit the heights of City of Death, but neither do they hit the lows of Underworld. We have great actors playing their parts to perfection matching some clever and witty material. This season is Doctor Who having fun and taking the audience on the ride with it. Not everything comes off, but like Garron said, “Who wants everything? I’ll settle for 90%!”


‘The Key To Time’ (Season Sixteen) was released on 1 October 2002 with minimal restoration and commentaries and pop-up production notes in region 1, both as a box set as well as being available individually. A limited edition box set of 15,000 copies with full restoration, expanded extras and a fold out box design was released in region 2 on 24 September 2007. This limited edition version was later issued in a standard box for the 7 November 2007 region 4 release and the 3 March 2009 region 1 “Special Edition” release (region 1 serials were also available individually), and the 16 November 2009 non-limited region 2 re-release in a slipcase box.

Si Hart is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

 

Liked this post? Take a second to support We Are Cult on Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply