Season 16 was the first to connect every episode under a single story arc. “The Key to Time” is like a video game quest, leading the Doctor to find one part of the “key” (a universe-editing tool) at the end of each of the season’s six episodes. This is set up by the White Guardian, a powerful being who is goodness personified in the Whoniverse. The six parts have been disguised as random objects scattered around the universe, and they must be found before the evil Black Guardian gets them.
Season 16, Story 1: The Ribos Operation
The Doctor is commissioned by the White Guardian and is assigned an assistant, Romana, a Time Lady who has spent her young life of 139 years at university on Gallifrey. Her education and arrogance make her the opposite of the Doctor’s last companion, Leela, and I found her irritating at first, as does the Doctor. Fortunately her haughtiness mellowed out by the next episode.
This Romana (Mary Tamm) is called Romana I by fans, because she regenerates at the start of the next season into Romana II (Lalla Ward). But I prefer to use the Doctor’s regenerational nomenclature, “First Romana” and “Second Romana,” since it’s just as applicable to a her as it is to him.
“The Ribos Operation” sounds cool – from the title I thought it might be a covert military operation on an interesting alien planet, but instead it’s a bleak trudge through an ignorant medieval world. A con man is trying to sell the planet to a deposed tyrant prince. It’s one of my least favorite stories of all I’ve watched, apparently because I’m not mature enough to appreciate its “Shakespearean panache,” so if you’re into that kind of thing, check it out. But The Altair Snail is a blog for my fellow Nu Who fans, the vast majority of whom are probably more at my level, unable to appreciate the finer things the series has to offer.
Season 16, Story 2: The Pirate Planet
I was first introduced to Douglas Adams in 2002, having been recommended the Internet’s favorite book series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I immediately loved, mainly because of Adams’s brilliant narrative voice. This narrator’s voice is not a part of his television scripts, so they don’t compare to his books, but they are smashing feats of imagination nonetheless. The Pirate Planet is a grand-scale story about a literal pirate planet, which travels around stealing resources from other worlds, under the command of a cruel captain with a cybernetic arm and a deadly robot parrot. It is, no surprise, very fun to watch. My favorite part was the obligatory Douglas Adams science gag, “Newton’s revenge,” in which the Doctor escapes pursuers by manipulating a “linear induction corridor,” which is like a moving sidewalk that directly manipulates inertia.
Season 16, Story 6: The Armageddon Factor
I was reluctant to watch a six-parter about the stupidity of nuclear war, but I wanted to see the end of the Key to Time arc, so I started watching – intending to skip through it – and liked it enough to watch it in its entirety. The irritating one-dimensional caricature of a general who sacrifices his people for victory is there, but not for long; the Doctor soon moves beyond him to higher and more interesting things. A servant of the Black Guardian is manipulating him, all in pursuit of the Key to Time. Although the episode is quite good, the climax of the arc is disappointing; as this blogger and this Amazon review point out, the Doctor merely puts the Key back into hiding, not having used it for anything. Good has been done in the pursuit of the key, but there is no satisfying victory in the closure of the arc. Again, this is probably because I’m immature, and don’t like stories that end with this kind of self-nullifying late-game change of heart.
Allegedly, Douglas Adams contributed to this episode. He then became the program’s script editor for the entirety of Season 17.
Season 17, Story 1: Destiny of the Daleks
I had not intended to watch more than one or two Dalek episodes after Genesis of the Daleks, but I ended up watching all of them, and they are all quite good. Destiny is the direct follow-up to Genesis, finding the Daleks, now a galactic menace despite the setback in Genesis, regretting their mutiny against Davros, as they now need him to improve their battle strategies. The Doctor must prevent them from securing him, leading to some hilarious moments as the Doctor drags around and mocks the ever-serious villain.
According to the TARDIS wiki, “This is Terry Nation‘s final script credit on Doctor Who. However, director Ken Grieve claimed that the script was in fact “98% written by” script editor Douglas Adams. (BBC DVD: Destiny of the Daleks). These remarks seem consistent with comments by Adams quoted in Don’t Panic by Neil Gaiman (published within the lives of both Adams and Nation). I find it very easy to believe that Douglas Adams wrote this exchange:
DAVROS: Ha! There was damage to my primary life support system. The secondary and back-up circuits switch in immediately. Synthetic tissue regeneration took place whilst bodily organs were held in long-term suspension.
DOCTOR: Blimey, wasn’t that outstaying your welcome in rather a big way?
DAVROS: Until the Dalek’s universal supremacy is accomplished, I cannot allow myself the luxury of death.
DOCTOR: Ohhhh, poor Davros!
DAVROS: However, it is a luxury I shall delight in bestowing upon you.
DOCTOR: You’re very generous.
(Thanks to this excellent in-depth review of the episode for the exact text.)
The Daleks’ problem turns out to be that they are pitting their tactical computers against the computers of a robot race, and since every movement of each is immediately countered by the other, there has been a ceasefire for centuries. While this is good science fiction, it will seem strange to anyone who, like me, grew up playing war strategy games in which computer opponents routinely fight and defeat each other. The Daleks’ problem is presumably that their computers are programmed not to take any risky course of action.
Inevitably, Destiny is not as good as Genesis, but I think it’s a worthy sequel. Following the Davros storyline is a worthy pursuit for any reasonably thorough tour of Who history.
Now I find that I’ve reversed my normal order of business, by addressing the episode itself before introducing its new companion. Second Romana (Lalla Ward) is my favorite classic companion after Leela; she’s both competent and agreeable, but more than that, she has in my opinion the best “chemistry” with the Doctor of any classic companion. Some time after watching my selection from her tenure, I learned that she briefly married Tom Baker after leaving the show, but that they separated on friendly terms after sixteen months. She was then introduced to her current husband, Richard Dawkins, by Douglas Adams. Imagine that! Richard Dawkins named the asteroid 8437 Lallaward after her, and the couple celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary this year.
Romana’s regeneration was not explained in the episode, but has been credited to the torture and other stresses she was put through in The Armageddon Factor. There is a bizarre sequence at the beginning of this episode in which she shows the Doctor herself in a series of regenerations, as though she were trying on clothes. Fans theorize that Time Ladies can change their appearance at will, or dismiss this sequence as non-canonical. I like to think that she was using a hologram generator, like the ones in the previous episode.
Included on this episode’s DVD was this hilarious collection of ads for Prime Computer, which amazingly has the ability to communicate with other computers. Step into the 80’s!
At the end of the last ad, Romana and the Doctor become engaged to marry, something which would never have happened on the show at the time. The ad’s writers played to the audience’s romantic fantasies in the same way Nu Who does today.
Season 17, Story 2: City of Death
When I researched what episodes to watch, this title appeared immediately as an essential, universally recommended by fans as Douglas Adams’s Doctor Who masterpiece. I can only add my voice to that chorus of praise; I consider it my favorite classic serial of all. City of Death has quality all around: imaginative plot, clever writing, enjoyable performances, beautiful location shooting in Paris, never a dull moment.
The title is unfortunate and hardly applicable. A wealthy man in Paris is trying to fund the construction of a time machine by stealing the Mona Lisa, and selling a mysterious set of perfect duplicates. I dare not add more, except that there is a Crowning Moment of Awesome featuring John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (which Douglas Adams also contributed to).
Season 17, Story 6: Shada
This lost episode, Douglas Adams’s final contribution, was never completed, due to a union strike which shut down the production midway through. Therefore, about a third of the scenes were never filmed, but it is available to watch, featuring video interludes in which Tom Baker describes the missing events. Despite its condition, it is a favorite of many fans, and I thought it was very good. It’s another story about someone wishing to use technology to become a god. It’s set mainly in Cambridge, and the Doctor takes Romana punting; I loved this because I’ve done that in Cambridge with my relatives.
The script was recently adapted into an official, but rudimentary, Flash animation with the Eighth Doctor, and an extended audio release of the same. It includes Douglas Adams tributes, such as the “Treasurer for the Ford Prefect Society.” The whole thing is available here on bbb.co.uk. If the Flash videos don’t play, maximize them and they should work.
Season 18, Story 4: State of Decay
Season 18 is considered by many to mark the beginning of the end for classic Who, as the reins of producerhood were handed over to the reviled John Nathan-Turner, who changed the nature of the show and allowed various terrible things to happen, ultimately culminating in the show’s cancellation. Yet the show wasn’t dead yet; perennial fan favorite The Caves of Androzani, voted best story ever in the Mighty 200 poll and second best in the survey conducted by Outpost Gallifrey, was later produced under JNT’s supervision. Although this season has nothing to do with Douglas Adams, I’m including it here because it is the conclusion to Romana, and the end of the Fourth Doctor.
State of Decay is the second part of the “E-Space Trilogy,” in which the TARDIS is trapped in a bubble universe, larger than the one in The Doctor’s Wife but still far smaller than the home universe of “N-Space.” E-Space contains various star systems, and in the preceding episode the doctor met the boy Adric, a brilliant mathematician, hated by whovians. Adric would later become the first companion to die since the 60’s. In State of Decay he has stowed away on the TARDIS, which is on a medieval planet ruled by ancient astronauts.
The astronauts are living in a castle which turns out to be a rocket ship, and they turn out to be vampires. But they are only serving the Great Vampire buried beneath, the last and greatest of an ancient enemy of the Time Lords. It’s a great idea, but suffers from having been conjured out of thin air for this episode, and most of the runtime is rather dull.
Season 18, Story 6: The Keeper of Traken
I was very reluctant to watch this because of its setting, a peaceful utopia; I’ve never liked that kind of thing in Star Trek, because they’re always so irritatingly unreal, and tend to be populated by arrogant people who gloat about how superior their fictional paradise is. (For that matter, the entire premise and setting of Star Trek, the United Federation of Planets, is a fantasy communist utopia in which everyone works for the joy of work and accomplishment, and currency is only found on “less civilized” worlds.) Despite all this, Traken pleasantly surprised me; there are stupidly naive leaders, but overall it was much less painful than it could have been. The plot is clever and original, and I consider it a solid episode, if not essential.
Season 18, Story 7: Logopolis
Tom Baker’s last adventure, Logopolis is a fairy tale about the second law of thermodynamics. Characters quote it on multiple occasions, and entropy itself becomes an aggressive destructive force. The story is that the universe (N-Space) long ago passed the point at which it would have been destroyed by entropy, had it remained an isolated system. This has thus far been delayed by the people of Logopolis, who are (to put it crudely) human calculators, using “block transfer computation” to maintain “charged vacuum emboitments,” portals into other universes, in particular E-space. Entropy funnels through these, keeping N-Space an “open system.” While one would assume that this was a cruelly selfish thing to do, dumping our entropy onto the people in E-Space, and that such a tiny universe wouldn’t make much difference any way, in the Whoniverse the process is safe and effective.
The Master sabotages Logopolis, and the mystical dark force of entropy immediately begins to eliminate entire star systems from existence, while the Doctor races to create a permanent CVE to E-Space. He succeeds at the cost of his life, and the regeneration sequence is in my opinion the best and most moving of any classic Doctor’s. I didn’t enjoy the episode much, but that ending is quality.
Logopolis also adds two more companions to the TARDIS crew: Nyssa, a girl of Traken introduced in the last story; and Tegan, an Australian airline hostess. While I have some affection for both, I must agree with the popular views that Nyssa is generally boring, and Tegan is often annoying. I won’t go into it further, but I do feel that after the Romanas, the only classic companion to be of great value to the show was Ace, companion to the Seventh Doctor and the final companion of the classic series.