Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara
The Key to Time, Part IV
(4 episodes, s16e13-e16, 1978)
As a bookend to the fifteenth anniversary, it could have been so much more.
With the TARDIS in transit, the Doctor challenges K9 to a game of chess. Romana uses the Key’s tracker to steer their course to Tara. While the Doctor goes fishing, Romana hunts for the next fragment. As she locates it, she is attacked by a wood beast and rescued by a knight with a electrified sword. He identifies himself as Count Grendel of Gracht, and he confiscates the fragment under the law for identification. To compensate her, the count takes Romana to his castle to tend after her twisted ankle.
The Doctor, asleep on the riverbank, is found by Zadek and Farrah, two swordsmen, and they recruit him to fix their android. The Doctor is taken to Prince Reynart who offers him a reward for his services fixing the android, which looks like the androids from a different Fourth Doctor adventure. After a face is attached, it is designed to look like the prince and act as a (life model) decoy for his coronation the next day.
Upon arriving at the Count’s castle, Romana is tended to an engineer named Lamia. The engineer and count admire her “construction” and decide to disassemble her. The swelling in her ankle convinces them that she’s not an android after all. Instead of being disassembled, she is drugged. Similarly, he ends up drugging the retinue and kidnapping the prince.
When they come to, the Doctor and the retinue develop a plan to use the android decoy to stand in until the prince is rescued. The Doctor calls in K9 for support and learns that Romana has not yet returned. In Grendel’s castle, Romana awakens and is taken to see Princess Strella and Prince Reynart. Both are Grendel’s captives, and Romana is physically identical to the princess. If Reynart is not crowned as king at the proper time, Grendel may be chosen to ascend in his stead. The count leaves Romana and the prince in their cell and heads to the coronation.
The Doctor sends K9 to Count Grendel’s castle to search for Romana and the prince while he and the rest of the retinue carry on with the decoy plot. As they journey, the retinue explains how a plague attacked ninety percent of the population and the androids were built to keep the civilization moving. The culture has become a mix of feudal and futuristic elements. They are attacked by Grendel’s men, but still manage to arrive in time for the ceremony. In a somewhat Weekend at Bernie’s sequence, the android is crowned, but as Princess Strella approaches to pledge her fealty, the Doctor grabs the royal scepter and strikes her dead.
This really isn’t a very good cliffhanger since we know that Romana and Princess Strella are still in captivity.
The princess is really an android. Count Grendel convinces Zardek to postpone the oath-taking until the next day on the premise that other android assassins may be in the court. Grendel retreats to his castle and orders Lamia (who is experimenting with the Key Fragment) to build a Romana android that will assassinate the Doctor. Grendel then offers the Doctor a chance to collect Romana, which he knows is a trap, but chooses to spring anyway. The real Romana escapes and makes her way on horseback to the Doctor, but arrives to find Lamia dead after the Doctor and K9 have thwarted the assassination attempt. She escapes with the Doctor to the prince’s home, with Grendel in hot pursuit. In private discussion, the count stalls by offering the throne to the Doctor, but then destroys the decoy prince and escapes with Romana.
Count Grendel explains his new plan for usurping power: Romana will marry the king, who will then die as a matter of convenience so Grendel can marry the widow and assume the throne. The Doctor knows that a full siege of the castle would take too long, so he and K9 sneak in through the moat and tunnel system to disrupt the wedding. After a sword duel, during which the gates are opened and the prince’s forces storm the castle, Count Grendel escapes by diving into the moat and swimming away, presumably into exile. Meanwhile, Romana rescues Princess Strella from captivity.
Putting the wrap on the adventure, Prince Reynart reunites with Princess Strella, the Doctor reunites with Romana, and the Time Lords reunite with the Key Fragment. On their way back to the TARDIS, they make one more stop: They must retrieve K9 from the boat in the middle of the moat.
The positives: Mary Tamm and her four distinct roles (Romana, Romana-bot, Princess Strella, and Princess-bot). I mean, it was fun to see her range and skill beyond being a snarky foil for the Doctor.
The negatives: Pretty much everything else. It was a lackluster story, and while the rest of the season hasn’t been exactly stellar, at least the other tales were fun. This one felt paint-by-the-numbers and, dare I say, boring. I wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either.
Remember how I said that Louise Jameson saved Underworld from joining the ranks of failing grades for me?
Thank Mary Tamm for this one.
Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.