Doctor Who: Sixteenth Series Summary
The Key to Time
I remember when Doctor Who did a season-long arc. I liked the Eighth Series a lot more.
The concept seemed solid enough: The Key to Time Arc is a fight between good and evil – literally, the White Guardian versus the Black Guardian – with the Time Lords doing the legwork to maintain the balance of time, order, and chaos. It seems like something that Doctor Who should excel at, especially in how the eternal battle of angels and demons relates to humanity.
But it didn’t.
As I mentioned in The Power of Kroll, one of the biggest failings in this arc is how they handled the fragments of this powerful artifact. Instead of treating them along the same lines as the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the writers here treated them like museum pieces that would be hunted by Indiana Jones. Except that they even shortcut that as well because the fragments didn’t have any real power on their own.
Instead of making the fragments powerful enough to literally bend the story’s narrative – the tale of disparate criminals breaking out of prison becomes a quest to save the universe; a betrayed archaeologist decides to break up a cult, free slaves, and restore the village’s livelihood; a super-powered squid terrorizes a tribe of natives and their mining oppressors – five of the six pieces were effectively impotent and completely random.
The arc even had a chance to redeem itself in The Armageddon Factor by revisiting the ethical discussion from Genesis of the Daleks. The final Key Fragment was literally a human being, and in order to complete the mission and prevent the Black Guardian from enslaving the universe in eternal war, Princess Astra had to die. Is one human life worth completing the mission and saving the universe? That answer is no. What about when there is a completely viable alternative?
The Doctor had the ability to disperse the Key Fragments at the end to stop the Black Guardian from getting the completed Key. There was a perfect opportunity to pit Light and Dark against each other with the Time Lords protecting one human life in a discussion on how important it was. It was an opportunity to explore the human condition through metaphor, and it was missed by a long shot.
Sadly, the story execution was not the only failing in the Key to Time Arc.
I haven’t said a lot about Romana, and there is a really good reason for that. From the beginning, the role of the companion has been as a gateway to understand the Doctor. The Doctor has a cosmic understanding of time and space, and with that comes immense power. The companion balances the Doctor’s power (and his susceptibility to corruption by that power) by introducing an limited knowledge and an eagerness to learn more. We learned back in the Fourteenth Series that the Doctor cannot carry the responsibility (or the franchise) alone. He needs someone to temper the deus in the deus ex machina.
Unfortunately, Romana is written in this series as the Doctor Redux. Sure, she’s not as experienced, but she’s just as (or more) witty and capable, and shortly after her introduction, the pair is operating as equals instead of counterweights. It’s a case of double deus, and it removes our sympathetic window into understanding the Doctor and his adventures.
It’s certainly not Mary Tamm’s fault. She had so much potential in the role, but I feel that the screenplays prevented her from reaching it. There was also the opportunity to introduce the Doctor’s views on Time Lord society to a new recruit, maybe fixing the problems in the system that make the Doctor (and the audience) dislike his own people so much. Sadly, no. It’s unfortunate because there was some good chemistry between her and Tom Baker on screen. It’s doubly unfortunate because of her immediate departure from the role.
On a related note, I sincerely hope that Lalla Ward is better as the next companion. I’m willing to give her a shot, but I wasn’t impressed with her role as Princess Astra. Maybe it was the script? I’ll find out soon. I love the idea of a sympathetic Time Lord, but the character needs to be better.
I’m really hoping things turn around.
Series Sixteen Average Rating: 3.2/5
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks
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.