The Armageddon Factor
A lot is asked of The Armageddon Factor. Not only does it have to tell a good story in its own right, but it also has to provide the resolution to the season-long hunt for the Key to Time - a largely successful experiment that has by this point created a high degree of expectation. Does it meet these twin requirements? Well, yes and no. It is entertaining enough in itself, with some good direction by Michael Hayes and generally fine production values, but ultimately fails to tie up all the loose ends and leaves the over-arching plot strangely unresolved.
As with other six-parters of this era, the story can be subdivided into a number of 'acts'. The first, consisting of Parts One and Two, focuses on the main protagonists on Atrios: the obsessed Marshal (a fine performance from John Woodvine); his deputy Shapp; the pacifist Princess Astra; her weedy lover Merak; plus an assortment of guards. Sadly, aside from the Marshal, all these characters are somewhat one-dimensional. Merak, in particular, is pathetic and seems to spend the entire story wandering around calling for Astra.
Parts Three and Four introduce the Shadow, agent of the Black Guardian, and things start to look up. The introductory scene itself is very effective, and the Shadow's presence permeates the remaining episodes. He is, indeed, by far the best thing about the whole story. Actor William Squire keeps the character totally believable and simply oozes evil. The only let-down is his use of small black Lego bricks to control others' minds. It is never explained how these work (and strangely they work on both Astra and K9 but not the Doctor) - although it is admittedly a rather more dramatic device than some possible alternatives such as swinging a watch in front of Astra's eyes or simply reprogramming K9.
Geraint Jones liked the character, as he wrote in TARDIS Volume 4 Number 2, dated 1 April 1979: 'The Shadow proved an excellent villain. His evil was total as his little game on Atrios and Zeos showed. The face mask was very convincing, as were the scars on the jaw. The voice was one of the best we have ever heard: a low, hissing sound, but very clear as well as sinister.' Less impressed, however, was Mike Ashcroft writing in Oracle Volume 2 Number 8, dated May 1979: 'I didn't really like any of the characters, to tell the truth... The Shadow was too corny (as the name suggests - he was rather like a comic-strip fiend) for a commanding lead role, but given the situation the actor turned in a good performance.'
Also introduced in the middle section of the story is the computer Mentalis, a nice idea that works all the better for being presented in not too overblown a way - it is simply a computer in a room. It is also a nice touch that only K9 can communicate with Mentalis, giving him something to do in the story that is specifically tailored to his capabilities.
Parts Five and Six, set largely on the Shadow's 'planet' (obviously a spaceship of some description), bring the story and the search for the Key to Time to their conclusion. The biggest point of contention here is the character of Drax. 'I just didn't like him,' stated Ashcroft. '[Part Five] has to take first prize in the all-time "waste of time" category. It totally deflated my rising opinion of the intelligent, well-constructed storyline... After... the various parties roamed round endless corridors in "the valley of the Shadow" we were introduced to Drax, who encapsulates my distaste for this adventure. His instant recognition of the Doctor - "Theta Sigma" as he called him - made me fear for the worst; fears that were soon confirmed... As a Time Lord [Drax] did more to ruin the image of Gallifrey than Robert Holmes ever did. His [cockney] accent was taking things a bit too far... and the intended humour just wasn't funny.'
The story ends reasonably well with Astra herself revealed as being the sixth segment - which may perhaps explain Lalla Ward's rather lifeless acting throughout the adventure - and the Doctor finally assembling the complete Key to Time. Unfortunately, the resolution to the over-arching plot is something of a cop out - the Doctor simply decides that the Key is too powerful for anyone to possess and oders it to redisperse, thus thwarting the Guardian's plan. This all seems far too easy and makes a mockery of the preceding twenty-five-and-a-bit episodes of adventure and the Doctor's struggle to locate and assemble the six segments.
'My overall view on the last episode can only be [that it was an] anticlimax,' wrote Jones. 'It was very exciting, unpredictable and well produced. But as a successful conclusion to a twenty-six week lead up, it was a let-down... Explanations were far from being clear throughout. Was the universe stopped for a brief moment to restore the balance? Was this done by the White Guardian? How was Astra restored and the segment retained?
'It balanced the season nicely to meet the White Guardian at the opening and the Black at the end, but I think it would have worked far better with both in this last story... Surely it would have been better to have concluded the basic story of The Armageddon Factor in the first four episodes and [left] the last two to develop and conclude the running theme more successfully?'
Ashcroft had similar misgivings: 'The climax with the Black Guardian, at last, was... impressive but rather brief. The power of the Black Guardian was also a bit underplayed, I felt. Since the White Guardian could trap and open the doors of the TARDIS in The Ribos Operation, then I was surprised that his counterpart couldn't act against the ship here - even if the defences were on... And where was the White Guardian during all the action?'
To be fair, the choice the Doctor makes is the only one that allows Astra continued existence; and it is hard to see what other outcome could have been arrived at that would have allowed Doctor Who to continue without a major revision of its format. If the season had ended with the Black Guardian being given the Key, what would have happened? How could the Doctor have prevented him from running the universe exactly as he pleased?
This dilemma could certainly have provided the basis for an interesting new strand of adventures - a revamping of the series akin to the Doctor's exile to Earth in the early seventies, perhaps - but clearly there was no call for such a grand scale development at this time. Then again, the season could have ended with the White Guardian being given the Key, in fulfillment of the Doctor's mission, but that would have been even more undramatic than what was actually transmitted - and, in any event, the closing scenes could be interpreted as suggesting that the two Guardians are really just two sides of the same individual, or else that the Doctor has been inadvertently working for the Black Guardian all along.
So it is that the Doctor wins the day by denying anyone ultimate power and, fitting a randomiser to his TARDIS, heads off into the great unknown. The Armageddon Factor effectively marks the end of another of Doctor Who's sub-eras and a return to the old days, where the Doctor was a wanderer in space and time, never knowing where or in what time period he would arrive next.