1978 is not only the year in which I was born, but it also produced one of my all time favourite eras of Doctor Who. Having left Leela behind on Gallifrey to indulge in her gratuitously discreet romance with the guard Andred (in one of the most derided leaving scenes of all time), the Doctor was happy to put his feet up, but the universe had other ideas.
The White Guardian, one half of the two greatest powers in the galaxy, has given him a quest, to assemble the crystalline, transformative segments of the Key to Time. He also provides the Doctor with a new ‘assistant,’ the glamorous and snooty Romana (Mary Tamm).
We’ve had intelligent companions before, and companions who are close to being the Doctor’s intellectual peer (Zoe and Liz being the main examples), but this is the first time that a companion was set up as being the Doctor’s superior in most things.
The six Key to Time stories are rollicking adventures, for the most part, and even edge towards the swashbuckling, with more swords, princesses and villainous twirly moustaches than we usually get in Doctor Who. There’s more overt humour than had been used before, as the scripts made the most of the Fourth Doctor, Romana and K9’s tendency towards snark and banter. With The Pirate Planet, we even get the first example of Douglas Adams writing for Doctor Who – he took on the script editing gig by the end of this season with the Armageddon Factor, and would go on to write one of the best regarded and most romantic Doctor Who serials of all time (City of Death).
Even the less wonderful stories of this season still have Romana in them, which makes them substantially awesome – despite a twisted ankle, one bad choice of shoes and other occasional trip ups, her world-weary and ever so sarcastic persona is always enjoyable. She’s smart and allowed to be smart – sometimes smarter than the Doctor, though she always has something to learn from him, too. Independent, competent… and stretching her wings in a universe far more crazy and chaotic than she was ever led to believe.
Romana kicks arse.
When it comes to my favourite story of this era, I simply can’t choose between the wonderful sword-and-swash Ruritanian/planetary romance that is The Androids of Tara, and the unusually feminist and utterly pagan Earthbound mystery that is Stones of Blood. Both have vivid characters, great dialogue, and excellent material for Romana, almost to the detriment of the Doctor (though Tom Baker never lets a lack of juicy material get in the way of putting in a memorable performance).
They’re also both written by David Fisher, something I had never realised before – I certainly don’t love his other work on the show to the same fierce degree that I do these two stories.
Both The Androids of Tara and The Stones of Blood are Bechdel ahoy – full of women, doing interesting things, not all of which is to forward the plots of men. It’s certainly an improvement over The Power of Kroll which has no female roles at all except Romana herself.
Admittedly, most of the female roles in Androids of Tara are played by Mary Tamm, who is not only Romana and Princess Strella but also the android lookalikes of them both. This story also gives us Madame Lamia, one of the more nuanced villainous sidekicks of the classic era. A self-identitied ‘peasant’ who is very aware of the class differences between herself and her former lover Count Grendel (whom she still cares for), she is also a scientist and artisan who creates the beautiful, lifelike androids to be used for Grendel’s political machinations. Despite all of her romance and angsty layers, she is also very proud of her work, and spends a great deal of energy investigating the segment of the Key once it falls into her hands – not because it is useful to her master, but because she doesn’t know how it works and she WANTS TO.
The Stones of Blood, on the other hand, has almost no male roles in it at all. The Doctor and Romana befriend an elderly archaeologist, Amelia Rumford and her friend Vivien Fay (viewing this story today it’s hard not to say “friend” as these two read as thoroughly lesbian) on the moors, and get involved in a mystery of stone circles that don’t stay put, an ancient goddess, blood sacrifice and a hyperspace prison in another dimension. There’s so much in this story about history, female power and a whole lot of very Seventies horror tropes, but mostly once again, it’s held together with banter and great characters.
Both stories also benefit from marvellously evil villains, a great staple of Doctor Who: the beautifully moustached and dapper Count Grendel of Gracht who is happy to murder and deceive everyone in his path to the throne (and enjoys every plummy threat he gets to utter to the rest of the cast), and the wickedly ruthless alien Cessair of Diplos who has posed as all manner of poisonous enchantresses and ladies of the manor for generations, not to mention the Celtic goddess the Cailleach, all in the name of staying free of her prison.
It wouldn’t be a truly awesome Classic Who story if it hadn’t inspired cosplay in modern fans – and on that count, both stories also win. Romana’s bright purple and green outfit in Androids (designed by Mary Tamm on the fly when the first outfit didn’t work) is much copies by cosplayers, while the Cailleach appeared at the very recent Gallifrey One…
When it comes down to it, even if The Stones of Blood is a little bit more feminist… The Androids of Tara has fencing in it. With electrified swords. And while the Doctor might have spent a lot of that particular story messing about and not doing much compared to his companion, the final scene in which he fences Count Grendel with his usual comic élan (and far too much scarf) is the one that tips this story over the edge for me…
Also the bit where no one but Romana figured out that Princess Strella would be in danger while everything was going on, and not only does she rescue her (and enable the princess to rescue herself with a hefty pot to the head of her attacker), but by the time the men turn up, the two of them are deeply involved in a chat about embroidery.
Before all of that, there’s the rather wonderful TARDIS sequence at the beginning of the story, in which we learn not only that the TARDIS wardrobe is alphabetised now, and that Romana is all set if they land on Tahiti, but also that the blindingly white evening gown she wore when she first arrived is also her go-to outfit in which to lounge around the TARDIS between adventures. It is her yoga pants.
Oh, yes. Intellectually I may think that The Stones of Blood is a superior story, and it’s hard not to fall in love all over again at the mere mention of the word ‘Ogri!’ but Androids of Tara is my favourite of a fun, lively era of Doctor Who.
Mary Tamm passed away last year, shortly after recording a whole new season of adventures on audio with Tom Baker. When I was a kid, the idea of another whole season of Romana I stories was one of the most joyous treats I could imagine, as it was a great annoyance to me that she was only there for one year. So far I’ve only listened to one, The Auntie Matter, which I highly recommend, particularly if you’re a fan of Jeeves and Wooster style madcap comedy.
If only they had made this at the time! I can just imagine Tom and Mary styling along in their respective 1920’s roadsters towards the mystery in the big house… and oh, the outfits she would have worn. But it was amazing to see how effortlessly they both dropped into the old relationship from thirty five years earlier.
I enjoy Tom Baker’s madcap adventuring with Sarah and Harry, and Sarah on her own. I quite enjoy his tearing around the galaxy with Leela, though it’s hard to shake off the idea that they wouldn’t both do much better individually. I adore the romanticish, teasing friendship between the Doctor and Romana II, his more avuncular (or crazy big brother) relationship with Adric, and even the distant skepticism with which he regards Tegan and Nyssa.
But there’s something about the aloof beauty of Mary Tamm, and the confidence of her Romana, that brings out a more subdued and realistic side to the Fourth Doctor. When he’s not as much the centre of attention (he spends much of both Androids of Tara and Stones of Blood off to one side, being thoughtful and clever), he’s a much more likeable Doctor.
The final story in the Key to Time sequence, The Armageddon Factor, is another favourite of mine despite being rather blatantly less good than my other two favourites. This brings us the complex character of Princess Astra (Lalla Ward), the comedy stylings of Drax the errant Time Lord con artist, some of K9’s best material of all time, and a moral quandary that leads to the twist in the tale.
Also, time loops.
The best thing about this story, of course, is watching Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward interact with each other, knowing what is to come…
ELSEWHERE ON 1978:
Pirate Planet Episode 2 [Chronic Hysteresis]
The Stones of Blood [Wife in Space]
The Power of Kroll [Wife in Space]
The Armageddon Factor Episode 6 [Chronic Hysteresis]