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31 May 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 516: The Androids of Tara, Episode Four

Dear diary,

During the first episode of this story, before I simply found myself enjoying it, I made a note that all the segments of the Key were hidden in fairly similar locales, and that we really needed to have a bit more variety. This thought stemmed from the fact that we’s just had two stories in a row that involved the Doctor and Romana standing around in green fields, and The Ribos Operation had also sported a castle setting. The more that I’ve watched through this story, the more I realise that I was just moaning about nothing in particular, because this story has enough of it’s own visual identity to set it apart from the others. It’s another one of those lush historical dramas, and I almost wonder if I’d prefer this story to have been a more straight-up historical drama, without all the nonsense with androids and the like.

This final episode is the closest that we come to that kind of story, with our three androids (the Prince/King, Strella, and Romana) all out of action, and the woman who builds androids for the Count dead. It reverts to a more traditional story of trying to seize power to the throne, with planned marriages, and assassination plots, and… well, admittedly, an exact double of the princess who just happens to be an alien time traveller. It feels like absolutely ages since we had a proper historical story, and this came close enough to whet my appetite for one. Thinking of the stories to come, it’s going to be a while again before we’re given something quite in the historical vein, androids or not!

It did, however, get me wondering if there could be a version of this story with the androids removed. It’s not the kind of thing that you’d be able to edit from existing footage, but I think a few brief alterations at the scripting stage could have made it a pure historical story somewhere along the line. The Count would have to kidnap the prince after the coronation, and they’d not be able to lure the Doctor with an android duplicate of Romana, but otherwise, the story is fairly sound.

Or, at least, as sound as it can be. Today’s episode provides us with another twist to the tale of ‘ways the Count can become king’. I said the other day that I simply couldn’t get my head around Taran politics, and I still can’t. Now it transpires that the Count will only be the true king if he’s married Strella, after she has come queen. What happened to the whole ‘having to choose another nobleman to be king, ‘cos the bloke who should be here is held up in traffic’? It really is the most bizarre system.

And it’s all presided over by Cyril Shaps, in his final performance for the programme. Shaps appeared in The Tomb of the Cybermen, which makes him an automatic winner for me, and then went on to be a part of The Ambassadors of Death and Planet of the Spiders before returning for this final swan song. He’s been one of those actors I’m always glad to see pop up in a story, so it’s a shame we won’t be seeing any more of him as this marathon progresses.

On the whole, I’ve rather liked The Androids of Tara. It’s just edged out The Ribos Operation for the position of my favourite Key to Time story (pushing the previous champion The Stones of Blood even further down the pecking order), and I’ve simply enjoyed watching it. I’m sorry to say then that things do go a little to pot in this final episode direction-wise. It’s the first story to be helmed by Michael Hayes, and has been rather good on the whole. Lots of nice shots that feel perfectly suited to what is in some ways a diary story, and lots of lovely shots used in sequences like the Doctor and K9 heading across the moat to break in to the castle.

But then you’ve got today’s big, climactic sword fight. It’s very much a key part of the episode, because it takes up a sizeable chunk of it. I enjoy seeing the Fourth Doctor being a little unsure of the way to hold a fight like this (he clearly forgot such things during his regeneration), and then growing more and more confident with it, forcing the Count around the room. It could be quite a nice sequence if it weren’t for the chronic lack of music over the first half of the fight! It simply leaves everything feeling incredibly stagey, and listening to the sound of the actor’s feet shuffling around the floor doesn’t quite inspire the effect I think Hayes wanted. Things pick up a lot when the sparring partners move outside, though, and I with the whole thing could have been done like that! 

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Susan McCauley