Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Let me make this clear from the start; I love 'The Androids of Tara'. It exemplifies how well Williams' approach to Doctor Who can work, and whilst it is by no means typical of the series, it is a highly entertaining and witty story, with a great villain and Tom Baker on top of his form. 

Before I start lavishing praise on 'The Androids of Tara', let me first discuss its shortcomings. These are entirely down to the production, and more specifically to the costume design. Whilst many of the costumes on display are suitably evocative of the romantic medieval feel of the story as a whole, they are so mismatched that they seem to have been purloined more or less at random from the BBC costume department, since they consist largely of any old items of brightly coloured period clothing hastily thrown together. This is most obvious in the fact that Romana's outfit, chosen from the TARDIS wardrobe and supposedly in keeping with fashions on Tara during the era in question, bears little resemblance to the costumes worn by the Tarans, but it is by no means the only example since everyone else seems to have picked cloaks and helmets at random. As for the Archimandrite, his costume seemingly addresses the age-old rhetorical question; does the Pope wear a silly hat? This is a minor criticism at best, but it does make the production seem rather cheap. On the other hand, my friends all wear fairly different clothes, so it is perhaps a more realistic approach. The other main point of contention is the Taran beast, surely one of the most unconvincing monsters ever to appear in the series, and the fact that it is very much a token monster means that it could easily have been dispensed with. So unconvincing is it that if I wasn't already familiar with the story I might have assumed that it is intended to be a man in a costume, rather like the Cailleach in the previous story. And that is pretty much the full extent of my dissatisfaction with 'The Androids of Tara'.

Everything else is pretty good really. 'The Androids of Tara' is Doctor Who's take on The Prisoner of Zenda, right down to the pseudo-medieval setting. Instead of human doppelgangers we have android duplicates, and instead of ordinary swords and crossbows we have swords that deliver electric shocks and crossbows that fire energy bolts, but everything else is pure Hope, with castles, aristocrats and peasants, and a battle for the throne. There is swashbuckling and fencing on display and a thoroughly caddish villain who wants to be crowned king. It's no more original a plot than that of 'Underworld', but it plagiarizes with style. Thrust into this story, the Doctor seems completely at home, and the Baker handles the witty script with panache, saving the day from early on as he first prevents Grendel from seizing the crown by repairing the android double of Prince Reynart and then sets about rescuing Romana (twice), the Prince and Strella. The script is eminently quotable, with lines such as "Would you mind not standing on my chest, my hat's on fire?" and "A hamster with a blunt penknife could do it quicker!", both lines quoted in both The Discontinuity Guide and The Television Companion, but worth repeating here. The wit is not just in the script however; Baker's performance is spot on and features many trivial but amusing moments such as when Farrah threatens the Doctor with a sword, whereupon he smoothly takes it off him, examines it and hands it back. As for his final duel with Grendel, it is a superb climax, as he first hesitantly parries the Count's blows for effect, before gradually demonstrating that he is more than capable of holding his own against the finest swordsman on Tara. 

'The Androids of Tara' does not have subtle subtexts or complicated subplots, but then it doesn't need them. Having nicked ideas from The Prisoner of Zenda, Fisher decides to go one better by having not one doppelganger plot but two, as in addition to the android double of Reynart, we also have Romana's uncanny resemblance to Strella. And an android duplicate of Strella. And of Romana. Good grief. On principle, I'm extremely wary of the plot contrivance of look-alikes, but Doctor Who has a very good record in this field and continues this trend here. Thus, Mary Tamm gets plenty to do by playing four different roles; since both Strella and Romana are slightly aloof aristocratic women, she doesn't get much opportunity to show off any acting skills she may or may not have (I've never seen her in anything except Doctor Who, and for all I know she is very like Romana in real life), but she does fill these similar roles very well. Since the Doctor decides to take a holiday and go fishing at the start of 'The Androids of Tara', it is left to Romana to find the fourth segment of the Key to Time, which serves two purposes. Firstly it demonstrates how much the Doctor has grown to trust her, and secondly it teaches Romana a lesson about smug superiority as she discovers just how difficult it is to avoid becoming involved in local affairs with or without her eccentric companion. 

K9 once more gets a sizeable role, acting variously as hunting dog, scientific advisor, mobile weapon, and (to borrow a pun from the script) sea dog. In addition, I never tire of seeing the Doctor thrashed at chess by his ever-smug computer. The supporting characters are also well realized and also well acted; Cyril Shaps' Archimandrite clearly doesn't trust Grendel one inch, but is has too much respect for his own survival to vocally object to any of the Count's transparently villainous machinations, instead frowning disapprovingly to himself. Neville Jason's noble Prince Reynart is fittingly chivalrous, and although he spends a great deal of time chained to a bed, Jason gets to play the robot Reynart as well, which he does rather convincingly. Reynart is such a noble king that he's a walking cliché, but that is what the script calls for, and on the subject of clichés Till, Grendel's stereotypical hunchbacked servant, is also worth mentioning even though I can't think of anything clever to say about him. Simon Lack's Zadek and Paul Lavers' Farrah are also well portrayed, as is Lois Baxter's Madame Lamia, a rare example of a henchwoman with motivation, since she is hopelessly in love with the callous and somewhat abusive Grendel. And it is of course Peter Jeffrey as the Count who really steals the show.

Good villains are perhaps more important to me in Doctor Who than good monsters (although the two are of course often combined), and Count Grendel is a really great villain. Charming and ruthless, Grendel is quite superb, as he attempts to manoeuvre himself underneath the crown via every underhand tactic at his disposal, whilst maintaining the appearance of legality to satisfy the easily intimidated Archimandrite and the other nobles of Tara. But this is not a warm and fuzzy villain; Grendel is a real cad, fully prepared to murder Strella, Reynart, and Romana, and threatening to flog Lamia if she does obey him. Jeffrey's dignified performance is perfect, deftly capturing the Count's menace and sense of humour at the same time, and even his considerably tarnished nobility, such as when he refuses to kill the Doctor unless he has a sword in his hand. He alternately seethes with frustration when outwitted and oozes smugness when he has the upper hand. He's devious, cunning and evil through and through, and one of the best villains of the season, if not the entire Williams era. His final line, and his dramatic exit, is entirely in keeping with the part, as he gathers the tattered shreds of his dignity around him and makes a strategic withdrawal to fight another day. 

In summary, 'The Androids of Tara' is an impressive little story and continues Season Sixteen in style. Unfortunately, with the next story the season takes a downward turn, and coming as it does from the pen of my favourite Doctor Who writer, what follows is a considerable disappointment...

Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16