31 Dec 2003The Androids of Tara, by Paul Clarke
29 Oct 2005The Androids of Tara, by Ed Martin

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

No stories split opinion as much as the light-hearted ones do. Some universally love them, and some…well, you get the picture. I try to keep an open mind about them; I think The Chase is brilliant, for example, whereas others make me cringe as anyone who has read my recent review of Delta And The Bannermen will attest (and lets not forget Aliens Of London). While I wouldn’t call it comedic, The Androids Of Tara is certainly lightweight – and furthermore, it’s an example of a lightweight story pitched just right.

Having said that, it does get off to a shaky start. I’ve never held David Fisher in particularly high regard as a writer, and the beginning of this episode showcases why: his dialogue isn’t terrible, but it is completely lacking in any breadth beyond what applies directly to the plot. Every line spoken is the minimum necessary to push the narrative forward; characterisation, subtext and original panache are hardly present at all. The best I can say about it is that it has a certain simplistic elegance, but I feel that it is simply Fisher’s rudimentary skill that causes this. It is his well-known source material rather than him that makes this story the most enjoyable of his four scripts for the series. This isn’t a problem once the plot actually gets going, but in the early introductory scenes the script creaks through its inability to carry a conversation that doesn’t directly correspond to its core idea of Count Grendel’s political machinations. Hence we have Romana’s horribly delivered recap of their quest for the season, exposition so unsubtle it feels like being on the receiving end of Monty Python’s fish-slapping routine. We also get the Doctor’s desire to take a break, which judders along side the intention of the story as a whole. Just to get my gripes over and done with, four stories in and Tom Baker and the Ice Queen still have no on-screen rapport whatsoever. Baker tries his best, but Frostina undermines his efforts with boringly delivered lines that for all their efficiency aren’t much more interesting than her just saying “I’m going over here”.

Ten minutes in the plot gets going, and all is well. The segment is found immediately, and plays little part in the story. This adventure epitomises how to carry a plot-arc successfully: not to be concerned about it all the time. This serial comes as light relief to prevent the ongoing hunt for the Key To Time, which had been going on unabated for twelve weeks, and prevents it becoming boring – it works wonderfully well. In even the most dynamic of narratives (not that that’s an adjective commonly appropriate to the Graham Williams era) there comes a time when it’s good to take the foot from the accelerator and just cruise for a bit.

The core idea of a technologically-sophisticated society that is aesthetically archaic is a brilliantly original one, even if it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny; then again, this episode was never designed to stand up to scrutiny, or else it wouldn’t be “lightweight”. It creates a fascinating juxtaposition between culture and technology, and also presents the unique scenario of a science-fiction adventure with what is for practical purposes a period setting – and when it comes to period settings, Doctor Who’s hit-rate is well documented. It is helped by some pleasing design work (my jaw hit the ground when I saw that designer Valerie Warrender was also responsible for The Twin Dilemma), and some excellently directed location footage from Michael Hayes. I shouldn’t need to make that point given that Hayes also helmed the truly magnificent City Of Death, but he never seems to get much recognition. The only real failing in design terms is the wood beast, but then it’s really just the inanimate plastic face mask that lets it down; at least it can move at more than a snails pace, unlike several other monsters that space does not permit me to list. Also the incidental music sees Dudley Simpson on one of his better days, his harpsichord score appropriate to the story and unobtrusive.

In acting terms the story gets by with an average cast: Neville Jason is good as Prince Reynart but is cancelled out by the hamtastic Paul Lavers as Farrah. The real standout though is of course Peter Jeffery as Count Grendel, who makes a brilliant villain for such a story: pantomime-influenced, but retaining all his credibility. In short, I love to hate him in a way only really matched by Roger Delgado. Baker is flippant, as he was throughout most of Williams’s time as producer, but not lazy yet. Zadek’s and Reynart’s explanation of Tara’s political system is reasonable in the exposition field, staying the right side of stating the obvious, and signposts future action in which swashes will be significantly buckled.

The poisoned chalice is, unsurprisingly, a stock element but it makes for an enjoyable cliffhanger leading to a great final shot of the leering Grendel. Very little has happened of note in the first episode, which is odd given that the only purpose of each scene is to further the plot, but it has the perfect spirit.

I’m not criticising it as such, but the superficiality of this story does make it quite hard to find something to say about it beyond aesthetic details. For most stories this would be a final condemnation, but this is so intentionally daffy and confident in its execution it elevates it to the level of fun-for-all. It has to be said that even if the dialogue is not so simple intentionally it is very tight; a rare exception to its purely perfunctory nature comes with Farrah’s nervousness towards androids, to which the Doctor responds that androids feel the same way about humans. This is a good moment, even if it had been done better in The Robots Of Death. 

Cyril Shaps plays a whinger in all four of his appearances in the show, which is an unfortunate role to be typecast as, and this is his only story where he doesn’t get killed. He can get very annoying, especially when I’m so familiar with The Tomb Of The Cybermen is which is complaining reaches incredible levels. The cliffhanger is great if only because it’s so much fun to see the Doctor triumphant, even if it does undermine Grendel’s threat. Mary Tamm’s speech to the android king, however, sounds like it’s being delivered by a zombie. Tamm plays four roles in this story (a record), when she can only barely cope with one. However, two of the roles are only faceless ciphers - and the androids don’t take much skill either.

There is as tense seen as the characters blag their way through the android king’s malfunctions, and this leads on to a brief shot of the segment; it has no bearing on the story, and is only being shown through necessity as there is no real way of avoiding that this is a Key to Time story; of all of the six serials this is the one that could sit most happily in another season.

The Romana-android that fires a laser at womb height (a feminist commentary perhaps, or just laughable visual effects? You decide) gets by as this episode makes no claim to gritty realism. This makes it all the more jarring to hear of Lamia’s relationship with Grendel; a relief to see a moment of characterisation, even if it is slightly tokenist.

The destruction of the Romana-android is a stagy action scene: Hayes’s strength is with film. The action scenes that take place outdoors are much better, even if the guards cannot shoot straight; villains could very rarely shoot straight in Doctor Who, but here for some reason I found their ability to hit just about everything except what they were actually aiming at quite irritating. It is a shock to see Madam Lamia killed in such an inherently gentle story though; the mortality rate for this story (credited characters only* not including regulars) is only 11.1%.

Into the final episode, and Grendel’s outburst of “this is not wine but vinegar” is embarrassingly cheesy in a story that, while undeniably derivative, has an original twist. 

Tamm’s performance as Strella is even worse than her one as Romana, if that’s possible, and annoyingly K9 plays a significant role in the plot. Like the sonic screwdriver he’s OK for certain things but if he’s used directly in solving the plot then he’s just as galling as any other narrative device; there’s also the problem that I never feel so much like it’s a kids’ show as when K9’s on screen. That said he does get quite sarky in this episode, making him just about bearable. Even so, the “hamster with a blunt penknife” line is overrated.

There are lots of cuts between film and videotape here, which is helped by the darkness. The finale is wonderful: again it contains stock elements, but the oldies are the best: it has all the classics such as an unjust wedding interrupted in the nick of time and a very well choreographed swordfight that restores my faith in Hayes. However, Baker’s performance does verge on slapstick here which is inappropriate for a show that, while whimsical, was not a comedy programme. By contrast the lack of incidental music in the first part of the fight makes it seem very grim and serious, although it makes it less dramatic also.

A Gracht never surrenders: they take the honourable option of fleeing. It makes his last words of “next time I shall not be so lenient” seem very witty, and it is testament to how sweet natured this is that it feels totally right that the villain should escape free. I’d feel sorry for him if he bit the dust. This is followed by the quick, necessary scene of making sure they have the segment, and the Doctor’s line of “I didn’t catch one fish” must have seemed a very strange thing to say to the 500 000 people who hadn’t watched part one.

My top ten list is loaded up with the deep and rich stories such as The Curse Of Fenric, City Of Death and Kinda – The Androids Of Tara is a perfect alternative however, when I want one. It will never be a classic as it is so essentially empty and so I’m only giving it an average rating, but it gets that by default more than anything else; settle down with a swiss roll and some dry cider and it’s a delight from beginning to end.

*Besides, I think K9 probably only stunned those guards anyway. Wouldn’t really suit the tone otherwise.

Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16