Written by Terrance Dicks & Read by John Leeson – CD / Download (BBC Audio)
The Key to Time season was an early experiment with a series arc in Doctor Who – six stories linked by a single quest for a glorious jigsaw-like McGuffin (the aforementioned Key To Time) which would in some miraculous way never mentioned again after the season ended, set the universe to rights.
Releasing individual audio-novelizations for the Key To Time season therefore feels instinctively odd, forcing an individuality on the stories which relies on you knowing what’s gone before. But the Key To Time season has been unevenly novelised – all of them are now available (after a long absence for The Pirate Planet), most are by Terrance Dicks, with honourable mentions for David Fisher and James Goss. The audio-novelisations are similarly odd, most being read by K9 actor John Leeson, but with The Stones of Blood falling to Susan Engel and The Pirate Planet to Jon Culshaw. The Power of Kroll, as far as we’re aware, has yet to be audiobooked.
All of which makes for that odd, disjointed feeling of a series arc smashed to bits. It’s a feeling that especially makes itself felt when you tackle The Armageddon Factor as ‘new’ product, because it’s the sixth and final episode of the season, which means it feels like reading the last chapter of a murder mystery, without having read anything that comes before it.
Terrance Dicks is no slouch though – to some extent, he’s got you covered here, having written the novelisations for individual release and so packing in as much faintly formulaic explanation as you need to at least let you get on with the story.
What you remember as you listen to this audio-novelization is quite how intensely, if randomly plotted The Armageddon Factor was. You could absolutely get away with melting this down, skimming off the excess and reforming it into a tight four-parter, but my word it fills the time it has with twists, complications, time-loops and a seemingly seething political backstory into which we’re dropped on more or less the very last day. The Marshall, an avatar and advocate of war, is de facto ruler of the plant of Atrios as it slides down the trouser-leg of self-destruction in an interplanetary nuclear conflict with its twin planet, Zeos.
Nobody, at any point, appears to be at all concerned with the causes of this endless war, the inference being that, as with many affronteries to reason in our own day and age, they’ve been normalised into a permanent state of Us and Them, a war because they’re at war. A war that can’t be undone but must be won, if you’re of the Marshall’s view.
A war that can be stopped at long last so that both societies can rebuild, if you’re of the opinion of slightly insipid peaceniks Princess Astra (the technical ruler of Atrios), and her secret lover, posh-boy medico Marek, who are running a secret underground peace party in opposition to the Marshall’s aggressive need to win.
Then there are the Other Interests who have a hand in the Atrios-Zeos war. The Marshall has a dark mirror into which he regularly mumbles (the Twitter to his Trump), which tells him he’s doing well, that war is the only way, that he has to destroy Zeos at all costs. Hiding Phantom-like behind this mirror in ‘the Shadow,’ a creature of darkness with such a dodgy handle you know he’s a lickspittle toady to the real Big Bad – the Black Guardian, who’s playing with events in this war because somewhere among its detritus lies the sixth segment of the Key To Time.
When the Doctor and Romana turn up on Atrios, they’re quickly embroiled in the plans of the Marshall and his masters. But it emerges that the Atrios-Zeos war may be rather more than it appears – a fact which uncovers a school friend of the Doctor’s, a big room with not an awful lot going on, the Armageddon Factor of the title, and a whole lot of smaller problems to solve en route to the big one of not letting the Black Guardian snaffle the Key To Time and do all manner of unspeakable things with it. Problems including, but by no means limited to, staying alive through to the end of the story.
All of this, on screen, has the feeling of a plotted-by-the-minute ping-pong match, and while Drax, the Doctor’s school friend massively enlivens the last act of the story, by the time he does so, you feel you’ve been in the environment of the Atrios-Zeos war for longer than is actively pleasurable.
Here, Terrance Dicks again comes to the fore – while he delivers a faithful rendering of the story that was on-screen, he does rather mulch it down so you get a tighter feel to the piece, and rather more ongoing logic than the televised version could get across.
The faithfulness to the televised version does maintain some rather oddish sections though, including one where the Shadow (seriously, you just know he got bullied at Evil Git School, don’t you?) tries to torture the location of the sixth segment of the Key To Time out of the Fourth Doctor and then, quixotically, decides he’s eaten up enough run-time and leaves the Doctor to ‘make his own mistakes.’ The sudden, mystifying arrival of Drax, who keeps a Brixton accent after doing a long job there (because presumably lots of planets have a Brixton), is still a joy, and in fact benefits from the tightness of Dicks’ novelization because the listener’s not gasping for breath or meaning by the time he turns up here, as they frequently are in watching the on-screen version. Drax turns out to be responsible for a lot of what’s going on (and therefore for quite a lot of deaths, but never mind, cos he’s a cheeky chappie and we like him).
On screen, The Armageddon Factor frequently feels like quite an intense mess. To Terrance Dicks’ credit then, it makes more sense in the audio-novelization because he rarely gives you time to pause for thought, and he gives you more of a sense of the Atrios-Zeos war having gone on for generations, and this just being a fact you have to live with. He’s still not quite brave enough to given any hint of why the war started, but then arguably, that’s the point of the whole thing – when attitudes and positions are hardened, they go beyond initial causes or reasoned arguments. They’re at war…because they’re at war. Like the Kaleds and the Thals or the Sontarans and the Rutans, the whys of the thing have long ago gone out of the window, and all that matters now are outcomes. That’s the real Armageddon Factor.
John Leeson (K9) is on reading duties this time out, and he makes quick work of the six-episode back-and-forth of the story. Be advised, he’s not in the business of impressions, so while you get an impeccable K9, you also get a Fourth Doctor as he’d have been played by John Leeson (quite fun in itself – think David Collings with more a vocal smile), his Mary Tamm sounds like Generic Schoolgirl #1, and his Princess Astra sounds like…erm…Generic Shoolgirl #1 too. He does dump a ton of gravel into his throat when rendering the Marshall, though of course there are few people alive who could come close to John Woodvine, and his Shadow is pleasingly grandiose and growly. The result of all of which is that you get an Armageddon Factor more intensely plot-driven than the on-screen version, but one which subsequently makes more sense of its nonsensical components as they’re at least written in a compacted way that compels you onward. You might, in your head, long for this audio-novelization in a version read by John Woodvine, rather than John Leeson – hell, even Jon Culshaw might be fun in terms of delivering closer versions of the actual voices that make the story come alive – but in terms of delivering an understandable version of the end-chunk to a season-long story-arc, The Armageddon Factor audio-novelization is a pretty strong success. Tony Fyler