“The Quest is the Quest!” Despite Underworld, the penultimate story of Season 15, being inspired by the story of the famous mythological questers Jason and the Argonauts, it’s really the tale of the Doctor stumbling upon someone else’s quest. Taking a quest at its narrowest definition – sent to acquire a particular prize, overcoming challenges and tests on the way – very few Doctor Who stories qualify. In fact, over the first fifteen seasons, the best and pretty much only example is The Keys of Marinus way back in 1964.
The quest is a staple of storytelling, from Jason to The Wizard of Oz via the Holy Grail. But due to the TARDIS’s habit of throwing the Doctor into the middle of awkward situations, he is more usually concerned with getting back to his ship/defeating the aliens/just plain staying alive. He’s also not that fond of taking orders from people (in The Keys of Marinus, the Doctor is blackmailed into searching for the eponymous keys).
The quest is a great fictional device as it allows for a series of shorter stories to be linked together. No danger of that slow bit in the middle while you’re waiting to get on to the end of the tale (in Doctor Who terms, the curse of a Part Three). It gives the characters a sense of purpose and provides a hook for your audience, too – even if they aren’t so interested in what’s happening just at the moment, they might decide to stay to see the characters take another step towards achieving their overall goal (but equally won’t be alienated if they miss a chunk of it as another adventure’ll be along in a minute).
Watching Doctor Who in the video/digital age, it can be hard to remember – or even to spot – where one season ends and another begins. It seems easier to divide Doctor Who into chunks by Doctor, or producer, or script editor, or companion, and these rarely correspond exactly with a season (Liz Shaw’s Season Seven and the Ninth Doctor’s Season One being two of the few exceptions). But because of the Key to Time, Season 16 stands out as an entity. Yes, it is also separated from the seasons around it by being having Romana I as the companion, but it has its own distinct identity on top of that.
So it’s got a strong identity, a strong theme and a strong companion, but looked at under almost any criteria the main thing that stands out about the Key to Time season is that it’s brilliant. Half of its stories are outstanding, and the other half, while not in quite the same league, have many great qualities – and, due to the story-arc, pick up coolness points from the company they keep.
The Ribos Operation shows off Robert Holmes’s gift for dialogue and character and looks superb. The Pirate Planet is the only Doctor Who story broadcast with an author credit for Douglas Adams, and despite some flaws contains the amazing ideas and witty lines one would expect from the HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy creator. The Stones of Blood is sinister, scary and atmospheric – and also stands out for making its two main guest roles not only strong and memorable, but also female. (Excluding the Megara and Ogri, it has more female characters than male – a very unusual state of affairs in Doctor Who.) It would be hard to think of a way in which The Androids of Tara is not superb, with its swashbuckling heroism, its wonderful villain, its beautiful location, and its frankly unbelievable hats (well, one in particular – yes, I’m looking at you, Archimandrite). While The Power of Kroll may be let down by its Swampies and giant octopus monster, the script is by the great Robert Holmes, and The Armageddon Factor can be forgiven almost everything because of the brilliant moral dilemma posed by making the Sixth Segment of the Key to Time a person. That idea alone is worthy of much praise.
So the season ends triumphantly, with the Doctor and Romana having completed their quest. Good triumphs and evil is defeated. The universe is safe once more. But at the end of any good quest, the hero should not only have gained his objective, but also grown as a person, and it seems that’s just what Romana has done. Dragged from her academic, sterile world, she’s discovered a lot about herself. Occasionally these lessons may have taken the form of getting very scared and screaming, but it’s all part of the journey. Her overconfidence turns into confidence, intelligence is joined by wisdom. This is the story of Romana as much as it’s the story of the Key to Time, and ultimately, that’s why we can consider this most special of seasons as one glorious whole.
1. “I thought I should tell you, because one day, even here, in the future, men will turn to each other and say, Binro was right.” Binro saves Unstoffe’s life, and receives validation for his beliefs in return. (The Ribos Operation Part Three)
2. “Lady Montcalm. Senora Camara. Mrs Trefusis.” Professor Rumford learns that her friend Vivien Fay is not the innocent sausage-sandwich-loving archaeologist she appears to be. (The Stones of Blood Part Two)
3. “Tara’s most eligible spinster, shortly to become, in rapid succession, my fiancée, my bride, and then… deceased.” Romana is shown her double, and Count Grendel demonstrates his utter moustache-twirlingly evil villainy! (The Androids of Tara Part Two)
4. “As from this moment there’s no such thing as free will in the entire universe. There’s only my will, because I possess the Key to Time.” The Doctor appears to go power-crazy… (The Armageddon Factor Part Six)