An English Gentleman: This is the only story of the trilogy that doesn’t begin with the Doctor trapped in some never-region and has him simply landing somewhere in the TARDIS with Amy acting as his companion. Its actually rather refreshing. Although it isn’t long before they are trapped in a closet together and like the rest of this trilogy arsing around doing nothing in particular. He’s more afraid not to live than to die. Finding his serene spot (and thus establishing telepathic contact with Romana) is a bit tricky at the moment (although that has less to do with his distracted mind and more to do with an upcoming plot twist). Amy questions whether the Doctor is so very memorable and given his handling in this latest batch of stories I might even concede that she has a point. The line between being brave and foolhardy is quite slim and the Doctor tiptoes precariously across it on a regular basis. Anghelides tries to rip of Eric Saward’s ‘smelling a flower, eating a well prepared meal…’ speech in a way that feels like pure indulgence (even Davison’s inflection is exactly the same).
Tracer: The Doctor claims that Amy has done so much living already but I beg to differ. Embodying all the worst criticisms of a Doctor Who companion (screaming, getting into trouble, leaning on others all the time) is not what I would call living. She’s still asking the most naïve of questions and at times comes across as a particularly spineless Star Trek creation (‘is this what it means to die?’). The handling of this character has been woefully inconsistent throughout the three stories but you would think that the Doctor would spot when Amy is acting completely out of character (why do people in science fiction never noticed when their friends are behaving in such a bizarre fashion?). Where she was weak and inadequate in the last tale, now she’s got quite a mouth on her (‘let go of my arm you humourless jobsworth!’) and a penchant for sarcasm. The Doctor thinks that she has reached the difficult teenage years but that’s about as far as he reaches towards recognising that Zara has taken Amy’s place. He states later that he knew that Zara wasn’t Amy for much longer than the point when her face started changing but I reckon he is just saving face. He’s not exactly been at his sharpest of late. By the end of this story did anybody actually care what Amy’s choice was? Its rare for a new companion to be bungled quite this badly (I can only think of one other instance…can you guess what it is?).
Madame President: The Doctor thought Romana was working with the High Council of Time Lords but he never realised that she was President. I guess this is the earliest that they can play with that idea before she would rewrite her own continuity on the TV series (if Romana informed the fourth Doctor of her future position it would change the nature of their on screen relationship in a way that I wouldn’t feel very comfortable with). I knew there had to be some reason that nobody was calling Romana by her name…the twist that she is President Astra instead comes as a complete surprise and ties in rather nicely with the original Key to Time season. Unfortunately after the bombshell is dropped so is much of the interest in the character as Astra turns out to be little more than an even bossier version of Romana (I’m not sure if its actually an improvement on the drippy Astra we met in The Armageddon Factor because at least she could surprise by being steely on the odd occasion) who remembers nothing about the Doctor and has grown into a toughened space bitch in the 200 years since she last saw him. Its all a bit thin if I’m honest, failing to pick up on the potentially dramatic threads that were left hanging at the end of season sixteen (the Doctor refused to sacrifice her and clearly had some feeling for the character that could have been picked up very nicely with the more benign fifth Doctor, especially since she has Romana’s face). When she retuned from E-Space (how is quite wisely skipped over) the Gallifreyan Doctors gave her the quick once over and declared her body as damaged beyond repair and unable to regenerate. With the suggestion that she might be Lord President of Gallifrey, Romana replies ‘I wish!’ She’s off to start some reforms on Gallifrey which will ultimately lead to her securing that role.
Great Ideas: Attacks are emerging from a fold in time that has been ironed practically flat. The planet of chaos has been held in place minutes away from the end of the universe. Professor Lydel turns out to be the White Guardian. Zara rescued him from 9th Century Africa, nursed him through the years and together they have been hunting for the Chaos Pool and the remaining segments. The White Guardian isn’t a guardian of virtue but more one of control. He’s actually a faceless entity that doesn’t care about the emotional needs of the universe at large, only that it is controlled, that it has law. He brings structure and order, helplessness and despair. A benevolent dictator. Romana is the sixth segment of the Key to Time.
Audio Landscape: Slopping through water, alarm, slithering giant slugs, crackling fire, explosion, drilling through a door, crashing the shuttle, a babbling brook, running through rain, beasts baying in the distance, chanting chorus, smashing the segments.
Musical Cues: Before the end of episode one (and without checking) I knew that this was a different musician than The Destroyer of Delights. It was far more easy on the ear, the music was only used when it was needed and had some terrific stylistic touches. Upon researching the sleeve it turns out to be my favourite…Jamie Robertson! Is this his very first Big Finish score? I had no real idea what was going on at the end of episode two but the music was excellent.
Isn’t it Odd: Its another race of ineffectual comedy aliens in a trilogy that has been full of them. Like buses, you wait for ages for one to turn up and then three lots turn up at once! If I were the Doctor I would start to wonder if I had wandered into the wrong universe where every alien race is suddenly laugh a minute. Even in the heart of the Williams era (some would say season seventeen) the monsters were at least supposed to be vicious (the Daleks are more bloodthirsty than ever, the Jagaroth are devious time manipulators, the Mandrels for all their cuddly appearance are supposed to be brutal killers, as are the Kraals and the Nimon turn children into dust!). This bunch of bureaucratic slugs squabble endlessly in their daft, lisping voices and prove to be quite tiresome rather quickly. Did we learn nothing from Creed of the Kromon? ‘I shall ingurgitate them!’ Not quite as catchy as ‘Exterminate’, is it? This trilogy desperately needs some contemporary Earth sequences, anything for me to be able to grab hold of and distinguish as something worth giving a damn about. The historical sequences in The Destroyer of Delights didn’t cut it (because the characters were cut from thin cloth and the tapestry they were stitched too lacked any meaning) and now we are back in yawnsome space opera territory. I like the conceit of two races from either end of time existing side by side but since the Tuphoideans and the Atrions are hardly the most memorable of species the point is lost somewhat. Did we learn nothing from the abysmal idea of a handbag with mystical powers in the Excelis series? Now we are dealing with a satchel dimension! Is there some kind of fashion outlet where all these quirky extra dimensional accessories can be found? I’m so bored of allusions to the butterfly effect in fiction. It seems that every time somebody wants to get deep they drag out this old chestnut. Why does this story even need Romana? After establishing a great piece of sleight of hand the writer feels the need to toss everything but the kitchen sink at the end to try and overwhelm the audience into thinking this is climactic. After Astra was returned to Atrios the segment was hidden within Romana. I’m sorry…what? Since when? You can’t just make this shit up and hope that nobody will be paying attention to the details! Romana drops a bombshell like this and brushes it off a few seconds later as though the news that she has been one of the segments throughout season seventeen and eighteen, the novels and the audios means nothing. It feels like it has been included simply to provide episode three with a shocking cliffhanger. Oh its shocking alright. More Black/White Guardian bitching…like we didn’t have enough of that in the last story. Considering we already know Romana’s future as the Lord President of Gallifrey (unless this dreadful trilogy is going to attempt to undo four series of Gallifrey and countless other Main Range titles including The Apocalypse Element, Neverland, Shada…) there is absolutely zero tension in her attempting to sacrifice herself as the sixth segment of the Key. Its just meaningless waffle pretending to be a heart-rending climax. After pushing and shoving at each other the Guardians are banished back into eternal nothingness. How underwhelming. Amy and Zara are turned into human beings with a magic flick of the wrist. How easy. There’s even time for a hideous Star Trek style moral at the end of the story (that’s what separates people from artifical life forms, dont’cha know?). After behaving like such a total cow throughout this trilogy Zara is afforded redemption?
Standout Scene: The twist that Lalla Ward is playing Astra rather than Romana shows that the production team behind this misbegotten arc haven’t quite lost their touch. Slapping Lalla Ward’s face on the cover and calling this the Key to Time trilogy means fans will automatically make the connection and assume Romana is back to aid the Doctor on his quest again. That she isn’t and this kind of expectation has been subverted is rather clever.
Result: Pluses to The Chaos Pool; the best direction of the trilogy with Lisa Bowerman upping her game from The Destroyer of Delights, a fabulous debut score from Jamie Robertson (just listen to the cinematic bluster towards the end of episode one) and the decent twist about the identity of Lalla Ward’s character. Already that is more pluses than the first two stories combined. Minuses include more aimless storytelling that fails to go anywhere, more ridiculous alien races that make no impact, more incoherent technobabble that replaces actual plot twists to navigate the plot (‘your singularity Matrix is amplifying the effect of the second Teuthoidian attack!’ and similar such nonsense) and a conclusion to this trilogy that fails to cohere into anything remotely plausible or satisfying. And as for Romana being the sixth segment…where the hell is the script editor? Its rare to find three such inept scripts in close proximity from Big Finish since their run of form is usually pretty consistent (even the first Divergent Universe season had The Natural History of Fear wedged between The Creed of the Kromon and The Twilight Kingdom) and as an indicator of how well these trilogies are going to play out I am surprised that they continued with the format after this disastrous first attempt. I was desperately hoping that this trilogy would not only do something pioneering with the Key to Time itself (it’s a device that can turn itself into anything, there has to be more imaginative storytelling possibilities with something as malleable as that) and show the Guardians at their powerful best, juggling with universes to bend reality to their will. Beyond the suggestion that the White Guardian is far more amoral than he might have originally appeared (and I would question whether that was a good move – why can’t they be as black and white as they were clearly set up to be?) there is very little worthwhile exploration of these beings of any kind. What a waste of time and of three stories; why did we need 360 odd minutes of poor storytelling to reach exactly the same conclusion as the series did the last time this situation played out? I despair: 4/10