There was an unfortunate tendency during the Barry Letts era to end each season with a six-part story (or in the case of 'The Dæmons', a five part story) that is in my opinion dire. The only exception to this trend is 'The Green Death' and even that story is not the strongest of its season. Phillip Hinchcliffe reversed this trend by producing two classic six parts stories in the shapes of 'The Seeds of Doom' and the sublime 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', and whilst 'The Invasion of Time' is by no means perfect, it is considerably better than at least two other stories from Graham Williams' first season of Doctor Who. It is unfortunate then that Williams inadvertently (I hope) resurrects this unfortunate trend of Lett's tenure for the finale of Season Sixteen. For the finale of a generally strong season with a story arc that runs from beginning to end, it is crucial to produce a satisfying denouncement; instead, we are forced to endure 'The Armageddon Factor', a story that remains my least favourite story of Tom Baker's entire run. It is also disappointing that this story is so dire since it is the last broadcast six-part Doctor Who story, given that 'Shada' would have an unfortunate rendezvous with fate (I don't count 'The Two Doctors', since it is structured and broadcast as three fifty minutes episodes).
'The Armageddon Factor' starts badly and gets progressively worse. I noted when I reviewed 'The Ribos Operation' and prior to that 'Carnival of Monsters' that it is difficult to portray a convincing alien world given the time and budgetary limitations of a typical Doctor Who story, and Bob Baker and Dave Martin utterly fail in this task. Atrios and Zeos are, we are told, two neighbouring planets at war, but as far as the viewer is concerned they might as well be two small rooms at war. There are no references to cities, let alone continents, and when characters do mention other areas of Atrios they refer, ludicrously, to levels and blocks, which conjure up images of large buildings at best. The social set up on Atrios is equally facile, with complete power resting in the hands of a single nutter, with Princess Astra, who is clearly only a figurehead, being the only other important person in evidence. The situation on Zeos is even worse, with the uninteresting computer Mentalis the sole representative of the planet on display. There are very vague implications that the other Zeons are extinct and that everything, including presumably the fleet, is computer controlled, but this is never fully explored and again contributes to the feeling of neighbouring buildings at war.
As if this wasn't bad enough, the Atrian military on display consists of the Marshall and Major Shapp. John Woodvine is a fine actor, but the lines provided for the Marshall are diabolical and the character is totally one-dimensional. Cast as a puppet for the Shadow, he lacks any motivation or personality beyond that and the only hint we get of his character is that he is a bully and a coward, as suggested by his escape ship and his visible baulking at the announcement that handing him over will result in peace. Even this is inconsistent, since once relatively free from the Shadow's control (he is invited to make what he will of the lack of further attacks from Zeos), he personally launches a devastating nuclear attack on Zeos with supposedly enough ordnance to blow up the entire planet. This must surely be a risky venture, but he seems more than happy to undertake it. As for Shapp, I can barely bring myself to contemplate the heinous slapstick buffoonery of Davyd Harris, who sends up his role in unsubtle style throughout despite the would-be seriousness of the story's premise. The only other time I've ever had the misfortune to witness Harris' "acting" is in the Blake's 7 episode 'Moloch', in which he is equally as bad as Doran, leading me to conclude that he somehow ended up in the wrong profession, possibly for a bet.
Even if I were prepared to excuse the paucity of the plot, the fact remains that it is intensely uninteresting. The lack of decent characters means that I simply don't give a toss whether or not the fires of war engulf Atrios and Zeos. Having said that, the Shadow at one point claims that if he gets the Key to Time, the situation on Atrios and Zeos will be but a preview of the fate of the entire universe, suggesting that the Black Guardian intends to use it to spread bad acting and tedium throughout the cosmos, which is a genuinely scary concept. Even Lalla Ward, who I generally like a great deal, struggles with the character of Princess Astra, again due to leaden scripting and bland expository dialogue. How Romana fails to realize that the Princess is under the control of the Shadow in Episode Five is beyond me, given that she is virtually rolling her eyes and cackling in an evil way throughout, which explains why the Doctor just assumes that Romana has guessed. Other than that, all Astra does is wring her hands a lot and look anguished, until Episode Six where she goes all glassy eyed as she realises that she is in fact a lump of Perspex. Mind you, if I had a boyfriend as pathetic as Merak, I'd be a miserable bastard too.
With all of this in mind, it is astounding that the characterisation could sink to new depths, but the unpleasant introduction of irritating cockney gobshite Drax proves that it can. Presumably intended as comic relief, he instead just makes me want to cry with unhappiness at how bad the story is getting, although he does at least make Shapp seem amusing by comparison. Robert Holmes is often credited with demystifying the Time Lords, but Baker and Martin are far guiltier, both here and in 'The Three Doctors'. And speaking of old Baker and Martin plots, they are also sufficiently lacking in good ideas that they recycle the dimensional stabilizer subplot from 'The Invisible Enemy'; I should perhaps be grateful that when the Doctor and Drax restore themselves to normal size in Episode Six, the Shadow doesn't suddenly find himself beset by unexpected giant prawns as well.
The villains of the piece slightly redeem matters. The Shadow is literally a personification of evil, and as such as shallow as a bedpan, but William Squire delivers his "bwa-ha-ha!" dialogue rather well and the Shadow's weird half-mask looks quite good, even if it is slightly undermined by his polo neck knitwear. The cliffhanger ending to Episode Four, as the Shadow sits and gloats to himself, would have been a lot stupider than it already is were it not for the sinister tones Squire employs and the fact that he seems to take his role seriously, thus becoming the Anti-Harris. Valantine Dyall's performance as the Black Guardian just tops Squire's, but I'll discuss the story's denouement - and the Guardian - below.
The regulars struggle bravely with the script. Baker alternates between gravitas and wit, and manages to bring some weight to the doom-laden plot. Were the story written better, this might have been one of the Fourth Doctor's finest hours, as he saves two planets in the nick of time and outwits the ultimate manifestation of evil in the Doctor Who universe, but as the story is bobbins this is a moot point. What the story does manage is some nice character moments between the Doctor, Romana and K9, for example when Romana desperately tells the Doctor "It doesn't matter what happens to me" as the Shadow blackmails him, and the appalled Doctor replies "Well of course it does!" showing just how close they've become since 'The Ribos Operation'. His affection for K9 is also in evidence; his risky rescue trip into a furnace shows more than just concern for a computer and he's clearly saddened when K9 falls under the Shadow's control. I also like the fact that he realises this because K9 calls him "Doctor" instead of "Master" (incidentally, would anyone else like to see a Past Doctor Adventure set around this era in which the Master builds himself an evil robot dog that calls him "Doctor"? No? Oh well, just me then). Having said all that, the scene in which K9 is told to lie to the Shadow and clears his throat before doing so is immensely annoying and undermines the already flimsy tension surrounding the Shadow's near victory. Some finds apparently find this amusing, but by the time I've sat through five and half episodes of this drivel my sense of humour is badly eroded. It is also a fairly low-key departure for Mary Tamm, whose off-camera regeneration into Lalla Ward at the start of 'Destiny of the Daleks' means that this is the last we see of her. Sadly, she again spends much of the time either standing around whilst the Doctor explains the plot, or alternately explaining the plot to Merak and Princess Astra.
Which brings us to the climax of both 'The Armageddon Factor' and also the Key to Time storyline. Having paced their story so badly that they have to resort to Shapp and Merak knowledgably discussing both the Key to Time and the TARDIS for the sake of exposition and hoping that nobody will notice, Baker and Martin hand over the finale to Douglas Adams for a notorious final scene in the TARDIS as the Doctor prepares to hand the Key over to the Guardian. I'm probably going to surprise some people at this point by saying that I actually like this scene. The reason for this boils down to the simple fact that Adams' sense of humour just happens to appeal to me and the sight of Baker's eye-rolling and gurning as he deliberately alarms Romana amuses me far more than anything else seen in this story. The actual ending is often described as anti-climatic, but since handing over the Key to Time to the White Guardian would probably be equally anti-climatic, I'm happy to defend it. The confrontation between the Doctor and the Black Guardian is another example in the series of the Doctor standing up to a god-like being for the sake of the universe at large, and I personally think it works quite well, thanks in part to Dyall's expertise at portraying the Guardian's impotent fury. The question of whether the White Guardian is actually able to restore the balance of the universe as discussed in 'The Ribos Operation' goes largely unanswered, although the Doctor does tell Romana that he should have had time to do this whilst the Key is assembled. Which in turn raises the question of why the Black Guardian couldn't also have used it to cause trouble whilst it was assembled. And then there's the question of why the White Guardian can hijack the TARDIS in 'The Ribos Operation', but the Black Guardian can't do the same thing here. But by this point, I'm just glad that I don't have to watch anymore of 'The Armageddon Factor' and therefore I don't care.