Tuesday 15 April 2014

Story 101 - The Androids of Tara

In which the Doctor decides to do a spot of fishing - and leaves Romana to collect the fourth segment of the Key to Time. They have arrived on the apparently tranquil planet of Tara. Romana dons an appropriate costume from the TARDIS stores, and locates the segment quickly - part of a statue. As she converts it, she is attacked by a savage creature that pounces out of the woods. She is rescued by Count Grendel of Gracht, whose lands these are. He is intrigued by her - and insists on taking her to his castle. She has injured her ankle and he offers medical help. He also wants her to register the strange crystal shape she is holding. He is worried that the statue has a piece missing. It is a local legend that the statue reflects the fortunes of his family, so damage implies some misfortune.
The Doctor's fishing is interrupted by the arrival of two soldiers, armed with electric rapiers. They are General Vadek, Captain of the Royal Guard, and his officer Farrah. They take him to a hunting lodge where he meets Prince Reynart. The Doctor learns that Reynart is about to be crowned king, but his life is at risk from his most powerful noble - Count Grendel. The Count will do everything in his power to stop Reynart reaching the throne room at his appointed hour. Failure to do so means forfeiting the crown.

There is a non-functioning android replica of the Prince at the lodge, which Zadek hopes can be used as a decoy. Tara suffered a terrible plague which wiped out millions, and so they turned to androids for a labour force. At Castle Gracht, Grendel and his android specialist Madam Lamia are shocked to discover that Romana is not a duplicate. She is the double of Princess Strella, who is second in line to the throne. The Count already has the real Princess under lock and key. Grendel drugs the lodge's wine supply and abducts the Prince as well. The Doctor must get the Reynart android operational so that it can be crowned - giving them time to rescue the real one. They succeed - and the Doctor thwarts an assassination attempt by Grendel who had prepared a deadly android copy of Strella.

A plan to kill the Doctor using an android of Romana fails - resulting only in the death of Lamia. Grendel hatches a new scheme. Prince Reynart will be forced to marry Strella - really Romana. The new King will die shortly after his nuptials. Grendel will then step in to marry the grieving widow, who will herself then suddenly expire - leaving Grendel undisputed ruler. Romana and Reynart are forced to go along with this as the Count threatens to kill the real Strella if they don't. The Doctor, Zadek, Farrah and their men break into the Castle with K9's assistance and stop the sham wedding. The Doctor and the Count duel - the Doctor winning. Grendel leaps into the moat - preferring to live to fight another day. Reynart and Strella are freed. Apart from Grendel, everyone lives very happily ever after...

This four part swashbuckler was written by David Fisher, and was broadcast between 25th November and 16th December, 1978.
The story influence is an obvious one - Anthony Hope's classic novel The Prisoner of Zenda. ("The Androids of Zenda" was even a working title). In this, an English traveller in the Mittel-European country of Ruritania stumbles upon court intrigue. He is the exact double for the king, who some dastardly nobleman has kidnapped on the eve of his coronation. Naturally, he finds himself having to impersonate the royal. Sound familiar? The plot here is pretty much Zenda but with androids and futuristic versions of traditional weapons. The rapiers have electric stings and the crossbows fire energy bolts.
Both the regulars are well-served - Tom Baker getting some very funny lines, whilst Mary Tamm gets to play multiple roles. She is Romana, an android Romana, Strella and an android Strella. It's a pity that Strella is so like Romana, personality wise - she doesn't get the chance to play someone really different.

Grendel is played magnificently by Peter Jeffrey, who had previously been the Co-Pilot in The Macra Terror. A lesser actor could have really gone over the top and hammed it up, but Jeffrey pitches it just right.
Zadek is Simon Lack, who had featured briefly in Mind of Evil. Farrah is Paul Lavers. There is some nice interplay between him, Lack and Baker. Reynart is Neville Jason, who takes things a bit too earnestly. Madam Lamia is Lois Baxter, who is a little underused.
Episode endings are:
  1. The Doctor  and his new friends discover their wine has been drugged. The Doctor staggers to the door - to find Count Grendel waiting...
  2. Princess Strella approaches the newly crowned King to swear fealty. The Doctor suddenly seizes a sceptre and launches an attack on her - to the horror of the assembled guests...
  3. Grendel casts a lance through the android Reynart and runs off. The Doctor discovers he has also recaptured Romana.
  4. The Castle is taken, the Key segment retrieved, and the King and his Princess reunited. K9, however, is cast drift in a boat in the moat.

Overall, a good old fashioned adventure yarn. Nice performances and a witty script.
Things you might like to know:

  • The location filming took place at Leeds Castle in Kent. Visit today and you won't see any Germanic turrets and minarets. These were added during filming using a painted glass matte.
  • The Androids of Tara sees the last appearance in Doctor Who of actor Cyril Shaps. He first appeared as Viner, who insisted all over the place, in Tomb of the Cybermen. He returned twice in the Pertwee era - first as Lennox in The Ambassadors of Death, and then as Professor Clegg in Planet of the Spiders. In Tara, he played the Archimandrite, who officiates at both the coronation and the sham wedding. Shaps continued working up until a year before he died - in London on 1st January 2003, aged 79.
  • Early drafts had the horses mechanical and able to fly.
  • Bizarrely, there is a short story sequel to this adventure - in which Grendel recruits the Kandy Man in his plans for revenge. This is what happens when continuity references are allowed to go too far... 
  • Pay attention to the opening titles and you will see these ones differ from the normal pattern. Usually it is story title, written by, then part number. Here the latter two are reversed.
  • The once ubiquitous John Barrowman has been known to turn up on home shopping channel QVC, selling his sponsored wares. Did you know that Paul Lavers was one of the original line up of presenters on rival channel Ideal World? You didn't? And now you wish you still didn't?

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