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16x6. The Armageddon Factor
Writers: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Director: Michael Hayes
Script Editor: Anthony Read
Producer: Graham Williams

Synopsis: The Doctor and Romana arrive in the midst of a war between the planets of Atrios and Zeos in search of the sixth segment of the Key to Time, where they gradually discover that the Zeon war effort is being coordinated by a computer called Mentalis and that the Shadow, an agent of the Black Guardian, intends to steal it for his master's own purposes. After the Doctor prevents a potentially catastrophic attack by Atrios' Marshall with a fragile time loop, the two Time Lords race against the clock to find the segment and foil the Shadow's plans before the loop decays.

Review: I like a healthy dose of mystery and intrigue in my science fiction, and "The Armageddon Factor" does deliver that in a way that's fitting for the final serial of the Key To Time arc. The previous five serials had largely revolved around self-contained situations in which the segments of the Key were relatively incidental, and the guest characters were usually unaware of the nature and power of the segments. In "The Armageddon Factor," what starts as a fairly conventional Doctor Who plot about two planets at war gradually develops into what's clearly a more complex situation as the manipulations of the Shadow are revealed as a plan to seize the Key. Elements such as a strangely low-key initial confrontation with the Shadow, the commandeering of K-9's programming, the eerie atmosphere of Mentalis' control room on Zeos, and the Doctor creating a time loop to prevent the Marshall from attacking all effectively convey the sense that some very powerful forces (and individuals) are at work here.

The final segment, meanwhile, turns out to be Princess Astra of Atrios, who finds herself inexplicably drawn to her eventual fate of being reduced to inanimate form. Interestingly, it is Romana who seems most outraged at this turn of events, at one point suggesting that everyone involved has simply been a pawn of the Guardians and that she and the Doctor have to do something to prevent this from continuing; she's also clearly ready to sacrifice her own life to prevent the Shadow from gaining control over the Key. The Doctor does voice his own concerns, however, when he disturbingly pretends to be intoxicated with the power he possesses via the Key To Time; this display is well-played by Tom Baker, and while it's not clear that it actually frightens Romana, she does at least seem concerned for his sanity at first.

All that is well and good, and it helps to compensate for the fact that neither the human guest characters nor the minutiae of the Atrios-Zeos war are especially interesting in their own right. Unfortunately, the script makes a bit of a mess of the ending. The appearance of Drax, a classmate of the Doctor's from Gallifrey and a Time Lord who's mostly interested in selling his skills to the highest bidder, is amusing at first, but his accidental shrinking of himself and the Doctor to just a few inches in height is at odds with the otherwise dark tone of the last two episodes and not really necessary to the plot. What is especially disappointing is the final confrontation with the Black Guardian. The Doctor ends up scattering the pieces of the Key to Time throughout space and time again (restoring Astra to human form in the process), but the way the scene plays is strangely unclear: while the implication seems to be that the White Guardian has already restored balance to the universe once the Key is reassembled, this isn't actually confirmed. Meanwhile, the Doctor seems to shift from sharing some of Romana's ambivalence towards the White Guardian to detecting the Black Guardian's subterfuge because he assumed that the White Guardian would be more concerned for Astra's life.

Given that the two Guardians and the Key formed the basis for the entire season, this all comes off as rather rushed and incomplete. The ending was reportedly rewritten from an earlier version in which the Doctor decides that he doesn't trust the White Guardian either and then scatters the pieces of the Key; that certainly would have been interesting, but either way, I guess I felt like we needed a return appearance from the White Guardian and/or a clearer explanation of what actually happened to the imbalance in the universe. As it is, "The Armageddon Factor" is unable to avoid the pitfall of a promising buildup to a less than satisfying conflusion.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

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