The Androids of Tara [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Androids of Tara

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions:  Mary Tamm as Romana and John Leeson as the voice of K9.
Written by David Fisher.  Directed by Michael Hayes. Produced by Graham Williams. Script Edited by Anthony Read.

Format:  4 episodes, about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  November-December 1978 (Seasons 16, episodes 13 – 16).

The Androids of Tara is of course the fourth chapter in the famous “Key to Time” season-long story arc, which was all about the Doctor being sent on a mission by the nigh-omnipotent White Guardian to find the six pieces of the cosmic artifact known as the Key to Time. Each serial of the season involved the Doctor and his companion Romana tracking down one of the six segments of the key, which conveniently (for story purposes) could be disguised as basically anything. For the first and only time, the segment is found right at the beginning of the adventure, with the rest of the four episodes being made up of challenges the Time Lords face trying to escape their latest landing spot.

Spoilers ahead!

The Androids of Tara is a fun story. It is perhaps the least horrific serial since Tom Baker took over the title role, leaning not into classic science fiction and monster movies as many serials have, but rather into the adventure story The Prisoner of Zenda.

The plot is almost exactly the same, with a would-be king being unable to attend his own coronation and thus being replaced by a sympathetic double, with all sorts of palace intrigue and romance to follow. This air of light-hearted romp keeps Tara from getting into genuine “classic” territory (as stories did from a few seasons earlier–ie The Robots of Death or The Pyramids of Mars). But on a show like Doctor Who one likes things to be changed up from time to time, and I for one enjoyed the swashbuckling adventure of Androids quite a bit.

That’s not to say it isn’t a science fiction story. There is the TARDIS and its crew, there are swords that zap you with electricity, and there is even a monster: Part One includes an appearance by a Taran wood beast, who threatens Romana for a brief moment.

It is perhaps the least consequential monster that the show has ever featured–one presumes it was felt that having one in the story somewhere was some sort of requirement (and who knows, maybe it was).

Of course the main thing it features are a bunch of androids, though they don’t have the same sort o threatening presence that android duplicates usually get in these sorts of stories. Even though two of them do try to kill people, these androids don’t act particularly intelligent. In contrast to a running joke made by the Doctor about androids being equally unsettled by humans as humans are of them, these artificial beings simply tools in the hands of their programmers.

Two of the androids are played by Mary Tamm (one is impersonating Romana, and one her coincidental lookalike, Princess Strella), which means the actress plays four characters all together in the serial. The direction of the story manages to do a good job of selling the illusion of the duplicate characters on screen, given the obvious limitations of the time.

Romana’s android characters don’t really have any personality to speak of, but she does a decent job distinguishing Romana from the Princess during Strella’s brief screen time. (Incidentally, have you ever noticed that both television Romanas have duplicate princesses out there in the galaxy?)

The rest of the cast is also good. Peter Jeffrey is memorable as the mustache-twirling baddie, Count Grendel, and Neville Jason does a fine job as Prince Reynart–he is also surprisingly funny as the personality-less android double of the Prince. And Tom Baker makes for a great Doctor as usual, and is obviously the anchor for everything, even while he is leaning heavily into his comedic tendencies.

Indeed the whole story has an atmosphere of breezy fun, with David Fisher’s script providing a lot of nice character and comedic moments throughout. We have the Doctor’s desire to go fishing, Romana being mistaken for an android, and K9 haplessly floating around in a rowboat at the end, for example. K9 has quite a few funny moment in fact (largely concerning his ability to dole out some pretty painful blasts), and I loved the bit where the Doctor races off to save Romana and Strella at the end, only to find them sitting and doing embroidery together.

Because the story’s stakes are pretty low, the Doctor and Romana have to get captured and threatened a lot to keep them engaged in the plot, which can get a little repetitive.

The worst moment comes with part three, where a captured Romana manages to escape, only to find herself re-captured at the end of the episode, more or less off-screen. It’s an extremely clunky bit of storytelling.

But on balance it’s also a small problem, especially when you don’t have to wait a whole week to watch the next episode. I still enjoyed the serial quite bit, in spite of its overall inconsequential feeling. Actually, I have found that for the most part the whole Key to Time season is holding up quite well–but I have a feeling that there are greater disappointments to come.

One thought on “The Androids of Tara [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Androids Of Tara certainly wasn’t a typical Doctor Who story and therefore fascinating for Whovians in the mood for something different. It was a good story for Mary Tamm as Romana, with an excellent guest cast led by Peter Jeffrey as Count Grendel. It was also reassuring to see that Tom Baker still had some magic left as the 4th Doctor. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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