Romana, Romana and The Armageddon Factor (1979)

armageddon

Part Five of The Armageddon Factor is my favourite. It’s the one with the two Romanas. Mary Tamm is teamed up with Lalla Ward and they run around the alien planet, confounding the villain and exasperating the Doctor. They’re an unstoppable team; witty, gorgeous and brilliant.

This, of course, doesn’t happen in The Armageddon Factor, or anywhere in Doctor Who. (Though of course it should have; The Two Romanas. Who wouldn’t watch that?) But the sight of Mary Tamm as Romana and Lalla Ward as Astra inevitably makes the imagination stray to what those two Romanas might have got up to. (Stop it! Not like that!) and it made me think that the very act of being a fan means some stories are spoiled forever.

Because it’s impossible to be a fan and watch this story the way it was intended. Because fans know that Ward takes over from Tamm as Romana in the next story. They may also know that the sudden switch was because producer Graham Williams was unable to convince Tamm to stay for another season, and that Tom Baker (at this stage at his zenith of unpredictability, on and off screen) took a liking to Ward. And they will undoubtedly know that Baker and Ward became romantically entangled, eventually wed and eventually divorced.

So from the moment Astra appears in Part One there’s a part of the fan mind, going ‘Ah, there’s Lalla Ward, the second Romana’. And as the story wears on, every arch look reminds us of her future Romana’s archness, every smile future Romana’s toothy grin. Who can watch the way the Doctor gently examines the nape of Astra’s neck (and the Shadow’s lego-like control device) in Part Five, and not sense the growing closeness between Baker and Ward. It’s beguiling to watch. And erm, what was the actual story about again?

Let’s not worry about that just yet. Back in my film theory classes at uni (films on fuzzy VHS , watched on tellies on those big black wheely frames. Hangovers nursed.) I learned about a viewer’s resistance to seeing a well known star in a role too far removed from their public image. The fancy academic name escapes me now, but the example used was of Tom Hanks, all American comic leading man, playing a gay AIDS sufferer in Philadelphia. No matter how good his performance is, there’s a part of the viewer’s mind going, ’Ah, that’s Tom Hanks, he was great in Big, wasn’t he?’.

And this phenomenon is all over the place in Doctor Who, but usually because a bit player becomes a series regular later on. Even bigger than The Astra Factor, is Colin Baker’s pre Doctor appearance in Arc of Infinity, but there’s also Ian Marter in Carnival of Monsters, Freema Agyeman in Army of Ghosts and  – one we’re still to feel the full effect of – Peter Capaldi in The Fires of Pompeii. (There are others of course. Do write in).

This spoiling effect – and I think it does unfortunately spoil a story – even works with some of the shows more regular guest players. Oh look, a fan might say watching any one of six stories, there’s Michael Sheard. An actor so regular in Doctor Who his supporting roles in Doctor Who start to blur into one lump of Sheardiness. (His most potent fictional persona – as the grumpy Mr Bronson in Grange Hill – eventually infiltrated his Doctor Who work, when he was cast as a headmaster in Remembrance of the Daleks). Michael Wisher’s another one, he of the recently Random-ed Terror of the Autons. He pops up six times, but that peculiarly pinched voice means he’s forever the first Davros.

And while you’d never wish that any of those actors hadn’t been cast in subsequent roles, it does impact the stories which include original appearances. It’s a constant distraction. A nice one and a fannish one, but one which means the story can never be enjoyed in its original form again.

But enough about that. Let’s talk about Star Wars.

Star Wars was released in the UK in December 1977. Bob Baker and Dave Martin started writing The Armageddon Factor in early 1978. Doctor Who mob members Tom Baker and Graham Williams have talked about seeing Star Wars on its release (and feeling disillusioned about Doctor Who’s production values as a consequence), so I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say Baker, B and Martin would have seen it too. But if it had a disillusioning effect on some Who crew, it doesn’t seem to have dispirited those Bristol Boys. In fact, The Armageddon Factor references Star Wars to an extent which invites (perhaps unwisely) comparisons between the two.

The most blatant example of is the shot out of the cockpit of the Marshal’s escape… er, command module, which mirrors the famous shot out of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. It’s a direct steal! Then there’s the masked, black robed, gravelly voice villain. The romantic subplot. Romana in a flowing white robe. Dogfights in space. The cutsie robot. The Doctor gets a roguish sidekick. How much of this is intentional we can only speculate, but how like Baker and Martin would it be – never writers to let Doctor Who‘s budget stand in the way of a grandiose idea – to watch Star Wars and say, “yeah… We can do that in TC6!”

Anyway, let them try their best. In fact let ’em all try to grab our attention, from Star Wars mimicry to Tom Baker’s scenery chewing to Dudley Simpson’s bombastic score to the Black and White freaking Guardians. They’re all out shone by one simple aspect of The Armageddon Factor; Mary Tamm was bloody beautiful. Watch any scene she’s in and she lights up those drab sets and makes the whole thing watchable. Impossible to watch her without thinking, ’Ah, there’s Mary Tamm – gone too soon’. Once again, fannish affection intrudes into the story.

LINKS to The War Machines. Both feature mad computers and the departure of a series regular. And cockneys!

NEXT TIME… Come on, you stupid yoik! The assassinations don’t come any deadlier than The Deadly Assassin. ‘Ah, there’s Bernard Horsfall…’

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