Released January 2009
The start of 2009 sees Big Finish attempt something new with its release format, offering three-story mini seasons that feature the same Doctor and an overlying plot thread. The first of these seasons is Key 2 Time which sees the Fifth Doctor and a new companion scour the universe for the segments of the Key to Time just as the Fourth Doctor and Romana did in the televised season sixteen.
The first installment of the trilogy is ‘The Judgement of Isskar,’ unenviably tasked with setting up the entire premise as well as telling an engaging story in its own right. Perhaps wisely, however, writer Simon Guerrier doesn’t spend too much time introducing the Key to Time and all that it entails, relying on listeners’ previous knowledge. Still, he does offer further insight into its creation by the Grace and posits an intriguing suggestion that the Fourth Doctor’s use of the synthetic segment in ‘The Armageddon Factor’ has caused another imbalance that needs correcting.
All the more interesting is the new companion for the trilogy, Amy played by Ciara Johnson. Guerrier does a wonderful job subtly portraying the development of this living segment tracer, a complete blank at the story’s beginning who gradually takes on more of the Doctor’s noble characteristics the longer she is around him. Her tracer counterpart is Zara played by Laura Doddington, another blank who has teamed up with a single-minded and self-centered individual, melding her personality accordingly. The fact that these two share common origins is a fascinating- if unsurprising- revelation, and it will be interested to see how these two malleable personalities continue to interact and clash throughout the remainder of the series.
Origin stories of villains are almost uniformly entertaining, and ‘The Judgement of Isskar’ in a sense acts as the beginning of the Ice Warrior race, taking place in a peace-loving and gift-driven society on Mars. Unfortunately, while events do occur that eventually lead to the shift toward a warring culture on Mars, they are really only used as a means to give Isskar vengeful motives against the Doctor. This is easily an aspect of the story that deserves more exploration and time, a missed opportunity as the narrative instead shifts to Safeplace and the Valdigian race. The introduction of the Valdigians represents a massive tonal shift in the story towards more overt comedy, an interesting and somewhat jarring choice given how serious both the beginning and and end of the story are as well as the refined dignity both Peter Davison and Nicholas Briggs bring to the Doctor and Ice Warrior, respectively.
However, once the Valdigians exit prominence, the story once more regains its focus and direction, ending on a high note. After describing what life inside a segment entails, the story brings back the Black Guardian for a welcome return, surely set up to be a recurring presence throughout these three stories. As a whole, ‘The Judgement of Isskar’ offers several memorable set pieces and delivers solid pacing and excellent sound design. However, the disjointed shifts in tone and the somewhat muddled and nonsensical Safeplace aspects significantly hinder the overall experience to an extent that even the strong performances can’t overcome. The end result, then, is an engaging but flawed beginning to the Key 2 Time trilogy that still offers a clear and interesting path going forward.