Aired 25 November – 16 December 1978
Middle portions of lengthy sagas often suffer simply from their positioning in the overall plot, lacking the intrigue of exposition and the satisfaction of resolution and instead relying on characterization and plot developments to keep the audience’s attention to the end. Especially in The Key to Time season where the stories are more or less independent of each other aside from the necessary search for the segments that is often tagged on rather than instrumental to the plot, ‘The Androids of Tara’ is the perfect example of a perfectly decent and enjoyable story in its own right that unfortunately does little to progress the linking narrative.
It’s oddly fitting in this era of more escapist fantasy that the Doctor tries to stay out of the quest for the fourth segment until literally forced to join on pain of death, instead opting to send Romana out on her own so that he can enjoy a spot of fishing. As the Doctor and Romana quickly become entangled in the intrigue over a feudal kingdom’s royal succession, battling swords and wits alike, it quickly becomes clear that something more bizarre is going in beneath the surface. While many stories throughout the years have featured doppelgangers of some sort, ‘The Androids of Tara’ takes events one step further as the androids impersonate Prince Reynart, Princess Strella, and even Romana, matters further complicated by the fact that Strella and Romana themselves are identical.
The overall story is a fairly light-hearted one, and Tom Baker is right in his element as he mocks the Taran aristocracy’s entitlement and pretentiousness. Indeed, with the general stakes a bit less grandiose than usual as the Guardians’ plans take a backseat to the sovereign issues of Tara, Tom Baker and Peter Jeffrey as the suave but duplicitous villainous Count Grendel of Gracht deliver immense performances to elevate this smaller narrative to something much more enjoyable than what is simply written on the page. Even as Grendel and Reynart vie for the right to succession with increasingly complex schemes, the fast-paced action and intrigue are unable to fully overcome the numerous plot holes present. Why exactly Grendel tries to keep Reynart alive to marry Strella or, in fact, why he himself wants to marry Strella to move up in the line of succession when he can apparently accomplish obtaining the crown by himself is never fully discussed.
Unfortunately, ‘The Androids of Tara’ also fails to better explore what the Key to Time segments actually are and do, though it inexplicably sets the groundwork for doing so by introducing the curiosity of the roboticist, Lamia, before abruptly seeing her killed off partway through the story. It’s a shame that there is still no understanding about what exactly it is that the Doctor and Romana are searching for despite reaching the second half of the overall narrative, and Lamia seemed to be the key to begin elucidating the audience and the Doctor who himself has done little research on his own. Still, ‘The Androids of Tara’ is full of wit and successfully pays homage to classic swashbuckling adventures, and those looking for a relatively smaller-stakes and straightforward tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously will certainly enjoy what is on offer.