The Key to (the) Tribe

So by now everyone, except those who deliberately choose to stay away from Doctor Who news in advance of a season which in turn means you wouldn’t be reading this anyway, knows that Series 13 is being sold as one big all-encompassing story.

Of course this has all been done before, once when we didn’t know it was coming and another when we (in the ‘royal’ sense) very much did.

In this regard we’re not referring back to the light-touch breadcrumbs that RTD would, and perhaps will again, salt throughout the four full series which comprised his tenure of nu-Who, or even to the very first experiment in this regard with the linked-single-story quest The Keys of Marinus during William Hartnell’s first season, but rather to the crowning achievement of the Graham Williams era of producer-ship in 1978, the classic Key to Time season (16). 

Conceived as a light-touch umbrella quest-type theme, all of the stories, while stand-alone in their own right, saw the Doctor and his ‘assigned’ companion Romana, as chosen by the White Guardian, searching out the segments of the Key to Time, a plot mcguffin if ever there was one, to rebalance time itself.  The stories ranged from light capers, as in The Ribos Operation, to straight-out monster stories (The Power of Kroll) and because the segments were disguised, it allowed the seasons authors choices about how the segments mattered to the plot of their own stories. In The Ribos Operation the finding of the segment was a main plot driver whilst in The Androids of Tara the segment was found right away and almost unimportant thereafter.  The Key as an overall story device really only mattered at the very beginning and end of the season.  As such viewers, who weren’t expecting a serialized story, didn’t have to invest themselves week-to-week to follow along.  Today this season is one of the most warmly remembered in the classic canon.

Fast forward to 1986 when Doctor Who was on significantly shakier footing.  Coming out of the first serious production interruption of the classic era, producer JN-T took the risky decision to mirror to status of the program being ‘on trial’ by having the Doctor on trial for ‘interference’ by the Time Lords for the whole of the season (23). 

Here the linking of the stories which comprised this shortened season (only 14 episodes compared to Season 16’s standard 26) wasn’t so much of an umbrella but a heavy boot, intruding on the stories in all sorts of ways which undercut the drama by pulling out of one story being told to the larger trial story, quite often it seemed to little effect, other than to annoy the average viewer.  This was much more serialized in a way that modern audiences would, in theory at least, be much more tolerant of.

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Will Series 13, for all of its shininess, be a modern progenitor of either 1978 or 1986 or, more likely, its own beast to be wrestled with.  And will audiences care to follow for this all-too-brief Season-ette?

We’re about to find out.