Sunday, February 03, 2019


Doctor Who – The Armageddon Factor: Where Have All the Zeons Gone?

Forty years ago today, the Doctor was facing The Armageddon Factor – the climax of his quest for the Key To Time. It’s one of my favourite and most fun years of Doctor Who, yet this finale tells a grimmer story. A world inexplicably breaks off trade with its closest neighbour, goes to war instead and ends up nearing utter destruction, while its leader* spouts self-deluded nationalist propaganda with Churchillian rhetoric but Hitlerian meaning, promising
“Victory – or death!”
But the Doctor’s trip to neighbouring planet Zeos poses a question that’s never been answered until now: where have all the Zeons gone?

*Meanwhile, the powerless figurehead constitutional monarch offers subtly coded resistance in her speeches.

Enjoying The Key To Time

The Doctor is on a mission from God. Surprisingly, that’s where the fun starts.

Doctor Who – The Key To Time Coming Soon Trailer

I was six when Season Sixteen of Doctor Who began in Autumn 1978, and I adored it. I still adore it now, for all the old reasons and quite a few more besides. For the first time, the whole season has a declared mission statement and story arc: the Doctor must search for the six segments of the Key To Time, to prevent the Universe from being plunged into eternal chaos. Marvellously, the series reacts against this grimdark threat by revelling in being fairy-tale, fluffy and fun. Tom Baker’s enjoying himself as the Doctor, Mary Tamm’s Romana is icily fabulous, and this is the year when K9 really works. The sheer entertainment of the actors and the style is built on some of the best authors ever to write for the Doctor, who include Douglas Adams, Robert Holmes and David Fisher (the most underrated, but who for my money gets the best balance of character and wit here, and is rather grown-up about sex).

Striking out into science fantasy with citadels, evil queens and the Doctor as a wizard on a quest, the most consistent theme underlying the magical journey is that gods aren’t to be trusted. From the very beginning, the Doctor chafes against being told what to do, and through a succession of witty adventures with larger-than-life opponents, despite the warning of impending doom, he and the stories are far more about having fun than following the holy writ. In the first story of the season, The Ribos Operation, the Doctor gets involved in a small-time scam and does his best to ignore the ‘important people’, while the most moving and heroic figure is an alien world’s equivalent of Galileo. The Pirate Planet fizzes with ideas, builds a very serious story seamlessly out of a very silly one, pits the Doctor’s fury against a cyborg Pirate Captain and features the Daily Mail’s worst nightmare – young people today who are gay hoodies. The Stones of Blood follows that with a fabulous lesbian goddess, female Gothic and sausage sandwiches. The Androids of Tara – my favourite in one of my favourite seasons – is almost a summer holiday in gorgeous countryside, playing at swordfighting with a dastardly double-dealing moustache-twirling villain. The Power of Kroll is a bit flatter than the rest, but does have a very big god indeed and a performance by Philip Madoc of a man who knows he could do a better job than his rubbish boss that becomes immeasurably more entertaining if you know the behind-the-scenes casting details. And then there’s The Armageddon Factor.

The Armageddon Factor

“We have the power to do anything we like…”
The Armageddon Factor is a story that almost no-one has a good word for. After six months of the search for the Key To Time, I’ve seen quite a few reviews complain that it’s not a sufficiently epic finale – the money’s clearly run out, the macho space battles are dismissed as a very bad idea, and the conclusion of the whole quest is an anti-climax because it resolutely rejects the self-importantly deterministic apotheosis that messianic sci-fi often marched towards. But those reviews tend to see the whole season as incorrigibly frivolous already. Many fans who enjoyed the rest of it, though, are disappointed by this story because after so much jolly colour in both style and tone, the finale is dark and drab. Writer Gareth Roberts praises Season Sixteen as Doctor Who’s best, but still thinks it tails off: his novel The Well-Mannered War attempts a grand finale for the era, most blatantly going for The Armageddon Factor II, with a ton of reworked plot riffs (even his own version of ‘Where have all the Zeons gone?’) though with characteristically misanthropic overtones.

For me there’s a lot to the story, not least the ending that winds so many people up: I don’t want the Doctor to create Universal order. I can’t think of a more Doctorish answer to absolute power than that no-one should be trusted with god-like supremacy… Not even God. Along the way, John Woodvine’s Marshal is a toweringly watchable dictator, the eerie skull on a stick both fascinated and disturbed me, and its critique of war offers some very black humour. I do have some problems with the plot structure – the ‘comic relief’ comes in too late, when it’s starving for some drama towards the end (but even then, that inspires John Dorney’s brilliant The Trouble With Drax, possibly the most enjoyable of all Big Finish’s modern Tom Baker adventures) while the middle sags a bit and could have done with something more diverting than too many corridors. But it’s in those corridors that you find a question that’s been nagging away at me for years…

Having landed in the midst of an interplanetary war between Atrios and Zeos, the Doctor spends roughly a third of the story each on Atrios, then on Zeos, then in the sinister base of the sinister third force behind the whole sinister plan. The trouble is, there isn’t much there on Zeos: a few beige corridors; a bit of dust; an over-intelligent Weapon of Mass Destruction that K9 exchanges sexts with; and, er, that’s it. This makes a problem for the viewer, as Zeos being so unexciting sometimes gives the impression that the war is less between two planets than between two leisure centres in need of refurbishment. But it also makes a problem for the script: where have all the Zeons gone?

The Missing Planet Vs the Missing People

“The fleet is still trying to locate the target, sir.”
“The target, Major Shapp, is Zeos! The planet. Isn’t that big enough?”
The story’s initial mystery is not the Zeons, but their entire planet: earlier in the story, what remains of the Atrian fleet is unable to find their target, then engaged and hopelessly outfought by the Zeon ships. The Doctor works out the answer to the ‘missing’ planet, which though a bit iffy in terms of spatial understanding gives the clue that there is something else, and someone else, out there; the inhumanly efficient Zeon attacks in turn are a clue as to the nature of the Zeon ‘commander’, not a person but an alien-built super-computer, Mentalis. That revelation is part of the intriguing mirror to that opening question: once you’ve found Zeos, why does it appear deserted?

Whoever wrote the Radio Times teasers for this story certainly considered this a crucial question. For Part Two, it intrigued readers with:
“The Atrian defences are finally exhausted and the Marshal enlists the Doctor’s help in fighting off the Zeon attack. But who are the Zeons? Why has no one ever seen one?”
Which we later find out isn’t strictly true, but pales next to Part Three:
“The Doctor discovers the bizarre truth about the Zeons.”
About Zeos, perhaps – but when Part Three was broadcast on 3rd February 1979, the Doctor’s visit to Zeos asks the question but only gets answers to a different one. The sleight of hand is such, though, that I didn’t notice until long after 1979. It took until The Key To Time was released in a DVD box set for Richard and I to watch The Armageddon Factor together and, chatting after each episode as we often do, discover that we both had diametrically opposed assumptions. I’d always had in the back of my mind that the Zeons had all emigrated to some other system or something of the sort; Richard had always assumed they’re all dead.

Which of those you think is true graphically changes the tone of the story.

Now, there are a lot of clues in the story before we get to Zeos. The Doctor’s bluffing suggestion of a cheap and energy-saving psychological barrier, inducing “Atrophobia”, to keep the Zeon fleet away is really a stab at being able to talk to a Zeon prisoner and get a wider picture of what’s going on – but there are no prisoners. At first, this seems of a piece with the way that the Atrians can’t find Zeos – but if it isn’t there, where are the attacks coming from? The Doctor notes that of course it’s there, but hidden, which suggests some sort of outside interference with Zeos (a much bigger part of the plot in the original storyline). Then the Zeon fleet’s suddenly gone, like ghosts, and the Marshal declaims, “Deliver us from the terrors of war and the evils of pestilence…” Are we supposed to wonder if the Zeons have all been killed by disease? Are people dissolved by disease on Zeos (the Doctor pointedly tells one character that people aren’t dissolved by radiation)? After the Doctor has the idea of going to Zeos to investigate, his odd nagging question en route is why the Marshal, leader of the world at war with Zeos, should have the equivalent of a secret passage straight there – but it’s odder still in retrospect to look at the exchange between the Marshal and the Doctor that leads to the trip:
“There are no Zeons!”
“There are on Zeos.”
“What exactly are you proposing?”
When the Doctor arrives on Zeos, he’s been clobbered by the sinister Shadow’s henchbeings: of course, we assume that the blokes apparently from and on Zeos in black robes and skull masks are Zeons. That mirrors the implications for the first couple of episodes that Zeos is some sort of ghost planet, a planet of the dead (a frequent state in Doctor Who – one that writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin had tried to get in before – and another of many elements that this story would have in common with the following one). Atrios’ Princess Astra calls the war futile and begs for peace, warning, “We shall all be wiped out if we go on, Zeons and Atrians alike.” Is that perhaps another clue that they may all be dead already? And then, of course, what appears to be the clincher, as the Doctor concludes:
“There are no Zeons on Zeos…”
I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a fan consensus, except not to ask the question: The Discontinuity Guide buries a questionable ‘fact’ in its summary that “Atrios and Zeos have been waging nuclear war on each other, despite the fact that for the last five years Zeos has been uninhabited and that its warfare has been prosecuted by Mentalis, a computerised commandant… The Zeons were human, but were possibly wiped out by the Atrions’ attacks” but makes no attempt to think past that ambiguity, while About Time IV states baldly that “they’re all dead now”, and even assumes it’s been for the last five years, since Mentalis was built. So what killed them at the very beginning of the war, or earlier, then?

The Missing Plot

The roots of the problem surely lie in what happened when the Doctor arrived on Zeos in the script as originally planned. This outline, Armageddon, had much the same structure, but once it’s been established that the now near-uninhabitable Atrios is too weak to win, we were to be surprised to meet plenty of Zeons – who are all in much the same radiation-sick, bombed-out state as the Atrians. Thanks to the DVD text notes (or, if you have them, In-Vision and Doctor Who – The Complete and Utter History), you can read quite a bit about the original storyline and the Zeon people – but, by the time the story made it to screen, script editor Anthony Read had decided that the Zeos episodes essentially repeated what the Doctor had already encountered on Atrios and, with the budget already at breaking point, were a prime target for a cut. He deleted the Zeons and added Mentalis the sexy WMD, a “totally invincible” commander whose robot fighters now have the edge against untrained young Atrian pilots after too many casualties. Though fewer speaking parts in the middle episodes are a problem for audience engagement, the change at least comes up with something different – as well as taking the script in a different direction to what seemed at times Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s cover version of the earlier story Genesis of the Daleks (war, radiation, mutants, a dictator in a bunker making familiar speeches and even another Brothers Karamazov moral dilemma; peculiarly, the new additions are in part a satire on Game Theory, something that also crops up in the next story along, Destiny of the Daleks, which is in itself a direct sequel to Genesis of the Daleks). So, in one fell swoop, that’s the behind-the-scenes reason why we don’t meet any Zeons. But that still leaves an unanswered on-screen question – what happened to them? Are they all dead? And if so, how?

In The Armageddon Factor as broadcast, despite the revelation of Mentalis fighting a zombie Zeon war, all the other hints about the dead planet suddenly hit a beige wall. We’ve been given a mystery – but there’s no pay-off. When the Doctor arrives on Zeos, it’s just a load of dusty corridors, and the more weirdly fairground-ride planet of the dead is somewhere else entirely. The revelation that “There are no Zeons on Zeos” should be a shattering twist, like it turning out there are no Russians in Russia for a World War III thriller, but the line’s tossed away and no-one shows any interest in it, as if suddenly none of it matters. We’re left wondering if someone’s going to finish off telling us the plot eventually, but they never do. Mentalis resembles a high-tech version of a dead man’s switch, but we never see the dead men.

I suspect that my understanding that the Zeons had just ‘gone away’ came from the novelisation Doctor Who and the Armageddon Factor. In it, Terrance Dicks does what he often did, zeroing in on a plot hole he’s spotted and explaining it away with the option that will be less disturbing for kids. So, on page 69 of the book, the Doctor finds Mentalis and concludes that “The whole planet is automated. There are no Zeons on this part of Zeos.” Atrian Major Shapp then asks where the Zeons are, prompting the Doctor to guess, “On the other side of the planet, I imagine, somewhere in hiding. But before they went, they set this up.” It’s a stab at an explanation, but on closer examination, surely it doesn’t hold up (planets turn, after all. Emigration might have made sense – but with nothing anywhere to support that theory, you’d just have to make it up). Yet the TV version suddenly falters at the obvious counter-conclusion.

The more disturbing option, the one that seems much more heavily implied by all the signifiers before we actually reach Zeos, is that all the Zeons are dead, but that the Shadow has had Mentalis set up to fight for them from beyond the grave, or that they built Mentalis to ‘win the war’ and as a result didn’t put enough effort into Atrios-like bunkers so were all killed by the radiation or, as Shapp asks, “Could be the result of… biological warfare?” Though it’s worth noting that, as well as being atrociously acted, Major Shapp is atrociously written; he doesn’t seem sure whether Atrios used or even possess biological weapons, despite being second in command of all Atrian forces.

The trouble with this reading is that, while the war’s a little protracted, it can’t be a millennium-long one like Genesis of the Daleks’ Thal-Kaled war that might explain how bodies could have crumbled to dust over centuries while the machinery just continues remorselessly – the only skeletons we see are perambulatory and not local (the Shadow’s robed, skeletal servants, the “Mutes”, are literally represented by the costume designer as having no mouths – the most ‘extra’ of all extras, with even their costumes saying, ‘There’s no way on Earth you’re getting a line’ – but are apparently a leftover from the Zeons being mutated after all the nuclear war, again much like the “Mutos” of Genesis of the Daleks. Yet though the idea of them began as Zeons, on screen they are explicitly not). Bob and Dave pull off ‘walking on crumbled corpses’ very effectively in The Hand of Fear, but those took millions of years to collapse into sand; here, Shapp’s only in early middle age, but he clearly remembers trading with Zeons before the war, and that they looked just like the (humanoid) Atrians, while we hear later from Drax that the war started only just over five years ago.

The clues are all set up, then, for all the Zeons to be dead, until we actually reach Zeos. At that point, not only is there is no real moment of resolution, but every clue suddenly backs away from the grisly ‘truth’: K9 makes no warnings (unlike on Atrios) of high levels of radiation; there appears to be almost no damage; the Doctor even makes a point of pointing out to Shapp, “There’s no sign of your attacks getting through though, is there?” The revelation of Mentalis itself raises another question: its Dr Strangelove parallel is explicit when Marshal Jack D Ripper launches his own mad mission in person and Mentalis is programmed to respond with its ‘If you bomb us we will blow up the entire solar system… Maybe we should have told you this in advance’ Non-Deterring Deterrent Doomsday Device (that apparent oversight in itself a clue to what’s really going on). Yet if all the Zeons are already dead, how did whatever killed them not already trigger such Mutual Assured Destruction? Early in Part Four, Romana notes:
“Well, since there don’t seem to be any Zeons on Zeos, if you know what I mean…”
As established, I’m not sure we do, but the script seems to keep worrying at it like a missing tooth or a distracting thought they can’t quite place. To confuse matters further, as late as Part Five (once the plot’s already left Zeos, and after you’d think all the facts were established) Romana observes that there are only four seconds left in their makeshift time-loop designed to delay the system’s total destruction, and that if it should snap, “millions of people on Zeos and Atrios will die”. So, did she see quite a lot of people on Zeos that we didn’t see, or was she just left reading an earlier version of the script? And, as the black-hearted plan behind the war is to foment chaos and suffering and trap the Doctor in a moral dilemma with millions of lives at stake, why would the Shadow cut short the chaos and suffering for one world, or wipe out half his ‘hostages’?

The mystery of the missing Zeons hurts The Armageddon Factor not just by making it less coherent, but by drawing back from the mood of death and destruction with which the story starts, making it one of the elements that fight against the drama by actively reducing tension as the story goes on. With a heavily rewritten script at the end of a full season’s overarching story, it seems that this was a detail that just fell through the cracks. It may well be that the script hinted at a dead planet, then bottled out of the idea as too frightening when it got there, and there just wasn’t the time to change all the promising details even when they were no longer going to deliver. The Armageddon Factor had two credited writers; many changes were made to it by the outgoing script editor (the equivalent of today’s lead writer); incoming script editor Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams were concentrating on making the ending to the whole six-month story arc work, rather than the details of the six-episode story. It’s not hard to see how the Zeons got lost down the back of the sofa between drafts.

The Watsonian conclusion that most fits the tone of the story is that all the Zeons are dead, and simply try to ignore everything that pulls against that – or, at the risk of making it even closer to Genesis of the Daleks, to fill in the gap with the sole suspect to hand: single-mindedly programmed to win the war, Mentalis did it, clinically deciding that the Zeon people were a waste of scarce wartime resources. It’s almost a relief that none of the many writers made such an obvious sci-fi cliché explicit, merely leaving it a lurking possibility. But the real, unsatisfyingly Doylist answer lies in the decision to take them out of the script, but leave their planet as their meaningless ghost in the middle of it: by the time The Armageddon Factor went into production, the truth is that the Zeons aren’t all dead – they were never alive.

As well as today being the fortieth anniversary of the Doctor’s trip to Zeos, it was thirteen years ago today that I began this blog. While Love and Liberty was never exactly prolific, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to write as my health has nosedived faster than ever over the past few years. But this has been rattling around my head and various drafts for ages, so today seemed a good day to buckle down to it at last, and rather to my surprise, I have. Will there be more? Who knows.

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