A very lightweight adventure, but an entertaining and fun one. Similarly to ‘The Ribos Operation’, three stories earlier at the start of season sixteen, it uses a pseudo-medieval kingdom as its setting. Perhaps, at a time of budget restrictions, it was more efficient to design for known, historic settings rather than imagine up alien worlds within a factory corridor.By contrast with the earlier studio-bound story, here there is much sunny location footage of the grounds of Leeds Castle.
‘Androids of Tara’, we soon realise, is an uncomplicated affair that takes the show into swashbuckling adventure and also maybe a little into the neighbouring genres of fairyland tales and pantomine. Certainly the characterisations of the local nobles encourages this: the handsome one-dimensional prince and his beautiful bride-to-be; the earnest and willing swordsman; the credulous priest; the dastardly villain all give off a cartoonish, pantomine air.
David Fisher does include a sliver of social comment in the disinterest of the Taran aristocracy in anything other in chivalry and intrigue, and their dependence on their serfs for their technology. The suffering of Lumia, able and dignified but enslaved and powerless is a more realistic element amongst the silly back and forth sieges and sallying. Tara seems to be less a planet than two neighouring estates (although Genesis of the Daleks has this same issue). This geography facilitates the rather weak cliffhangers, where Count Grendel twice appears and disappears from and into thin air.
The Doctor in this story mainly serves to oil and move the plot along with his customary aplomb. He’s not as vital to the matter at hand as something like ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ – Zadek and Farrar could feasibly have could have foiled the Count, but having the Doctor around to help proves invaluable.
Mary Tamm’s detached, almost-disinterested performance is problematic. It’s not difficult to understand why she didn’t return after her season with the show. Something like ‘Androids of Tara’ really does not complement the characterisation at all: a cool, collected intectual princess figure looking over a pantomime.
Fortunately for the production, an actor as reliably excellent as Peter Jeffrey was cast in the pivotal role of Count Grendel. The script never allows the Count to be anything other than a cartoonish baddie, one step ahead of everyone but the Doctor, but Jeffrey takes this in his stride, convincingly hamming up his villainry and not straying too far into the red zone on the Furstometer. The supporting cast werepretty good too: Paul Lavers was impressive as the young swordsman and Simon Lack as the restrained, sober Zadek.
The Androids of Tara does practically nothing for the season arc: the Key to Time is found in the first five minutes of episode one, and serves merely as the plot device to get the Doctor and Romana into the Count’s web, before it returns to memory towards the end. The use of a stock plot does allow Fisher to climax the story well, with a rather long swordfight between the Doctor and Grendel deciding the day.
After many years of stories tinged in seriousness, a lightweight bit of fluff like Androids of Tara is a bit of a change (certainly since the lightweight stuff that was utilised in the long seasons of the Hartnell era). But it stands up perfectly OK as a enjoyable and fun piece of adventure television.