The Key to Time

by P. J. R. Harkin

1984

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A Journey Through Space and Time, January 25, 2021

In search of a little retro text-adventuring to play on company time, I stumble across this curious artefact from the nostalgic 1980s of my childhood: a Doctor Who-based adventure game! How my 8-year-old self would have coveted such a thing, if he had known it existed; how inconsolable would he have been had he known the inconceivable span of time that he would have to live through before he would get the chance to play it. Nevertheless, here I am, half a lifetime later with the very thing at my fingertips and I can’t help but ponder the question – was it worth the wait?

The Key To Time is a typical product of the grey economy of the 1980s British home-grown adventure game scene, where anyone with a copy of the Quill and a bit of spare time could declare themselves proprietors of a software label and flog self-penned games from their residential address, often blithely borrowing copyright assets along the way. In this instance, the rather off-puttingly titled ‘Lumpsoft’ really do go the whole way, shamelessly borrowing the undisguised title, concept and characters from the Doctor Who TV series and even including the TARDIS police box image on their packaging and loading screen. Of course, the BBC had a considerably more apathetic attitude to copyright infringement in those days. In fact, they tended not to show much interest in their assets at all – after all, by the time this came along they’d spent the past couple of decades methodically throwing away most of their archives because all those old film tins were becoming such a bother to dust – so it’s not too surprising that this sort of thing frequently passed under their radar, and in hindsight this represents an enormous missed opportunity for game authors (where, I ask in vain, is the text adventure version of Howard’s Way?) More astonishing and riskier by far, as anyone familiar with the reputation of Terry Nation’s agent, Roger Hancock, will be aware, is Harkin’s appropriation of the Daleks into his game, both in word and image (there is even one on the loading screen!). How on earth the impudent P.J.R. managed to get away with that without receiving a visit in the dead of night from Hancock’s heavies is a mystery. Or maybe he didn’t, and that’s why Lumpsoft’s output mysteriously ceased after their second game (a rip-off of The Avengers that time) with an advertised third never to be released? It’s likely we shall never know.

As for the game: it’s a fun Quilled effort, with a decent number of locations spread out over different zones to add a bit of variety. You play the first Doctor (the game is, rather amusingly ‘respectfully dedicated to the memory of William Hartnell’ – what the perpetually out of sorts Bill Hartnell would have made of this is anyone’s guess, but he passed away in 1975 so was spared the indignity), engaged by the White Guardian on a 1978-flavoured quest to collect the five segment of the Key to Time, for reasons no more adequately explained here than in the TV version on which the plot is based. Gameplay consists of hopping between different planets and solving a series of simple puzzles to locate segments disguised as everyday (if often rather incongruous) objects that can be transformed into their true forms with a touch of a magic wand. The means of transport between different zones is, of course, the TARDIS – rendered (presumably due to budgetary constraints) as just two rooms, one containing the famous console which here bears no more than a single button and a lever. This makes navigation a more straightforward affair than depicted in the TV series, and the imagination can easily fill in the missing Bakelite radio knobs, switches, sticky tape and vacuum cleaner parts seen on screen.

Our first port of call is the Dalek’s home planet of Skaro, depicted as a handful of sparse rooms and a corridor (as seen on TV). The most exciting thing here is a control room swarming with Daleks! But sadly, we’re not allowed to explore it but instead encounter a singular Dalek guarding a statue of Davros (the Daleks’ weird fetishization of their creator, who they hate, being nicely illustrated here). Of the various items we come across on the alien world of Skaro, a tin of baked beans is perhaps the most surprising (we must suppose that a plucky Thal dropped it during a reconnaissance mission), but it proves to be so central to the plot that, presumably, Harkin could find no more suitable substitute.

Next, we’re off to an unnamed planet and an encounter with the Cybermen (forever doomed to reside at number 2 in any ‘greatest Dr Who monster of all time’ poll) or rather, lone Cyberman, in a rather lacklustre run around with overuse of an unimaginative USE command to get us through to the next segment of the Key. This seems like lazy puzzle design to me, but at least it avoids the usual three-hour guess-the-verb marathon that is the staple of 1980s text adventures.

Moving on, we find ourselves face to face with the spooky, bewhiskered, telepathic, plate-footed Sensorites – unarguably one of Dr Who’s greatest ever potentially good monsters trapped in a crap story. We encounter them in their ‘Temple of Senses’, a minimally-implemented post-modern sensual gallery where each of the senses is indulged through a single, stark artefact. The identity of the disguised segment here is rather curious, but I suppose convergent evolution can account for most things and after all, it has to be disguised as something.

Our next destination is a trip to the zoo, and some animal antics with monkeys, piranhas, a giant bird and three bears (including porridge, excluding Goldilocks). This is certainly the least Doctor Who-ish of all the episodes and may appears wildly off-topic to some players (unless they’ve seen The Chase, in which case it seems pretty sober) but there is more to do here than anywhere else and it is probably the most entertaining part of the game; I wouldn’t be surprised if this section started life in some other unfinished project and ended up incorporated here. Whatever the case, there is barely time to pause for breath before we’re back in the TARDIS operating our singular button and lever once more, and arriving at our final destination…

Gallifrey, the Time Lord home planet. Originally depicted in the 1960s as aloof, sanctimonious, omnipotent guardians of time pontificating quietly over the fate of morally inferior beings (i.e. everyone else in the universe), the Time Lords went through a strident glam-rock period in the 1970s before devolving into a group of venal degenerates endlessly bickering with one another and trapped forever in the conference suite of a 1980s budget hotel; it’s fun to imagine the upholstered beige walls and uplights of the contemporary screen version while reading the spartan location descriptions, although the plot is rather 1976 (those familiar with The Deadly Assassin will be at an enormous advantage here). Like many senescent empires, Gallifrey is corrupt, insular, and utterly complacent – so finding the priceless and all-powerful artefacts of Rassilon stowed carelessly beneath a cushion on the only chair, and a pillow on the bed in the President’s quarters, is not really that much of a surprise (I don’t think I can be spoiling here, unless you really weren’t going to look beneath that cushion and that pillow). Once those treasures are procured, there is a bit more fiddly unlocking and inserting to do before the final segment is won and the game ends in a (typically abrupt) triumph.

So what to make of this strange confection overall? Stripped of its fan appeal, which gives it a hefty boost for anyone with an interest in the TV series, The Key to Time is a pretty primitive playing experience. The puzzles are for the most part simplistic and not particularly well clued (especially for those unfamiliar with the series), the locations are few and sparsely described and the parser doesn’t understand anything but the most basic of commands and can be frustratingly obtuse. And yet some care and attention has clearly gone into the making of this and it is not an entirely unenjoyable playing experience provided that one takes account of the era in which it was written and adjusts one’s expectations accordingly. It’s interesting to note that its original retail price in 1984 was £5.95, equivalent to around £20 today – a not inconsiderable amount of pocket money – and that the contemporary magazine reviews are all fairly positive. We may never know if P.J.R. Harkin shifted enough units to pay off his mortgage, but it does give an idea of the accepted standard of games and their retail value in the unsaturated UK text adventure market of the early 80s. Viewed from almost four decades later, The Key to Time is little more than a historical curiosity, but there are certainly more harmful ways of frittering away your time than playing through this thing (preferably with the CASA solution to hand, for those not blessed with infinite time or patience). I’d recommend it as a decent example from the era, with the added curiosity of it being based on some famous subject matter.