Only five more to go.
Season Sixteen ushers in not only a new mark of K-9 and a new companion, but also, courtesy of producer Graham Williams, a season-long story arc that sends the Doctor on an extended quest for the Key to Time. This meta-narrative serves to loosely tie together six otherwise disparate stories by giving the Fourth Doctor and Romanadvoratrelundar (Mary Tamm) some McGuffin to track down in each tale. But more importantly, as series veteran Robert Holmes’ “The Ribos Operation” (Story Production Code 5A) demonstrates, the story arc allows for smaller scale adventures for the Doctor; the fate of the known galaxy isn’t immediately at stake in this four part story, just the lives of two con men—and those of the two Time Lords who get caught up with them.
To establish the overall season arc, a bumper scene shows the TARDIS halted in mid-flight, the doors flung open in a splay of harsh golden light. Tom Baker manages to convey the Fourth Doctor’s trepidation well, despite heavy make-up covering facial injuries suffered prior to shooting this episode, convincing the audience that the otherwise inoffensive gentleman lounging in a wicker chair like some minor functionary of the Raj at a Bombay club wields untold power. The White Guardian (Cyril Luckham), as he describes himself, sets for the Doctor a task he cannot refuse, to secure the six segments of the Key to Time, claiming some cosmic catastrophe should he fail or, worse, should the Black Guardian acquire the pieces instead. The stakes, essentially, ratchet to the highest possible level—total annihilation of everything. Even for Doctor Who, that’s a step beyond the typical conundrum of Dalek conquest or planetary plague.
The White Guardian assigns the Doctor an assistant, against his wishes, leading to the presence of Romana, a recent graduate of the Time Lord Academy and a mere stripling at 139 years old, against the Doctor’s 759 (or so) years. She indicates that she was picked by the Supreme President of the Council (a position the Doctor held one story prior), suggesting that the Time Lords as a whole adhere to the wishes of the Guardians, a heretofore unknown power, or at the very least know better than to defy them. (Granted, the Time Lords were almost undone by telepathic tin foil and a grand total of four Sontarans in “The Invasion of Time,” but they still remain a potent force in their own right. Really.)
With the overarching quest providing the narrative urgency, as it were, the stage is set for the Doctor and Romana (with a little firepower from K-9 Mark II as needed) to have a small, intimate adventure, of a kind last seen with any frequency when William Hartnell’s First Doctor was trodding the boards at Television Centre. The tracker Romana installed in the TARDIS, without the Doctor’s permission, leads them to the planet Ribos, a “protected class three” planet whose civilization exists at a primitive level, firmly convinced that their world is flat and the stars but floating ice crystals. All the Doctor and Romana must do is procure the first segment of the Key to Time, which happens to be hidden as some other object inside a guarded case holding the planet’s crown jewels. Easy enough for two Time Lords armed with a Sonic Screwdriver, except someone has already broken into the case…
Con men Garron and Unstoffe (played with agreeable comic broadness by Iain Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt) have not taken anything out of the case, but rather placed something in it, a huge chunk of glowing blue jethryk, a rare mineral used to power the interstellar travel of spaceships of the era. Not, of course, that the planet’s natives know anything about this; Garron and Unstoffe, off-worlders from a more advanced civilization, plan on selling the planet to the power-mad Graff Vynda-K (Paul Seed), who will see the cobalt-hued stone and think the planet has enough to fuel his ambition to reconquer the throne his half-brother claimed from under him.
Holmes, well versed in science fiction literature, invokes the conceit of high technology interlopers on a low technology world, with the native inhabitants unaware that their planet is a protectorate in the Greater Cyrrhenic Empire and owned, ostensibly, by the Magellanic Mining Conglomerate. Garron claims to represent this corporation as he seeks to sell Ribos to the Graff Vynda-K, who veers between rage and vanity as he recounts the many battles he fought on behalf of the Alliance that so cowardly allowed his half-brother to steal the throne. Paul Seed sells the character well, the mania growing in lockstep with his greed at so much jethryk, the venom burgeoning as he realizes he’s been conned.
The hidden segment of the Key to Time is, inevitably, the jethryk chunk, and once Garron and Unstoffe steal it back from the guarded jewel case—where, strangely, the guards whose sole ritual duty is to monitor the case did not notice it for a full day—the chase is on for the mineral. The Doctor and Romana catch up with Garron, just as Graff Vynda-K confronts him with proof of his perfidy. All of them are rounded up by the Graff’s guards, save for Unstoffe, who has escaped with the jethryk (and the Graff’s million opek deposit for the planet). Execution seems imminent, but then everyone just starts talking. Garron and the Doctor hit it off while awaiting their demise, much to Romana’s dismay, swapping stories about the Cyrrhenic Empire and about conning people on old Earth; while Unstoffe is saved from discovery by Binroe the Heretic, who was castigated for thinking Ribos circles around its sun and for the heresy of believing the ice crystals in the sky to be other suns.
Typically in Doctor Who, particularly the past five or six seasons, details such as these feel like padding, mere narrative roadblocks to the good stuff; how can we worry about the nature of a culture’s cosmology when the planet is about to explode? But here, all the world-building Holmes layers in adds greatly to the importance of the events on offer. The audience begins to care about Garron and Unstoffe, about Binroe, precisely because the narrative stakes are so low. Granted, death remains in the offing for all of them, but there’s time for the narrative to unfold in a more leisurely fashion. This breathing room has been missing from the series for some time, and given Tom Baker’s evident delight in witty repartee, it’s surprising it took this long to rebalance the talking with the running.
K-9 (John Leeson, voice), of course, comes to save the day, with the Doctor never really believing himself to be in danger despite his confession to the contrary to Romana. But then, the Doctor was always going to get out of his predicament, and Holmes uses the time saved on having the Doctor figure out how to incapacitate the guards on the far more interesting insights into the galactic gossip of the time. It’s by far the best use of the tin mutt to date.
The final episode does feature a fair bit of action, with Garron, Unstoffe, Binroe, Romana, and K-9 trapped in the catacombs holding centuries’ worth of Ribos’ dead—and some very live beasties. The Graff leads his guards into the catacombs, accompanied by the Seeker (Ann Tirard). She casts divinations using the bones of past rulers to find Garron and Unstoffe, who are relieved of the jethryk and the opeks. She also foresees that only one of the Graff’s party will leave the catacombs alive.
When events have dwindled their number to just the Graff and the Doctor, disguised as one of his guards, the Graff gives the Doctor a thermite bomb and holds forth on the glory of dying for the Graff. The Doctor performs a bit of sleight of hand and swaps the bomb for the jethryk. Once more, the Doctor hoists a villain on his own petard, a step back towards his particular brand of passive-aggressive violence after having gone full commando on the Sontarans in “The Invasion of Time.” Still, the overall violence in the story has gone down, at least in comparison to the standards of Seasons Fourteen and Fifteen, and even the great beasts of the catacombs don’t eat a single member of the cast.
Tom Baker makes the most of the switch to small-scale adventure, filling the screen not so much with his scarf as with his smile. If the prior story showed his emotional range, this one gives him leave to be insouciant. He’s consistently dismissive of his new companion, complaining that he’ll have to teach and protect her, and he shows little care about the contamination of the native culture with alien concepts and gadgets. Perhaps there’s a desire for the Doctor to be more concerned with events—he shockingly does nothing as the Graff murders the Seeker right in front of him—but this near cynicism does play off of a larger sense that the Doctor does not trust the Guardian and the quest for the Key to Time, a belief that pays off some six months hence at the end of the arc.
Mary Tamm makes a strong debut showing as Romana, imbuing the character with a refreshing lack of respect for the Doctor. One must go back to Ian, and arguably Ben and Polly, to find companions who were as little impressed with the Doctor as Romana. She does wind up needing his reassurance within a few scant scenes of her arrival, but she treats herself as an equal, at least socially and intellectually. Unlike Leela, however, she lacks any sort of street-smarts or cunning. One presumes as well that the Doctor would never have asked Leela to make tea, even if she knew how…
With the Graff gone and the jethryk in the Doctor’s possession, all that remains is a quick, and oddly anticlimactic, goodbye. Garron attempts to purloin the hunk of rock one more time, but the Doctor steals it back posthaste. Nevertheless, Holmes makes sure of a happy ending for our gentleman thieves, as they take possession of the Graff’s spaceship, filled with decades of plunder. Given the degree of character development, having a resolution to their story feels necessary, and it’s a welcome note to help round out one of the best stories in quite some time.
Where usually there’s a sense of the unknown at the end of a story, here there’s almost a feeling of rote setting in, of weariness, as the Doctor and Romana dispel the illusion around the first segment to the Key to Time. Five more segments to go. The quest as a whole does feel a bit unwieldy, even after just one segment, but as a framing device that shoulders the narrative burden, it works wonders, bringing a freshness back to Doctor Who. Now the Doctor has a ready-made reason to get involved every week that doesn’t require planetary peril. Sometimes the Doctor doesn’t need to save the world; sometimes he just needs to save his own skin.
(Previous Story: The Invasion of Time)
(Next Story: The Pirate Planet)
Post 101 of the Doctor Who Project