Season 16 - THE KEY TO TIME
The Ribos Operation
‘Have you ever looked up at the sky at night and seen those little lights?’
Doctor Who does the ’story arc’ with The Key To Time…well it’s not exactly a new idea in that you could count The Daleks Masterplan and The War Games as mini story arcs in the series. But this arc moves through the entire season and for once gives the Doctor a reason to seek out danger. I’ve never been a big fan of The Key To Time season. On recent viewing, however, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting it and it’s all going quite well until you get to The Power Of Kroll and then…well…you’ll have to wait and see. Ribos has taken a very long time to grow on me. The most recent viewing was perhaps really the very first time when I could happily say that it all actually worked for me.
Plot-wise, the White Guardian gives the Doctor a task and a new companion – seek out all the scattered, hidden pieces of the Key to Time with the aid of snobbish Time Lady Romana. First stop, Ribos, where Garron and Unstoffe are trying to flog the planet to the revenge-seeking Graf Vynda-K. This involves a precious mineral, jethrik, which just happens to be…one of the pieces of the Key.
...a double act is the centre of the narrative – Garron and Unstoffe – giving Ian Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt an opportunity to turn in very wonderful performances, often hilarious, sometimes desperate and moving.I don’t mind story arcs. However, it might have been wise to actually inform the audience why the pieces of the Key should be collected and just what this Key actually does. It all seems to be shunted to one side without a really good explanation. Once the story gets to Ribos, Bob Holmes gets to the heart of the matter. He again provides us with an object lesson in world building – Ribos feels and looks credible as a backwater planet going through its own Renaissance with its own Galileo. And that’s important in pulling the audience in and keeping them there. And like Jago and Litefoot in Talons, he again makes a double act the centre of the narrative – Garron and Unstoffe – giving Ian Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt an opportunity to turn in very wonderful performances, often hilarious, sometimes desperate and moving. The fact that they are con-men makes it all the more interesting. If you haven't seen Cuthbertson in Budgie do yourself a favour and buy the DVDs because he's equally brilliant in that series too. The other pairing, of the Graff and his right hand man Sholakh, doesn’t quite come off. Paul Seed is pretty good at megalomania but he unbalances the relationship with Robert Keegan with a tad too much scenery chewing. Keegan is excellent, putting in a quiet and rounded performance of discreet menace and intensity. The Graff’s a petty villain, only interested in power but Sholakh does have some interesting character facets to him.
A common theme in the series is embellished by a very ‘Galileo versus the heretics’ thread that effectively connects with a Renaissance battle between religion, superstition and scientific discovery...The narrative unfolds as if we are peeling back the layers of an onion. It starts out big - (the Guardian and the Key) - and by the end we’re focused entirely on Binro’s worldview (the stars in the sky) and Garron and Unstoffe’s Robin Hood like take on the haves and have-nots. The character of Binro is the centre of the narrative and clearly becomes the audience identification character – the sheer wonder at the scale of the universe being contemplated in an old man’s mind and of course, his satisfaction in that he was right to be curious in the first place. This view clashes with the blood and thunder of the Seer who is all antlers, smoke and mirrors and sees the world through the prism of the supernatural. A common theme in the series is embellished by a very ‘Galileo versus the heretics’ thread that effectively connects with a Renaissance battle between religion, superstition and scientific discovery where Binro is the true seer.
...his relationship with the latest companion looks like a continuation of a bit of a giggle they’ve just had down the pubIt also looks marvellous too with sumptuous costumes and sets that give a clear indication of money on screen, which was always something that Williams as a producer had real difficulty with. He was never consistent. It’s a very medieval Russian flavour that permeates the visuals and the candlelit Hall Of The Dead is shot in such a way that the atmosphere is so palpable. You feel the dampness of the catacombs around you. George Spenton Foster, whilst not the best director on the series, manages to make everything tangible here. And it’s here that you also now understand how the series has now transformed itself - from the high Gothic Hinchcliffe scares with monsters lurking round every corner and audience identification figures in Sarah and Leela - into 'The Tom Baker Show' where his relationship with the latest companion looks like a continuation of a bit of a giggle they’ve just had down the pub. It’s all very knowing and much as I like Mary Tamm as Romana, she’s not ‘the viewer’ as such. It’s hard to identify with her. Perhaps if they’d worked more on the idea of ‘first day at the office’ like Gwen Cooper in Torchwood we might have had something rather more convincing for audiences to latch onto. She comes across as someone who really doesn’t want to travel with the Doctor and the audience must surely have been confused as after all that’s what they wanted to do, and still want to do, week in, week out.
...if your hero doesn’t take the threat seriously, then why should you in the audience believe in it too?And that’s the biggest problem with the Doctor/Romana relationship. It’s very self-centred and as a viewer I personally cease to identify with either of them at this point because naturalism and conviction have been thrown to wolves in favour of a knowingness that signals to us our leading man and woman are just doing this for a lark. It affects the dilemmas the Doctor apparently finds himself in from here on in – at the cost of drama, he’s flippant and nonchalant when faced by something he should be truly terrified by. It sort of works if you like that sort of thing but as I’ve said before if your hero doesn’t take the threat seriously, then why should you in the audience believe in it too? Mind you, when it’s a stunt man dressed up in a rather obvious, rubbery Shrivenzale costume then you could forgive them. The monsters are now relegated to being guests on the show and not much effort is therefore made to depict them well. A cough and a spit and they’re done with. The series has switched to humanoid villains with grand schemes and the Doctor simply arrives and knocks over their little house of cards.
Ribos is head and shoulders above some of the Season 15 stories and its strengths are Holmes’ characters and themes, good guest actors, superb production values and a wordy but clever plot. The Doctor and Romana seem to be there as bystanders rather than active forces in the narrative but the script is full of good lines and situations. It’s let down by an indifferent Romana and not terribly convincing monsters. Cuthbertson, Plaskitt, and Timothy Bateson as Binro own this story completely.
The Pirate Planet
September – October 1978
‘Then what’s it for? What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?’
Douglas Adams arrives on the scene with his first contribution to the show. The difference is pretty immediate just from a scripting point of view. Adams’ characteristically layered plotting, bluffs, double takes and deft humour drift through the episodes like a refreshing breath of mountain air. And it’s entirely suited to the Williams era and this would stylistically find its watermark in City Of Death where the dexterity of characterisation and plotting move the show out of the formulaic and into the magisterial for a brief period.
The plot concerns a planet-eating factory run by a very loud, shouting Captain Hook type who is being manipulated from behind the scenes by the ancient Queen Xanxia. She needs the energy produced by the destruction of these planets to escape her prison.
Adams was concerned that the villains were defined characters with a particular point of view rather than the average megalomaniac wanting to take over the universeAfter the triumph of The Ribos Operation where the traditional nature of the series went all philosophical on us, this one is content to bring us back to a shiny, 1950s pulp science fiction universe. Very apt, as this idea of science fiction/adventure nostalgia combined with mythological symbolism is basically the winning formula that made a certain Mr. Lucas a packet in 1977. Therefore we have some very broad brushstrokes here combined with an interesting moral problem for the Doctor to solve. In order to thwart the Captain and his mining operations he has to sacrifice the comfortable lives the people of Zanak are leading. What right does he have to do so? Do the people of Zanak really care enough to back the Doctor on this one? It’s a case of Adams wondering about the motivations of the villain of the week and how the Doctor can provide a sound moral counterpoint within an interesting social context. It’s clear that Adams was concerned that the villains were defined characters with a particular point of view rather than the average megalomaniac wanting to take over the universe. Hence we get the central plot about Xanxia regenerating her body at any cost (Earth being next on the menu) and manipulating all the male characters to do her bidding whilst serving the sub-plots about the indolent people of Zanak, the Mentiads and the Captain himself.
Curiously, another thing that does stand out at this point during the Williams era is how villainy becomes an equal opportunities concept and we get to see more female protagonists clash with the Doctor over the next few years. Whether this is just a response to the rise of feminism in the late 70s, Thatcher’s domination of the Conservative party or a specific agenda for the script editor, who can tell? We do seem to get a rash of female characters who plot away behind the scenes, often changing history and society to suit their needs and controlling the situation through weaker men. The Stones Of Blood crystalises this approach more so than any other story but it can be clearly identified in other stories such as The Creature From The Pit.
Mary Tamm leaning back with her hair flowing in the wind with some obvious CSO just made me think of several Eddie Izzard sketchesFrom a production point of view, the design is actually rather good here, particularly the Captain’s bridge and the Captain himself. There’s a good, strong use of colour in contrast to steel greys in both sets and costumes. It does tend to look a bit sparse and unconvincing in the scenes set on the surface of Zanak though but the Bridge, the engine room and the Time Dam prison of Xanxia are all well realised and money is thankfully up on the screen again. There are also the air-cars and the Captain’s robot, Polyphase Avatron, in the mix too. The air cars are hilariously bad/cheap SF tropes and one scene with Mary Tamm leaning back with her hair flowing in the wind with some obvious CSO just made me think of several Eddie Izzard sketches. And can someone tell me the point of the flying robot parrot? Location work is good, with the scenes in the mine standing out as best here and more effective than some of the scenes with the Mentiads marching through what looks like the Welsh hills!
There’s also a lovely, twitchy and nervous performance by Andrew Robertson as Mr. FibuliBaker is back on form here, especially his equal indignation at and admiration for the Queen’s dastardly scheme. He’s especially good working against Bruce Purchase as the Captain who is great value but does tend to spin off into Brian Blessed territory with all of his shouty bits. His ‘by all the…..(insert ridiculously over the top description here)’ epithets do get tiring after a while and you wish the Doctor would hurry up and polish him off. It’s also Adams at his laziest in terms of writing. However, when he does get his comeuppance there is a genuine twinge of sadness at his demise when we realise how much Xanxia has exploited him. There’s also a lovely, twitchy and nervous performance by Andrew Robertson as Mr. Fibuli that acts as a good foil to the blustering Purchase. However, a rather one note performance by David Warwick as Kimus makes him looks uncomfortable in an essentially thankless role and in doing so he lacks conviction. Mary Tamm seems to have settled in a bit and doesn’t jar as much here. She’s still wandering about the place being all aloof and not particularly audience friendly but the edges are a little softer. She’s again too much of a know all to be a proper audience identification figure.
Overall, this isn’t bad at all. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ribos but it’s entertaining, well written, has plenty of ideas and is leaps and bounds better than the likes of Underworld or Invasion Of Time from the previous season. There’s a focus on the villains and why they are doing what they are doing that refreshingly reintroduces a sense of real dilemma to the proceedings. You do actually want the Doctor to be clever and outwit them this time whereas in the previous season half the time you couldn’t give a monkey’s if he bothered to leave the TARDIS or not.
THE KEY TO TIME Boxset: The Ribos Operation & The Pirate Planet (BBCDVD2335 Region 2 DVD Cert PG)
The remaining four stories will be reviewed shortly along with an overview of the DVD set's extra features.
Cathode Ray Tube Doctor Who The Key To Time The Ribos Operation The Pirate Planet