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Production Code: 5A
1 - 02/09/1978 17:45
2 - 09/09/1978 18:20
3 - 16/09/1978 18:30
4 - 23/09/1978 18:20
The White Guardian gives the Doctor a quest to find the six disguised segments of the Key to Time which, when assembled, will be used to restore the balance of the cosmos. To aid him he is given a new companion, a female Time Lord called Romana, and a tracer device.
He tracks the first segment to the city of Shur on the planet Ribos. There con men Garron and Unstoffe are engaged in a scam to sell the entire planet to the Graff Vynda-K, deposed ruler of Levithia. The Graff has been tricked into believing that Ribos is a rich source of jethrik, a rare mineral vital for achieving space warp drive.
His interest is further piqued when he sees a large lump of the mineral on display in a reliquary. The Doctor realises that this is actually the first segment but, before he can steal it, Unstoffe spirits it away.
The Graff, having discovered the trick that has been played on him, hunts the con men down and captures them, along with the time travellers, in the catacombs beneath the city. He is on the point of having them executed when Riban guards blow up the entrance to the catacombs.
The death of his loyal officer Sholakh in the ensuing rock fall unhinges the Graff's mind. He storms into the dust and is killed by a thermite bomb with which he had intended to destroy the catacombs.
The Doctor, Romana and K9 depart with the jethrik, leaving Garron and Unstoffe to make off with the Graff's ship of plundered loot.
The Doctor and Romana are investigating the reliquary, the vicious Shrivenzale creature left on guard having been fed drugged meat by Unstoffe. The exit door suddenly starts to slide shut, threatening to trap them inside, and the Doctor quickly comes to Romana's aid in trying to halt its descent. Beyond the door, the Shrivenzale, its jaws soaked in blood, starts to stir...
The Doctor, Romana and Garron are confronted by the Graff Vynda-K and his men. The Graff, asserting that no one makes a fool of him and lives, orders that they be executed. Sholakh tells the guards to take aim and prepare to fire...
The Doctor, Romana, Garron and K9 hide in the catacombs as the Graff and his men search for them. The Doctor inadvertently disturbs a skull with his foot, and it clatters to the ground, giving them away. The Graff is triumphant.
At the Doctor's invitation, Romana touches the tracer to the lump of jethrik, which is transformed into the first segment. 'Simple, wasn't it?' suggests the Doctor dryly. 'Only five more to go.'
Cymbeline (lodging the loot in a safe place overnight).
Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (design).
Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.
Galileo's persecution by the Catholic Church (Binro).
The Italian Job.
Star Trek's Harry Mudd.
The Doctor : "Look, I'm sure there must be plenty of other Time Lords who'd be delighted..."
The Guardian : "I have chosen you, Doctor."
The Doctor : "I was afraid you might say that. Ah! You want me to volunteer, is that it? And if I don't?"
The Guardian : "Nothing."
The Doctor : "You mean nothing'll happen to me?"
The Guardian : "Nothing. Ever."
The Doctor : "I'll call you Romana."
Romana : "I don't like Romana."
The Doctor : "It's either Romana or Fred."
Romana : "All right, call me Fred."
Binro : "Have you ever looked up at the sky at night and seen those little lights? They are not ice crystals! I believe they are suns just like our own sun, and perhaps each sun has other worlds of its own, just as Ribos is a world... I have made measurements of those little lights, and of our own sun, and I can prove that Ribos moves; it circles the sun, travelling far away and returning..."
Unstoffe : [On 'scringe stone'] "You hangs a bit of that around your neck and you won't never suffer from the scringes no matter 'ow cold it be!"
The White Guardian says he has chosen the Doctor to reassemble the Key to Time, a perfect cube which maintains the equilibrium of time itself. Six segments are scattered and hidden. When assembled they create a power 'which is too dangerous for any one being to possess'. The forces in the universe have 'upset the balance' to such an extent it is necessary to 'stop everything' until the balance is restored, or else the universe will be plunged into eternal chaos. The Guardian also warns the Doctor about the Black Guardian (see The Armageddon Factor).
The Guardian appears as the Lord President to the Doctor's new assistant, Romanadvoratreludar. She has recently graduated from the Academy with a 'Triple first', and states the Doctor scraped through with 51 per cent at the second attempt. It is implied she has not finished her education, threatening to use the Doctor as a case study in her thesis. Her age is given as nearly 140. The Doctor and K9 are en-route to Halergan 3, a holiday planet.
Cyrrhenis Minima has the Space co-ordinates 4180 and is 116 parsecs from Ribos (co ordinates 4940). Ribos is three 'light centuries' from the Magellanic Cloud, and orbits its sun [very] elliptically, making its two seasons ('Sun Time' and 'Ice Time') 32 Levithian years long. Its principal city is Shur, although there are other settlements to the north.
The tyrant Graff Vynda-K was deposed from the Levithian throne by his half brother while away fighting with the Cyrrhenic Empire. The Graff mentions three of his battles, Skaar, the Freytus Labyrinth and Crestus Minor. Garron claims to have sold Mirabilis Minor to three different clients. Garron wants ten million [Levithian?] Opeks for the planet from the Graff [Ribos also uses Opeks as its currency.]
Jethryk is a valuable rare element without which space warp 'would be impossible'.
Ribos, in the constellation of Skytha, [the future].
The Doctor says he was trained in sleight of hand by Mescalin.
There are fine performances from the guest cast, including Timothy Bateson as Binro the Heretic and Iain Cuthbertson, particularly well known for his role as Charlie Endell in LWT's Budgie and its follow up series Charles Endell Esquire, as Garron. Nigel Plaskitt, seen here as Unstoffe, was better known for playing a young man named Malcolm in a series of television commercials for Vic's Sinex nasal spray.
How can the coordinates of the segment change while the TARDIS is in the vortex (i.e. outside space and time)?
Why do the trained soldiers stop when the Doctor tells them rather than obey the Graff's orders?
How can the Doctor walk out of the catacombs after they have been sealed?
Cast & Crew
The Doctor - Tom Baker
Romana - Mary Tamm
Voice of K9 - John Leeson
Binro - Timothy Bateson
Captain - Prentis Hancock
Garron - Iain Cuthbertson
Graff Vynda-K - Paul Seed
John - John Hamill
Sholakh - Robert Keegan
Shrieve - Oliver Maguire
The Guardian - Cyril Luckham
The Seeker - Ann Tirard
Unstoffe - Nigel Plaskitt
Director - George Spenton-Foster
Assistant Floor Manager - Richard Cox
Costumes - June Hudson
Designer - Ken Ledsham
Incidental Music - Dudley Simpson
Make-Up - Christine Walmesley-Cotham
Producer - Graham Williams
Production Assistant - Jane Shirley
Production Unit Manager - John Nathan-Turner
Script Editor - Anthony Read
Special Sounds - Dick Mills
Studio Lighting - Jim Purdie
Studio Sound - Richard Chubb
Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Delia Derbyshire
Visual Effects - Dave Havard
Writer - Robert Holmes
Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide
Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion
The sixteenth season - often referred to simply as the Key to Time season - gets off to an excellent start with a cracking set of scripts from Robert Holmes, brought to the screen with great style by director George Spenton-Foster. The opening scene, setting up the season's over-arching plot, was actually the work not of Holmes but of script editor Anthony Read. It is no less well-written, however, and successfully establishes the White Guardian and his unseen Black counterpart as important new characters in the Doctor Who universe, representing a previously unknown power above the Time Lords themselves.
'It is somewhat ironic that after Robert Holmes successfully destroyed the image of Time Lords as superior beings,' observed Jan Vincent-Rudzki in TARDIS Volume 3 Number 6, dated December 1978, 'he finds in his most recent story the introduction of another super being, the White Guardian... The Guardian himself is one of those marvellous ideas in the [series]. Instead of an awe-inspiring being we see someone calmly sitting in a chair chatting about the end of order in the universe, although I have no idea why the Guardian could not get each segment for himself.'
'It's traditional to talk a bit about Taoism [when discussing the Key to Time and the Guardians],' noted Tat Wood in Perigosto Stick Issue One, dated February 1991, 'so I'll point out that the White Guardian uses the word "balance" four times in two minutes (five if you count "equilibrium"). One of the interesting features of Taoism is that it discourages any belief in privileged viewpoints - all aspects are equally valid. The underlying principle of this philosophy is the dynamic harmony and unity of opposing forces. Note the word "dynamic". The point is not the total exclusion of anything you don't want to accept, but embracing the necessity of both sides...
'Now it's very tempting... to go and say that the Ice and Sun Gods [on Ribos] correspond to the Guardians, but this leads to [a] paradox...: Binro's whole life is spent trying to get away from the parochial thinking that has Ribos at the centre of the universe and duelling gods over it. The shift in perspective from the astrological to the astronomical is at the core of the series... If the local superstition is right all along, then Binro was only comic relief..., and the Doctor's multitudinous speeches about superstition are pure humbug. The weight of past experience is on the side of Binro and the Doctor, so the Guardians have to be incorporated into the multiplex viewpoint. The Guardians are therefore not simply combatants but two sides of the same coin, as inseparable as a candle and the shadows it casts: it is the balance between them which is important.'
Binro is perhaps the most fascinating and well written of all the characters in the main part of the story set on Ribos - although Garron and Unstoffe are also highly memorable. In a sense the elderly heretic is irrelevant to the main plot, but at the same time he is the principal medium through which Holmes explores its underlying theme of superstition versus science.
'Holmes was a masterly creator of alien worlds,' wrote Tim Munro in Star Begotten Vol 4. No. 2, dated autumn 1990, 'who knew that all Doctor Who's budgetary failings faded into insignificance if the sheer power of words could be harnessed to convince an audience that beyond the scenes on the screen there existed a whole real planetful of real people. To create this illusion of reality he deployed incredible detail. In the case of Ribos itself, we are fed scraps of its geography, its history, its economics, its class system and even its political and religious structures. Similarly we are given a jigsaw of information about the society which exists beyond it - the Cyrrhenic Alliance and its mighty galactic empire, a volatile mixture of expansionist military dictatorship and political dog-fight from which sprung the Graff Vynda-K.'
The Ribos Operation is notable for having very high production values - it certainly outshines most of the previous season's stories in this respect, looking altogether more sumptuous and polished. One gets the impression that rather more care and attention have been lavished on it than was generally the case the year before. A good illustration of this comes in the scenes set at the catacomb entrance, which is festooned with dozens of flickering candles and shot with a highly atmospheric soft focus effect. 'The most marks must be given to Dudley Simpson,' thought Vincent-Rudzki. 'His music helped create the atmosphere so well, from organ music of the Guardians to that incredible music in the throne room.'
The other particularly notable aspect of The Ribos Operation is its introduction of Romana as a new companion to replace Leela. Leela had been an ambitious but arguably never fully successful character. Partly this was due to the approach adopted by Louise Jameson, whose rather mannered performance and intentional avoidance of naturalism in the delivery of her dialogue - eschewing the use of contractions, for instance - meant that the viewer could never quite forget that this was not a real person but an actress playing a role. Partly however it was also due to the fact that the writers could not, in the end, keep her true to her 'noble savage' origins; the need to show her interacting with the Doctor and other relatively advanced characters led them to resort to what has sometimes been referred to as the 'Jamie syndrome' (although in his case it actually worked), having her reveal sudden and unexpected advances of knowledge and ability.
With the creation of Romana the production team went to the opposite extreme of giving the Doctor a companion of supposedly equal, if not superior, intelligence to himself. This would bring its own problems, as the writers would have to contrive ways of explaining for the viewer's benefit things that the two Time Lords would really have no need to discuss between themselves, and Romana too would sometimes display a surprising knowledge of Earthly customs and expressions.
Mary Tamm's initial performance is, in its own way, just as mannered as Louise Jameson's - in fact, she goes through the whole of The Ribos Operation giving the impression that she has got an unpleasant smell under her nose - but fortunately she would become rather more relaxed in later stories, and, as debuts go, it is not a bad one.
As for the Doctor, Munro was not far wrong when he wrote: 'Tom Baker is at his peak. The brooding alien of Hinchcliffe has blossomed into a vibrant overgrown schoolboy, gleefully revelling in his adventures. From the moment he hears Garron's Somerset accent his curiosity is piqued, and he follows wherever that curiosity leads. At this stage, his flippancy and clowning is still a defence mechanism, a cushion against the horrors around him, often used to get him out of trouble... Baker's enjoyment of the role bubbles through, showing no sign of the boredom which [eventually] let his clowning out of control. Here it remains one facet of a complex man, and when death crowds in on him the clowning has to stop. "Aren't you frightened?" Romana asks, as their dawn execution [approaches]. "Yes," says the Doctor with utter sincerity. "Terrified."
'A while ago I asked if there was any magic left in Doctor Who,' wrote Vincent-Rudzki, referring back to an article written in the wake of his influential review of season fourteen's The Deadly Assassin. 'Well, The Ribos Operation answered that with a resounding "Yes".'