Monday, July 5, 2010

Serial 98: The Ribos Operation - The Key to Time Part I

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Romana I, K-9

Written by: Robert Holmes
Directed by: George Spenton-Foster

Production Note: Hey guys. For the next two weeks, we'll be looking at the season long epic The Key to Time! It's a fast paced roller coaster of a blogging time, but I figure it's better to get it over and done with so we're not languishing in the story for the next six weeks.

We'll be updating here three serials per week until it's over (that's Monday, Wednesday, Friday through next week). I'm taking the first two, the fourth, and the last, and friend of the blog Cassandra will be taking the third and the fifth. Once we're on the other side, we'll be back on a weekly schedule until the next major multi-serial storyline, but for now just sit back, relax, and read about one of the most ambitious projects in Classic Doctor Who history.

Hope you enjoy the show!

Background & Significance: As Doctor Who rounded into its sixteenth season, producer Graham Williams decided he wanted to put a stamp on his tenure by doing something no one had ever done before:

Tell a season-long story.

Sure, the first several seasons were serialized, with each story bleeding into the next, but Williams wanted something different. He wanted excitement and the construction of a multi-serial narrative seemed like just the thing to do.

It was definitely an ambitious project, one that would require tons of planning an preparation. They'd give The Doctor a goal, a quest in six parts and have each serial of the season see him obtain each of the six pieces of The Key to Time in order to stop the evil Black Guardian.

They brought in Tom Baker and made sure he'd be around for every episode (can't do a season long Doctor story if there's no Doctor) and contracted a new companion, the first incarnation of Romana, and away they set off, on the quest for the Key to Time.

Williams gave the first story in the season, "The Ribos Operation", to veteran Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes, in the hopes that he would turn in a good fast draft that they wouldn't have to spend too much time fixing. It turned out to be the second to last Robert Holmes story until Holmes returned for the legendary "Caves of Androzani."

Unfortunately, many people refer to the period after The Gothic Season and until the rise of Jonathan Nathan-Turner as a weaker time for Doctor Who, when the writing suffered, and the series saw a decline in quality. I know I talked about it a little when I talked about The Image of the Fendahl, but... Yeah... That's definitely present here.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

We start in the TARDIS, where The Doctor is playing with K-9 after the events of "The Invasion of Time". The Doctor and K-9 are going on a holiday. Should prove to be lovely. A lovely holiday.

But then The TARDIS's power goes out. And the doors swing open. Organ music plays. And a voice tells him to disembark. He is needed and the voice promises he will come to no harm.

The Doctor emerges into a vast wasteland, where there's a nice empty chair and a sweet parasol. A man appears in the chair, sipping some green lookin drink (I'm gonna say absinthe. Absinthe is green right?), and tells The Doctor that he is required for a very important task.

He must find The Key to Time.

The Doctor calls it a myth, but the dude in white, this... Guardian... explains that it isn't a myth and he must assemble it. It is in six parts and scattered around the galaxy. The Doctor must assemble it. It looks like this.

I like this scene, but it's a bit... odd. You have this guy playing this really straight and then Tom Baker who's just firing off snarky one liners. It's very...insubordinate, I guess. But more than anything it just re-enforces the whole Tom Baker getting more and more license to improv his lines. You can really feel him shining through as opposed to The Doctor.

But it is fun. I guess.

The Guardian says he's giving The Doctor a tracker and an assistant. The Doctor begs him otherwise, but The Guardian, who identifies himself as The White Guardian, point blank refuses.

As a last word, The White Guardian warns The Doctor of The Black Guardian and then disappears.

Dejected, The Doctor heads back to The TARDIS and apologizes to K-9 for the vacation being off.

And then Romana enters. This is what Romana looks like now.

This is Romana before she transforms into her awesome next regeneration. They had originally planned to make her a counterpoint to The Doctor's character and Ice Queen (see the outfit?) and it's horrid. And she's horrid. I'm sorry, but the one time I watched Romana so far in The Leisure Hive, it was just an awesome time. And now she's back. And it's not good. I don't like her attitude. I don't like her mannerisms. I don't like it.

She pompously starts trying to take over everything, saying the Time Lord President sent her and she's very excited to be off on an adventure.

Still, though. I just don't like her. She's so full of herself, so self-righteous. I know she gets better (probably) but that doesn't make it right.

She's installed a hole in the TARDIS's console for the tracker's use. The Doctor freaks out, but slips the tracker in anyways, and they're off. On the way, Romana is brushing her hair and then tells The Doctor that he's 759, even though The Doctor proclaims that he's 756.

We cut to the planet Ribos, where two fellows Garron and Unstoffe stand on top of a snowy castle. Unstoffe prepares to drop a chunk of meat into the hole and then climb down.

While this is going down, the guards guarding the royal jewels close up for the night. This involves dancing ritualistically in time to organ music. Which is hilarious. Not joking. SO FUNNY. I wonder if they knew?

As the guards raise a security door, behind which is a rubber looking beast hand, the two chaps on the roof argue about going down into the place. Unstoffe is scared, but Garron tells him to laugh in the face of danger. Unstoffe is unconvinced, but goes down anyways.

He climbs past the sleeping beast (called a Shrivenzale) and breaks into the crown jewels, placing a large blue stone (Garron calls it Jethryk) in the display.

Just as Unstoffe finishes up, Garron heads out to meet Graff Vynda-K, and welcomes him to the large palace.

As they head inside, the TARDIS lands and The Doctor and Romana exit. It's cold, wintery. The Doctor refuses to call her by her full name (Romanadvoratrelundar) and shortens it to Romana despite her saying I'd-rather-you-call-me-Fred. He leaves as she puts on her cloak, telling her to always expect the unexepected.

And then this happens.

Indoors, Garron talks with this Graff Vynda-K character (who has one of the dirtiest pornstar mustaches I've ever seen) explaining the mythology of the planet (It has an elliptical orbit so it's 36 years of winter and 36 years of summer, called Ice Time and Sun Time respectively), and you can kinda tell he's putting on a show. I really love his showman's face. He also gets this great inflection of voice that reminds me a lot of the Thespian from The Visitation.

Turns out this the Graff Vynda-K guy (I'm just gonna call him "The Graff" because it's a better pornstar name) is an exiled tyrant who's looking for planets to buy. Lucky for him, Garron's selling Ribos (or is he?). They discuss payment and argue a bit, and Garron leaves for the night, saying they'll continue debating for it in the morning.

Once he's left, the Graff talks with his aide Sholakh about the planet and its various importances to him regaining his title. He is shocked at the amount of Jethryk on the planet, and seeks to obtain it so he can strip the planet of the precious mineral and sell it off so he can hire an army and battlecruisers to re-take his planet.

Little do they know, Garron installed a listening device in the room, so he listens as they go. Unfortunately, halfway through, The Doctor and Romana walk past, and he pretends to be a guard, saying "Four o' the clock and all is well!"

The Doctor finds it peculiar that Garron speaks with a Somerset accent, as that is strictly Earth based (as opposed to the Cockney accent, which is widely spread around the universe).

Also, check out The Doctor's suspenders.

The Doctor and Romana break into the jewel room, and realize it's one of the pieces in the display case. The Doctor sets out to un-sonic the display case.

While this is going on, Unstoffe incapacitates the guard on the roof and blows the guard's horn, which is designed to awaken the sleeping Shrivenzale.

Romana, hopelessly curious, climbs into the Shrivenzale's room and looks at the hole in the ceiling.

And that's when the guards start to lower the door to the Shrivenzale's room.

Romana gets trapped and begs for The Doctor to help her. The Doctor springs up and tries to lift the door, himself getting caught under it as it lowers.

And the Shrivenzale rears its head, awakening.

Can I just say, where did all the blood on that thing's mouth come from? Does it just eat people? How many people break into this place on a regular basis? Does it ever get cleaned?!

That's where the first episode ends, with the Shrivenzale awakening as The Doctor and Romana get trapped under the lowering door.

Also, I wasn't kidding about the mustache.

Part 2:

The guards find the door-lowering task obstructed. Fearing it's the Shrivenzale, they pull the door up and let The Doctor and Romana go.

Huh. That was a really easy solution.

No sooner are the two of them free, however, than the guards decide to come in and take their usual posts for the day. The Doctor and Romana rush to take hiding places so they're not caught in the royal jewelery room.

And they take position in really good hiding spots. Where no one will find them.

The best part? NO ONE FINDS THEM. These guards should be fired too. Pathetic, this is. But that's what you get when there's ritual dancing to organ music. I think that's what they really are. They're just for show. They hire out local dancers to stand guard, not because they're actually standing guard, but because they need to close and open up shop ritualistically.

Garron enters and gets questioned as to who he is. The lead ballerina-guard seems suspicious, but Garron assures him that he is a merchant and in need of stowing away a million gold opecs (or more) for safe keeping. The leader ballerina-guard is unsure, but Garron manages to convince him and the two of them leave to make arrangements.

After they do, the two remaining dancer-guards in the room begin to converse and TURN THEIR BACKS AWAY FROM THE DOOR.

That's bad guarding. See that? The Doctor and Romana are able to escape the room with no consequence. These guards should be sacked. Talking on the job? That is not your job! Your job is to guard or to dance! Neither of those require talking (unless it's to count out the five, six, seven, eight, of your choreography).

The Doctor and Romana eavesdrop on the still negotiating Garron and the Graff (but how! I don't even know where they are in relation to the barterers) and follow them into the crown jewels room.

Once there, Garron shows off the offerings of Ribos, telling the Graff that there is plenty to offer in the ways of minerals. The Jethryk in the display case catches The Graff's eye and he questions a nearby ballerina-guard about it.

Recognize him?

If you said it's Unstoffe, you're right. Congratulations. Go you.

Unstoffe begins telling a lore about Jethryk on Ribos, making it up as he goes along (and calling it "Scringestone", saying that's what the locals call it). It's actually quite wonderful. I love heist stories, and the set-up for the punking is always such fun. This is that bit. I lurves it.

Unstoffe finishes his story (after some teeth gritting from Garron) and leaves. Garron is about to speak, but The Doctor and Romana show up behind him and start talking about how lovely and true that story was. Garron pays him little heed, and continues the Graff's tour of the palace.

Seriously. There must be ballerina-guards trying to prevent this sorta thing. Why don't they point out the fact that two random strangers are in the room with really really expensive things? Don't make me write you guys up! Stop sucking.

No. You know what? You deserve to be heisted from.

After Garron and the Graff have left, The Doctor calls the stone of Jetrhyk a phony and then tells Romana he's sure there's a con going on.

And sure enough, the Graff settles on eight million opecs. Garron graciously accepts, but demands they put down a deposit (which he calls unnecessary by his standards, but necessary because of his clients). The Graff gets super mad, but eventually acquiesces when Garron assures him it will be stored in the jewel chamber.

No! That should be all the more reason to freak out! Do you know how bad security is in that chamber? The Shrivenzale has done little more than sleep this entire story so far and the dancers are ballerinas in black robes.

Just after Garron leaves to receive payment from Sholakh, the Graff discovers the listening device.

Ruh roh.That can't be good.

Outside, Unstoffe and Garron have a heated argument about the con so far. Garron admonishes Unstoffe for being too creative (wow. Fascist con artistry. What a dick.), but Unstoffe is defensive. They also prepare for the stealing of the million opecs.

Romana and The Doctor stake out the manhole on the roof, the one that Garron and Unstoffe used to get in. They decide to sit on it, waiting for Garron and Unstoffe to make their move.

Eventually, night falls. Garron places the opecs in the jewelery room, and then they send Unstoffe down into the room to steal away the opecs. The Doctor and Romana look on, hiding in plain sight (no really. Just wait). The Doctor decides to race down to the jewelery room to try and beat Unstoffe to the treasure so that he can steal it away.

And here's the heist scene through the end of the episode. I really think it's solid and fun and exciting. Please to also note Romana's vantage point against Garron. I find it hilarious.

Seriously. Who are they kidding hiding five feet behind him? Garron must not look over his shoulder EVER. And apparently The Doctor is some kinda hypnotist guy?

I dunno. I find it awesome.

Part 3:

And I'm gonna youtube the opening, because it's kinda priceless.

Hahaha. Crazy Tom Baker.

The lead Ballerina-Guard examines the crime scene, dusting for finger prints and taking DNA samples of the bodily fluids he finds by bluelight.

No, just kidding. Ribos is based on Medieval Russia. He looks around and realizes that this case has him stumped.

The Graff walks in, angry as all hell and demands the Lead Ballerina-Guard solve the case. He then realizes that the Jethryk is gone. He yells at the Lead Ballerina-Guard, angry that the "scringestone" is gone. But the Lead Ballerina-Guard has no idea what he's talking about, either about the scringestone in the case, or any scringestone at all.

In the Graff's quarters, Unstoffe calls the captured Garron on his communicator, making it beep, and tipping Sholakh off to the idea that Garron has an accomplice. In the struggle for the communicator, it breaks.

That leads us to Unstoffe, hanging out on the castle grounds, amidst peasant folk, trying to raise Garron on the communicator. An old begger man beckons Unstoffe into his tent, just as guards flood the plaza, looking for him.

In their prison room, The Doctor, Romana, and Garron talk about Garron's con artistry and there's some pleasant discussion of what's going on. But The Doctor doesn't have time with that. He's going to call for help.

And here's his help.

In the Relic Room, The Graff and Sholakh summon a Seeker to find the missing opecs and Unstoffe. For the record, this is when this serial started to get annoying, especially because the way this person plays this character isn't how it was written.

What Robert Holmes was probably going for was something like Medieval Russian mystic. What we got here under Robert Holmes was something of a loud, obnoxious woman with squawk voice. Also, that x on her head reminds me of a target. Just saying.

In their room, The Doctor and Romana listen to Garron's story, in which he reveals himself as a con artist who pretends to sell planets and he started on Earth (which explains the accent). He also provides some backstory on the Graff and his methods of using the Jethryk as bait.

It's all very nice, but it doesn't blog well. So that's all you need to know, really...

Speaking of stuff that doesn't blog so well, Unstoffe finds himself with Binro the Heretic, who has been an outcast of society because he defies Ribos's mythology and standard religion in favor of scientific whateverness.

I actually found this remarkably boring the first time, but on second viewing, it really stands out to me as an elegant presentation of mythology and a wonderful moment with a Galileo-like character, especially because Unstoffe tells him that what he's saying is true.

A bit later, K-9 comes to rescue The Doctor just as The Doctor fixes Garron's communicator enough to tell Unstoffe to get out of the concourse. Binro the Heretic pulls him away, leading him down into the catacombs, also warning that there are Shrivenzales in the catacombs. Large ones.

And just in time, too, because The "I-can't-recite-my-lines-except-by-being-ridiculously-rhythmic" Seeker has arrived at the concourse to try and find Unstoffe. Fortunately, Unstoffe and Binro manage to escape into the catacombs and away from her annoying ass voice.

But then The Seeker realizes that Unstoffe moved into the catacombs, so really, we've just devolved into a chase scene.

While escaping the castle, Garron goes ahead to try to find a way out, leaving The Doctor to reveal to Romana that Garron and Unstoffe's piece of Jethryk is the first piece of the Key to Time, as the piece had moved since they had arrived there.

And they manage to, using the tracker, make it into the catacombs before the pursuing Graff and co. Before they get too far, however, K-9 detects the Graff and his men coming up behind them.

They duck into alcoves (K-9 even gets an awesome small one!) just as the Graff appears.

Also, Garron is totally being inappropriate with Romana.

With the Graff right nearby, The Doctor slips and sends a skull to the floor, tipping everyone off that there's people in the place.

The Graff rejoices in knowing that there's people around, and The Doctor looks scared.

Part 4:

The Doctor's knocking off of the skull awakens a Shrivenzale.

The Graff and his men hear it and then get buckled down for battle. It distracts them enough so they move on.

The Doctor splits up with Garron and Romana and K-9, with the latter going after Unstoffe and Binro, and The Doctor setting off to keep an eye on the Graff.

Binro and Unstoffe stop for a break, and Binro tells Unstoffe to stay put while he goes back to look for Garron so that he can bring them together. Unstoffe begs him not to leave, as he is old and weak, but Binro fires back with a lovely retort about being vindicated and not wanting for more now that he knows his heretical theories are correct.


And then the Graff kills one of the Ribosian Ballerina-Guards (that's fair, though. No one wants any "Nancy-guards" guarding the rare relics of the kingdom). The Doctor sees it, but can do nothing about it.

In the catacombs, Romana finds Garron's run off and he's stolen the tracker. She then calls K-9 a stupid machine and kicks him (okay, she doesn't kick him, but Romana's still being a bitch for no reason).

The Graff amasses another batch of his own guards and prepares to head down into the catacombs to continue the search. And one lone guard takes his sweet time getting there. What a jerk.

Garron meets up with Unstoffe and the two decide to wait out the Graff's search, hoping he doesn't show up.

In the catacombs, The Graff and his squad (led by the Seeker) find the wandering Binro, who's carrying Unstoffe's communicator. They realize they're on the right track and press on.

The Seeker leads Graff and Co. right to Garron and Unstoffe. Binro rushes forward in an attempt to save Unstoffe, but he's gunned down.

Unstoffe gets pissed and then gets scared and throws the bag of gold and Jethryk back to the Graff. The Graff then sets them up for firing squad, but at that point Ribosian guards set up a cannon to seal off the catacombs forever.

And so the whole place starts shaking and there's a Shrivenzale and the rocks collapse and most of the Graff's guard is wiped out (including Sholakh).

And then the Graff gets really really angry (and possibly delusional), so angry in fact that he starts necrophile-kissing Sholakh's face.

Guh. Inappropriate!

Garron and Unstoffe find themselves on the unfortunate side of the cave-in. Lucky for them Romana and K-9 are on the other side and the little robot dog vaporizes the rock, rejoining the parties together.


Then we have The Graff has his endgame, which is in no way not hilarious (or sucks for him).

Two things in that. 1) He totally lost his freakin mind. 2) I love how he screams AFTER THE BOMB HAS EXPLODED HIM.

Hahaha. Oh, and did you not catch that the slow guard from before was The Doctor? There were hints, but I figured I'd make it a surprise.

Now, all is well. The Doctor and Romana head back to the TARDIS with Garron and Unstoffe, The Doctor explaining how he switched the bomb for the bag with the Jethryk and gold. It's jovial and fun, that is, until Romana starts talking and all the fun leaves (I'm not kidding. This is actually what happens).

Garron is sad that The Doctor is taking away the Jethryk and asks to see it one last time. He makes a switch and then hugs The Doctor (can anyone else tell what happened here?) and then The Time Lords and K-9 head into the TARDIS and dematerialize.

This leaves Unstoffe and Garron with the Graff's ship (which has) eighteen years of plunder. Unstoffe is sad that they lost the Jethryk (which was their main component to their one-trick pony ponsy scheme). Garron then takes the opportunity to reveal that he switched the Jethryk with another stone. See?

I mean.... Whoops.

Back on the TARDIS, The Doctor takes the tracker and harmonizes the Jethryk into turning back into its regular shape as the Key to Time.

One down. Five to go.

Final Thoughts?: During the Graham Williams years of Doctor Who, Tom Baker made reference to a "decline in the quality of scripts". Upon first watching this, I actually found it an accurate statement. Upon second viewing, however, I actually found this to be quite enjoyable. I think it loses a bit of its steam once they actually make the heist in episode two, but it's still more than watchable, and the mythology that's going on here is actually quite fun and terribly terribly original.

It is goofier, though. And you can tell that it's not where it once was (this becomes ridiculously apparent in the next story), but Garron is incredibly delightful, and his voice is just... stunningly fantastic. I found it ridiculously listenable and one of the highlights of this story.

Other than that, it's a decent bit. Tom Baker, you can tell, is given much more license with the character than I've seen previously, as his Doctor is much more humourous and a bit nuttier than where I've seen him before.

Oh, and in case you didn't know, Romana I is awful. Can't stand her. But K-9? Always awesome.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! A Cyborg Captain! A Crazy Robot Parrot! Some amazing special effects! And a REALLY complicated endgame! In just two days, The Key to Time continues with Douglas Adams's "The Pirate Planet!"

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