Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation - Story 98 - The Key to Time Series Part 1
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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation - Special Edition (No. 98) (DVD)
Having left Leela on Gallifrey, the Doctor and K9 Mark II dont remain footloose for long. The TARDIS is soon intercepted by the White Guardian. The White Guardian sets the Doctor on an urgent mission to locate the six segments of the Key to Time, which are well disguised and hidden in odd corners of time and space. Once assembled, the Key will allow the White Guardian to restore balance to a universe descending into evil and chaos. To assist the Doctor the White Guardian has appointed Romana, fresh out of the Time Lord Academy and none too well traveled. Despite an initial bout of “negative empathy,” the Doctor and Romana trace the first segments signal to Ribos, a remote, backward planet that suffers from 32-year winters. There they are surprised to meet other interplanetary travelers, who include two conmen, Garron and Unstoffe, and the Graff Vynda-K, a warlord in the market for an inexpensive planet.]]>
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First off, the story is penned by Robert Holmes, whose understanding of the television medium as a storytelling device was definitely ahead of his time. Holmes was the now-revered screenwriter who gave us such stories as "The Deadly Assassin" and "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," rightfully regarded as some of the all-time greatest episodes of classic WHO. Holmes injects his usual character-driven pacing and shows his talent for creating rich backstories with expert placement of just a few throwaway lines. Without a single establishing miniature shot or grand tapestry of stars, we are believably transported to a harsh world in the far future whose native culture approximates that of pre-Czarist St. Petersburg, up to and including the bitter winters and the appropriate costuming.
However, even the tightest script can be worthless if the dialogue can't be pulled off by the right selection of actors, and in this RIBOS scores a win every time. For a start, Paul Seed plays the Graff Vynda-K with a perfect blend of teetering-on-madness bloodlust and an overinflated sense of his own importance, building a wonderful counterpoint to Robert Keegan as Sholakh, whose main purpose in the narrative seems to be keeping his leige firmly anchored in reality. The two actors deliver a compelling performance and we can well understand the scope of the Graff's ambition (and certainly WHY his own people refused to let him back onto the throne). The interplay between Nigel Plaskitt as Unstoffe and Iain Cuthbertson as Garron is even better; while their partnership as confidence tricksters is established early on, the depth of their friendship and mutual admiration isn't fully developed until near the end of Part 4, and it's been worth the journey as they both make some important life changes. Peter Haining's official episode guide describes Garron as a "Doctor Who villain," and I couldn't disagree more --in Cuthbertson's Garron we have the seeds of future lovable scoundrels like Sabalon Glitz and Captain Jack Harkness. In particular I adore the way Garron is more than ready to reminisce about his glory days and also his apparent inability to keep his foreign accents straight --I can't help but wonder if that was a script direction or if Cuthbertson decided to inject it into the character as an extra endearment. Similarly the Doctor's sudden farewell hug to Garron is so UNlike our hero that we immediately suspect there was another reason!
Unstoffe's interaction with the character of Binro the Heretic, however, has ended up being one of my all-time favorite WHO moments, not least because of the complete believability of Binro's character and the marvelous sympathy shown to him by Unstoffe. Binro's story could well be that of Galileo or Copernicus or even Johannes Kepler --the determined scientist who publishes outrageous theories that land him in trouble with the established theocracy (in Binro's case the notion that Ribos actually orbits its sun and that the "lights in the night sky" are in fact other suns). Like Galileo, Binro was ultimately forced to recant his findings and now finds himself near the end of a long and miserable life, where even his own hands have betrayed him and left him foraging for scraps in the gutter, by now doubting even his own self. Then along comes this mysterious visitor from an alien world called Earth, who not only listens to Binro's theories, but validates them as verifiable fact. The old beggar's features positively light up at this news and for the rest of the story he pledges himself to help Unstoffe in any way he can, no matter the danger. For me Timothy Bateson's performance is one of the greatest moments in the series and I find myself grinning right along with the old heretic even this many years later, after repeated viewings. There are other signs of the Ribos culture getting ready to shed its old superstitions --the Captain of the Guard makes lip-service to his "holy" duties, but he is clearly far more interested in a percentage of the Graff's gold --in the form of a "benevolent donation," of course. Unusually for Doctor Who, however, the juxtaposition of science-versus-mysticism is also explored from the other angle --the "Seeker" character is naturally dismissed by the Graff and Sholakh as a primitive medicine woman; nevertheless she IS able to track down Unstoffe every time he moves.
Holmes not only delivers his famed "double act" character development in the pairings of the Graff and Sholakh, Garron and Unstoffe, and Unstoffe and Binro, but also manages to establish the early rapport of the Doctor himself and his new travelling companion Romana. Mary Tamm's first appearance in the TARDIS still manages to quicken my pulse and the obvious undercurrent of romantic tension between these two Time Lords is made QUITE clear by Baker's and Tamm's squabbly dialogue before they've even materialized on their first planet. Tamm's portrayal of Romana in her first incarnation is everything the Doctor is not: a humorless academic with superb exam scores and a quiet condescending assurance that her advanced degrees naturally confer a higher understanding of everything. It's also worth noting that, for a change, K-9 is actually given some useful things to do and say, and thankfully doesn't barge into the plot until he is actually needed (the first instance of the Doctor summoning the little robot by means of a dog whistle).
Of course no Who review would be complete without pointing out the story's flaws, and "Ribos" is no exception. The extremely unconvincing Shrivenzale as monster-of-the-week is only just barely frightening when it wakes up eyeball-to-eyeball with the Doctor; its appearance later on in the catacombs is so pathetic as to be almost unwatchable. The Doctor himself almost seems to regard the monster as little more than a quaint BBC pantomime costume when he laughs at Romana, "You think THAT was frightening?" Also wince-worthy are the depiction of the Graff's soldiers in constricting red capes and cumbersome lance-like contraptions --these are the "Mighty Invincibles" that so gloriously rampaged across a dozen planets? Also at issue is the lump of Jethryk as the story's MacGuffin --while it is established fairly early just what the Jethryk truly is, the explanation as to why it is so highly prized isn't very convincing. If a "lump that size" could power an entire space armada, then surely we are owed some explanation as to how Garron came to possess it!
I reserve the last paragraph for dissecting the opening scenes of Part One --the selection of the Doctor by the White Guardian and the start of his epic quest (whose purpose, I must admit, never really seems to be all that clear throughout the season). Certainly the power of the White Guardian is beyond question --neither the Time Lords nor even the other godlike beings like Suthekh or the Great Spider show any indication of being able to stop a TARDIS dead in its tracks and bring it into a "heavenly realm" that disappoints precisely because it looks so ordinary. The White Guardian's affectation of safari-gear-plus-wicker-chair appearance never quite rang true with me, to say nothing of the color of the wine! All in all, it seemed a very contrived setup to get Romana signed on as the new traveling companion and unite the overall theme of the season --certainly a far cry from "Trial of a Time Lord" or even the "Bad Wolf" and "Torchwood" story arcs of the new series. Nevertheless this weird opening scene is soon done and we are off and away with some of the best episodes of the Tom Baker era --certainly Baker was at his peak that year, and the series was just beginning to take hold in the United States, giving a new impetus to the creative teams.
Final verdict: While critical to understanding the entire "Key to Time" season arc, it's worth a re-watch on its own merits.
The DVD came in great condition and has some fun extras to check out.
It's the extras that I find interesting and the Special Eddition Dvd's have great extras. This DVD has great behind the scenes and other great extra cool things on it! It's worth the purchase and if you already have the Key To Time series, sell it and buy the Special Edition releases!