"The Ribos Operation". Doctor Who, Serial 98. Tom Baker Years.

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Summary: The first part in the Key to Time meta-serial, we are introduced to Romana, the second Time Lady companion to Doctor Who, a prime directive style law to stop advanced societies for messing with non-advanced ones, the guardians, a confidence trickster, and one of the worst monster effects ever.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

(12:31:58 CST)

"The Ribos Operation". Doctor Who, Serial 98. Tom Baker Years.

If my first Doctor Who memory was the serial "The Face of Evil" and my first strong memory was the later (and as of yet unreviewed) "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"; the primary bits that really stick out in my head from that period were The Key to Time serials. Bits of them. I did not remember, say, Mary Tamm. I just retconned Lalla Ward's face unto the plots. I did not remember this one at all, and most of what I recall from the others is what the Key-parts ended up being disguised as. Still, when I got the idea to start rewatching the show a year or two ago, The Key of Time box-set was one of my first items I glanced at. It just took me this long to get around to it.

The Doctor, apparently feeling a bit betrayed by Leela's recent departure, is summoned by the White Guardian (a British Colonel Sanders) to embark on a quest to find the six pieces to the Key of Time. He is given a device to locate the Key-parts, and a new assistant: the Time Lady Romana (well, Romana...dinga...longa... something). He initially refuses, because he hates being told what to do, but just as a good RPGer will eventually allow the plot to move forward, so too does the Doctor.

The setting for this one is Ribos, a "class three planet*", somewhere in decor between Mongolia and Medieval France. Here they come to a castle/something sort of thing inhabited mostly by shrieves whose primary job revolves around protecting certain crown jewels. A con-man, Garron, and his wingman show up in an elaborate plot to leave something extra in the crown jewel case; all to make a disgraced space warlord, The Graff, buy a planet that is honestly worth nothing to him, thinking he is picking up a planet rich in jethrik: a futuristic "element" used for fuel. Garron and his friend underestimate the Graff's megalomania, and the Doctor and Romana have to deal with the fact that the first part of the Key is in the middle of all this, and all end up having to run through icy catacombs with poorly dress monsters and other dangers.

For a serial involving more than one "ray gun", a cannon, and a few melee weapons—not to mention a decent death count—it is mostly about the character interaction. First up, we have Garron, the con-man who plays it up for the audience, interacting with a little bit of everybody. Secondly, his crony ends up befriending an old outcast who predicted that the "lights in the sky" might be other suns with other worlds, a Ribosian proto-scientist. Third, we have the Graff and his second in command, a weird homoerotic avuncular sort of thing. Finally, and most importantly, we have the Doctor and Romana. She would eventually be his companion for nearly three full seasons and, some fan speculation holds, there is evidence of a relationship between the two Time Lords. Here, though, she is a thorn in his side that has some begrudging respect for him. She is not afraid to bust his chaps, and it makes for some intriguing interaction.**

On a technical side, most actors get full marks (Paul Seed as the Graff and Iain Cuthbertson as Garron are stand-outs) and the set dressing is adequate in setting a mood and implying the largeness of the world unglimpsed***. The shrivenzale is a shoddy piece of costumery that would have been inadequate even in an early Ultraman episode, but is blessedly used sparingly (mostly in the distance, and all of the major action sequences involving it cut away shortly after "Ah, a monster!" is screamed). The introduction of the White Guardian, something of a potentially game-changing force in the Time Lord mythos, is immensely understated, as though he was already an old hat by this time. Overall, though, pacing and scripting are well done. Kids might get a little bored, but adult fans should like it.

Overall serial rating is a Good (+1.0).

Si Vales, Valeo

*: Guessing, from the clues given, that a class three planet means pre-space age, a class two planet is early space age, and a class one planet is full space age?

**: Mary Tamm, aka Romana I, listed the fact that they made her more and more sycophantish and more of a "damsel in distress" as the season went on as part of the reason she left. Towards the beginning, though, the character was quite regal and self-assured as a character, with only a few moments to suggest that she was still a little young for the action. Lalla Ward picked up the role in Season 17.

***: As there are three groups of people not including the Doctor, we run into a problem that was common for some of the Tom Baker serials, how to get enough actors to portray alien societies. In this case, the fact that Ribos has long winters and long summers (years long due to its elliptical orbit, and yes, kind of like a proto-Song of Ice and Fire) acts as an explanation as why most people are elsewhere. Besides the shrieves who guard the jewels, we are told that there is some group of people in the "concourse", also known as "the place of fires" (think barrel fires and homeless people).


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