Doctor Who- The Key to Time Part One
2-23 September, 1978
Summoned by the White Guardian, a mythical figure of Time Lord lore, The Doctor is given a task to assemble the Key to Time. A device capable of stopping all of time everywhere simultaneously, the Key is also being sought out by the Black Guardian, the White Guardian’s polar opposite. His first case involves a rock, a deadly monster, a pair of con men and an exiled Prince with plans for conquest. With K-9 and his new assistant Romana, the Doctor must out-fox a crafty con job where an entire planet is offered up for sale while avoiding getting himself killed by the enraged Graff Vynda-K.
Four years into his seven year stint as the Doctor, Tom Baker was a bit full of himself. That’s not a judgement solely of my own, but from the actor himself as well. He re-wrote scenes on the fly, directed other actors and even choreographed whole scenes while the rest of the production crew looked on, some bristling with frustration and others begrudgingly accepting that Doctor Who had become Tom Baker’s show.
A national institution of 16 years, Doctor Who had seen many producers, its most recent being regarded as one of the best, Philip Hinchcliffe. Blending sci-epic, period drama, suspense and Gothic horror, Hinchcliffe’s reign on Doctor Who is still seen as definitive by some. Under Graham Williams, Doctor Who became lighter, more fanciful and rarely took itself seriously. Tom Baker’s ego swelled to massive proportions as he waltzed around dangerous ray-gun wielding guards armed with only a jelly baby, talked down to monsters as absurd creatures and was basically an unbeatable fairy tale hero. In short, this was not at all similar to the Hinchcliffe era where the danger was real and the Doctor was very vulnerable to violence. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Doctor Who thrives on change, but never had an actor played the role for as long as Baker had and the program has never gone through so many changes as it did from 1974-1981.
While I personally prefer the darker Hincliffe era, I can appreciate some of Williams’ work, citing Key to Time as his finest outing. When I was a first-time fan I despised the Williams-era Doctor Who and was attracted to the more serious and darker stories, but when I got re-invested in the program, I found myself purchasing these stories on DVD as I had never really given them a fair chance. I’m glad that I did because there are some real corkers in here.
Cited as overly violent and far too horrific for children, Doctor Who was forced to lighten its mood after Hinchcliffe’s departure. Even so, it was not until William’s second year as producer that you can really see this change set in (many of series 15’s stories still feel a lot like the Hinchcliffe era).
An entire series devoted to an over-arching story is a concept that could be tied back to Keys of Marinus which is like a miniature Key to Time story in which the Doctor and his companions embark on a quest in six parts. It was attempted again in the Trial of a Timelord and is currently a device used in each series of the new Doctor Who. Even so, it’s a risky thing. If the connecting idea is to precise, you run the risk of alienating viewers who haven’t watched every week, but if it’s too weak the series fails to hold together as one story. Key to Time is a very mixed result. In places it works, but in others the concept shows as being very flimsy and tired (such as the finale Armageddon Factor). However, during the Key to Time storyline, Doctor Who functioned like a children’s adventure serial. Lighter in its approach and incredibly diverse in setting and character, it was a wild year.
I’m going to attempt to review all six stories which is quite an under-taking. I won’t be reviewing them one after the other and in fact will likely review many more Doctor Who stories in between, but this is the start.
The opening tale is written by fan favorite Robert Holmes (Terror of the Autons, Time Warrior, Ark in Space, The Brain of Morbius, Deadly Assassin) and plays out like farce with strong fantasy elements. Terribly witty dialog, overblown absurd characters and a main plot involving a planet-sized confidence trick, this is actually a great story and perhaps one of Holmes’ finest scripts in my opinion (and I really really like his work).
The opening sequence sees the Doctor in a kind of limbo where he is approached by a kind of cosmic being called the White Guardian. The White Guardian explains that there is a device that could be used in desperate situations to stop all time. Separated into six segments, they key is protected but could be assembled if someone knew of the segments’ locations. The Doctor is sent on a quest to assemble the key before the White Guardian’s opponent, the Black Guardian, can find the pieces. Even though the Doctor insists on operating with just K-9 as an assistant, he is charged with a new companion, the strikingly beautiful Time Lady, Romana. The two get on like oil and water, Romana being book-smart and the Doctor petulantly insisting on taking things as they come. The result is a series of mishaps that leads the pair into several dangers that they narrowly escape, something the Doctor takes for granted but Romana views as a death wish.
It’s a great mix.
As Romana, Mary Tamm has a definite regal quality. Dressed all in white and painfully attractive she is just as strikingly gorgeous as Tom Baker is giddily amusing. A no-nonsense, straight-forward character, Romana has all of the fictional knowledge of a Time Lord and refuses to put up with any of the Doctor’s tom-foolery. However, the program is built around the logic of the Doctor and is far too silly to be approached from a linear logical stand-point, forcing her to eventually concede to his point of view (perhaps that’s why her regenerated form is so much like a female version of the Doctor?).
Fans are largely split on their view of the Key to Time as it is much lighter in tone than the previous two series and rarely takes itself seriously. One could view it as a pantomime of Doctor Who or as silly nonsense. That could be true, but when it works it is also great fun and Ribos Operation is a prime example of this.
The central piece of the Ribos Operation is a rock being used by a pair of tricksters Garron and Unstoffe who are operating a confidence job on a galactic scale, using it as bait to sell a primitive planet that they do not own. The two con men, the larger than life and lovable Garron and the young innocent Unstoffe are standard examples of Holmes’ double-act in which two characters play off of each other, their dialog climbing all over the place like a pair of squirrels fighting over the same nut. It’s just marvelous to watch.
Garron and Unstoffe are unwisely attempting to con the Graff Vynda-K into buying a planet that they do not own. The Graff is an exiled ruler, ousted by his own people while at war. Roaming the galaxy with his battle-weary troops, he seizes an opportunity at revenge when he finds that the planet that Garron has for sale is rich in a rare mineral called jethric. Garron has placed a massive piece of the mineral in the plain site as a local jewel… which also happens to be a segment to the key to time in disguise. With the jethric, the Graff could raise an army to take back his planet by force… and more. But the Doctor has other plans.
The Graff soon rumbles that he has been had, but he has seen the jethric and knows that it is real. Played by the classy Paul Seed, the Graff Vynda-K is a real piece of work. His eyes blaze with a genuine madness that has such threat to it that you fear what he may do if he managed to seize any real power on his own. Luckily, the jethric mine, like the deed of sale on the planet, is fake. Unluckily, the Graff is desperate and mad with power-lust. Sure that there is a wealth of the stuff somewhere on the planet, he seizes both Garron and the Doctor, who seems to know more than he lets on. Separated from Unstoffe, Garron gets to play off of the Doctor who is taken by the man’s charm while Unstoffe happens to meet a public pariah Binro the Heretic, a man who was stones out of society for claiming that there was life on other worlds. Played by veteran actor of stage and screen Iain Cuthbertson, Garron is a swarthy delight, just the kind of cartoon character that the Doctor could take seriously. Alternately, Unstoffe really is a good lad under it all and the moment where he tells Binro that he is in fact correct, there is life on other worlds, is truly touching.
The Ribos Operation is not everyone’s cup of tea and I can understand why. Tom Baker is clearly out of control and delivers a very uneven performance, the situations are contrived and silly and the quest is for what may as well be a magic wand. It’s all kid’s stuff and for a program that has screened such gripping drama as Pyramids of Mars and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, that can come as a disappointment. But this era of the program is a different take on the concept of Doctor Who, demanding that the audience allow it to be silly and more fanciful. If you can accept that, it’s a very fun adventure.