Who Wrote It?
What’s It About?
At the behest of the White Guardian, The Doctor and his new companion, Romana, begin their search for the segments of the Key to Time. Their first stop is Ribos, a feudal planet in the midst of a decades-long Icetime, where two con artists are pulling a one final con.
All right, call me Fred.
I can’t think of any season opening for Doctor Who as fun and well-written as “The Ribos Operation.” Robert Holmes has turned in what must be his most-perfect script; Tom is on fine form; Romana adds a great counter-point to the Doctor; the production looks great. We haven’t had a story as tight as this one since “Horror of Fang Rock.”
Season sixteen is the Key to Time season. Each story advances the overall arc, but each story is still somewhat episodic. The search for the Key to Time provides a reason for the adventures, and it bookends each story. It therefore imposes a structure on the adventures during this season. While I don’t have a problem with story arcs in general (I am a fan of Lost, Fringe, and Babylon 5, after all), I prefer to see a more controlling hand at work. Ideally, I want to see arcs that arise from character decisions and actions (seen in some of the plot points that linked story to story in the first season of Doctor Who), but if a show is going to have a grand mystery, then I want the episodes to seem somewhat relevant to that mystery. “The Ribos Operation” is good in spite of the arc, and if Holmes had written a different McGuffin the story would have worked just as well.
Being a part of the arc, however, does present some interesting thematic material. As Philip Sandifer points out in TARDIS Eruditorum, the Key to Time arc sets up a theme of dualism. This theme is indicated early in the story when the White Guardian coerces the Doctor into the quest. The White Guardian is an unambiguous stand-in for God. He is a force for order, and his opposing element, the Black Guardian, is a force for chaos. This leads to a strong problem, however, for if you developed stats for the Doctor in a role-playing game, his alignment would be chaotic good. Doctor Who has clearly indicated that the Doctor rejected the lawful good of his people in order to pursue his own path. In this regard, the Doctor is a very poor candidate to champion this quest—this Doctor, at least. Although, if the Time Lords are the only beings with the resources to enable them to find the segments, then the Doctor is not such a bad choice: he is more resourceful than his people and he far less likely to be corrupted by power. The Doctor is probably not the best choice to ally with order, but he is probably the safest. Romana, on the other hand, is completely inexperienced in adventuring. She is far more sensible and she understands order and commands. This makes her an ideal pawn for the White Guardian, should he determine the Doctor isn’t following the quest in the proper way.
Ribos is a fascinating planet for me. Its cycle of Icetime and Suntime reminded me of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The costume, prop, and set designs seemed inspired by pre-Romanov Russia. The Graff Vynda-K is almost Shakespearean in his growing insanity. And at the core of the story are Robert Holmes’s con men. Holmes plays with Graham Williams’s epic and cosmic ideas, but his real heart lies with the Garron and Unstoffe as they attempt to steal from the Graff.
Watching season sixteen is an exciting prospect. The Key to Time is the story that Graham Williams wanted to tell in the previous season but couldn’t due to budgetary problems. Similarly, season seventeen will also suffer from factors beyond Williams’s control (namely, a strike). Thus, the Key to Time season is the only season that fully represents Graham Williams’s vision for Doctor Who. And as it goes, it is off to a great start.