Doctor Who #482: The Ribos Operation Part 1

"My name is Romanadvoratnelundar." "I'm so sorry about that. Is there anything we can do?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD and in a Special Edition boxed set. First aired Sep.2 1978.

IN THIS ONE... First appearance of Romana and the Guardians, as the Doctor is sent on a quest to find each piece of the Key to Time.

REVIEW: I like contrast. Contrast is good. And it's difficult to imagine a greater contrast than the one between Leela and Romana. Gone is the tom-boy, wily savage. Here's a posh academic who mistakes knowledge for wisdom instead. And right off the bat, largely thanks to Robert Holmes' script I think, the new Doctor-companion dynamic is very amusing. Romana is completely unimpressed with the Doctor and seems intent on taking him down a notch in the cool, detached way a jerky psychology student might superficially psycho-analyze everyone to irritate them. There's great contrast between the two Time Lords now aboard the TARDIS. Unkempt bohemian vs. elegant glamor queen. Old vs. young (note that the Doctor is now 759 by Romana's reckoning and there's some fine hand-waving in the notion that he's probably lost count). Experience vs. academia. Bob Holmes writes them as an entertaining double act, which is his specialty. I wonder if his alternate name for her, Fred, has any relationship to Fred the Yeti. Is it one of the Doctor's go-to names?

They're not alone. He also creates Garron and Unstoffe, a pair of comic con men perpetrating the Brooklyn Bridge long con on a vaguely Russian planet called Ribos. This is one of Holmes' most memorable double acts, with hilarious banter right from their first scene. Unstoffe is the whipping boy, and Garron, born grifter that he is, spends half his time convincing his sidekick that he's brave enough to do the dangerous things required of him. These are lovable rogues, and sure to have trouble with their mark, the Graff, an ambitious would-be world conqueror. The planet Garron is trying to sell is a backwater world where the natives aren't really aware of other worlds, and where 34-year seasons, called Suntime and Icetime delineate the time. Rather wonderfully, it's Icetime now, which makes for furry hats and a soft snowfall. The monster's a bit plasticky, but I don't dislike it. Getting less than half the episode's run-time, Ribos still manages to be evocative and original.

The other half of the show is, of course, a huge info-dump/set-up to the entire season. Anthony Read's experiment here is to take serialization a step further and give the entire season a coherent arc running through its six serials. That arc is the quest for the Key to Time, a MacGuffin that comes in six pieces so that each serial can hold one piece, which can variably be the actual focus of the story, or be incidental to it as the Doctor gets wrapped up in events as usual. The Doctor gets this mission not from the usual Time Lord agencies, but from the White Guardian. It seems the Time Lords have gods, anthropomorphized concepts (in this case, Order) that play a role in balancing the universe (also see Theories). It's very interesting to see the Doctor so respectful of an authority figure - compare his seriousness and deference to the Guardian to his later assertion that he should have thrown the Time Lord president to the Sontarans... which makes me wonder who it's supposed to be, Borusa? - and makes Romana's insolence even more cutting. Romana herself was approached by the Lord President (whom we'll later find out looks just like the Guardian) so... how much time has taken place between The Invasion of Time and The Ribos Operation? It seems time enough to elect a president (possibly for Borusa to regenerate if it's him), to build and perfect a new K9 (yes, Lord have mercy, he's much quieter), and for the Doctor to get bit by a dog on the lip (Tom Baker's new injury is quite visible here). In any case, he's the one who's pushed this assistant on him, and the only time the Doctor pushes back at the Guardian is when Tom Baker meta-textually takes over and pleads with him not to get a new companion. I don't care what Baker wants, I think this is a fun duo already.

THEORIES: Is there such a thing as "absolute time"? The Guardian's explanation of the Key is of course supposed to go over our heads. We're not equipped to understand the cosmos in those terms. But it does seem to indicate that his point of view is from outside time and space. The Key must be used periodically to "stop" the universe and balance it lest it fall into "eternal" chaos (or order, I suppose). Since the pieces of the Key are all over history, and the Doctor isn't in any particular timeframe, the implication seems to be that "eternal" means "all time" both past and future would be affected. If the universe becomes unbalanced, it would ripple into all temporal directions at the same time. Or so I imagine. I wonder if this is related to "Gallifreyan mean time" which seems to account for Time Lords never meeting out of order. If Time Lords are living by this "absolute time" - possible for a people who have mastery over time and routinely travel through it - it might explain how they're aware of the Guardians' existence, even as myths.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Bob Holmes creates two very entertaining double acts, one of which is meant to continue for the entire season. There's a massive info-dump, sure, but it's important to understanding the season, AND we also get an interesting world to visit. If the series under Read can keep this level of humor and not stray as far as The Invasion of Time's, we're in for an excellent string of serials.


Toby'c said...

Considering the scene where Garron walks past the Dctor and Romana, I was kinda disappointed that you didn't make some kind of joke about lots of planets having a Somerset.

Siskoid said...

It was in my notes, but I so often go to that joke, I erred on the side of discretion this time. :)


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