One of my most enjoyed experiences of watching Doctor Who as a child was the gradual introduction to the ‘Key to Time’ story arc of Season 16. The entire season was given over to the Fourth Doctor tracking down the six segments of the eponymous Key To Time – conveniently one segment per story! The Key was meant to be an extremely powerful artefact that could be used to bring equilibrium to the universe. And thus Tom Baker is dispatched by the White Guardian to assemble the Key so that he can bring order back to the universe.
I loved the concept – and still do. As a child it was a torture to have to wait for each story to be released on VHS, and as a young adult it was a torture to not be able to watch the DVDs back to back because of time constraints! But rather unfortunately the grand concept is undermined by the fact that three of the six stories are decidedly weak – and the starting story is the worst of the lot, only redeemed from a lower rating because it is in such an enjoyable season.
So … where else to begin but with Baker’s Doctor expressing publicly the sentiment he expressed privately: “Do I really have to have a companion? They just end up getting in the way!” I have a lot of time for Mary Tamm’s Romana and rate her on a par with Caroline John as Liz Shaw – a smart confident character who undoubtedly would have thrived in the modern series, but was just a little too smart to work alongside the classic Doctors. In this episode however she’s rather difficult to like – you end up sympathising with the Doctor rather than agreeing with Romana when she berates him.
And the plot. Oh dear goodness the plot. There is no huge mystery about what the segment of the Key to Time is disguised as, and the rest of the plot is largely over-egged and over-acted – in short, a couple of conmen trying to persuade a warlord that the planet they are on contains vast mineral deposits for his battle fleet to take advantage of, before he figures out that they don’t actually own the planet or have the right to sell it – as you quickly work out, the warlord in question is far from the sharpest tool in the box!
I was surprised how sympathetic a viewing this got when I watched the DVD – I was expecting to judge it harshly, but managed to enjoy the almost laughably comic escapades of the conmen, the ridiculous witch doctor figure that appears for no rational reason in episode 3, and the equally comic monster that threatens the Doctor in episode 1. I think the sympathy however has much more to do with enjoyment of this season as a whole. Judged on lone merit, The Ribos Operation is deservedly outside the top 100 by quite some margin.