Season Sixteen - The Key To Time

2009 Special Edition!
6-story set (7 discs)
DVD NTSC Region 1
in the U.S.
in Canada
7 DVD Boxed Set,
PAL Region 2
for the U.K., limited edition
for the U.K., 2009 re-issue
This year marks the heart of Producer Graham Williams' era, in which he unveils his masterplan to plot the Doctor's wandering adventures along a quest for the six segments of the Key to Time. The six stories themselves all manage to adhere to an enjoyable level of quality in writing and production, something not done this completely since season twelve, while managing to outstrip year twelve in imagination and creativity.

This is also the most nostalgic period of the program for me personally, as the first three Key to Time adventures were the first Doctor Who stories I ever saw. This may explain my bias in thinking that these kinds of stories are exactly what Doctor Who should be all about.

Read on as we dig in to review and analyze each of the six stories in turn....

The Ribos Operation

Region 1
Special Edition!
1-story disc

for North
Region 2
for the U.K.
only available in
6-story set
see above
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 98,
1st adventure in season 16's Key To Time quest)
  • written by Robert Holmes
  • directed by George Spenton-Foster
  • produced by Graham Williams
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The White Guardian recruits the Doctor, K9, and an inexperienced academy graduate named Romana to reassemble the six disguised segments of the Key to Time. But nothing, including the first segment, is quite what it seems on the snowy, mediaeval planet Ribos, when amongst the natives, two con men are found trying to sell the planet to a space-faring warlord....

Special Edition and Region 2 DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by actors Tom Baker (The Doctor) and Mary Tamm (Romana).
  • "The Ribos File" making-of featurette (19 min.), with Mary Tamm, Paul Seed (Graff Vynda-K), Nigel Plaskitt (Unstoffe),
    Prentis Hancock (Shrieve Captain), Stuart Fell (Shrievenzale Operator), and Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman.
  • "A Matter of Time" documentary (60 min.) on the influence of producer Graham Williams on Doctor Who, with Tom Baker,
    Mary Tamm, Paul Seed, John Leeson (Voice of K9), Louise Jameson (Leela), Lalla Ward (Princess Astra / Romana II),
    writer / script editors Anthony Read & Douglas Adams, series writers David Fisher, Bob Baker & Dave Martin,
    series directors Pennant Roberts, Darrol Blake, Michael Hayes, Ken Grieve, Christopher Barry, vis-FX designers Mat Irvine & Colin Mapson,
    set designers Richard McManan-Smith & Dick Coles, fan professionals Gareth Roberts & Jeremy Bentham, Graham's wife Jackie Williams,
    and 1985 convention video interviews of the late Graham Williams. (This documentary contains spoilers for seasons 15-17 [stories 92-109].)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles by Martin Wiggins
  • Photo Gallery (6 min.)
  • Trailers & broadcast announcements (3 min.)
For more details, visit the Key to Time DVD Comparison Chart.

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

The accessibility of each Doctor Who adventure to someone who has never seen the show before should be given much priority by any proper review. In the case of this story, I need not hypothetically predict how successful it is at making a good first impression; I need only turn back the pages of my brightly illustrated memory.

First Impressions

I was about twelve years old when the TV guide enticed me to fight extremely bad TV reception and tune in to what seemed to be the first in a landmark set of episodes of a show I'd never seen before.

The title sequence blew me away instantly - I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing I'd ever seen on television. I thought it odd that the story began inside Doctor Who's ship, without an establishing shot. Judging by the interior, I imagined he must pilot a gleaming white flying saucer.

Then he stepped out to meet the Guardian. Still no exterior of his white flying saucer. I wanted to know if it was a huge craft with lots of compartments, or just a small & cosy affair. No luck though; it seemed the production crew were doing everything they could to avoid showing it. I thought this might turn out to be one of those cheap shows where the titles were the only really good bits.

The Key to Time exposition did trigger my imagination though, introducing the characters and their goals and their search tools, while my head filled with ideas of all the wondrous places the story might go to, and what agents of the Black Guardian might be lurking around the darker corners of the journey. It was excellent at building anticipation of an exciting, adventurous odyssey through strange and very different worlds. Perhaps many long term fans (and writers) have taken this aspect of the show for granted, but "The Ribos Operation" is very good at getting this aspect across to new audiences fast, something many other "classic" stories forget to even attempt.

Ribos seemed an interesting place to start - cold and snowy and very regal. There was a lot of dialogue though, and after a time the point of it all seemed lost on me.

Suddenly a blue box came wheezing and groaning in out of nowhere, and to my great surprise it had brought the Doctor and Romana to the scene. Excellent! I must have jumped out of my seat, hoping they would do that marvellous effect again soon. I thought it was better than Captain Kirk's transporter beam, because with that neat little blue booth coming with you, it meant you wouldn't have to call Scotty when you were ready to beam back up - you could just walk right in and do it yourself.

And that's all the blue box was to me then, in my mind: some kind of transmat capsule (not that I knew that phrase then). As far as I knew, the Doctor's gleaming white flying saucer was still in orbit around Ribos, either on autopilot or with K9 at the controls, which amounted to the same thing. And they were still too cheap to show the exterior of it, or any space shots come to that.

The Doctor and Romana remained on purpose as they made their way to a cool treasure room, and seemed to be easily capable of getting what they came for. I was sure there'd be a scuffle with some local guards on their way out for excitement as well, and that would be a good job on the first segment. Uh oh, trouble from a monster too; that was good.

I looked forward to seeing that blue box effect again in a few minutes, on the false assumption that they'd be moving on to the second segment before the first hour-long episode was finished. So of course I suddenly felt extremely disjointed to be watching the closing credits, after only 23 or 24 minutes. Not the greatest cliffhanger this show has ever seen.

But I was hooked, for good. By the following week, I tuned in once again with an audio cassette recorder pushed up close to the TV speaker, urging the rest of the household to be as quiet as possible, and I still have that fuzzy recording of "The Ribos Operation, Part Two" to this day..... along with the entire Key to Time DVD boxed set which is much more preferable! As extras go, the 2002 Region 1 North American DVD's were not quite as spectacular as "The Ark in Space" (story no. 76), or many of the more recent releases, but now we have the 2009 Special Edition with its making-of and other behind the scenes documentaries, interviews, and (on some releases) additional commentaries. Much better. But especially in this case, it's the episodes themselves that count the most: a slice of television heaven if you ask me.

Ribos In-Depth

"The Ribos Operation" has very much a dialogue-based plot, despite many "action" sequences where Dudley Simpson's excellent music carries the soundtrack. The characters are rich, and adults will find a lot of humour in their shenanigans. I'm not as confident that the Riban situation appeals as greatly to younger viewers though, who may lack the patience to try to follow it through.

The Doctor's involvement with the Riban characters is left a bit too marginal for my tastes - notice how often he spends his time hiding and eavesdropping, behind the curtains or whatever. He's not coming out to confront the guest characters and interact with them as himself often enough.

But two very important elements are in play to prevent this from dragging the story down very far. Firstly, he's not wandering around aimlessly - the Quest for the Key to Time keeps him purposeful and generates wider viewer interest in the adventure than it would have had as a stand-alone story. Secondly, Romana is as new to the program as any of the guests, and the Doctor's lack of interaction with Riban characters is more than made up for by the superb interaction he gets with his new companion, freshly graduated from the Academy and prepared to challenge him on his entire way of life. Excellent stuff! They say everyone has a favourite Doctor; well, Mary Tamm is my favourite Romana. The intellectual companions always seem more interesting to me, and Tamm plays the role so excellently. Every scene she is in works wonderfully.

There is also a distinct bonus in having a fellow Gallifreyan as a companion. The Doctor is no longer going to be the only one capable of saving the day at the last minute due to his alien nature, as in the cop-out ending of "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" (story no. 71) for example. Now he'll have to come up with real reasons for triumphing over his obstacles.

As for the guest characters themselves, they prove to be greatly entertaining in their own right as well. Garron and Unstoffe are most enjoyably humorous, while the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh act as their straight and deadly foils. Prentis Hancock also returns as the Shrieve Captain and gives one of his better performances. Binro is the character I find hardest to like, simply because the statement of his beliefs is too simple a science fiction concept and too overused a sci-fi cliché to work while played so seriously and so often to motivate his character as it is here. I think a decision should have been taken to either go for more humour, which means rewriting the script, or go for more pathos and make Binro as tragic a character as possible. Maybe Holmes intended that, and the actors and director didn't get it.

This story calls for but a few laser effects, and Dave Chapman pulls them off brilliantly. K9 even gets a two-colour beam, while the standard sound effect is played at the right speed for the first time.

One thing that was distinctly lost on me when I watched the story the first time through, oh so long ago, was the fact that the Graff and his entourage, and Garron and Unstoffe as well, were not native to Ribos. Episode One has the dialogue to make the point clear, but the point can easily be missed or forgotten while watching further episodes in subsequent weeks. The Graff later details his exploits and his loss of the Levithian crown to his brother, which all too easily sounds like something that would happen across the Riban landscape amongst the Riban elite. The Russian element in the set design and costumes is an excellent eye-candy treat, and sure the main alien characters want to try to blend in with the locals, but the Teutonic riveted-metal helmets on the Graff's guards grate against any belief that these are space-traveling warriors, and do so in contradiction to the costume descriptions indicated in Robert Holmes' script. Mind you, I like the guards costumes a lot; but they do help to confuse the characters.

The pop-up production notes on the DVD reveal that a lot of timing cuts were made to the story after recording, and I think they were almost all good calls. Many of the missing sections seem to have featured a lot of dramatic inertia - characters stating their situation without any real developments occurring. Holmes was getting right into his characters and enjoying them, albeit perhaps at the expense of keeping up the pace and moving the plot along.

Overall, this is a fun story, very much based in character and dialogue. An enjoyable romp made slightly more serious by the beginnings of the Doctor's longest television multi-story arc to date.

This story is the 1st adventure in season 16's Key To Time quest. It has become available on DVD and VHS video.

Single Story versions:
DVD NTSC Region 1
2009 Special Edition
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.:
See boxed set below.
VHS Video
NTSC A in the U.S.
NTSC B in the U.S.
PAL for the U.K.
DVD NTSC Region 1
2002 release with limited extras
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada

6-story full season boxed sets:
The Key to Time
2009 Special Edition
7 disc boxed set
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
The Key to Time
7 disc boxed set
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K., limited edition
for the U.K., 2009 re-issue
The Key to Time 6 DVD boxed set
2002 release with limited extras
NTSC Region 1
in the U.S.
in Canada

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story
of the Key to Time season: "The Pirate Planet"

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