"Is there no-one you can trust these days!"

All right, ladies and gentlemen. Here’s the deal: see, at the minute I have two full sets of Doctor Who, season 5 sitting on my bookshelf. Both of them work — sort of and sometimes.

See, the first disc of one set works only in my laptop until about halfway through The Eleventh Hour, when it freezes; the first disc of the other set works only in my DVD player unless I start it running in the DVD player and then switch it to the laptop. The second disc, reverse it. It’s very frustrating and none of the discs seem to work quite right in either player. It’s as though someone decided to encode the main menu on each disc as an easter egg: you have to play around in each and every case with which combination of buttons you need to press in order to get there. Then, you may have to press additional buttons in order to make the damned thing work. I tell you, it’s worse than getting K-9 to run over uneven ground.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I have yet to figure out which disc will let me rewatch The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang satisfactorily in order to write a post about them. It’s as though the BBC is personally trying to thwart my blogging! Damn you, BBC executives — I will not be stopped!

But, unfortunately, I will be delayed.

I had a couple of plans for post-season 5 — one of them was a post about Torchwood: Children of Earth which I am…really, well, I’m putting it the hell off. The other — more ongoing vision — was to talk about some original series episodes because, well, I don’t think enough folks who got into the show with the new series have investigated the old series very thoroughly. And they’re some of my favorite episodes.

So I’ve been thinking about where to start this very sketchy and uneven sort of “rewatch” non-liveblog kind of thing. And I figured I might as well start with the Key to Time series: six episodes that made up the 16th season and a whole year’s worth of Tom Baker episodes. With all that in mind — not that it matters a whole hell of a lot — lets start at the beginning with The Ribos Operation. (If you remember a couple of posts I did last year about “good place to start” episodes, this series of episodes was briefly mentioned.)

Here’s the set-up:

As one of the comments on the video at Youtube.com said, “…[he] makes the Doctor an offer he can’t refuse.” Basically: find the parts to this semi-mythical Key, put them back together so I can save the universe — or else. The ‘else’ doesn’t even have to be spelled out; Valentine Dyall as the White Guardian does such a fantastic job of making it a threat by tone, look, and mint-julep-swirl.

The Ribos Operation comes just after a lot of very hectic action at the end of season 15 which started with the nice, relaxing jaunt through the closed-room murder mystery of The Horror of Fang Rock (oh, juicy goodness, my friends!) and ended with the departure of the Doctor’s companion, Leela, accompanied by a version of K9 to live with her new lover on Gallifrey. (Lame ending to Leela’s story arc? Why, yes, yes, it is. We don’t talk about The Invasion of Time here.)

So the Doctor is (temporarily) companion-less except for the new version of K9 but now has a new companion thrust upon him by the Guardian to help with the search for the Key. We re-enter the TARDIS to find…

If you’re thinking “impractical,” you’re right.

Yes, well, the Doctor blinks a bit, too. Actress Mary Tamm had been a model “in a previous life,” and the costume department clearly had fun with that. Romanadvoratnalundar’s (“It’s either Romana — or Fred!” “All right, call me Fred!” “All right. Come on, Romana.”) costumes range from the truly bizarre to the merely ‘huh’-inducing but Tamm carries them all off with great style and a certain amount of grace — even the really stupid ones: wait for it, we’ll get there in Androids of Tara.

Steven Moffatt clearly had Romana in mind when he created River Song: Romana is a Time Lord; she attended the University; she is smarter and more successful (academically speaking) than the Doctor (“A triple first? are we meant to be impressed?” “Well, it’s better than scraping by with 51 percent at the second attempt.” “That information is confidential!”); and she knows how to fly the TARDIS — possibly better than the Doctor. She is intelligent, self-confident, and not willing to take guff from anyone, let alone him. She even begins to diagnose his psychological problems and give him advice within the first ten minutes of residence in the TARDIS.

What makes Romana a great companion is that, much like River, her expectations begin to change. She shifts from viewing the Doctor as someone she might be expected to respect if she were a more revolutionary character herself or someone who might have done better had he done different things with his lives and, instead, begins to see what his skills really are and how important they might be. She has no idea how to talk to people, for example, and if the Doctor has a core set of skills then, by golly, schmoozing is right at the top of the list. By the end of the season, Romana is still very much her own character — but she and the Doctor have learned to appreciate each other: technically, Romana is streets ahead of the Doctor and he knows that. Interpersonally, the Doctor can outrun Romana any day and she knows that.

They track the first segment of the Key to a planet called Ribos and the fun really begins. The heart of this story is a three-card trick being played by two conmen, Garron and his assistant, Unstoffe, on a deposed ruler, the Graff Vynda-K, and what remains of his army, primarily represented by his aide-de-camp, Sholakh.  Garron and Unstoffe are trying to sell the Graff a non-existent mine and salting the ground by using a piece of jethryk — an element which would power a space fleet for an entire campaign. Obviously, the jethryk is the first segment of the Key and there’s a whole bunch of sleight-of-hand involving this rather attractive blue bit of rock. There are also dragons — of a sort — called shrivenzales; a magician called the Seeker with a fantastic hat; and Binro the Heretic.

The actor who played Binro, Timothy Bateson, died not long ago and, in memory thereof, I think we should all take a minute and watch what I think may be one of the best scenes from Operation:

I should also point out that Iain Cuthbertson (Garron, not in this scene) is fantastic in this. Cuthbertson is pretty much always fantastic (check out his work in Inspector Morse, for a case in point — right up until the point where, as I recall, Ian McDiarmid kills him. Sad, but a great moment for genre fans!)

The Ribos Operation is a nice, solid introduction to the new season; it makes sense, doesn’t offer any ghastly un-wrapped-up loose ends (other than the Key itself); and has some great characters to offer, along with an absolutely dribbling villain in the Graff. (Really. The man goes out while shrieking encouragement to an entirely imaginary army under his equally imaginary command. Complete loon.)

Trivia for the day: If you happen to notice that Tom Baker looks injured, you’re right. He was in a pub, so goes the story, and was bitten by another pubgoer’s dog which damaged his upper lip. You’ll notice he seems to be nursing it in the first episode — in the American version, for about the first 20 minutes of the show — and then forgets about it.

Next time: The Pirate Planet, written by everyone’s favorite hitch-hiker.

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