In which the Doctor's planned holiday is going to have to wait - after he is given an important mission by the White Guardian of Time. The Guardian diverts the TARDIS from its course. He appears as a white-haired old man, dressed like a Southern plantation owner. He informs the Doctor that the Universe is fast approaching a time of anarchy and chaos. Cosmic balance must be restored. To do this, he wants the Doctor to seek out the six disguised segments of the Key to Time. He reminds the Doctor that he has an equally powerful counterpart - the Black Guardian - who relishes chaos and will try to stop him.
To help him, he is given a new assistant - one of his own race. Back in the TARDIS he meets Romanadvoratrelundar - or Romana for short. She has been given a wand-like tracer which, when plugged into the console, takes them to the segments' location in Time and Space. It will also convert them from their disguised state and operate the completed Key - which is a crystal cube. Romana does not know of the Guardian's involvement. He had appeared to her on Gallifrey, where she worked in the Bureau of Ancient Records, in the guise of the President. The Doctor is not at all happy at having a new companion foist upon him - especially an aloof young Time Lady.
Their first destination is the planet Ribos in the Cyrrenhic Alliance. The Doctor notes that the signal moved prior to their arrival. The people of Ribos are not technologically advanced. They know nothing of space travel, and don't understand astronomy. Seasons on Ribos last for a generation and it is believed that there is an eternal battle between the Sun Gods and Ice Gods. Ribos is currently in its 30 year winter - Ice Time. The tracer leads the Doctor and Romana to the chamber containing the crown jewels. Here, they witness a confidence trick in progress. A man named Garron, and his young accomplice Unstoffe, appear to be trying to sell Ribos to a visiting noble - the Graff Vynda-K. Whilst on one of his many military campaigns, the Graff was deposed and replaced by his brother. He needs a base from which to launch an attack to reclaim his throne. Romana assumes that one of the crown jewels is the key segment, but the Doctor is not so sure. Unstoffe appears to be attracting the Graff's attention towards a large blue gemstone - a piece of jethrik. This is very rare. If there is jethrik on Ribos, he will be more eager to buy.
Garron's plan is discovered, and the Doctor and Romana find themselves accused of being his accessories. The jethrik had been planted in the jewel chamber by Unstoffe. He steals it back and goes on the run. The tracer shows that this is the disguised segment. K9 is summoned from the TARDIS and helps the Doctor, Romana and Garron escape. They take refuge in the ancient catacombs beneath the city. These are also home to savage reptilian creatures called Shrivenzales. The Graff employs an old witch known as the Seeker to help hunt them. The Captain of the City Militia - the Shrieves - has them all sealed into the catacombs, glad to see the back of these troublesome strangers. The Doctor manages to get the jethrik off of Garron, and the Graff is killed in an explosion intended for the Doctor and his friends. Garron and Unstoffe will have to console themselves with the Graff's loot-laden spacecraft/ Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor and Romana use the tracer to convert the blue gemstone into the first segment of the Key to Time...
This four part adventure was written by Robert Holmes, and was broadcast between September 2nd and 23rd, 1978. It marks the beginning of Season 16 - the Key to Time season.
The idea of a season of linked stories - with an overarching plot - had been on producer Graham Williams' mind almost from his first day in the job. Stories for his first season were already too far advanced for him to do anything about that idea. Now, he and Script Editor Anthony Read envisaged six stories that could be enjoyed perfectly well in their own right by the casual viewer, but that would also reward the loyal viewer with the overarching storyline of a quest, or treasure hunt, that would pay off in the final adventure.
The Guardians of Time, who exist above and beyond the Time Lords, are introduced and there is a cosmic threat. The Doctor has to visit six locations throughout Time and Space and find six objects that will make up the Key. The set up allows for the introduction of the new companion - being specifically given Romana to help in the quest, instead of picking her up in the course of his travels as was usually the case for new companions. The Gallifreyan ice maiden is played by Mary Tamm. Romana becomes the first companion in the history of the programme not to have any connection with Earth - unless you count K9 Mark II. It is built in the TARDIS by the Doctor during the gap between the previous season and this story. Williams only brought in the new model when he was assured that the prop would perform better than it had in Season 15. Once again, K9 is voiced by John Leeson.
The design work (Ken Ledsham) and costumes (June Hudson) are obviously inspired by medieval Russia and the Byzantine church. There is a definite feel of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible about it. Furs and icons. There is no single obvious story reference - unusual for the cine-literate Bob Holmes.
The White Guardian is portrayed by the veteran stage and screen actor Cyril Luckham. Garron is Scots actor Iain Cuthbertson - no stranger to playing villainous characters who have a comedic edge. The Graff Vynda-K is played by Paul Seed, who is better known today as a director. He directed the original BBC version of House of Cards.
Unstoffe is Nigel Plaskitt. He has a wonderful scene with an old man named Binro. Played by Timothy Bateson, Binro was a scientist who challenged the beliefs of his people regarding the stars. He has become an outcast and heretic. Unstoffe is able to tell him that his own beliefs are true. The Captain of the Shrieves is Prentis Hancock, in his fourth and final Doctor Who appearance. The old Seeker is played by Ann Tirard. She had played the court poisoner, Locusta, in The Romans, back in 1965.
Episode endings are:
- Romana becomes trapped under a heavy door as the drugged Shrivenzale starts to wake up...
- The Doctor, Romana and Garron are surrounded by soldiers. The Graff orders their immediate execution, because no-one makes a fool of the Graff Vynda-K...
- Hiding in the catacombs, the Doctor knocks over a skull - attracting the attention of a prowling Shrivenzale...
- The tracer converts the blue gemstone into the geometric crystalline first segment of the Key to Time. One down, five to go...
Overall, a fairly low-key, studio-bound story to launch what is supposed to be an epic season. Bob Holmes creates another wonderful double act in Garron and Unstoffe. A clever and funny script. Some lovely performances. Shame they felt the need to include the rubbery Shrivenzales, which don't impress at all.
Things you might like to know:
- It was Paul Seed's pet terrier that bit Tom Baker very badly on the upper lip. This necessitated heavy make-up and the inclusion of an extra sequence at the beginning of the following story where the Doctor banged his lip on the TARDIS console. There are a number of publicity photographs where Tom has a prominent plaster on his face. Seed's dog had been trained to jump up and take a sausage from his mouth. Tom attempted the trick in the pub one lunchtime - and the dog bit off more than it could chew...
- The character of Binro the Heretic is clearly based on the astronomer and scientist Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642). He fell foul of Pope Paul V and the Roman Inquisition and was forced to recant his heliocentric views, spending the remainder of his life under house arrest.
- There is some debate about the nature of the Guardians. It is widely accepted these days that the Black and White Guardians are actually dual aspects of the same entity.
- The Doctor has a particularly long scarf from this story up until his costume gets its major redesign once JNT takes over. It was the result of stitching together the remains of the original scarf with the "stunt" version.
- At one point it was intended that Sarah Jane Smith would have rejoined the Doctor for this quest. Lis Sladen would be approached about returning to the programme again to help usher in the era of the Fifth Doctor.
- This is the last occasion in the Classic Series when a new companion will be introduced in a season opener. Lalla Ward is playing an already established character, and all the JNT companions will be introduced mid-season.