Friday, February 23, 2024

The Ribos Operation (2)

The Ribos Operation is not about the Graf. It is barely even about the Doctor. It's about two con-men, Garron and Unstoff. It begins with them bantering wittily as they break into the royal treasure house. It ends with them bantering wittily about how well or badly their heist has worked out. It's their story.

Garron is played by Iain Cuthbertson, the nasty squire from Children of the Stones. He was originally going to be Australian, but his accent shifts between stereotype cockney and stereotype cockney trying to sound posh. Although he's a galactic rogue only two degrees removed from Han Solo, he's also clearly a cockney barrow boy. The home he wants to return to isn't Coroscant or Trantor, but Hackney Wick.

Unstoff is played by Nigel Plaskitt. In 1978 it would have been impossible to see him without muttering "course-you-can-Malcolm" under your breath. He'd been in a very irritating series of adverts for patent cold remedies. The BBC was pernickety about product placement; but it is a heck of a coincidence that Ribos is stuck in it's winter season and Unstoff spends the opening scenes complaining about the weather. Plaskitt also voiced and operated Hartley Hare on Pipkins (and I believe subsequently worked with Jim Henson) so presumably he felt right at home sharing the stage with the shrivenzale.

Plaskitt plays the part absolutely straight while Cuthbertson teeters permanently on the brink of pantomime. Robert Holmes is far too clever too hammer the point home, but the relationship between the know-it-all youngster and the seen-it-all-before veteran closely mirrors that of the Doctor and Romana. One assumes that Big Finish made two hundred CDs about the pairs further adventures? They are far more original and funny then Jago and Litefoot ever were.

Garron's scheme is pretty clever and great fun. He started his career doing the venerable old trick of selling bridges he doesn't own to unwary tourists; but has moved up in the world and now sells planets. Unstoff breaks into the castle strong room and instead of stealing the crown jewels, plants a lump of precious metal in the vault. Garron "accidentally" gives his victim papers to show that the planet has vast unexploited mineral wealth; so his mark will be prepared to buy the valueless planet at an inflated price.

Who are they trying to swindle? Obviously, the Graf Vindar-K.

It's a weirdly brilliant set-up. A classic con-trick being perpetrated on a classic space-opera bad guy by a couple of classic con-men in a classic fantasy medieval setting. It's as if Grand Moff Tarkin arrived on the set of Hamlet and Del Boy tried to sell him Westminster Bridge. (This was before Del Boy, but after Moff Tarkin.)

The Plot Device leads the Doctor and Romana into the epicentre of the scam: the strong room where Unstoff has planted the precious jethric. But this in itself doesn't particularly embroil them in the story. They spend the bulk of the first two episodes pressed to the edge of the narrative; watching the scheme unfold and unravel. Romana directly says that the main action of the story is "none of their business" and that they should ignore Garron -- clearly the protagonist of the episode -- and concentrate on getting the first segment out of the strong room.

The Doctor briefly proposes one reason to become involved. He does not say that it is their moral duty to prevent the Graf being swindled; or, indeed, to prevent him from getting his hands on the valuable jethric. But he does suspect that Garron is "after the same thing" as he and Romana are. This would have been in line with Graham Williams' original concept: the Doctor and the agents of the Black Guardian in a race to find each precious Segment. But the story -- and very possibly Robert Holmes -- resists this resolution. Garron is not an agent of the Dark Side, even unwittingly. And he is not, in fact "after the same thing". In fact, he already possesses the segment, and has placed it in the reliquary, unaware of its value.

At the time of Ribos Operation, many of us were for the first time discovering Dungeons & Dragons. Heroes went into labyrinths (which did not exist for any reason) and faced perils (which did not exist for any reason) and obtained treasures (which did not exist for any reason). The Dungeon was, in effect, a physical embodiment of the Plot. There was no need for a plausible narrative to explain how the heroes came to be negotiating a pit full of spikes; or trying to avoid a dragon's fiery breath: they were doing it because that was what there was at the end of the corridor.

At the end of Episode Three, Unstoff stumbles into what is unmistakably a Dungeon. Surprised by the Ribos guards while trying to retrieve the jethric, he escapes into a series of caves and tunnels which just happen to run under the city and to be accessible from the strong room. They are completely impossible to navigate without supernatural or technological aid (meaning that he can stay lost for as long as the Plot requires.) They are home to a colony of fully grown shrivenzale (and can therefore provide peril and cliffhangers when called to do so). They are a hiding place for fugitives and outcasts (and can therefore introduce new characters into the story without any further explanation). Once Unstoff is lost in the Plot (the caves) with the MacGuffin (the jethric) the Doctor is obliged to go in after him.

In case we are in any doubt about what is going on, the Ribos guards enlist a lady witch doctor. It is agreed by all parties that there is no way of finding Unstoff in the caves without her aid. She's an odd fit to the overall story: a figure in a mask who keeps doing strange dance moves, a little like the Sisterhood in Brain of Morbius. She provides the Plot with a completely arbitrary end-point, "prophesying" that only one person will emerge from the Dungeon in one piece. She has exactly the same narrative function as the Tracer, and is in fact referred to only as the Seeker.

The Doctor does manage to claw back some of his status as the show's hero from Romana. But it is worth, once again, looking at what does not happen. It does not turn out that his poor exam results were the consequence of him being too cool for school; or that he was thrown out of college for tampering with knowledge that man was not meant to know; or that he is far more than a Time Lord and has a history that Romana can only guess at. But it does turn out that he has been round the galactic block a few times. He spots things that Romana misses. When Garron puts on a silly Mummerset accent, the Doctor notices that it is an earth accent, not a Ribos one. Romana is taken in by Unstoff's cock-and-bull story about an abandoned mine "because he has such an honest face": the Doctor points out (pityingly) that you can't be a successful crook with a dishonest face. (If all smugglers looked like smugglers, sir, my job would be a lot easier.) Romana assumes that the Crown must be the First Segment, because it is the most valuable thing in the strong room. The Doctor realises that it must in fact be the jethic. The audience have got there already: it has to be the jethric because the jethric is the main driver of the Plot. But the Doctor spots that the segment was moving between locations when the Tracer detected it; and Garron brought the jethric to Ribos from another star system (whereas the crown jewels are hardly ever moved). Romana thinks that this very obvious deduction is "brilliant".

And while this clearly restores the Doctor to the role of central character, it still represents a fundamental shift in the Doctor / companion dynamic. The Doctor is the street savvy one, the voice of common sense and intuition and occasionally local knowledge. Romana remains the clever, scientific one; and she still looks down on him.

But this can only go so far. The Doctor may no longer be wandering; he may be trying his hardest not to get involved; and he may have an assistant who is reluctant to assist. But he has one thing on his side: the format of Doctor Who. Episodes have to end with cliffhangers; and cliffhangers require the Doctor to be the Doctor. Romana, to her credit, does not scream when she is (inevitably) threatened by the shrivenzal. But she does call out "Doctor, I'm over here" and actually hug him when he frees her. "Are there many such dangerous creatures in the universe?" she asks, and the Doctor relishes the moment. "Millions! Millions! You shouldn't have volunteered if you are scared of a little thing like that."

No Doctor Who story would be complete without a little light capital punishment. At the end of Episode Two the Graf orders that the Doctor, Romana and Garron be executed by firing squad. But the Doctor entirely refuses to take the cliffhanger seriously. In the next episode he says, in effect "Please stop" and they stop, whereupon he and the Graf get involved in a mutual face-slapping routine straight out of the Marx Brothers. They are all held prisoner (while Unstoff gets lost in the Plot Dungeon) and the Doctor spends a fair chunk of the episode chatting with Garron about the heist.

"Doctor, there are men out there planning to kill us, and you're just sitting here chattering" complains Romana.

"When you've faced death as often as I have, this is much more fun" he replies.

More fun. It isn't merely that the Doctor is braver and less afraid of dying than Romana. It's that he doesn't take the universe entirely seriously. Which makes sense once you've realised that his meeting with the Guardian is essentially a con flab with the Author. He knows that he is the hero of the story, and that he can't be killed off. He probably even knows that the story is closer to being a comedy than a tragedy.

There is one last element to consider.

When Unstoff sets off into the impenetrable story-cave, he encounters Biro The Heretic. Biro fits into the story precisely nowhere, and is therefore, almost by definition, the best thing in it.

He's a stock character. I suppose his ultimate source is Benn Gunn, the castaway in Treasure Island. He reminds us of characters who Blackadder and Robin of Loxely encounter in prison cells; and the poor chained up fellow who has to push the pram a lot. (This was before Blackadder and Robin of Sherwood.) Old, beardy, raspy, dressed in rags, apt to talk to rats and not entirely sane: I suppose the purest version of the archetype was Geoffrey Bayldon's time shifted wizard in Catweazle. But this pathetic figure is Ribos's Galileo or its Darwin: pronounced a heretic for declaring the truth about the universe for the first time.

It's another strange structural moment. The crazy mad scientist is a little bit like the Doctor; and the fresh faced guy with the bunged up nose is a little bit like Ian or Harry or any number of straight men. But Unstoff is to Biro as the Doctor has been to so many mortals: the one who tells him that, yes, the world is round; yes, the lights in the skies are other star systems and yes, travel between the worlds will one day be possible. (No-one seems to care very much about the Prime Directive: at any rate, honest-looking con-men don't.) Reviews at the time, in fanzines, pinpointed the Unstoff/Biro scenes as being good examples of the Magic which Doctor Who didn't have any more. They are certainly good drama and good writing played straight by two good actors.

Tom Baker's Doctor is sometimes said to be a little callous: not psychotic like Colin's version but looking at humans from a slightly elevated perspective. But the ending of Ribos Operation is surprisingly cruel. The Seeker has predicted that only one person will survive the caves. After Sholakh dies, the Graf consciously tries to bring the Plot to its foreordained ending. He hands his remaining guard a bomb, and walks away: the guard gets an honourable death, and he himself gets to leave the catacombs in one piece.

He is ranting movingly about past battles, and talking about Sholakh as if he is still alive. One half expects him to say that he has nothing left but his panache. But the guard is the Doctor in disguise (of course); and the Doctor has switched the bomb for the jethric (of course). The Graf blows himself up and the Doctor gets the segment. We shouldn't mourn too much for Vinder-K: he was a bad man who had it coming; but it's a cold thing for the good guy to do. But then, Ribos is a very cold planet. Perhaps the Doctor could do with some Vicks Sinex.

But our focus is not on ridding the universe of nasty but impotent bad guys: it's on the Doctor getting his hands on the Plot Coupon. We head straight for a comedy climax. Garron switches the jethric for some worthless stone, but the Doctor switches it back again. Garron is cross, but only a bit cross; you imagine he starts planning his next hustle right away. The final lines; as the Doctor secures the First Segment in the TARDIS safe, slightly undercuts the adventure. "Simple wasn't it. Only five more to go."

A chap at a Doctor Who convention at the time told me that "the magic of Doctor Who" comes down to "how Doctor Who makes you feel". That's probably about right. Our joy in the show is subjective rather than objective: it's a romantic, rather than a classical engagement.

What is Doctor Who? Chases down corridors; old fashioned theatrical actors; chases down corridors; special effects departments doing the best they can; chases down corridors. Ribos Operation has them: Pirate Planet will have more of them; Power of Kroll will have very little else. The question is never what Doctor Who irreducibly is; but what the Doctor has at a given moment become. The disruptive figure, arriving on a planet and shaking everything up? The saviour, arriving at the moment of crisis? Or merely the curious, benevolent wanderer?

Professional fans at the time of Deadly Assassin complained that there was too much hyperbole. The Doctor no longer rescued individuals or cities or even planets: He only ever saved The Universe. Which may be one of the problems the Key to Time sets out to solve. The action is tiny: a small lump of precious rock; a swindler; a posturing noble. But the stakes are as ultimate as they can possibly be.

If we wind back to when Anthony Coburn created Doctor Who, single-handedly, by himself, without input from anyone else [is this right? -ed] the show was about two things.

It was about the idea of Space: the idea that this earth, containing everything we have ever known, is really a tiny part of the universe, and a wardrobe in a junk yard could contain everything. Ribos puts us on a planet which doesn't even know that space exists and shows us the Copernican moment when the ice crystals turn into stars and the universe turns out be bigger on the outside than the inside.

And it was about a sense of place: about spending long enough on Skaro or the Stone Age or Ancient Mexico that we started to feel at home there -- as at home as we did in the foggy London streets or the London secondary school. Robert Holmes, cleverly, wittily and economically draws us into the Ribosness of Ribos. This is not a story that could have been set anywhere else.

And perhaps that is another function of the Anti-Plot Device. For this season at least, the Doctor's function is to arrive, grab, and leave, and try not to get involved. Perhaps that enables us to see Ribos as Ribos would have been even if the Doctor had never shown up.

Don Quixote; Tristan Shandy; Hamlet -- even Watchmen. There is a longish lineage of work which set out to undermine a genre and end up becoming the perfect example of it. The Key To Time is the product of Graham Williams' disillusionment with the the whole idea of Doctor Who (and Holmes irritation with the idea of an Umbrella Setting.) But it's not only the best story of the season; it is, in anyone's book, one of the finest entries in the entire Canon.

Coming soon: The Pirate Planet.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

The Ribos Operation (1)

Deadly Assassin debunked the Time Lords: the once god-like aliens are now silly old men with robing rooms and TV interviews and alarms that go arooga-arooga when there is an intruder. Invasion of Time debunked the TARDIS: the once miraculous machine is literally a facade, and if you take one step out of the gleaming white control room what you will find is not even-more wondrous technology, but brick lined tunnels and obsolete office equipment.

The Ribos Operation goes one step further. It debunks the Doctor. And then it debunks the whole idea of Doctor Who. And then it puts them back together again.

The Guardian of Time has stepped into the space vacated by the Time Lords. He summonses the Doctor and tells him he has chosen him to perform an important mission. The Doctor chafes and complains and sulks but takes on the quest. He can't very well not. The Guardian is a plot device: the voice of the authorial fiat. If the main character in the story doesn't do what the Author tells him to do, then it is literally true that nothing will happen to him: ever again.

The living embodiment of the Plot looks like an ex-pat from the Raj. You can rationalise this kind of thing if rationalising things is your bag: maybe Guardians change their appearances to fit in with their surroundings, like the TARDIS; or maybe everyone perceives them differently, like Galactus and Santa Claus. But I think we just happen to be in the kind of Universe where the higher power is an old duffer in a white suit. The universe may be threatened with eternal chaos; the cosmic cube may have been split into six easily managed monthly instalments: but the TARDIS is still a phone box and God is quite definitely an Englishman.

The Doctor is reduced to a self-conscious school-boy; calling the Guardian "Sir" with a distinct trace of sarcasm. It's the sort of thing that Tom does so well: acting, darling. His relationship with God is very much like his relationship with his old college tutor. The Doctor is very much still the Doctor.

But when Romana appears, it all gets a bit uncomfortable.

Fans talk about "companions"; journalists talk about "assistants". When the Guardian tells the Doctor that he is going to have a new "assistant" he is speaking from outside the story; talking about the format rather than the universe. The audience knows that Louise Jameson has quit and that the first story has to introduce the "new girl"; so having the voice of the author simply impose one on the Doctor is a nice post-modern penetration of the fourth wall. When the Doctor responds that "in my experience, assistants mean trouble; I have to protect them and show them and teach them..." he's pretty much calling into question the entire premise of Doctor Who. And he is surely speaking for the lead actor -- and some of the fans -- when he says "I'd rather work alone". Later he tells Romana "to stay out of my way and keep out of trouble" and to "stick close to me and do as you're told". If companions always did that, there wouldn't be many stories. (James Goss's novelisation of the Pirate Planet pushes the metafictional element much harder: the Doctor requires a companion who "likes country walks through quarries" and has "sturdy ankles.")

Romana doesn't accept the companion role. It's not that she complains that the Doctor is sexist and patronising. Jo Grant occasionally did that. (Sarah was more self-confident and therefore more subtle about it.) But Romana tells the Doctor directly that he is not as clever as he pretends to be; and she is repeatedly proved right. She -- it turns out -- has a first class degree in Time Lording from the University of Time Lord, where the Doctor barely scraped a pass-mark on the second attempt.

Information about the Doctor's past has always been rationed: William Hartnell was a pioneer among his own people; Jon Pertwee had a mysterious mentor; Patrick Troughton has a family who he sometimes thinks about. But Tom, it seems, was a bad, second rate student. It undermines the Doctorness of the Doctor for the sake of a cheap gag.

In earlier drafts, Romana was going to be an undergraduate Time Lord: one who was still learning and therefore knew less than the Doctor; although possibly more inclined to stick to the rules. This would have been much less of an attack on the show's format: and therefore much less fun.

There would be nothing very surprising about the pairing of a veteran hero with an academically brilliant young turk. Knowledge versus experience is a perfectly good narrative set-up. The young Captain can bring the old Admiral up to speed about recent developments in antimatter imbalance without necessarily undermining the Kirkness of Kirk.

But in her initial interaction with the Doctor, Romana consistently maintains the upper hand; and the Doctor ends up looking ridiculous. She rightly points out that he is childishly sulking. He petulantly makes fun of her name, and she doesn't take the bait. She cleverly catches him out with reverse psychology. (The Doctor forbids her from returning to Gallifrey, even though he really wants her to leave.) She accurately claims that he has "massive compensation syndrome" -- he wants to appear competent to make up for his relatively poor academic record. And when he histrionically warns her to watch where she is going and expect the unexpected he literally walks into a bear trap.

It's funny enough, in a Crackerjack kind of way. But if the Doctor is a bit of a fraud then he has always been a bit of a fraud. Ian and Barbara and Jamie and Sarah and six million viewers were taken in: but this new lady can see right through him.

The Doctor was introduced to us as a kind of Flying Dutchmen figure -- a stranger with a Ship he couldn't steer making landfall in mysterious places with no particular purpose or motivation. The uncontrolled TARDIS is one part of the story-generating engine. The Doctor's innate curiosity and moral compass provides the other half. Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke explained the set-up very clearly to me when I was eight:

"Having thought of all that, Newman and Wilson had to consider an important question of logic: why should the Doctor travel about through Time and Space? You will remember what was said about television series to do with detectives, policemen, and doctors. In their jobs, they are called to where something is happening. There could be no logical reason for the Doctor to be called, say, to the Planet Skaro to help the Thals against the Daleks, nor why he should be called back into Earth's history to the time of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. So there had to be another reason for the Doctor's travels. The answer was that something had gone wrong with the steering of the TARDIS. It was decided that on each journey the Doctor would try to make the TARDIS go where he wanted, but always the TARDIS would be out of control. However, this would not greatly displease the Doctor. Built into his character was a scientific curiosity about everything and everywhere."

But the Tracer/Core changes the dynamic. The voice of authorial fiat has given the Doctor a literal plot device: a device that points him towards the plot. The Doctor will now be directed to a specific planet; and on that planet he will look for a particular thing;  and when he finds that thing he will move on. Where the Doctor's whole personality inclines him to get involved; the Guardian's mission actively requires him not to.

If the Key to Time saga is about anything, it is this. The central conflict is not between black and white or between order and chaos. It is between plot and anti-plot.

Everything about the Ribos Operation seems to be off-kilter. It looks like a costume drama; but it keeps insisting that it's a space-opera. Every character is a broad, comedic caricature: but the story keeps demanding that we should feel empathy for them. The character who is structurally in a heroic role -- the usurped prince on a quest to restore his throne -- is a psychopath and all our sympathies lie with a pair of crooks who should logically be bad guys. The Doctor and Romana are pushed to the edge of the narrative, and the con-men act as if it is their show. It is perpetually trying to become a Doctor Who story, but the Key to Time actively prevents it from doing so.

Imagine a Ruritanian romance set in space. A King goes off to war and returns home to find that his half-brother has usurped his throne. (Perhaps their names are Richard and John.) In exile with a loyal general and a handful of guards, the rightful King plans to establish a new base of operations, raise an army and reclaim his throne. He says things like "Do you think that I can rest for one moment until I've won back the Levithian Crown which is mine by right?" In such a scenario you'd expect the Doctor to side with the exiles against the usurper.

But the expected set up is reversed. Graf Vynda-K, the rightful king, is a thug and a tyrant; the throne-stealing half-brother, by all accounts, a jolly good fellow. We are on the edge of a massive space opera: we hear about star cruisers and space marines and a galaxy-wide empire, but it's all kept entirely off-stage. The action takes place in the environs of a single medieval castle.

The Graf seems unsure what kind of a character he is meant to be. He speaks fluent technobabble mixed with fluent villain; but he keeps lapsing into old fashioned ("why think you of those caves?") He can't pronounce the name of his henchman Sholakh without lingering on the K: and he keeps doing that Laurence Olivier thing of unexpectedly. Pausing half way through a line. At first he is merely a very arrogant nobleman: two of the three cliffhangers end with him talking about himself in the third person. "No one makes a fool of the Graff Vynda-K and lives";"No one will ever know how you tried to trick the Graff Vynda-K" By episode three, he's adopted the language of colonialism ("I flatter myself I know how to get the best out of natives") and is shooting prisoners as if they were grouse. But in episode four, he modulates back into being a space-marine action figure and there is something slightly heroic about him. You can't completely hate someone who reminisces about "So many battles, Skarrn, the Freytus labyrinth, Crestus Min..." He actually kisses Sholakh when the latter is killed. Perhaps, like Corialanus, he was a good soldier who was forced to become a bad politician.

There is a very old joke, possibly made by Robert Holmes himself, that if the BBC remade Michael Caine's Zulu, the thousands of extras would be replaced by one man in a pith-helmet sticking his head out of a tent and crying "there are thousands of them out there!" Certainly, Doctor Who always relied on showing it small and telling it big: taking viewers to the periphery or the aftermath of some large scale conflict and coming up with good reasons why universe-shaking events are played out in a quarry, a space ship or an Edwardian country house.

This is perhaps a harder stunt to pull of in 1978 than it would have been a decade earlier; you can't carry on claiming that the pictures are better on the radio when Industrial Light and Magic is blowing up planets twice a night on Screen 2 of the Barnet Odeon. But Robert Holmes remains the master of the poetry of allusion; of giving characters jargon laden gibberish which seems to have eons and continents of meaning behind them.

Ribos is a primitive planet "three light centuries from the magellanic clouds" with seventeenth century technology but  no knowledge of the wider universe. The inhabitants believe that their world is flat and that the stars are ice-crystals suspended in the sky. The planet experiences four-year long winters followed by equally long summers. If there is a parallel between the people's superstitious belief in an endless war between the sun gods and the ice gods and the endless cosmic war between the Guardians, Holmes doesn't point it out.

It looks like any number of historical dramas: we could almost be over on BBC2 watching the Television Shakespeare season. As a matter of fact, the sets and the costumes were liberated from a dramatisation of Anna Karenina. In Episode 3, we see fur-clad actors, lost in BBC caverns, having mannered, theatrical conversations in extreme close up. If you switched off the colour and squinted, you might almost think that it was 1964, William Hartnell was in the TARDIS, and all was right with the world.

The action takes place in a castle: the castle has a strong room; and the crown jewels are on display in a glass case. They are guarded by a monster, the shrivenzale, part frog and part dragon; which rather reinforces the sense that we are looking at something that quacks like science fiction but is really fantasy under the bonnet. The shrivenzale is obviously a puppet, but it's a pretty impressive one. It's never very frightening but it's never actively ludicrous.

Ribos is an anagram of Boris. Shrivenzale is probably an anagram of something very rude indeed.

The Graf's backstory never completely settles down: he is trying to regain the "Levithian crown"; he participated in something called "the Frontier war"; the planet Ribos falls within the "Greater Cyrrhenic Empire"; and something called "the Alliance" has the power to adjudicate the succession. We don't know what "Pontonese ships" or "Shalankie mercenaries" are: but don't they sound terrific? He could have said that only the Magellanic Mining Company has the authority to buy and sell planets, but he chose to go with Conglomerate instead. I don't think Douglas Adams was actively involved, but it all sounds terribly Hitchhikery.

I am sure that it is possible to bind these phonemes together into some coherent campaign-setting: I am sure Big Finish or Cubicle 7 have done so. But it is better left unexplained and unexplored: the jumble of non-specific imagery underlines the important point that Space is Big. The Graf and his remnant represent the tip of a narrative iceberg protruding into this one tiny story; a single space marine on a board we will never see.

And he isn't even the person the story is about.

Read: The Ribos Operation Part 2

Read: The Pirate Planet Parts 1 and 2 

Read: Andrew's opinions on Doctor Who's Sixtieth Buy Beautiful Shiny PDF booklets of Andrew's reviews of Tom Baker's first four seasons.

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Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Key To Time


He that is not busy being born is busy dying.

Doctor Who has always been in a death spiral; undermining it's own credibility and trampling it's own legacy. But equally it has always been struggling to come into being; edging toward the moment when it has finally become Doctor Who.

But what is Doctor Who? 

We think we know. Pseudo-science, corridors, second rate Equity members over-acting in the general direction of extras in rubber suits. And no one can say that that version of Doctor Who never existed. But the crock of gold at the end of the corridor is always receding. We think we've arrived at the definitive Doctor-Who-as-it-always-was: and we find that what we're watching is a clever costume drama on left-over sets from Anna Karenina.

The Doctor has to retrieve a powerful object referred to as the Key to Time. It has been split into Six Segments and scattered across the Universe. Since there are six stories in a season of Doctor Who, the artificiality of the device pretty much screams at you from the first synopsis.

The term "story arc" was not quite current in 1978: the production team were inclined to talk about "the umbrella theme" or "the blanket story line". But we could all see that the Key to Time was a McGuffin hunt: a trek across time and space searching for what Nick Lowe memorably called "plot coupons".

There are two extant documents which explore the idea behind the saga. One is written by incumbent producer Graham Williams; the other by incoming script editor Douglas Adams. Two writers, thinking on paper, trying to sort out in their heads what the Key to Time saga could possibly be about.

Williams is interested in cosmology and lore. He's interested in what kind of universe the Doctor inhabits. I have said in the past that most Doctor Who backstory amounts to "lore-babble": stuff that sounds good but which has no real "sub-creation" behind it. However, the Williams memo does seem to envisage a self-consistent Whoniverse: even if he is ad libbing it in the very act of typing the words.

There are writers who can't write the big sex scene unless they know what kind of handles there are on the bedroom door and the colour of the wallpaper. And there are writers who don't give the hero a name unless and until it becomes relevant to the plot. Douglas Adams seems to have been in the second camp. When someone asked him if Arthur Dent used an Apple Mac, Adams said it was a silly question because Arthur Dent didn't exist, and there had never been a scene in which we saw him typing. Graham Williams is more like the actor who can't say "My lord, your carriage awaits" unless he knows what the footman had for breakfast. The Guardians have to have a purpose and the Key to Time has to have an origin even if he has no intention of sharing them with the audience.

Tolkien worked out elvish rates of fertility to a hundred decimal places as a kind of displacement activity before writing some of the most beautiful mythic prose any human being has ever composed. Williams is similarly doodling on the page, trying to get a head of steam up before working on his story. But his ideas barely impact on the actual TV show.

The memo keeps dissolving into gibberish. Elisabeth Sandifer memorably called it the most spectacularly incoherent thing she had ever read. There are three forces in physics, right? Gravity, electromagnetism, nuclear? And some theories require there to be a fourth force, which might be space-time? And humans can control gravity and electromagnetism? So maybe the Time Lords control the fourth force? 

Come on. It was 1978. Of course it was going to involve the Force.

But the Time Lords are corrupt, right? So mustn't there necessarily be a power that is as far above the Time Lords as the Time Lords are above us humans? But the higher force can't be purely good; because then the universe would be good, which it obviously isn't. So there must be two higher forces; a good one and an evil one.

Voila: the Black and White Guardian Show.

"Eternity and Infinity, as concepts, do not by their very nature, allow for an absolute Authority -- the Pyramidical Hierarchy stretches through time and space and can have no apex... But the next step is logical. The balance must be kept by someone..."

If "must" is a moral imperative ("you must be home by tea-time") then this doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Who or what made the rule that there "must" be a balance? But if it's an inductive "must" ("he must have been home by tea-time because the kitchen light was on") I think we can see what Williams is driving at. If Time and Space are infinite there can't be any supreme being. A pyramid with infinitely long sides never comes to a point. If the Time Lords are above the humans and the Guardians are above the Time Lords, there must be Something Else above the Guardians, and Something Else above the Something Else. It's turtles all the way down. (Williams literally quotes Jonathan Swift's poem about fleas.) But if the next in line above the Time Lords were good then we'd expect goodness to be running the whole show: which obviously it isn't. So it follows that there "must" be both a good and an evil force, in some kind of balance.

It's the old, old question. If the supreme being is good, then how do you account for the existence of haemorrhoids and Sir Kier Starmer?

There is some pretty weird moral philosophy in the memo:

"Must responsibility and objectivity lie solely in the hands of the good influence? Demonstrably not so. Of our recent history there is no account nor any evidence that Hitler believed his principles less sincerely than Churchill believed in his. Where were Nuremburg, had Hitler won."

This is monstrously confused -- we're looking over Williams' shoulder as he vomits ideas into a notebook. But I think we can see the thought he is trying to have. He's contrasting a monotheist universe in which good is good and all alone and ever more shall be so with a dualist world where good and evil are two equal and opposed forces.

In a strictly dualist universe there is no particular reason why you ought to choose to be good rather than evil. They are just two teams, like the Arsenal and the Spurs. Dungeons & Dragons conceptualises "good" and "evil" as antagonistic clubs you choose to join, not meaningful descriptions of codes of conduct or ways of life."You ought to follow the light rather than the dark" implies that there is a third force, over and above the light side and the dark side that approves the Jedi and deprecates the Sith. That's why orthodox Christians have always been very clear that Satan is not an evil god; he's merely a very naughty angel. I believe that even so-called dualistic systems like Zorastrianism and Manicheism say, under their breath and off mic, that the good force came first and will beat the bad one in the end. You ought to back the winner.

What Williams appears to be blurting out is that Hitler believed himself to be good and the allies to be evil and that there is no absolute perspective from which one can say that he is wrong. Cosmically speaking, murdering six million Jews and not murdering six million Jews are equally neutral acts. It's a fortunate quirk of history that we happen to have been educated on the non-genocidal side of the line.

But "Hitler thought that doing evil was good, so maybe doing good is evil" is not meaningful or helpful, even as a thought experiment. The relevant insight would have to be something like "Suppose you honestly thought that monstrous aliens dedicated to the destruction of humanity were dispersed through your population: might genocide be one of the solutions which would occur even to a good person?" We stopped executing witches, not because we changed our mind about executions, but because we stopped believing in witchcraft.

But that's exactly the kind of thinking which the Doctor rejects. There would be a contradiction in wiping out the whole Dalek species because the Daleks are genocidal monsters. The Daleks are bad and if the Doctor acts as they do he would be as bad as them.

The second half of the Williams memo attempts to connect all this back to Doctor Who. It proposes that the President of the Time Lords is told about the higher authority when he assumes office. (The Doctor must therefore have learned about them in Invasion of Time -- or would have done if he had not had his memory erased at the end of the story.) The two Guardians are representatives of the Higher Power within the Cluster -- the section of the universe the Time Lords are in charge of. The Key to Time is a neutral source of power for both the White and the Black Guardians. In Williams' original conception, the Black Guardian has already stolen the Key and scattered it through Time and Space; the Universe is already descending into chaos. He seems to entertain the thought that the Doctor has always been resisting the chaos and his enemies have always been agents of the Black Guardian. He wonders if perhaps Time Lords are periodically promoted to being Guardians, and that the Doctor might be rewarded for completing the quest by being offered the chance to level up.

But none of this makes its way into the actual episodes. Neither does the attractive idea of a magic candle which burns dimmer and dimmer as the Black Guardian's power waxes. And Williams philosophical doodle entirely fails to answer the big question. How will a season of Doctor Who in which the Doctor is searching for the six segments of the Key to Time be distinguishable from a season in which he isn't?

In this respect, Douglas Adams' notes are a lot more interesting; albeit only as a counterfactual -- a brief premonition of a more interesting Key to Time which might have existed, but never did. Adams isn't interested in higher powers, moral relativism, or infinitely large pyramids. He's truthfully not that interested in Doctor Who. He's interested in scripts. The producer has determined that the Doctor is going to spend Season 16 collecting party favours for a cosmic scavenger hunt: so how can a writer use that idea to generate some interesting TV?

Adams zeroes in on one crucial fact. Each of the segments is disguised as a random object. So in each story, one object must be of exceptional significance. The important thing is to think of interesting and surprising objects and to think of interesting and surprising reasons why some character might want to stop the Doctor getting his hands on them.

"The problem in each case is that the object plays some significant role in the life of the planet on which it is located, either for good or evil, and the Doctor has to consider how its removal will affect life on [that planet]."

Being Douglas Adams, he tries to think of far-fetched and ridiculous things for the segments to be disguised as. The Moon and the Sun. Stonehenge. A person: Romana, maybe, or even the Doctor himself. Imagine a story in which the Doctor arrived in a future London and was required to ask the King (recognisably descended from Prince Charles) if he could please remove Buckingham Palace because he needed it to save the universe.

Adams was finishing up the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy at the same time he was working on what became the Pirate Planet and there is a certain familial wackiness between the two stories. What if the second segment turned out to be, er, Africa? What if the Doctor already knew this, and had the original continent in storage in his infinitely large TARDIS?

Adams' essay is not always very easy to follow. His mind worked very quickly but didn't stay in one place for long. But it is the idea of disguise which seems to fascinate him. He envisages characters being mistaken, or directly lying, about which object will turn out to be that episode's plot coupon. Maybe the Doctor pretends that he has found the segment to impress Romana? Maybe he lies about what the segment is to give him a pretext to take away some alien object he wants to possess for some unfathomable reason of his own? Maybe the segment is a weapon and the Doctor has to make a morally ambiguous pact with a supervillain to get his hands on it?

Williams' introduction of the tracer/core in Episode One pretty much closes off most of these interesting avenues: the Doctor has an infallible wand that flashes "this way to the plot" at the beginning of each episode. (Several times, the Doctor loses the tracer, but that simply turns the McGuffin detector into a temporary McGuffin.)

The memo may contain the germ of what became the Armageddon Factor. But very few of Adams' ideas ever see the light of day. It is hard to avoid the feeling that in many of the Key to Time stories, the quest was being retrofitted into stories which would have worked perfectly well without it.

Four seasons ago, the Doctor was sent on a quest: not by the Guardians but by the Time Lords. The TARDIS could, I suppose, have randomly dumped him on Skaro at the precise moment when Davros was about to activate his new range of outer space robot people. And the Doctor might have decided that this provided him with an opportunity to abort his enemy at the moment of their conception. And he might even have had moral qualms at the last minute. But that would have all been a bit of a stretch even by Doctor Who standards. The prologue to Genesis of the Daleks justifies the contrivance; and sets up the moral dilemma in the final episode. The Doctor questions whether he ought (that word again) to destroy the Daleks even though the Time Lords have told him to.

And that's the question that neither Williams nor Adams successfully answers. What narrative effect will the Guardian's sending the Doctor on a cosmic treasure hunt have on the six stories that make up Season 16?