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.