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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Ribos Operation originally aired in 1978. It was the first part of The Key to Time saga.

Your name!

What about my name?

It’s too long… by the time I’ve called out “Look out Romanadv…” – what’s your name again?


By the time I’ve called that out you could be dead! I’ll call you Romana.

I don’t like Romana!

It’s either Romana or Fred!

All right, call me Fred!

Good! Come along Romana!

The Key to Time was a rather ambitious project for the time – the idea being that an entire series of the show would centre around one core arc, suggested in the first story, developed through the rest of the season, and tied up at the end of the year. It helps, when you’re doing something like that, to have an experienced hand at the reins. While The Ribos Operation doesn’t stand as Robert Holmes’ finest contribution to the series, it’s a suitable introduction to the adventure.

Time Lord and Lady...

In practice, the only real impact of the whole gigantic story arc was that the Doctor ended each adventure with one of six pieces of a cosmic macguffin. That said, you could make certain comparisons to the way Russell T. Davies seeded arcs during his time on the show. However, I think that this linked bunch of serials serves much better as a transition point between the earlier (and gothic) adventures of Tom Baker’s Doctor and the subsequent high-concept science-fiction we’d see in his later years. While producer Graham Williams had been in charge of the show for about a year at this stage, there was a strange ebbing of the gothic era and what seemed like an attempt to put everything in order. So The Key to Time really feels like the first big attempt by Williams and his team (notably script editor Douglas Adams) to put their distinctive mark on the series.

What’s remarkable about this era of the show is the fact that there are relatively few historicals, with the series instead focusing on outer space and alien (and future) cultures. Whether this is an improvement or a step down in quality depends entirely on the viewer’s personal preference. Personally, I do love some of the rather wonderful high concepts that the show’s sci-fi allows for, even if I will concede that some of the show’s most wonderful production design was developed the historical episodes (it helps that the BBC is very good at cost-effective period drama).

A bit lighter than what came before...

Robert Holmes’ story however, involving two con men and a deposed interstellar despot, doesn’t dwell too much on the science-fiction aspects. It could have been told as a historical adventure with only relatively minor alterations, to be entirely honest. There are lasers and ray guns, and talk of alien civilisations, but the feeling is more one of light fantasy than science-fiction. Which, to be honest, is grand. Douglas Adams would cram enough wonderful sci-fi ideas to The Pirate Planet to last a whole season (which is, I think, its biggest flaw). Instead, Holmes draws on all manner of human history (notably a heavy Russian influence and an alien version of the Galileo story) in order to create a world that feels remarkably fully formed.

In fairness, The Ribos Operation begins as a relatively light-hearted adventure with some nice ideas. I love the idea of a deposed monarch buying a small world (and its inhabitants), in the same way that a feudal lord might have purchased an estate. With two con men playing a long game, hoping to trick their mark out a rather significant amount money, the story begins as something of a relatively whimsical comedy, with guest star Iain Cuthbertson having a great time. When Baker and Cuthbertson get together, it’s worth the price of admission alone.

We'll see about that!

It’s funny, then, how the serial transforms into something altogether more menacing in its second half, as it becomes abundantly clear that the two interstellar conmen may have picked the wrong target for their scheme. Paul Seed does a wonderful job in the role of The Graff, transforming from a seemingly noble man of high standing to a vindictive and homicidal dictator over the course of four episodes. Holmes’ script is very cleverly constructed, revealing the nature of the Graff gradually, treating us to his slightly sympathetic version of events early on, treating him as a prince unjustly exiled, before Garron makes it clear he was nothing more than a war criminal.

Looking back, it’s interesting how the serial seems to serve as something of an high-level sketch of the years to come. Mirroring the later Tom Baker seasons, it starts of as something of a farce with science-fiction overtones, before shifting into the type of bloodbath we’d see more frequently in the later Peter Davison and Colin Baker eras. The ending, a confrontation in a catacomb surrounded by the dead, seems genuinely bleak – and all the more powerful for coming after such wonderful comedy. This isn’t Holmes at the peak of his abilities, but it does demonstrate why so many consider him the best writer for the original series.

Night, knight!

There are some interesting moments to be enjoyed. I particularly like the way that Baker’s Doctor picks up on the fact Garron is human by virtue of his accent (“but he said it in a Somerset accent!”), especially since every alien on the show has a British accent of some description. I smiled at the bit were Garron described his young colleague as “a terrible ham at heart”, a hint of the honesty about the show itself. While we’re discussing the old tropes that Holmes toys with over the course of the episode, I also quite enjoy the fact that the Doctor overhears the Graff’s plan to execute them due to the fact his henchman (like so many villains in the show) has no in-door voice.

Aside from being an entertaining story in its own right, The Ribos Operationis also tasked with two very important tasks. The first is to introduce the quest that will drive the season, in a scene written by Graham Williams and Anthony Read. The sequence works quite well as translating the epic scale of the quest, in a wonderfully British fashion, with the White Guardian pulling the TARDIS out of flight to join him for afternoon tea. Of course, the fact the White Guardian can seemingly locate and bring the Doctor to him raises the question of why he can’t do the same for the Key to Time itself, but we’ll ignore such concerns.

The other-worldly Guardian...

The scenes hinge on Baker, who has to convince the audience that the Guardian, whose only abilities on display appear to be translocation and generating an eerie bright light, is truly a power beyond comprehension. And Baker, to his credit, does a wonderful job. Look at how he quivers, while the Guardian has to assure the Doctor, “You will come to no harm…” in order to get him to cooperate. There’s something unnerving about Baker’s Doctor, usually a self-appointed authority, timidly apologising for offending the Guardian with a “Very sorry, sir.” All of this adds up to give the quest a lot more weight than it perhaps deserves – since the plot seems like an after-thought inserted into six standard adventures.

The other major task assigned to the story is to introduce the Doctor’s new companion. There’s something about the Doctor’s desire to strike out on his own that feels like Baker’s own thoughts on the series shining through, with the actor insisting he could carry the series on his own (being the first Doctor to have a companion-less serial in The Deadly Assassin). The Doctor insists, “On an assignment like this, I’d much rather work alone.” He seems genuinely resentful of another companion being forced upon him – and it’s worth noting that this companion was not chosen by the Doctor himself, but appointed by a higher authority on an unwilling Doctor, a fairly explicit commentary on the behind-the-scenes goings-on. It doesn’t matter that Tom Baker doesn’t want a co-star, the Doctor is getting a companion!

Grafting the Graff...

I like Romana as a companion. As I’ve noted before, I like the “outsider” companions like Leela or Turlough, who shift the dynamic in the TARDIS so that the Doctor is made to seem the more human of the pair, emphasising just how much the character has in common with (and just how much he loves) his adopted planet. I quite like that irony that the Doctor, a man who with two hearts who can travel the entire history of the cosmos, can seem perfectly human. It’s lovely to see the Doctor, for example, promising to take Leela to see the sights, or insisting Romana admire the ingenuity of humans. It’s a role that suits him well, and doesn’t get as much emphasis when he’s dealing with a standard human companion (against whom he’s portrayed as the outsider).

Romana makes for an interesting companion because it’s the first time that the Doctor is really surpassed in any way by a companion, even if it’s merely academically. It’s quite interesting, for example, to hear that the Doctor wasn’t an all-honours student, and was guilty of “scraping through with 51% at the second attempt.”Much like Moffat’s River Song, Romana serves to expose the Doctor as something of a blustering and bluffing boaster, who isn’t nearly as skilled at the art of time travel as he might try to convince his passengers – Romana herself having a better idea of how to fly his beloved TARDIS than he does.

Not quite (jelly) bean and gone...

It’s an interesting attempt to bridge the knowledge gap between the Doctor and his companion, to create a relationship that feels like it’s one of relative equality. Of course, the Doctor is still more worldly and aware of the way the universe works, in contrast to Romana’s relatively academic knowledge. For instance, Romana is unable to fathom that the two con men may be up to no good, insisting, “But he had such an honest face.” This prompts the Doctor to retort, “Romana, you can’t be a crook with a dishonest face, can you?” The relationship between the two seems far more mutually beneficial than most Doctor-companion relationships, even if Romana isn’t the most worldly of companions. I don’t think we’d see a relationship quite as nuanced and balanced as this until Tennant’s Doctor and Donna Noble in the relaunch (where she dared to stand on an equal moral footing as the Time Lord).

That said, Mary Tamm is absolutely terrible. She’s completely wooden in the role, and plays the character as this sort of stuck-up arrogant fool, without a hint of any interest in the journey or her companion. It’s nice to have a companion who doesn’t treat the Doctor as an unquestionable authority, but Tamm’s Romana doesn’t even seem that interested in him as a curiosity. Tamm’s performance seems as disengaged and disinterested as the character, which makes it hard to be too bothered about her. I much preferred Lalla Ward’s take on the character, which managed to balance the character’s rather academic background with some measure of curiosity, playing up the innocence and naivety rather than the clinical detachment. There are times throughout the season when I’ll wonder whether Tamm’s performance is the result of bad choices in playing the role, or simply the sign of a weak actress.

Piece of cake...

Still, I think that The Ribos Operation might be the strongest entry in The Key to Time, with Holmes playing with a variety of interesting ideas. In particular, I like the way he populates the story with the cosmic homeless, a variety of exiles and fugitives (Garron from Earth, the Graff from his homeworld, even the hermit), perhaps suggesting how Romana sees the Doctor, a refugee from his own people – a crazy old man with his TARDIS (or “a mad man with a box”). As an aside, I love how the Doctor kisses his TARDIS better after Romana “violates” it by poking a hole in it – if ever you wanted to dig into the pseudo-sexual connotations of the Doctor’s relationship with his mode of transport, this represents an even better place to start than The Doctor’s Wife.

The Ribos Operation isn’t the series at its very best, but it’s an entertaining little adventure, with a few thought-provoking observations thrown in. I think the rather sudden shift in tone at the half-way point does a lot to recommend it – the fact it foreshadows the next decade of the show arguably grants it a lot of retrospective depth. after all, this a serial that progress from the Doctor grabbing the Graff’s glove off him in order to slap him across the face to the Doctor’s relatively cold-blooded (and calmly executed) murder of the piece’s villain.

Planet of the hats, indeed...

Although this era of the show might seem outwardly brighter than some of the gothic horror that preceded it, there’s a certain darkness to be found at the heart of these stories. You just have to squint a little bit harder to see it.

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