The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

The Quest for the Key to Time begins. Although there have been many longer "sagaesque" stories (Dalek Masterplan) or stories with sequels (Frontier In Space/Planet of the Daleks) or stories with significant through-themes ("The Guardian Trilogy" of Season 20) throughout the series, the Key to Time umbrella theme is still one of the most ambitious undertakings the show would ever indulged in. And, though there were some issues with how the whole season played out, it's definitely off to a good start in The Ribos Operation. 

First off, the whole introductory scene with the Doctor meeting the White Guardian was certainly dramatically poignant. Whilst, at the same time, not being overblown. Having seen "Enlightenment" first, it kind of threw me off to see him in such casual wear. Mind you, he does look a bit less silly in this outfit! Still, the TARDIS opening its door of its own accord while organ music piped away and white light blared in was very effective. Juxtaposing that with the Doctor speaking to an old man in a wicker chair was some great imagery. A well-directed sequence. 

The introduction of Romana was also great fun. She is certainly a very interesting and innovative companion (at least, at the beginning of the season. Mary Tamm's allegations about her just becoming "a screamer" after a while, is not entirely unfounded!). The bickering between them is quite amusing (mind you, I also liked the Sixth Doctor and Peri fighting so what do I know?!) and we get to learn some interesting things about the Doctor's past through their confrontation. The most interesting one being, of course, the fact that he only scraped by on his "Time Lord exams"!

So, everything is off to a crackling start. The foundations for the season are laid. Now it's time to embark on the quest for the first segment. How does the actual story stand up? 

Well, in the case of both "umbrella seasons" in Doctor Who, Robert Holmes was in charge of writing the first story. And that was a very sound decision. He shows excellent foresight in his plotting. Understanding that a sense of intensity needs to build up as the season progresses so he keeps the scale of his stories, for the most part, relatively small. Even the action is kept to a bare minimum. This is especially the case with Ribos. 

For the first two episodes of the story - we are, essentially, enjoying a sci-fi "caper" story. Almost a bit like watching a "Pink Panther" movie (City of Death would, of course, play this theme up even more). Which, to me, gives this yarn a great little "spin" to it. I hadn't really seen this sort of thing done in a sci-fi story before so I found it highly innovative. The sequences toward the end of episode two with Unstoffe and the Doctor dodging around each other were extremely entertaining. And it was highly creative on Holmes' part to work this sort of action into his tale. This is very memorable stuff, in my opinion. So much so, that it probably qualifies as one of my more favourite moments in this season.

I do have some mild complaints about the beginning of episode three. The Doctor goofing with the Graff is one of the few moments in this era where I do feel he's taking the farce element too far. He's hamming the goofiness up a bit too much here and it seems a tad unnecessary. 

My only other real complaint about this story is that the whole sequence where Binro explains how he was labelled a heretic tends to run on a bit. It might have been better if they had done a cutaway scene or two and gone back to it so that we heard his anecdotes in installments. Just to remove a bit of the "sag" that moment has. 

Other than those two bits, I have no real complaints about The Ribos Operation.

But I certainly have plenty of praise. I know lots of references have been made to the "Holmesian Double Act" formulae and that many feel the most endearing example of this is in Talons Of Weng-Chiang. But, personally, Garron and Unstoffe are my favourite double act. Not just because of some remarkably well-crafted dialogue, but also because of some great performances on the part of both the actors. Both together and apart - this duo shines magnificently. Particularly as Unstoffe's experiences with Binro cause him to develop a bit of a conscience. Again, fantastic characterisation on both the part of the writer and the performers (and, more than likely, the director too, while we're at it). 

The other thing that really "sticks out" in a positive way in this story is the use of K-9. To the best of my recollection, in any other story up until this one, he is either written out at the beginning, or adventures with the rest of the TARDIS crew throughout the story. It was neat to see him used this way. Only coming into the story halfway through it, when he's absolutely needed. It makes his rescue of the Doctor, Romana and Garron all the more poignant because of it. 

Altogether, Robert Holmes delivers a great little tale (as usual). By no means could we ever give it that "classic" label, of course. Mostly because, as I mentioned before, he seems to be purposely keeping the scale of the story small. But this an extremely solidly-written story, nonetheless, and it is followed up by some very solid production work. Even the outdoor shots with all the fake snow actually look pretty-gosh-darned decent!