The Ribos Operation was the opening story of the sixteenth season and saw very much a final break in style and tone with the previous Tom Baker years. There has been plenty of comment about the humorous style of the latter Baker years, most of it misplaced. The humour here is as subtle and as clever as the gothic content of the Hinchcliffe years. The addition of the humour works. Season 16 as a whole works as does, for that matter, season 17.
The season was given a running theme, a story arc, which has since been replicated but never equalled. Namely the search for the Key To Time.
The main drivers for this story are the relationships between the six main characters. Firstly there is the Graff Vynda-K and his trusty sidekick, Sholakh. These are two battle hardened veterans. From the looks of Sholakh he spent all the battles in the front line and from the looks of the Graff he spent those battles as far removed from the front line as Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. The Graff is a man who is bitter and has been deposed, he is driven by revenge and the desire to reclaim the Levithian crown. Sholakh, being a career soldier knows little else. His loyalty is wholehearted to the Graff. Theirs is a relationship borne in adversity.
Another relationship borne in adversity, albeit of a different kind, is that of Garron and Unstoffe. Garron is played with a larger than life panache by veteran screen actor Iain Cuthbertson, best remembered by me in the wonderful Children of the Stones. His put upon sidekick is played by Nigel Plaskitt and actor whose two main claims to fame are being the voice of a hare on a childrens TV show and being "Malcolm" in the Vicks adverts for blocked noses in the seventies. Chosen career criminals, and portrayed as lovable rogues (Gawd bless em, they never armed anyone apart from their own) they have gone from planet to planet conning people out of their hard earned (or otherwise) goods and money. Constantly with an eye over their shoulder for the Police being on the run has forged a bond between them although I doubt either trusts each other.
The final key relationship is the Doctor and Romana. Romana is a very different companion to any we have seen before. An equal to the Doctor, not in awe of him and very very aloof. A Time Lady version of Margot from the Good Life with The Doctor playing Tom to her Margot.
Romana will lose, as the series evolves, she lost her aloof edge as she realised what was out there in the big old universe. However in this story Romana is at her most superior and there is some sparkling dialogue between her and the Doctor throughout the story. The Doctors annoyance at her putting a hole in the console to fit the tracer was wonderful, as was her smug superiority at the Doctor getting caught in one of the nets on the outskirts of the city.
In fact the dialogue is the best thing about this whole story. It fairly sparkles. Next to the dialogue is the superb characterisation of the main characters. The characterisation, and the motivation, of the characters is very well defined.
So the basic premise of the story, Garron and Unstoffe are trying to sell the planet Ribos to the Graff Vynda-K. They plant some documents to make it look like there are valuable mineral reserves on Ribos. The Doctor and Romana turn up and throw a spanner in the works. The story keeps going at a fairly reasonable pace, there are some interesting natives especially the seeker and, of course, Binro the Heretic played by Timothy Bateson, a man who has made his name in sitcoms as "middle class neighbour" or "Bank Manager" gives a truly sympathetic performance as a man who thinks the world is not flat and the planet revolves around its own sun in contravention of the thinking of the day. The interchanges between him and Unstoffe, hiding in the Catacombs, where Unstoffe reveals to him that he is right all along and one day people on Ribos will know he was right were truly moving. Worth a life !
Thank You Robert Holmes, for yet another superb story.