I've decided that the Graham Williams era is like Steve Cole's. Both had to follow a highly esteemed run of Doctor Who but without one factor that had been fundamental to their predecessors' success (respectively horror and editorial competence). The Hinchcliffe and Virgin eras had brilliant clarity about what they were doing, while the Williams and Cole eras were perforce more experimental. I don't want to push this analogy too far because it's not a perfect fit, but The Ribos Operation is a story that I can't quite imagine under Hinchcliffe. The irony is that it's written by Robert Holmes, but even so this is a 1970s Doctor Who story with no alien threat to destroy us all. It's arguably an SF historical, but even that's an unsatisfactory description. The plot isn't driven by the villain (the Graff Vynda-K) but by two crooks (Garron and Unstoffe). It's a caper movie. Who will get away with the loot? Can our heroes fleece the bad guy? Note that for once even the Doctor's motivation is simply to get his hands on a valuable crystal.
It's different. It's smaller-scale than Hinchcliffe's epics, with character-driven suspense and danger that's nothing to do with monsters. Tom Baker's stories set in Earth's past were all emphatically pseudo-historicals. What's more, it's a "historical in space" in more than one sense. There's the backward medieval world of Ribos, a trick which Harry Harrison is fond of but has been mysteriously underused in Doctor Who. Even if the story hadn't worked, it would still be fascinating.
I suspect that the scripts appealed to Tom Baker, who gives one of his best performances. He's actually acting! He was dreadful in Face of Evil, doing his usual schtick without reacting to the specific situation around him, but here he's magnificent. He creates several relationships that we hadn't seen before, which are also all hilarious in different ways. With the White Guardian he's a schoolboy. With Romana he's prickly and affronted, his appalled reaction amusingly mirroring Tom Baker's real feelings about sharing screen time with a companion. It's fascinating that he gets on so well with Garron, though. They love each other, though they don't trust each other an inch and the Doctor's not above intimidating him. "I'm asking you, Garron."
There's some wonderful guest acting, though also some that's less so. The big roles are fantastic. I could watch the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh all day, who never give even a millisecond that isn't utterly real. On the other hand Iain Cuthbertson's Garron is delicious in another way, playing it broad in a way that augments instead of detracting from the character. There was too much overacting under Graham Williams, much of it painful. Binro the Heretic is pushing hard at those limits, though he's still a great character. Similarly Nigel Plaskitt loses it a little as Unstoffe in part four. If you've been going for broad comedy, it can be hard to switch gear and play sincerity in the same breath. Sadly I don't quite buy Unstoffe's scenes where he becomes a nice guy who genuinely cares about Binro. I even started wondering if this was another con, somewhere around the "this was going to be our last job" speech, but my theory had to go when Unstoffe kept up the act even after Binro was gone.
Similarly most of the production is great. Everything about Ribos is to die for, with the seedy grandeur of its Russian look. I love the snow, the candlelit crypt and even the church organ music. However the Shrivenzale is horrendous, another classic from the Year Of The Crap Monsters. It's not so bad when it's on the move in part four, but watching this I couldn't understand how people bash the rat in Talons or the magma beast in Caves of Androzani. It's so bad that I bet it's what sabotaged part one's cliffhanger, which makes perfect sense in the script but somehow fell apart when they got it into the studio. Although having said that, there's something off about part two's cliffhanger too.
I haven't yet showered enough praise on the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh, though. Sharaz Jek, even Caven in The Space Pirates... does Robert Holmes get enough recognition for his psychos? How many others in Doctor Who even bear comparison? The Graff is terrifying, a totally humourless psychopath, but his second-in-command also couldn't be better. I love his scarred face. It's vital in caper movies for the audience to be rooting for the crooks and conmen, for which you need their targets to be despicable. You need the mark to deserve everything he gets... and boy oh boy, the Graff certainly does.
They're the epitome of the Holmesian double-act, incidentally, and not even the only example on show. I have no affection for all those phrases which got fossilised in fandom's consciousness because Doctor Who Monthly used to say them, but here unfortunately I've no choice. Garron & Unstoffe, the Graff Vynda-K & Sholakh... they're Holmesian double-acts. They're definitive. Frankly that would still be the case even if Robert Holmes had never written another Doctor Who story.
We get another look at Holmes's fondness for dodgy operators. Others include Carnival of Monsters and The Mysterious Planet, which incidentally has a lot in common with this story. Garron and Unstoffe even get a happy ending, although that double switcheroo provides the perfect ending. Even that Key to Time nonsense lets Tom close the show with "Only five more to go" (translation: "Let's kick some arse"). It's a blatantly ridiculous macguffin, of course. One could perhaps speculate about the significance of the line, "Such a moment is rapidly approaching", given that we're 'twixt Genesis and Destiny of the Daleks? Note that the White Guardian is carrying out precisely the kind of Protector of the Universe role which the novels assigned to the Time Lords despite their complete failure to do so on TV. Here the Guardians are the guardians, admittedly having some kind of relationship with the Time Lords but mostly seen as mythical demigods.
Oh, and Romana describes an "honest open face." It's the 5th Doctor! Episode three was where I decided that I really liked this story. That's where the story expands, giving us a deeper view of Ribos, with the catacombs, the Seeker, Binro the Heretic, etc. It's a scary world. It's curious that there's absolutely no explanation for the Seeker's powers. One might have expected Ribos to be portrayed as a world of superstitious idiots about whom the offworlders can run rings, but Robert Holmes rejected that option and went instead for something more compelling and mysterious.
Overall, an underrated gem. All the most interesting 1970s stories were written by Robert Holmes and for my money The Ribos Operation tops the list. Of course "most interesting" doesn't necessarily mean "best". There's a reason why production teams tended to stick to their successful formulae. Nevertheless The Ribos Operation is a lovely little caper that deserves far more attention than it gets. Maybe it's overlooked because of Ian Marter's somewhat impenetrable novelisation? I never could get into that one...