After the rather uneven Season Fifteen, 'The Ribos Operation' signals the beginning of Graham Williams successful attempt to imbue Doctor Who with his own distinctive style. This is perhaps most obvious in the fact that the story introduces the quest for the Key to Time, a story arc encompassing the entire season, and an idea hitherto unexplored in the series. In addition, it signifies the move towards more humorous stories tenuously explored in 'The Sun Makers' and to a lesser extent in 'The Invasion of Time'. 'The Ribos Operation' works very well in this respect, combining a witty and engaging script, an increasingly eccentric performance from Tom Baker, and some superb supporting characters.
The opening scene of 'The Ribos Operation' introduces the Key to Time storyline, and immediately sets the tone of the rest of the story and much of the remainder of the Season. Depicting near-omnipotent beings in science fiction presents difficulties, for two simple reasons. Firstly, any really powerful being should be able to do anything it wants and attempts to limit this in a plausible manner can be woefully unconvincing. Secondly, actually depicting a being of enormous power can often be challenging, especially if there are budgetary constraints, which of course there always are in Doctor Who; Kronos is a perfect example of how cheap and nasty demigods can look if poorly handled by the production team. Here, these problems are overcome by having the White Guardian simply decide to recruit the Doctor to locate the six segments of the Key to Time on his behalf, and the second is overcome by presenting the Guardian as an elderly gentleman in a wicker chair sipping from a wine glass. The Guardian's power is hinted at in subtle but effective ways; firstly, he seemingly stops the TARDIS in mid-flight with consummate ease, and perhaps more impressively, the Doctor is obviously slightly overawed by him. We have seen the Doctor sent on missions before, usually by the Time Lords; the Third Doctor was prone to indignation, whereas the Fourth has previously been shown to sulk automatically. Here, the Doctor carefully explores the possibility of refusing, before quietly agreeing, and it is rather unusual to here him call anybody "sir" without sounding sarcastic. It is a whimsical scene which nicely sets up the linking theme of Season Sixteen, and also starts to introduce the humour that will characterize the remainder of the story, as the Doctor asks what will happen to him if he refuses and the White Guardian happily replies "Nothing
nothing at all. Ever". Cyril Luckham is perfectly cast in the role of what could be argued is Doctor Who's nearest equivalent to God, radiating quite dignity and authority.
Once the Doctor returns to the TARDIS, the humour really starts to escalate with the introduction of new companion Romanadvoratrelundar. For the first time in a considerable while, the Doctor is suddenly saddled with a new companion whom he neither invites to join him nor has time to get to know first, and his open resentment is highly entertaining. Of course, it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective if it were not for the fact that the haughty Romana, played with the perfect amount of aloofness by Mary Tamm, is also obviously distinctly unimpressed with the notorious Doctor. From the moment they meet they bicker constantly, the Doctor patronizingly announcing to the inexperienced and somewhat naïve Romana that "I'd like you to stay out of my way as much as possible and try not to get into trouble
I don't suppose you can make tea?" in addition to which, he pokes fun at her convoluted name ("I'm sorry about that, is there anything we can do?") and insists on abbreviating it whether she likes it or not. In return, Romana belittles the Doctor, smugly reminding him of his unimpressive grades at the Academy and psychoanalyzing him in the most casually insulting manner possible after first telling him that before she met him she was willing to be impressed. This mutual antagonism reaches a climax early on with the Doctor furiously telling her "You aren't going back to Gallifrey, not for a very long time I regret to say", after which the two settle down into mutual bickering. The Doctor generally scores better, deriding her lack of experience of nearly getting killed for example, but Romana gets plenty of opportunities to rib him return, especially when he condescendingly sets rules for their relationship before blundering embarrassingly into a net.
Over the course of the story, they do begin to develop a certain mutual respect, especially after Romana's reassessment of him when he can pinpoint the coordinates indicated by the tracer off the top of his head, but nobody need fear that their budding friendship becomes too cozy too early on; at the end of Episode Four, Romana grudgingly confesses that the Doctor's switching of the Graff's thermite pack for the jethrik is "quite clever", to which the Doctor blisteringly responds "I do so hate faint praise
it was astoundingly clever". It could be argued that this move towards self-aggrandising egocentricity on the Doctor's part does not show the character at his best, but the fact remains that I find it enormously entertaining. As a consequence of Romana's introduction, K9 gets relatively little to do here, but he gets to make up for this in subsequent stories and he does make himself useful in the last two episodes. His recasting as K9 Mark II has very little impact in story terms, but does have the advantage that he's a lot less bloody noisy when he's on the move
Inevitably, with Tom Baker playing the Doctor in an increasingly eccentric, bombastic fashion, the character starts to dominate the series even more than usual. Consequently, it is important to have supporting characters who can compete with the Doctor and a guest cast that can realize this. Holmes is a master of characterisation, and provides another memorable "double act" in the shape of Unstoffe and Garron. Nigel Plaskitt's Unstoffe works well as a foil for his companion, and also acts to a degree as the conscience of the pair, genuinely touched by the effect he has on Binro and also berating Garron for stealing the tracer from Romana, thus leaving her lost in the catacombs. He also gets an amusing scene in which he adopts and outrageous west country accent and blathers on at length about "scringe stone", to Garron's obvious alarm. However, it is Iain Cuthbertson's Garron who nearly steals the show, competing with the Doctor for the story's best lines, including "who wants everything? I'll settle for ninety percent" and, in reference to dying, "I've always said it's the last thing I want to do". Cuthbertson plays the part with relish, effortlessly switching between Garron's normal gruff tones and his far plumier vernacular when trying to con the Graff. In addition, they're both thoroughly likeable despite their criminal tendencies, and its interesting watching the Doctor and Garron together, as they seem to get on so well.
With Garron and Unstoffe both cast as loveable rogues, it falls to Paul Seed's Graff Vynda-K to provide the story's villain. Whereas Holmes creations such as Magnus Greel, Sharaz Jek and of course, the Master, are well remembered, the Graff seems to be overlooked, which is a shame as he's another well thought out character. The Graff is utterly unlikable, a ruthless, cruel tyrant deposed by his people and brimming with murderous rage, and Seed plays the part with impressive emotion, the Graff seeming always on the verge of erupting into explosive anger. The Graff is also well motivated, his deposed status and overwhelming desire to reclaim his throne an entirely credible background. Further depth is added to his character by his loyalty to devoted henchman Sholakh (played with casual menace by Robert Keegan), an unusual trait for a Holmes villain. So great is the Graff's grief when Sholakh is killed that in his last scenes before his own death, the sounds of battles long past echo through his head to reflect his anguish. It is an memorable moment and one which Seed again plays very convincingly.
I pointed out back when I reviewed 'Carnival of Monsters' that it is very difficult to create any sense of depth in a fictional society in Doctor Who, where time is always a constraint. Holmes rises well to this challenge in 'The Ribos Operation', creating a broader sense of Riban and galactic history through throwaway references to settlements in the North, Riban traditions, the Cyrrhenic Alliance, and some of the Graff's past campaigns. By far the most impressive example of this however, is represented by Binro, who is both a marvellous character in his own right and also a means of exploring Riban society by drawing parallels with human history. Branded a heretic and scorned by his people for suggesting that the stars in the Riban sky are not ice crystals but other suns, and that Ribos moves around its own sun, Binro is clearly inspired by Galileo, whose revolutionary ideas led to his persecution by the Catholic Church. This immediately tells the viewer about Riban culture, which is still rooted in superstition, and Garron, who tells the Graff that the Ribans have not yet developed the telescope and that they believe their world to be flat, further elaborates on this. This therefore provides background to Riban society in a simple but effective way. On a more character driven level, Binro is an engaging character persecuted and ridiculed by his own people who eventually gives his life trying to save Unstoffe, the man who revealed to him that he was right all the time. Having lived a harsh and tragic life, Binro is thus able to find peace before he dies, and it makes for a touching subplot.
In terms of its production, 'The Ribos Operation' looks rather good. It is entirely studio bound but looks far more impressive than the last three stories of the previous season, which regardless of their other merits or lack thereof, looked decidedly cheap. The costumes and sets all look rather lavish and the only weak point is the Shrivenzale, which director George Spenton-Foster manages to keep largely off camera. My only other criticism of 'The Ribos Operation' is the Seeker, a character that looks thoroughly ridiculous and is played in a cringe-worthy fashion by Ann Tirard. Having said that, her character adds an interesting twist to Binro's subplot; with Binro's "heresy" a nod to the dichotomy between science and superstition, it is interesting that Holmes includes a character whose ability to track fugitives is given no scientific basis and seems to rely purely on some kind of divining with old bones. This isn't explored any further, but it's an odd juxtaposition.
In summary then, 'The Ribos Operation' is an excellent, if underrated, story and a fine start to the Key to Time season.