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.
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16
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.
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16
The Graham Williams universe seems to consist of planets that resemble the home counties populated by peoples who adhere to Terran middle-class etiquette. This is endearing and reassuring in one sense, perfectly fitting for the then tea time slot of the programme, and contrasts fantastically with disbelief-suspended extraterrestrial settings. It can stretch ones sense of belief to the extremes however think of Drax and his cockney lingo picked up from his days of dodgy dealing in Londons East End and his true identity as a Timelord trapped on another planet in The Armageddon Factor. No less incongruously, The Ribos Operation pits the Doctor against the cajoling machinations of Garron, an interplanetary con-merchant who explains in one scene how he had almost succeeded in selling the Sydney Opera House to an alien speculator. Garron, evidently incredulous to the Doctors well-travelled presence, particularly regarding Earth, impersonates a town crier at the beginning of this story which the itinerant Gallifreyan immediately recognises as a Somerset accent. Here then, at the very beginning of a story and of a season, the uncompromisingly parochial Williams micro-cosmos asserts itself substantially for the first time. One might even say it does so earlier in the opening scene when the Doctor irritably confronts the White Guardian who is dressed in colonial attire, replete with sun-hat, and seated in a cane chair in dire need of a veranda.
Then there is the setting of the planet Ribos: an extrapolation of 19th century Tsarist Russia complete with crown jewels, snow flurries and ushankas. The incoming companion Romana too has a faintly Russian-sounding name in full (sorry, cant remember the spelling) and is wearing a Zhivago-esque white fur-collared outfit missing its own ushanka. The Russo-evocative setting is amplified too by suitably sombre organ music emphasising the gloomy wintriness of a planet steeped in backward tradition so much so that its inhabitants are completely ignorant of life on other planets and that aliens are mingling casually among them. This planetary obliviousness is exploited to the full by Garron and his indeterminately aged, monkey-faced sidekick Unstoffe: together they attempt to manipulate the battle-weary Graff Vynda-K into buying Ribos from them for his new base where he might regroup his forces for a last stand against those who have usurped his Levithian crown. Garron and Unstoffe plant a lump of the adamantine Jethrik on Ribos in order to deceive the Graff into thinking the planet is rich in this, the most valuable mineral in the galaxy. Garron also claims the Ribans (note here how Holmes expertly avoids the semantic ease of calling the inhabitants Ribosians or even Ribons, instead opting for the slightly lateral variation of Ribans) are ignorant of Jethriks properties, not to mention reputation, and through a laboured elaboration improvised by a disguised Unstoffe, further lead the Graff to believe that the Ribans refer to the mineral as Scringestone, possession of which ensures youll never get the scringes again (Unstoffe). Though it is true the Ribans are unaware of the minerals true value.
But the honest-faced Unstoffe is later morally redeemed when his conscience is awoken to the ironic plight of the vagrant known as Binro the Heretic: his gift to this misunderstood genius who was persecuted for his theory of life on other planets is to tell him that he himself is from one of those distant stars a truly moving scene. Equally emotive and harrowing is the Graffs ultimate lapse into delusional paranoia on realising he has yet again been strategically out-manoeuvred by a typical Holmesian capitalist (also see the Collector in The Sunmakers, Rohm Dutt in The Power of Kroll and so on).
Otherwise The Ribos Operation is a fairly comical tale and one of the most uniquely static stories in the shows cannon: there is virtually no action throughout the story and its impetus is almost entirely in the exceptionally colourful, detailed and lively dialogue between the writers proverbially caricature-style protagonists.
Detail is the word which springs to mind in summing up the strengths of The Ribos Operation strengths which far outweigh its situational inertia and suspension of disbelief. Typical of Holmess imaginative genius, he teases us with hints of a planet with a rich history and geographical variation; more specifically in this case, he has the characters making geographically specific comments like Are you from the North? (to the Doctor); this is also to my mind the second and last time since The Keys of Marinus that a script has detailed an alien planet to such an extent that the concept of countries has surfaced: the events of this story are in the often-mentioned country of Shir (not sure about the spelling). Not since The Talons of Weng-Chiang with its allusions to an Icelandic Alliance, the Phillipeno Armys final advance against Rejyavik, and the Peking Homunculus, has Holmes so vividly evoked a fictitious backdrop to his stories.
The Ribos Operation is not a classic Doctor Who story in the traditionally recognised sense it lacks sufficient drama for a start. But it is a classic of its kind, that kind being of the dialogue-driven, stage-play style Doctor Who, an infectious medium in which the mind is gradually immersed in a trance of perfect escapism: a fictional scenario which feeds the intellect and puts all mundane preoccupations to sleep for a deeply rejuvenative period. And most of all, as previously mentioned, this story typifies Holmess gift at tantalising the imagination with half-sketched details never fully substantiated, which echoes of Hemingways theory of omission: that which is unstated strengthens the story and makes people feel something more than they have understood. This stimulating of the imagination was one of the vital functions series such as Doctor Who exemplified.
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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!
Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 16
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...
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