Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between. But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. That’s lasted long enough that now I’m doing the same with my 51st birthday money.
(Daily Doctor Who #214)
The Ribos Operation
Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions: Mary Tamm as Romana and John Leeson as the Voice of K9.
Written by Robert Holmes. Directed by George Spenton-Foster
Format: 4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired: September 1978 (Episodes 1-4 of Season 15.)
A new companion, a new story focus the show. These things make The Ribos Operation pretty important to the show’s history, regardless of one’s opinion. This is the story that kicks off the whole Key to Time arc, and even if it wasn’t completely successful in the end, it’s working perfectly well here.
Robert Holmes is, fairly indisputably, the most celebrated writer of Doctor Who‘s classic era. He wrote more episodes than anyone else and created or co-created loads of important parts of the show’s history. However, he’s probably best known for his characters and dialogue. A big part of his storytelling style is the creation of various “double-acts”, where the plot is carried by pairs of characters moving through the ins and outs of the story, playing off of one another as they react to whatever is going on. Maybe this is most famously seen in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but The Ribos Operation is also a prime example.
Throughout the four episodes, we are treated to loads of fun verbal repartee between the con-men Garron and Unstoffe; between the despotic Graff Vynda-K and his general Sholakh; between Unstoffe and the pariah Binro; and of course between the Doctor and Romana.
These interactions are well played by the cast and keep the story consistently entertaining, giving all the characters a chance to be nicely developed. We know things are working when extended sequences with figures such as Unstoffe and Binro are emotionally engaging and feel just as important as anything else going on. Even a minor character like the Shrieve Captain feels like a real person.
All this character work helps to flesh out what is ultimately a small-scale story. The plot is really just about a couple of con men looking for a score, where the mark just happens to be a crazed warlord…and also there are some monsters lurking nearby. What gives it a grander scale is the whole Key to Time story that begins here. Really, this is what justifies the Doctor’s presence at all, and as such works as an effective mechanic to bring the TARDIS crew into the danger.
The White Guardian himself is both an interesting addition to the series’ mythology, and just a little bit…silly, with his “Southerly gentleman” appearance. In those days, before Star Trek holodecks and Q and so on, maybe it looked a little less cliched. I also enjoy the underlying menace in response to the Doctor’s question about what would happen to him if he does not volunteer: “Nothing at all…ever.”
The story arc is a handy way to introduce Romana into the Doctor’s life as a new companion She brings a fun new dynamic to the show, and is nicely distinct from either Leela or Sarah Jane before her.
Mary Tamm does a good job with the character, and plays off well with Tom Baker. Although she is saddled with an absurd sort of flowy robe for the whole time, and the gag of her psycho-analyzing the Doctor gets old pretty quick–I’m glad that didn’t become the character’s regular shtick.
Tom Baker and Mary Tamm (and John Leeson as K9) are joined in the story by a good guest cast. Iain Cuthbertson (Garron), Nigel Plaskitt (Unstoffe), Paul Seed (Graff Vynda-K), Robert Keegan (Sholakh), Timothy Bateson (Binro) and Prentis Hancock (the Captain) are all solid and colorful in their personalities, and help to carry the weight of the story well.