The Key to Time
The Ribos Operation
The Key to Time Part One
|Dates||Sept. 2, 1978 -
Sept. 23, 1978
With Tom Baker, Mary Tamm,
John Leeson as the voice of "K9".
Written by Robert Holmes. Script-edited by Anthony Read.
Directed by George Spenton-Foster. Produced by Graham Williams.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Romana encounter two swindlers trying to sell the planet Ribos to a deposed monarch.|
A Review by James Mansson 17/3/98
The Ribos Operation introduces both the Doctor?s quest to find the six segments of the Key to Time, and his new companion, Romana. There is plenty to like about this tale. The plot is a good one, with the Doctor and Romana becoming enmeshed in an attempt to swindle an exiled member of the nobility. There is a great deal of interesting background information worked into the story which gives the situation more depth than it might otherwise have.
The two con-men, Garron and Unstoffe, are an amusing duo; the sequence in which Unstoffe tries to show initiative by improvising the tale about the treasure map, much to Garron?s horror, is especially good. Their plan to sell a plan that isn?t theirs is breathtaking in its audacity. I also like the idea of Binro the Heretic, with its echoes of the persecution of enlightened thinkers on Earth during the middle ages. Indeed, the whole setting is very reminiscent of that period.
The Shrievenzales, it must be said, are hardly the most fearsome of Doctor Who monsters, while the Seeker is just plain silly. The other natives aren?t especially interesting, but then they aren?t really that important. Romana has a reasonable introduction to the series, but nothing more. However, these minor gripes aside, this is an enjoyable adventure.
Good Beginnings by Mike Morris 30/1/99
In many ways, Doctor Who is more stageplay than television, particularly in the sixties and seventies. The Ribos Operation takes this to extremes, taking Shakespearean concepts such as soliloquies and a primitive setting, and transplanting them into the Doctor Who formula. The result is a wonderful piece of storytelling that stands unique in Doctor Who's history.
The thing that makes this special is the characters. There's the double act of Garron and Unstoffe, counterpointed by the dastardly duo of the Graf Vynda K and Sholakh. Then there's Binro the Heretic (obviously based on Galileo), the beautifully underplayed White Guardian, and the initial interplay between the Doctor and Romana.
The plot revolves around a massive confidence trick being played by Garron and Unstoffe on the Graf Vynda K. As the Doctor and Romana become involved, all these characters develop. Binro finds out that his theories about planetary movement were correct (the best moment of human drama in Doctor Who), Sholakh the soldier meets a soldiers end, the Graf Vynda K becomes unhinged - his final soliloquy ("so many battles... but over now!") is another great moment. Unstoffe's underlying nature surfaces in his fury at Binro's death, and even Garron shows bravery in his defiance of the Graf Vynda K at gunpoint.
Great characters. Great drama. Great Doctor Who. This is something very special.
A Review by Dr. Terry Evil 3/4/99
A lot of people rightly assert that Robert Holmes was the best writer Doctor Who ever had. But a lot of people also criticise his Key to Time opener The Ribos Operation, even going so far as to enter it into Top Ten worst lists and comparing it unfavourable with other Holmes classics. "Huh, it's not like Talons or The Deadly Assassin. It's just silly."
Of course, but as usual with humour, it uncovers a whole load of deeper emotions. With the introduction of Romana, the character of the Doctor undergoes the most radical (and IMO enjoyable) change in the show's history. Suddenly, he is no longer the deeply moralistic know-it-all we all respect, but a petty and jealous inferior. But this is the Doctor, and while he is willing to concede all those intellectual points to his gifted 'assistant', he calmly and modestly champions the value of nous and improvisation (being the last man standing in the catacombs and out-tricking the trickster), which has always been his greatest strength really, although it took this story to really highlight it. We go from admiring and respecting the Doctor to truly adoring him. Who else could have made the arrogant Tom Baker Doctor so lovable?
I would love to go on about the wonderful plot: no evil from the dawn of time here, just some vicarious people trying to get their mitts on various things -- money, a planet, a valuable crystal -- and the often tortuous but never over-complicated way these things diverge and conjoin. I would love to go on about some of the characters, from the typically wry double acts of Garron and Unstoffe (wise old bird teaching the tricks of the trade to younger and possibly more knowledgable junior - a clever parallel with the Doctor/Romana relationship, highlighted in the last scene) and the Graff Vynda Ka and Sholakh (for once a very believable portrayal of evil, with the mad young Caligula's power for once actually manifested in his loyal sergeant-at-arms, rather than the usual inexplicable nutcases-who-have-somehow-acquired-and-kept-power. They also share a truly wonderful final scene together which confounds expectations and makes you realise just how three-dimensional the blustering Vynda Ka really is).
But the prize goes to my all-time favourite character from any Doctor Who episode ever: Binro the Heretic. Here's where the true power lays -- in knowledge, and poor old Binro has nothing to show for it but a paradoxical belief ironically stronger than the religious people who have rejected him. It is a measure of Holmes' talent that he doesn't make a noble hero out of this potential Galileo. He is a sad pathetic character, not even given the heroic martyrdom of being burnt at the stake. Instead, he is just laughed at, shunned to the extent he can't even go out on the street anymore. In this sparsely populated world, he is recognised as harmless -- who would seriously believe there to be life on other planets?
Holmes creates this character almost as an aside -- he makes no direct contribution to the plot, he's just the guy who offers to help the on-the-run Unstoffe. The Doctor and Romana don't even meet him. In this truly magical scene, the Binro meets someone like him, an outcast, and his child-like descriptions of what the stars may be, addressed to an occupant of those very stars, is beautifully sustained. Unstoffe's convincing of this poor old man is a total aside to the plot, but it is wonderful.
Holmes' trick was not to create heroes, but ordinary people. He even made people like the Doctor and the Vynda Ka ordinary, and then subtly highlighted those slight aspects which were able to transform them into extraordinary. In Binro, he created a sad, laughable figure who just happened to have discovered the truth and suffered for it. It's weakness, it's fallibility -- yet it's human.
For me, The Ribos Operation is not just Holmes' best story -- a near-perfect summation of all those things we love about his writing -- it's the best Doctor Who story, bar none.
A Review by Matt Haasch 13/2/00
So it looks like a vacation for Doc #4 and K-9 when...hey, what's this lady doing in my TARDIS?? After a conversation with the White Guardian, who's place of locale and attire is somewhat different from what I expected from the omnipotent being, the Doctor is sent on a little errand before him. The White Guardian, portrayed nonchalantly by Cyril Luckham- (who has an uncanny likeness to my English teacher), actually threatens to wipe out the Doctor's existance, which I find odd about a good guy. After finding Romana on the bridge, she and the Doc bicker, which is very snotty of Mary Tamm, and all of Tom Baker's comebacks are more ammusing to her arguments. Finnaly, they're off to Ribos, where there's a struggle for conquest as two crooks named Garron and Unstoffe try to sell the WHOLE PLANET to the very naughty Graf Vynda-K.
This story sees several partnerships between two people, and almost all of them are amusing. Baker and Tamm don't quite steal the show as partners, but Garron and Unstoffe are played exceedingly well, and are very likable. As is Unstoffe's accent while talking about 'Scringestone'. Another team up is Paul Seed's Graf, and his lean, mean right hand goon Sholackh, played by Robert Keegan. Their reminicing about battles and mutual respect for each other could bring tears to the eyes when one of them dies, leaving the other alone. The plot, which is pretty much a sting operation, inside of another, works well as Robert Holmes works his magic. Amusing stuff to say the least, and a great start to the season.
The only fault with the story is the horrid Seeker, with Ann Tirard's voiceshreaking about the bones give you a compultion to stick burning Q-tips into your ears.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 22/5/01
The Key to Time season begins in fine fashion with Robert Holmes at the top of his craft. At his best Holmes is the best Who writer of them all. Witness Pyramids, Caves & Talons amongst others. In Ribos he produces a great story, superb characters and a lot of entertainment. Throw in excellent performances and terrific Set and Costume Design and you have a winner.
The story first – Well told and easy to follow. Nicely setting up the season. Creating a very believable world not too distant from our own, but sufficiently different also. The whole business of the Graff Vynda K being interested in the planet and 2 conmen trying every trick to make sure he does buy it, is excellent stuff. A very interesting culture is created.
The supporting characters impress a great deal. This is not only superb writing from Holmes, but also good acting from a great cast. Garron and Unstoffe are another Holmesian double act. For my money Jago and Litefoot are the best, but these come a close second. Vastly different characters both, but together producing something intriguing. Of the others Binro is the most memorable. His monologue about the universe has rightly been judged one of the Classic Who Moments. Sholakh is also brought to life well. The Graff Vynda K is a touch too drama queen for my tastes, but that’s a small quibble.
The leads are excellent. Tom Baker is rarely better than here. He is clearly loving playing the Time Lord, and his enthusiasm is wonderful to behold. There are lots of great moments, but my favourite is when the Graff slaps the Doctor’s face, only to be slapped back, by the astounded but fun-loving Doctor.
This is also a new Companion’s first story too. Romana exudes elegance and naivety. Mary Tamm is quite clearly a class act – and she gives Romana masses of sophistication. I think she works very well with the Doctor. She is a good foil for the more fun-loving Doctor, that Tom Baker is playing at this time in the History of the show. There is a nice rapport between them, which promises much for the season ahead.
Ribos is brilliantly created. The Set Designers create a snow-clad, Russian feel to the place. The dark Catacombs, the sumptuous throne room. It looks terrific. The costume design is also worthy of note. Those long coats and big hats really give it an otherworldly feel.
There is so much to recommend Ribos. The Key to Time season had begun. If it could maintain this standard of excellence then we were in for a treat! 9/10
A Review by Daniel Spelner 11/12/01
Commencing the Key to Time series with this pleasingly carefree romp got the season of to a good start. Robert Holmes is clearly in jocular mode, as attested by his exaggerated characters. Thankfully the actors play their parts for real, with Paul Seed's noble, though crazed, Graff Vynda-K and Garron the swindler, played with exuberance by Iain Cuthbertson. The production is well mounted by Spenton-Foster, who delivers some neat little touches along the way. Mary Tamm makes her first appearance here as Romana - the aloof, independent, knowlegable but inexperienced Time Lady. Tamm did a honorable job of her but, as the writers rarely made use of her, quickly left after the season ended. A light-hearted, nonessential Who story then, but if you do come across it, you'll enjoy it enough.
Elementary, my dear Holmes by Mike Jenkins 14/1/02
While certainly stronger then his last effort The Sun Makers, something is left to be desired. Like much Holmes work of this period, there is a great central concept and the best humour Holmes will ever give us, it seems there's a little too much going on and once again could've been longer. The incidental characters are wonderful, as is the Doctor and K-9. The scenes with the Doctor and the White Guardian are some the best in season and the ending is well handled. But (here we go) the mixture of medieval and space doesn't really work and the inclusion of Romana seems contrived. I think it would've worked better if he'd just met her on Gallifrey or something. Once again that little special something is missing but it's enjoyable nonetheless and get's another 7/10.
The script is very juvenile but unfortunately it is funny only in parts. The tension between Tamm and Baker is interesting but lacks real on screen chemistry and she looks as though she's just stepped out of a Oscar show. I realize not all of this is Holmes' fault but he is the organizing priciple nonetheless and probably could've overcome some of these other obstacles had the script been tighter. Holmes isn't so much a bad writer as he is overated and this story is absolute proof.
A Review by Rob Matthews 12/2/02
Having discovered this story fairly recently, I find myself amongst the small but spiky minority who think it's one of the show's unacknowledged gems. Naturally enough, it's taken the appearance of a review I completely disagree with to prod me into writing one of my own.
Mike Jenkins' recent review took the view that The Ribos Operation constitues proof of Robert Holmes' overratedness as a Doctor Who writer. He also asserts that 'the mixture of medieval and space doesn't really work', and that Tom Baker and Mary Tamm lack any on screen chemistry. For such a short review, there's a lot there that I'd argue with, so here goes:
Far from demonstrating Holmes' ineptitude as a writer, this is one of the best scripts he ever wrote for the series. It's a lot more competent than, for example, his overrated Spearhead from Space, whose sheeny filmed (as opposed to videotaped) look and scary visuals of murderous shop window dummies blind us to the fact that the story's not much cop. It's better, too, than The Talons of Weng Chiang, whose murdered whores are superfluous and a bit suspect.
The Ribos Operation is a story which operates on the same principles that would make The Caves of Androzani such a success, the principles which inform all Holmes' best work for the show - its about avaricious people out to feather their nests and cover their asses, and as such, it's entirely believable. More than that, Holmes sketches in as he goes an entire background and history of this corner of the cosmos - something he always excelled at, creating a canvas as well as the picture on it.
And his story makes a merry mockery of the black-and-white moral view of the universe posed by the crap opening scene with the White Guardian. The whole quasi-religious Key to Time thing was a really duff idea, and we're fortunate that The Ribos Operation paved the way for the rest of the season by all but ignoring it, except as a MacGuffin. Its only purpose in this story is to get the non-avaricious Doctor involved in the shady to-doings on Ribos.
One of my favourite things about The Ribos Operation is its suggestion of various interstellar parties treating planets as pieces of real estate. The argument that 'the mixture of medieval and space doesn't work' baffles me because I think its one of the elements of the story that really makes it stand out. The incongruity is not a crazy conceit, but an accurate reflection - albeit dressed up in science fiction terms - of the development of societies in our world. It's the year 2002. We're living in a time where we've travelled into space, tapped nuclear energy and cracked the human genome. And yet we're forced to live in fear of the type of people who use the word 'infidel' and mean it. I'd like to call that unbelievable too, but it's a fact.
The Ribos Operation depicts an advanced civilisation exploiting a primitive one. The irreconcilability of the advanced space-travelling civilisation and the primitive, superstitious society of Ribos is a great dramatic device, and pays off wonderfully in that beautiful scene (cited by a previous reviewer) between Unstoffe and Binro the Heretic. That scene was referred to as an aside, albeit a brilliant one, and I guess that's true, although I'd also consider it the absolute payoff of the whole setup. Doctor Who is about many things, but always about being open-minded and always about being compassionate, which is why that scene between Unstoffe and Binro is as much a defining moment of the show's golden age as anything from Genesis of the Daleks or The Deadly Assassin. If you were on that planet, wouldn't you want Binro to know he was right? I sure as hell would. It's scenes like that that make Doctor Who mine, dammit, and that reeled me back into the show as an adult. Ironically, if Binro's plight were central to the story, the scene would probably have less power because it would be more or less expected.
This story's been referred to as comic and lightweight, but I don't think it's fluff. All the fun stuff takes place against a darker backdrop, and a pretty bleak one when you look at it.
Ah, but what fun stuff. Mary Tamm's Romana gets shovelled abruptly into the show as part of the Key to Time caboodle, but she too transcends that garbage. Her chemistry with Baker is, in my eyes, wonderful, and if you see the story in context, a great relief after the non-rapport Baker 'enjoyed' with Louise Jameson's Leela. Add in John Leeson's K9 - who no longer sounds like a pneumatic drill whenever he moves - and you have the cherry on a particularly scrumptious cake. The trio are one of my favourite Doctor-companion teams and always bring an instant smile to my face. As for Romana looking 'like she's just stepped out of an Oscar show' - yes. Or an decadent overdecorative society where she's spent an overproteced life, perhaps. The whole point of Romana I is that she doesn't fit in at all. She just stands there looking fabulous and making pithy comments. That's, like, the joke.
Anyway, it's hugely underrated, this story, but that's probably for the best. Better to discover it's charms by accident than come to it with all sorts of expectations and be left disappointed.
Er, in fact, forget I said anything. Binro? Never heard of him...
A Review by Terrence Keenan 27/9/02
Robert Holmes was never one to follow conventional Sci Fi standards, let alone Doctor Who standards. Science Fiction Conventional Wisdom would dictate that if you were to start a season long arc of stories about Gods and a device which could save or ruin the universe, you'd want to have the opening serial to have all the gravis that this concept should be given.
Thank goodness that Holmes wanted to redo The Sting, instead.
The con is on in Ribos. And how much fun it is to see our favorite huckster/bamboozler and hero match wits with another con who's in it for the money and the fun of the grift -- Garron and his protege Unstoffe. More on this in a bit.
The opening scene with the White Guardian is brilliant on multiple levels, stressing the importance of the mission by playing against the stereotype. The White Guardian is a Southern Gentleman enjoying a mint julep, not one of two all-powerful beings who could destroy the universe in the blink of an eye. His insouciance is chilling; it gives the impression that the Doctor was chosen not because of his morals, but because of his success rate. Powerful, and fresh, The Ribos Operation starts off with a unnerving bang.
The thrust of The Ribos Operation is the interaction of three pairs of characters. The trio of duos (sorry, couldn't resist) are all set up in a master/protege relationship, but with twists. Romana is the intellectual counterpoint to the Doctor, a brilliant Time Lady who assumes the Doctor isn't up to her level because of his academic record. Unstoffe fills the moral counterpoint role for Garron. Unstoffe, although along for the ride and learning how to scam, shows Garron a thing or two about loyalty and trust. Sholakh is the reassuring elder to the Graf's young tyrant. Loyal to the core, it is Sholakh who actually feeds the Graf's tyranny.
The quest for the key is intertwined with Garron's machinations in running a planet-selling scheme on the Graf Vynda K. The first segment, disguised as a lump of jethryk, is the prime component in Garron's scam. However, it is the hustle that carries the story, not the machinations of the arc -- against conventional wisdom, but better off for it.
A much talked about and praised part of Ribos is the character of Binro the Heretic. Binro has nothing to do with the main plot, but resonates in the setup of Ribos as a pre-Renaissance world of superstition. Binro also helps push the moral growth of Unstoffe along, allowing the young con-artist to do something noble just with his words. Binro generates empathy, but is never pathetic. There's a determination within the scruffy man, as he helps Unstoffe escape into the catacombs simply because he understands what it means to be persecuted. Powerful stuff.
Acting is top notch on all ends. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm have an instant chemistry and rapport. Iain Cuthbertson steals every scene as Garron. Nigel Plaskitt is solid, and pulls off a great moment in the Binro scenes. Paul Seed escalates the madness of the Graf Vynda K across 4 episodes in a plausible way and Robert Keegan is commendable as Sholakh. The rest of the cast hold their own, except for the Seeker, who is OTT in a bad way.
The Ribos Operation is a great story on all ends, and one that showcases why Robert Holmes wrote some of the best Doctor Who ever.
A poor start by Tim Roll-Pickering 7/10/02
This story is generally remembered for starting the Key to Time season rather than for any of its own incidents and it's easy to see why this is. The entire setting of Ribos is utterly uninspiring, both in terms of narrative and also in terms of design. Additionally the plot is weak and there is little reason for the Doctor and Romana to remain on the planet other than the search for the first segment of the Key. to Time.
Robert Holmes' script contains some wonderful lines and the pairing of Garron and Unstoffe is probably the story's strongest point, but otherwise there's very little in the tale to inspire. The Doctor and Romana spend most of their time together trying to show off to each other and come across rather poorly, whilst K9 is used as little more than a mobile weapon. The Graff Vynda-K is very poorly written and few of the other characters make much impact at all, though the scene between Binro and Unstoffe where the latter tells the old man that he is in fact right about there being life on other worlds is well written and extremely moving and memorable. Perhaps the worst character of all is The Seeker, who is far too often deployed as a quick means to advance part of the plot. The plot is extremely straightforward and extremely uninspiring, with a main problem being the lack of any wider perspective on matters. Wisely the opening scenes in which the quest for the Key to Time (better discussed more fully in a review of the season as a whole) is set up are kept to a minimum so that the overall story arc does not intrude too much on the tale. The opening scene with the Guardian gives a strong sense of power, especially when the TARDIS comes within his power and the bright light is reminiscent of some Biblical films.
Cast wise there are few bright points at all. Binro is played by Timothy Bateson in an all too stereotypical manner to make much of an impact, whilst both Iain Cuthbertson (Garron) and Nigel Plaskitt (Unstoffe) are too pedestrian to really shine. Mary Tamm plays Romana very much as a cold 'Ice Maiden' and the result is some scenes between her and Tom Baker that show a poor rapport between the two.
The production produces a Ribos that is highly reminiscent of Russia in the 19th century. Compared to the previous season the production values are up, though the Shrivenzale does not convince at all well. The direction is competent, though it does not rescue the story from the relatively weak script. As the opening story for a linked season, The Ribos Operation is an especially disappointing tale. 5/10
A Review of the DVD by Andrew McCaffrey 18/10/02
The Ribos Operation is a severely underrated classic that sometimes gets forgotten about in the Key To Time season. The script is quite good and shows Robert Holmes at the height of his dialog-writing powers. It doesn't get all of the credit that it deserves, and this is a pity, because almost every aspect of the production is excellent, from the script to the acting to much of the incidental music to the set design. There is almost nothing here to distract from what is extremely fun and witty adventure.
The atmosphere is superb. The sets and, in particular, the costumes are exceptionally well done, especially when one considers the budget they were working with here. Possibly a lot of it was taken from stock and then given superficial modifications, but this really adds to the script's medieval and Russian flavors. It feels old-fashioned, and the few futuristic elements slide right alongside the historical pieces. The aliens are planet-hopping aristocrats with lasers, wrist-communicators and space-drives, but they trade in gold, and are concerned with half-brothers on thrones. The soldiers in the story more resemble knights in armor than science-fiction stormtroopers. The modern and the tradition merge extremely well and the two parts complement are a great complement to each other.
Science vs. magic/superstition is another theme that rears its head in this serial. Unlike other stories (say, The Daemons), this story puts both of those subjects on the same level. The magic isn't just given a technobabble explanation; it actually appears to work in the confines of the story. The Seeker makes predictions that prove correct, has second sight, and uses magical incantations, while the story gives every indication that she genuinely does possess unearthly powers. This is vitally important for keeping the balance between science and magic.
When we hear the story of Binro the Heretic, we already know that his calculations and deductions about the lights in the night sky are correct, so our sympathies will automatically go towards his point of view. But if the Seeker had been revealed to be merely a slight-of-hand conjurer, then the battle between the two elements would have been drastically undermined. Because the magical side is so powerful, we can see exactly why someone like Binro has been shunned and derided by his peers. It's not just that what he says conflicts with their religious viewpoint, but also they have apparent proof that the superstitions have a concrete basis in reality. Holmes doesn't chicken out of the conflict, but portrays it in a mature and surprisingly balanced manner. It would be easy for Holmes to have us conclude that Binro is right, and that the Seeker is a con artist. But he doesn't do that - we have at least some evidence that both sides of the conflict have a sound case for parts of their belief.
The characters in this serial are larger than life and twice as fun. During his career, Robert Holmes wrote a number of over-the-top, almost operatic individuals and The Ribos Operation is certainly no exception. The actors, without exception, all latch on to how these characters need to be played and all deliver exactly the type of performance required. The Graff Vynda-K can't be anything other than an obsessed and fanatical tyrant. Garron has to be a great big lovable rouge. In a story such as this, louder is better. These are archetypes on paper, and the actors bringing them to life inject them with enough humanity and pathos to let them live.
I'm not usually a fan of the actors-only commentaries on these Doctor Who DVDs. Of those discs that have been released in the US so far, the audio tracks that contain no members of the production team are boring and useless, with the people concerned not remembering much about the story and not having known much about the behind-the-scenes planning in the first place. But the commentary for this DVD is highly amusing despite only consisting of Tom Baker and Mary Tamm. While it isn't the most informative thing I've ever listened to, I couldn't stop laughing. It's an extremely entertaining track featuring a few interesting tidbits from Tamm, punctuated by occasional orgasmic sound effects courtesy of Mr. Baker.
The pop-up production notes provide us with a lot of detail about the numerous cuts and edits that were made to the original Robert Holmes script. I find this sort of thing fascinating, and it's really interesting to see how the script evolved. Incorporating the Key arc, to tightening up the script for timing reasons are all featured here.
The DVD picture and sound are quite good considering the age of the material. This disc upholds the high standards that the Doctor Who DVDs have achieved in these areas. The rest of the extras (Photo Gallery, Who's Who) are things that I really have no interest in, but some people like them, and it's nice to know that they're there.
It's interesting to note that at the time of writing this review, Robert Holmes has become the most represented author on the Doctor Who DVDs. And if you really have no idea why, then check out this disc for a reevaluation of a forgotten classic. No one wrote dialog quite like Holmes, and it's absolutely amazing to see what can happen when the writer and the actors play off each other's strengths so perfectly.
A strong season opener by Paul Deuis 6/3/03
Most of the problems people have with the Key to Time season seem to stem from the fact that there are six stories in a sequence. Personally I enjoy seeing that, although I think I'm in the minority in that regard. I can see the flip side of this and realise there can also be problems with story arcs that long, but it is my opinion that in this case, most of the more obvious problems were dealt with fairly well. I guess the main reason I find people's general disliking for season sixteen odd though, is that I think the majority of the stories involved are pretty good. Now quite obviously, this is a matter of opinion, and opinion will more often than not be divided any given subject. However, I don't usually get too much argument about The Ribos Operation being a very good story. In fact, I believe it is a great story, and one of the most underrated of Tom Baker's era, possibly even in all of Doctor Who.
Robert Holmes, in my humble opinion, is by far and away the greatest writer ever to put pen to paper for Doctor Who. If I was asked to choose one story which showcased his writing prowess, The Ribos Operation would most definitely be on the short list. Why? Well, apart from the fact I think it is a great story, I believe that more than most other Holmes stories, this one really highlights one of his greatest strengths in being able to pair characters off, with and against each other. The interaction between The Doctor and Romana, Garron and Unstoffe, and The Graff Vynda K and Sholakh is nothing short of delightful. Add to these main characters the support of The Captain of Shrievalty and Binro the Heretic, and Robert Holmes has provided some great characters with which to tell his story. Another of Holmes' strengths is his ability to create believable civilisations and settings, giving enough information about places and people to make them three dimensional, without bogging the story down with unnecessary details and lengthy explanations out of nowhere for the sake of it. That is also in great evidence here.
We don't often see the Doctor caught off his guard and put squarely on the defensive, but here we see this twice within the first five minutes; initially by the White Guardian, and soon afterwards by Romana. The White Guardian's hijacking of the TARDIS and giving him his assignment is a nice little scene at the start of the story, and sets up the season well. Of course, this is the first time we not only see a Guardian, but are even aware of their existence. I thought this scene was done particularly well in light of that fact. We are then introduced to Romana, whose entrance pushes the Doctor even further on to the back foot, and we realise straight away that this is one match which is not made in heaven. I enjoyed the banter between the two throughout the story; especially Romana's few little victories early on in the story inflating her ego even more. This first up impression is slowly whittled away as the story wears on, as the Doctor's experience and nous shines through. By the time he calmly informs her just what the guise of the first segment is, she seems to realise that just maybe there are a few things she can learn from him after all. I thought Mary Tamm gave a strong first up performance. We are left with a good impression of what the new companion is like, and plenty of promise for further character development.
In Garron and The Graff Vynda K, The Ribos Operation contains two wonderfully realised, yet totally different villains, both with their own sidekicks who also provide good contrast. Garron's wily old conman is nicely complemented by his loyal, but young and insecure offsider Unstoffe, and the marvellously insane Graff Vynda K has his perfect foil in his trusty old general Sholakh, who is behind him all the way. Credit must go to all four actors in their portrayal of these characters, as in both cases you really have no trouble believing that they have been teamed up for years. Very few other characters are needed to tell this story, and those that are were very good. Binro the Heretic deserves special mention. I thought the scene where Unstoffe tells him he was right about what he believed in was the best of the story, possibly even the whole season. The only character I didn't take a shine to was the Seeker, whose screaming was unnecessary and very irritating, but not bad enough to harm the story.
Dudley Simpson once again produces the goods in the music department, the organ music right at the start when the White Guardian seizes control of the TARDIS being my personal highlight. The sets were also of a good quality, at all times making the locale believable, which really enhanced the feel of the story. The Shrivenzale was a bit of a disappointment, but as you mainly saw only glimpses of it (the claw under the door, close up of teeth and such), most of it is left to the imagination, which makes these scenes more frightening anyway, despite the dodgy costume. Like the Seeker's screaming, it didn't mar my enjoyment of the story one bit.
This story contains all the necessary ingredients for me regard it as classic Who. Besides telling a good tale, it piques interest in the quest for further segments, creates interest in a new companion, and a new concept in the White and (as yet unseen) Black Guardians. All in all, The Ribos Operation is a very well realised story in all areas, and a strong start to the Key to Time saga.
Double Double by Andrew Wixon 26/5/03
Some Doctor Who stories are timeless classics. Some are execrable garbage. And some just are - they're not great, but they're not bad either. And The Ribos Operation is one of those. It's another of those rare stories where the script is helped out by the production values (it is, of course, usually the other way around), although this is more a source of bragging rights for the BBC classics department than the DW team, seeing as the costumes and sets were hand-me-ons from a production of Anna Karenina.
Robert Holmes' disaffection with the series at this point is becoming noticeable. What's this story actually about? An invasion, a quest, a resurgent evil from the legendary past? No, it's about a con trick that goes a bit wrong. Strictly small time by the standards of the average DW story, the quest for the First Segment notwithstanding. And, it must be said, rather lazily written and stiltedly played in places - the explanation for why Garron doesn't just sell the jethryk isn't much more than 'hum, haw, *cough* I decided not to', while all the stuff that's written as sparkling light comedy at the start dies a protracted death due to the lack of subtlety in its realisation.
Holmes being Holmes, of course, a couple of things mitigate in his favour. His fondness for writing double-acts has become proverbially renowned, and it's on display here. Not, as you might think, in the form of Garron and Unstoffe, who are okay but not great. It's Unstoffe's relationship with Binro that catches the attention, for all that it lasts only an episode or so. It's oddly affecting when it should just be cliched. The same can be said for the interaction between the Graff Vynda K and Sholakh: the Graff is a convincing psycho (even if he slips a bit OTT at the end of the story) but there's respect and affection between him and his lieutenant that once again is almost moving. Above average characterisation and acting in a distinctly average story.
Imagination triumphs! by Joe Ford 23/8/03
I have discovered something quite wonderful recently, something unexpected that redefined how I look at much of Doctor Who on television. I am now totally convinced that the Graham Williams era is the most re-watchable slice of the show ever, beating the gloss of the JNT era and the gothic horror of the Hinchcliffe era, even the slow paced and intelligent storytelling of the Hartnell era. For me this era demonstrates Doctor Who at its all time best. Not flashy FX and set pieces just excellently written stories with an extremely appealing sense of humour. The cast and crew are obviously having a lot of fun and it spills onto the screen most infectiously. The stories aren't po-faced or ham fisted, most of them are extremely mature and tightly plotted, have very memorable characters and leave you hooked until the last episode.
And no this is not a wind up. Re-watching season sixteen has reminded why I fell in love with this show in the first place.
And The Ribos Operation started it all off. What a marvellous story this is, not lumbered with so many of the flaws that threatened to destroy the show in later years. It is a reasonably complicated tale of double crossing told by the unbeatable Robert Holmes, it taps a rich vein of humour and contains some of the best characters ever to appear in the show. It's studio bound but highly atmospheric and with his few sets Bob Holmes conjours up the most vivid alien world in the show. It's four episodes of non stop fun and adventure, no cynicism, no gratuitous violence or moralising, a celebration of dialogue and acting.
Brave claims following several reviews that have panned the story. What upsets me more than anything is how stories from this season are so unfairly maligned in favour of so much of the crap produced in the Davison era, The Ribos Operation especially which is forgotten by all but a small number despite its skillful execution and wistful pace. The story isn't clumsy, it's confident, it isn't forgettable, it's stylishly directed and snappily written. In short it rocks!
Just how totslly cool is Garron? Such a brilliant larger than life character, Holmes never forgets to remind us he is a criminal underneath that smiling exterior. His huge personality extends to the other actors and I feel at times many were trying to compete with the charisma and charm of the great Iain Cuthbertson. He relishes his witty dialogue and creates a character that truly shines. Whether he is swapping stories of machine gun wielding Arabs with the Doctor or bluffing the sale of an entire planet to the Graff here is a character it is a genuine pleasure to watch. I've seen this story dozens of times and he still makes me roar with laughter. "Is that Binro? Charming fellow the little I saw of him!" indeed!
Has there ever been a more touching scene than that of the quiet and intimate moment between Binro and Unstoffe where the latter confirms the formers suspicions that made him an outcast amongst his people. That moment where he gently sobs into Unstoffe's hand is lovely. Binro is another experly crafted character, garuanteed to illicit smypathy from the viewer. His instant loyalty to Unstoffe is wonderful, how nice to meet a genuine and nice character in this show. I love his little asides..."That was a small one" he says of the Shrivensale that guards the Relic Room and his dying words "Right! I was right Unstoffe!" really tugs at the heartstrings. If you're willing to suspend your belief and imagine these are real people you will be treated to some of the finest interplay in the show.
What about Romana then? Her instant friction with Doctor Tom is a joy to watch. His face when she states "D'you before I met you I was even willing to be impressed..." is priceless but there are so many gems for this pair in this story. The hysterical name-game is riotous... "Its either Romana or Fred!", "All right, call me Fred!", "Good, come along Romana!" and his "always expect the unexpected!" just before he steps on the trap cracks me up! At this point Tom and Mary share a wonderful chemistry, there is so much subtext to their relationship it is remarkable to watch. The first line alone suggest this is going to be an interesting relationship... "My name's Romandvoratrelundar", "Well I'm so sorry about that!" Priceless.
The story looks like a million dollars has been spent on it after most of last year's stories. The snowy 'exterior' sets are obviously sets but are convincing enough to work and the 'inside' sets are supmtuously done, well lit and shot. I love the catacombs, if there's one thing this show does well it's caves and the entrance all candle lit looks wonderfully eerie. And what about the console room when the lights go out and the roundels light up... gorgeous or what?
This story is the ultimate demonstration of what Robert Holmes could achieve. His ability to create entire believable and fascinating planets with mere words is second to NONE. He builds up Ribos slowly but confidently, giving it climate, seasons, settlements, factions, customs, history... none of the information is dumped however, it all leaks out naturally as the story progresses. By the fourth episode he is still adding new layers with the Seeker, the Shrivensale colony underground, etc, it all assembles to create a beautifully evocative planet and an absolute joy to visit.
Plus the added humour quotient gives the story that extra layer of entertainment that so many Doctor Who stories lack. Some of the jokes... "You do realise sarcasm is an adjusted stress reaction?", "K.9! Don't stop at all corners", "All but one doomed to die..." "Then die now!", "Well I ought to know my own age!" "Yes but after the first few centuries I'm sure it all gets a bit foggy", "Oh argh! Sir! Argh! That I do! That I Do! That be what we call scringe stone!" ...are worth the admission price alone.
A story that doesn't want to deal with intergalatic politics or alien menaces just to tell a good hearted romp but ends up being much more than that. The characters and planetary details drag you into the story, the actors entertain wonderfully, the music is one of Dudley Simpson's best and the script never, ever lets you down. It is possibly the quisessential Doctor Who story, marvellous entertainment, not quite childish, not quite adult but a mixture of both that has its own unique flavour.
A positive triumph and a real confidence booster for the new season.
A Review by Paul Rees 10/9/03
The Ribos Operation is a story which has grown on me following repeated viewings. I remember reading somewhere that what makes this story particularly noteworthy is its attention to detail, and I think that is about right. There are no grand invasions, no threats of world domination: just great characters, a convincing sense of realism and sparkling dialogue.
The early TARDIS scenes in which we see the Doctor and Romana engage in their verbal banter are a delight to behold and, yes, Mary Tamm does look stunning in her outfit. The story is set up nicely with the early appearance of the White Guardian and all the attendant quasi-religious undertones; but what really makes this story special is the care which has obviously been taken to establish a real sense of Ribos as a civilisation. It's hard to say why, but it's just totally convincing.
The acting here is of top-notch quality: from Binro the Heretic to the Graf Vynda-K, from Unstoff to Garron... all these parts are played with conviction. The dialogue is often very witty, with many one-liners peppered throughout the script. The "other worlds" exchange between Unstoff and Binro is particularly noteworthy, being emblematic of Robert Holmes' ability to flesh out even the most incidental of characters.
Admittedly, the somewhat overwrought Seeker is less impressive (shades of the 'nay, nay and thrice nay' soothsayer from 'Up Pompeii!'), but we can live with that. The Schrivenzale does, of course, look incredibly unconvincing; it's not too bad in episode 1 where we just catch a quick glimpse, but it's a pity we get to see it in all its inglory in the final episode. Still, one just has to suspend disbelief I suppose.
The actual plot is pretty straightforward, but still ultimately satisfying. As with Holmes's earlier story The Space Pirates, in cosmic terms it's pretty small beer: in this case, the villain of the piece is a cruel but somewhat pathetic tin-pot dictator. Where Ribos differs from The Space Pirates, however, is in its ability to combine excellent characterisation with a convincing portrayal of alien culture. It is perhaps a little convenient that at the story's climax the Doctor has suddenly rediscovered his sleight-of-hand skills, but they are put to good use nonetheless. It has to be said, however, that the sight of the Doctor quite happily planting an explosive device on the Graf Vynda-K's person still shocks me a little. It does seem to be rather out of character, to me at least.
But, minor quibbles aside, I really can't praise this one enough. The Ribos Operation is, in essence, an understated masterpiece. 9.5/10
A Review by Brian May 13/10/03
The Key to Time saga has always been one of my favourite seasons of Doctor Who. It's good to see the quest style adventure dominate a whole season - the first time a story arc had been introduced for such a length - injecting a sense of purpose for Tom Baker's meandering, wandering Doctor. The Ribos Operation is a charming introduction to the mission.
It's also the simplest and most low-key story of the season, which is not a bad thing. Things get off to a quick start - the Key to Time is explained, the Doctor recruited and joined by Romana, all in under ten minutes, and then the first adventure is underway. Aside from the Key to Time, the plot simply revolves around the attempts of a conman, Garron, to fraudulently sell the planet of Ribos to the deposed tyrant, the Graff Vynda-K, and make off with some of his money. Very small stakes, but it makes for a wonderful story.
Robert Holmes delivers his usual excellence. The world of Ribos is actually given some depth. We are told of its weather, its geography, its customs and even some insights into its history and thinking (mainly in the scenes with Binro). It's not a simple, generic "planet location", but a believable world. Holmes also includes interesting characters. Garron and his assistant Unstoffe are another one of his memorable double acts. They are likeable rogues who also benefit from excellent performances from Iain Cuthbertson and Nigel Plaskitt. Holmes is also capable of creating good double act villains - the best example that springs to mind is that of Irongron and Bloodaxe in The Time Warrior, but here he gives us the Graff and his general, Sholakh. While not at all likable - as opposed to the medieval duo - they are an interesting pair.
The Graff is not your typical villain by Doctor Who standards. He has no dreams to conquer or destroy the universe. He seeks to reclaim his empire - it's never specified how big this is, but it is implied that it is quite small, possibly just one planet. He is, according to Garron, a tyrant and a madman. He is a glorified thug, nothing more. He is not a villain the universe needs to worry about. Sholakh is the more interesting of the two - he is the Graff's friend and advisor, and has probably veered his master away from less sensible decisions for a great many years. The Graff is insane, Sholakh is level-headed. Robert Keegan delivers the better performance as Sholakh, but Paul Seed as the Graff is also good, especially handling the climax, when his character finally snaps.
It is interesting to note that these two hardly interact with the Doctor. Apart from the capture scene, there is no dialogue, no anything, between the Graff (the main villain) and the Doctor (the main hero). There is no confrontation at the end - they do encounter each other, and the Doctor defeats the Graff - but does so in disguise. The Graff thinks the Doctor is merely Garron's accomplice and probably doesn't give him a second thought. This reflects the simplicity of the story, but is also an indication of the aforementioned unimportance of the Graff - he isn't worthy enough to be the Doctor's adversary.
The story's minor characters are also well performed. The most notable one, of course, is Timothy Bateson as Binro - a tragic, Galileo-like figure. The audience is introduced to him and immediately likes him. The conversation between him and Unstoffe is magical. His death is a touching moment, but he dies knowing he was right in his beliefs.
Mary Tamm gives a wonderful first performance as Romana. Her naivety and Ice Queen haughtiness make her a good foil for the Doctor - our hero is matched with a companion his equal. Their relationship warms in later stories, but that rapport is evident even here - a mutual respect for each other, at least. Tom Baker gives one of his best performances as the Doctor. His mix of buffoonery and seriousness works well in the scenes when chatting with Garron while being held prisoner. His admission of being terrified, upon hearing of the Graff's proposed massacre, is understated, but very effective. It's one of the few times the Doctor has ever admitted to being frightened, and Baker does it with a wonderful sobriety.
Apart from the characterisations, there are other things that make The Ribos Operation the terrific story it is. There is some cracking dialogue - great exchanges between the Doctor and Romana; the Doctor and Garron; Garron and Unstoffe, and of course, Binro and Unstoffe. The White Guardian "persuades" the Doctor to search for the Key with a casually delivered, politely worded threat.
It is also a triumph production wise. The Cossack style costumes are great, as is Mary Tamm's gorgeous cloak. The small number of sets are good - you can believe they are the rooms, courtyards and tunnels they are meant to be. The Seeker's get-up is also well done. The Shrievenzales are not the best realised of Doctor Who's monsters, but neither are they the worst.
The direction is superb. One of my all time favourite images in Doctor Who is here, when the Doctor, Romana and Garron walk across the Hall of the Dead, into the catacombs. A single shot, but elegantly done. The viewer feels the cold as well. This is George Spenton-Foster's second and last Doctor Who story as director (his first was Image of the Fendahl, another favourite). Why are some of the most interesting directors only given one or two stories? Does their style conflict with the producers' ideas or do they simply move on quickly? (Timothy Combe and Darrol Blake are other names that spring to mind).
For the continuity buffs and goof-watchers, there is of course the matter of how the Doctor and friends escape from the catacombs after the Shrieves seal the entrance. Well, here are a couple of theories: first, K9's laser destroyed the fallen rock separating Romana from Garron and Unstoffe. Surely the metal mutt has enough power to destroy a similar rockfall at the main entrance? Alternatively, Binro mentioned to Unstoffe that there must be another way out of the catacombs, for the Shrievenzales to enter and leave. Well, they all wandered round the caves a bit, K9 blasting any of the creatures that attacked them (scenes much too violent for family TV), found the way out onto the surface, and back to the city! Happy now?
The Ribos Operation is a great story. Atmospheric, well made, well acted, and consistently enjoyable. 9/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 17/1/04
Graham Williams` second season as producer kicks off with something new for Doctor Who; a season long story arc in the quest for The Key To Time. This, along with possibly the closest thing Doctor Who has produced akin to a god (in the form of Cyril Luckham`s White Guardian), sets the tone for the rest of the season. For starters we get a new companion, and the antagonistic nature between the two is a joy to behold thanks largely to the aloofness which Mary Tamm brings to Romana; obviously in order to progress the story this develops into mutual friendship and respect, although it does leave K-9 with little to do.
Once more Robert Holmes includes a double act in Garron and Unstoffe (who works well as a conscience of sorts for the duo) and a memorable villain in the Graff Vynda-K, who Paul Seed plays with a suppressed rage that comes across well. There are downsides to the story, the worst being the Shrivenzale which is just unconvincing and the other is Ann Tirard`s Seeker who is over the top and brings nothing to what is otherwise an entertaining season opener.
"I can't figure out the plot, and I was in it!" by Jason A. Miller 21/2/04
The Ribos Operation is a story I didn't have much time for when I was younger, so I was quite pleased to learn that, not only was the DVD presentation remarkably good, but the story has improved with age, too.
Ribos is a light-hearted story, once the introduction to the season-linking Key to Time concept is rapidly explained and set aside. Boisterous con-man (played to operatic high comedy by Iain Cuthbertson) attempts to swindle deposed Emperor, The Graff Vynda-K, by selling him a primitive ice planet suggestive of Czarist Russia. This went well and truly over my head when I was 12, and you wouldn't think Paul Seed's Shakespearian reading of a forged real estate contract would ever interest anyone, but it's quite captivating now. How many other DVDs do you own which contain the word "suzerainty"?
But, more seriously, it's a Robert Holmes script, and Holmes' DW stories always stood out for their attention to detail. Ribos may be populated by just three British character actors (while being made up of three rooms and a rooftop), but so much of the planet's culture is explained in 90 minutes that it's surprising DW never went back there again. I like the fact that the story devotes quite a bit of time to Binro the Heretic, the discredited astronomer who's banished for proving the world is round, but at the same time the local witch is shown to be not a fraud, but rather 100% accurate.
The elements to Robert Holmes' script magic are all well known by now. It's fun to watch Ribos a few times in one week and pick out how many hidden Holmes-isms you can find. How many military campaigns, for instance, do Sholakh and the Graff discuss in passing? Garron's story of his sale of Sydney Harbor (for fifty million dollars) is still laugh-out-loud funny, as is the Doctor's telling Romana that this is much more fun than waiting to be executed. So that's three double-acts in the same story. Once you separate her words from Mary Tamm's acting style, you're surprised at how many great zingers Romana was given. She continues to psychoanalyze the Doctor long after her much-derided screaming in the jaws of the Shrivenzale.
The acting, even apart from Seed and Cuthbertson, is first rate. Prentis Hancock never seemed too credible in Planet of the Daleks or Planet of Evil, but put him in a minor role in a story without "Planet" in the title, and he's entertaining. When Garron tells Hancock's Captain that he's a merchant, Hancock's reply is, "Better you than me." Ann Tirard (last seen playing another wtich in The Romans) takes all sorts of ludicrous chanting ("Bones of our fathers, bones of our kings") and muttering ("Deeper") and sells it with unusual conviction. All that, while wearing antlers on her head. Perhaps someone crossed out "Ribos Operation" on the top of her script and scrawled in the word "Macbeth". Unstoffe is easy to overlook, but compare his drop-dead-funny "scringe stone" speech with his later dialogue with Birno, and he will impress you too.
The DVD includes, as always, text and audio commentary tracks. The pop-up production notes are written by a different researcher than usual, and are much more enlightening here than many of the previous releases. Lots of attention is paid to cuts made from Holmes' (lengthy) original script, and much fun is had at the expense of the dated 1978 production: most notably Mary Tamm's efforts to push a styrofoam rock, and the K-9 prop's inability to roll over a raised doorway.
The audio commentary, by Tamm and Tom Baker, is hilariously irrelevant. Baker hasn't seen the story, well... ever, and Tamm admits defeat trying to follow the plot before episode three has even begun. In the meantime, the two trade lots of double entendres, and Tamm has to explain to Baker twice which actor played Unstoffe. They have great chemistry together, which is impressive considering that Tamm worked on Doctor Who just the one year and it's surprisng Baker even remembers who she is.
The Who's Who is a useful guide to have (Americans may remember Cuthbertson from his brief role in "Gorillas in the Mist", and Tamm played Jon Voight's wife in "The Odessa File"). The Photo Gallery is a bit unusual in that the first three pictures are not actually from The Ribos Operation. The remaining pictures are mostly stills from the episode, although there are appealing shots of Tamm posing in her extravagant white gown. The only mystery unexplained on the entire DVD is -- who was holding up Tamm's cue cards on set? Based on the numerous looks Tamm shoots off camera while struggling through her Freudian put-downs, you'd figure she eventually married the guy.
A Review by Finn Clark 9/8/06
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 1970's 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...
The Winter's Tale by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 2/5/16
As with most other seasons, The Key to Time varies in quality throughout its length so therefore it is something to be thankful for that it mainly stays on the right side of the line. The Ribos Operation kicks things off in fine style with what must surely rank as one of Robert Holmes' juiciest scripts. He did particularly well during the Tom Baker era with The Deadly Assassin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, to name a few, to his credit. His turns of phrase are one of the qualities that set his scripts apart from his peers, and The Ribos Operation is no exception with far too many examples to enumerate. He does seem to have run out of steam somewhat by the time of The Power of Kroll, with that particular story being serviceable rather than wonderful, but, as a means of getting the party started, he did a particularly good job with The Ribos Operation.
His scripts are often full of big characters and here we are presented with conman extraordinaire Garron and tyrannical crackpot the Graff Vynda-K. Iain Cuthbertson and Paul Seed are firing on all cylinders in their own right, but they each have a partner to bounce off: Unstoffe and Sholakh. It's quite interesting how their underlings represent a slightly more balanced version of their superiors, with Unstoffe being not quite as money-crazed as Garron and Sholakh, while still vicious and murderous, having something of a more stable perspective on things than the Graff. The double act is another Robert Holmes staple, and there are fine examples of throughout his work, Jago and Litefoot being a particularly noteworthy partnership. But of course the most noticeable double act here is that of the Doctor and Romana. Mary Tamm was ever the haughty ice maiden in the role and never more so than in her first outing. She has a delightfully condescending way of interacting with everybody, although one can't help but feel that the Doctor finds this rather more amusing than frustrating. It's a nice little touch how the Doctor and K9 start backing away from her in the TARDIS; the rebel and his motorised sidekick are confronted with a member of the establishment on their own turf, and they quite clearly aren't happy about it. The sniping between the Doctor and Romana is a nice touch, all the while the fondness and respect for each other growing beneath the surface.
Season 16 is one of Tom Baker's best, in the sense that he is balancing the comedy and the drama effectively, an equilibrium that went out of the window in Season 17 and was forcibly readdressed in equally dramatic fashion in Season 18. The playing of comedy and drama in conjunction is one of the recurring stylistic motifs of Season 16 and for the most part it works rather well. Witness how, for example, the Doctor isn't scared of the Graff; when the Graff slaps him across the face with his glove, the Doctor returns the favour. As far as the Doctor is concerned, the Graff is nothing more than yet another lunatic with ideas above his station and therefore an object of derision and mockery. Kudos also to Paul Seed for his reading of the part; he may be frothing at the mouth and consuming large amounts of the scenery, but he's playing it completely straight and it never once crosses over into send up.
The world of Ribos as a creation is a lovely homage to Tsarist Russia with its costumes, currency (opeks = Russian kopeks) and climate evoking countless Romantic era paintings. The Shrieves in particular look wonderful, with their flowing black robes and Mongolian-style hats. But it goes beyond the merely visual to be a successful attempt at creating a world, a society and a history out of just a few sets and costumes and carefully worded dialogue. It has a believable ambience to it, and this is no small achievement. It may be a studio-bound production, but it is certainly one of the more effective ones. This is possibly because it is essentially a costume drama with some science-fiction trappings thrown in, and costume drama has always been the BBC's forte.
This is also an important story, not just for being the introductory chapter of the Key to Time season but also for introducing the Guardians as characters. Cyril Luckham looks considerably more effective here in his white safari suit than he does in Enlightenment with a bird glued to his head. He is kindly yet not above making subtle threats to the Doctor - "Nothing will happen to you... ever" - reinforcing the elemental power of his being. And just because he is a vastly powerful force of the universe, why shouldn't he have a liking for chartreuse or creme de menthe or whatever it is that he's drinking...?
If I have two little complaints about The Ribos Operation, they would be a need for better editing in places - nobody can pronounce Romana's name correctly - and also the Shrivenzale. This is not a monster-driven story; this is a character-driven story, as befits its writer, and I do get the impression that the Shrivenzale is only there because Doctor Who is supposed to have monsters. Its onscreen realisation is not particularly auspicious, though thankfully its screen time is kept to a minimum. The Androids of Tara has a similar problem with the Wood Beast; it doesn't need to be there, and it just looks silly.
But what of the Key itself? The quest to recover the first segment is a delightfully winding affair of double crosses and sleight of hand, and there is definitely a sense of achievement by the end of the story. Doctor Who is in many ways an extensive catalogue of doomsday devices and sundry objects of unbelievable power, but the Key to Time may just top the list as the most awesomely powerful object ever to feature in the series. You can keep your stellar manipulators, your Metebelis crystals and your De-Mat Guns; this thing can actually stop the entire universe...
For all the politicking, plotting and scheming of The Ribos Operation, one of the defining scenes is Garron explaining something of his history to the Doctor in the Graff's quarters. It's a lovely moment of character interplay and sums up much of Robert Holmes' approach to writing for Doctor Who; the plots, twists and monsters may be important, but without good characterisation to which viewers can connect, you will flounder.
Another interesting motif is that Doctor Who staple of magic and superstition vs science and rationality. Enter the Seeker, a sort of Penelope Keith on some kind of LSD derivative. She is perhaps the story's embodiment of the primitive beliefs of Ribos, and the fact that she has been employed by the Graff and his team of spacefaring mercenaries is something of an irony. Binro questions the primitive beliefs of his planet and is vindicated by Unstoffe's admission that he comes from another world. As ever in Doctor Who when this dichotomy occurs, there is something of a mocking attitude towards the superstitious ideals of religion and mysticism, and this occasion is no different. The Graff, Garron and Unstoffe all know that the spirit worship of Ribos is flawed because they themselves have come from across the stars.
So you there you have it; a great start to one of Doctor Who's best-ever seasons. A winner.