“The Ribos Operation” (season 16, episodes 1-4. Originally aired Sept. 2-23, 1978)
At its heart, “The Ribos Operation” is playing for relatively small stakes in comparison to the kind of thing you usually get with Doctor Who. It’s a story about a con game gone wrong between two hard-luck grifters and a fallen aristocrat who thinks they’re his route back into power. Though it’s set on a faraway planet with connections to a vast interstellar empire, mainly it’s just about the con, and how the Doctor’s own little quest gets in the way of that. But wrapped around “The Ribos Operation” is a much broader story of literally cosmic scope, and it’s there that we should start.
By Doctor Who’s sixteenth season, the show had run into a problem inevitable for any series that lasts that long—it was outgrowing its own founding mythology. The seemingly all-powerful Time Lords had been a lingering background presence for years, first as the unknown people the Doctor was running away from, then later a persistent source of unwanted control. But by this point, the question was: What do you do when your hero finally defeats the one foe he was never supposed to be able to defeat?
In the early seasons, the Time Lords were a cosmic, powerful, and sometimes frighteningly mysterious force. Their presence was only hinted at during the first half-decade of the show, but in “The War Games,” the Doctor was finally caught, and the Time Lords revealed themselves to be the antithesis of the lone, anarchic little man who’d stolen the TARDIS to get away from them—stern, controlling judges with effortless power over time and space, who punished the Doctor for his rulebreaking with a dual sentence of death (for his second incarnation) and exile (for his third). But what really got under the Doctor’s skin was that they kept interfering in his life, constantly giving him little tasks to do like saving the Earth, taking out the garbage, stopping intergalactic criminals, washing the car, that kind of thing. That was his relationship with them for the better part of eight seasons, until scriptwriter Robert Holmes finally brought the Doctor back to his home planet in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin.” That show and its sequel, “The Invasion Of Time,” looked into Time Lord society for the first time, and showed it to be bureaucratic and stifling, burdened by ceremony and tradition. It was no wonder the Doctor fled. And in those two shows, while defeating other enemies, the Doctor also wound up changing his relationship with Gallifrey permanently, not only exposing them as a gang of old fogeys but winding up getting elected as their Lord President. He abandoned the job almost immediately, but once that had happened, he’d won: The Time Lords weren’t credible anymore as the series’ cosmic puppet-masters now that he’d proven he could pull their strings. That was a necessary and probably inevitable evolution of the relationship, but it did leave a void at the top of Doctor Who’s hierarchy. Who’d be able to give the Doctor a mission he couldn’t refuse now?
“The Ribos Operation” was the kickoff, and as such it had one of the most important jobs—setting up the arc and getting the whole enterprise moving. And to do that, Williams turned again to Holmes, who seemed like a natural choice—up to this point, he’d written a dozen serials including four season-openers, script-edited the series for three years, and introduced a half-dozen of its most well-loved characters, from villains to the Doctor’s companions to helping create the Third and Fourth Doctors themselves.
Holmes took the ball and ran with it, and “The Ribos Operation” wound up being one of his better works—a fun, tightly constructed caper that pitted two endearingly scruffy con artists against a pompous, mean disgraced ex-dictator whose odiousness made you cheer for his downfall. But it’s also hard to escape the impression that while Holmes dutifully did the job of setting up the chess pieces that formed the Key To Time season-arc, he never actually bought into the whole “cosmic battle between good and evil” thing, and set about undermining it subtly from the beginning by refusing to put the Doctor firmly on the side of the angels.
One interesting thing about the White Guardian’s mission is that it places the Doctor explicitly on the side of law and order—which, as Robert Holmes knew well, isn’t quite a perfect fit. He’s not a galactic policeman, despite what the TARDIS looks like. He’s a mercurial wanderer who pops in and out of situations seemingly at random. Sure, he helps people, but he’s more of a force of chaos than anything else, and to work for the White Guardian, even unwillingly, sets up a tension between him and his nominal boss. Once the actual first mission begins, the story subverts any easy equation that obeying the rules equals doing the right thing.
Holmes also gives the Guardian one of the key traits of the Time Lords in earlier seasons—a hint that he’s somehow in control of the narrative of Doctor Who itself. It’s no accident that the threat he uses to get the Doctor to agree to the quest is that nothing will happen to him, “Nothing at all. Ever.” It’s not dying that the Doctor couldn’t stand, it’s the prospect of no more adventures—in a manner of speaking, he’ll be cancelled.
Meanwhile, the clear representative of law and order can only be the Graf, a power-crazed, arrogant, cruel man who schemes to win back a throne that he clearly lost because he was too unpleasant for his people to stomach him as a ruler. He makes a perfect mark for a con-job story—dour and humorless and eager to use violence where it’s probably not even necessary, it’s easy to feel like he deserves to be rooked. His final psychotic break, ranting about glorious victories of his past while wandering aimlessly into the labyrinth of tunnels, echoes the fate of Klaus Kinski’s mad conquistador swallowed by the jungle at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God—another instance where chaos deserved to win the day.
• Garron proudly admits a double-cross: “I admit I had a great struggle with my conscience. Fortunately, I won!”
• The Doctor chides Romana: “You call that nearly being killed? You haven’t lived yet.”
• The society of Ribos isn’t explored in any great detail, but I like the way the script and the production team sketch out an alien society that feels believable yet convincingly foreign out of some fake snow, quasi-medieval sets and a few surplus Russian fur hats. On the other hand, you really have to use your imagination to see the shrivenzales as scary reptiles beasts and not a stuntman in a rubber suit.
• R.I.P. Caroline John, who played Liz Shaw in Doctor Who’s seventh season.
• Upcoming schedule:
July 8: “Revelation Of The Daleks”
July 22: “Black Orchid”
Aug. 5: “Remembrance Of The Daleks”
Aug. 19: “Ghost Light”
Sept. 2: “The Seeds Of Doom”
Sept. 16: “The Romans”