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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Ribos Operation”

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“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?

And producer Graham Williams came up with an answer: God. Well, not exactly God, but something like an off-brand equivalent: The White Guardian, who worked eternally against his opposite Black Guardian to balance the forces of the universe. And Williams came up with a way to involve the Doctor: A quest, and one of epic scope never seen before on the series—over the course of the entire season, on orders from the White Guardian, he’d go off in search of the Key To Time. A crystal cube in six pieces that had been disguised as other objects and scattered throughout the cosmos, the Key, once assembled, would give its wielder the power to stop time itself. So, big stakes. The quest format also appealed to Williams as a way of continuing to lighten the tone of the series after the gothic-horror years of seasons 12-14.

“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.


But let’s pick up at the beginning: The Fourth Doctor (played by toothy, energetically eccentric Tom Baker) and his robot dog K9 are in the TARDIS planning a vacation (from what, exactly?) when the ship is stopped mid-flight and the doors open of their own volition, filling the console room with blinding white light. It’s not quite a burning bush, but the message is the same. Outside, an old man with a white beard—the Guardian—awaits, lounging on a wicker chair and sipping a glass of wine. And he tells the Doctor why he needs the Key found, in terms that are scarily cosmos-threatening while not actually committing to anything specific, possibly because none of the writing staff knew at that point where they were going with all this, and hadn’t come up with the ending yet. “Forces within the universe [have] upset the balance,” and they need to act “before the Universe is plunged into eternal chaos.” If that seems needlessly vague, it’s only 10 minutes into a 26-episode season, and there will be time later to expand on that. That’s probably the biggest problem with the season, though—the Doctor is always looking for segments of the Key, but questions of why he’s looking and the consequences of success or failure are never really addressed. He doesn’t even encounter a rival Key-seeker until the last story of the season. That, however, isn’t the fault of “The Ribos Operation,” which only needs to start the journey, not end it.

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.


There’s one more introduction before we get to Ribos. Returning to the TARDIS, the Doctor meets his new assistant—brought in with a minimum of fuss by simply having her already be there when he gets back, brought by the Guardian’s power. This is Romana, another Gallifreyan like the Doctor, played with arch humor by Mary Tamm. (Romana version one, that is—the next season, her character would regenerate and the role taken up by Lalla Ward.) Her first scene sets the tone for her time on the show: She’s lacking in his experience but his intellectual equal or even superior in many ways, and not afraid to let him know that. Something of an ice queen (dressed in white, even), all businesslike and serious, Romana makes a fine foil to the Fourth Doctor’s eccentric, unserious and volatile personality. She’s not really happy to be considered merely the Doctor’s assistant, and he’s not really happy to have her getting in his way. (Which, intentionally or not, reflected the way the actors felt about things in real life, and one of the reasons Tamm left after one season.) Unlike most companions, Romana’s not only able but all too willing to talk back, and flummoxes him by refusing to be impressed and even implying that he’s old and over-the-hill. It’s pretty rare for a companion to take the Doctor down a peg like that—Liz Shaw, Peri Brown, Tegan Jovanka, and Donna Noble are the only others that spring to mind—and Romana’s particular skill at the task is unexcelled. Which was a good thing, since Tom Baker’s high-wattage performance often badly needed some counterbalance, especially in the last couple of years he played the role. And it didn’t hurt that having the main characters bicker and argue was a good springboard for comedy, which helped the overall goal of making Doctor Who funnier and more lighthearted.


Now that the cosmic-scale, season-spanning story has been introduced, “The Ribos Operation” dives into its main tale, and it’s interesting to note how much it subtly undermines what the Guardian has just finished telling the Doctor the season is supposed to be about. Collecting the Key may be a race against time to preserve order, but Holmes chooses a story format here, the crime caper, that emphasizes rogues and rebels, and encourages us to root for the triumph of people whose primary desire is to break the law. (Holmes loved con men and charlatans, and made them major figures not only in this story but earlier ones like “Carnival Of Monsters,” “Talons Of Weng-Chiang,” and even the Master’s introduction in “Terror Of The Autons.”) For a supposed soldier of order, the Doctor allies himself quite easily with the duplicitous Garron, a man clearly after his own hearts, and against the unpleasant Graf Vynda K. Though he pretends to be a policeman out to arrest Garron, it’s solely to get information out of him, and he never intervenes to prevent Garron’s scheme to defraud the Graf. He sees Garron as a kindred soul.


The disguised segment of the Key, appropriately enough, is a gemstone—a platter-sized hunk of the rare mineral jethrik, valued because it allows space travel. It’s being used by Garron to lure the Graf into his scheme to sell him a piece of property he doesn’t actually own, namely the planet Ribos itself. (In case it’s not clear, Ribos is a planet that hasn’t developed beyond medieval technology yet and doesn’t know about alien worlds, which is why Garron, the Graf, and all the other offworlders are dressed in furs and suits of armor—they’re in disguise.) The jethrik functions in the story like a classic Hitchcockian Macguffin, an object that motivates all the major characters, albeit for different reasons. For the Doctor and Romana, it’s the first object in their quest. For the Graf, it means riches enough to buy an army to take back his throne. And for Garron and Unstoffe, it’s the key not only to their current con, but apparently many earlier ones—and Garron seems to understand that it’s a fake underneath, considering that he tells Romana that “I don't think it's worth all that much.”
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.


And then there’s Binro—a minor side character who never even meets the Doctor, unless you count him being shot to death in front of him, but who might be Holmes’ slyest way of thumbing his nose at the idea that the Doctor is now taking orders from God. Binro’s realization that the little lights in the sky are really other stars with other planets is a recapitulation of Galileo’s persecution for daring to suggest the Earth revolves around the sun, an idea that ranked the religious establishment of his day. Binro’s friendship with the kind-hearted grifter’s apprentice Unstoffe provides “The Ribos Operation” with its only moments of real emotional resonance, but his story also serves as a bit of iconoclasm in an otherwise apolitical genre tale, and a reminder that order for its own sake is oppressive if it insists on enforcing rules (and facts) that are wrong.

Stray observations

• 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”