The Ribos Operation
"Doctor, you have been chosen for a vitally important task ... it concerns the
Key to Time ..."
Thus is introduced one of the most innovative structures behind a Doctor Who season.
The idea of an umbrella theme was one which had never been tried before, since it placed
various limits on the creative resources available to the writers. However, it was deemed
successful enough by John Nathan-Turner to be the structure for The Trial of a Timelord in
1986. Despite this connection there is one main difference between the two seasons. The
success that Nathan-Turner must have associated with Season 16 comes from every story
being an adventure in its own right, with only the occasional reference to the Key (ie.
the structure) necessary. In The Ribos Operation this is illustrated clearly; although it
introduces the structure for the season, the Key to Time element within the story is made
part of the adventure. In no way does it draw attention from the occurrences on Ribos -
the story is an entity in itself. In Trial, a series which suffered badly from basic
looseness in the structure but which is still very reasonable Doctor Who, the constant
scenes in the trial room of the "present" time gave it a rather bitty feel; the
trial sequences break up the continuity of the story on screen. Thus it might be argued
that the very idea behind the season affected the eventual production adversely. This is
not so in Season 16; the idea behind this provides the season with a positive bonus.
To start such a season with its overall theme, it was necessary to have a very good
story to start it off, and thus capture and maintain the interest of the audience. With
The Ribos Operation producer Graham Williams and script- editor Anthony Read succeeded in
doing so. Written by Doctor Who's best author, Robert Holmes, The Ribos Operation almost
inevitably is a story rich in content and style. Certainly the script is the best of the
season. Typically, Holmes makes the dialogue natural for the character types and the
character interrelationships are instantly believable. There are three main groups in the
story: the Doctor and Romana, Garron and Unstoffe, and the Graff Vynda K and his general
Sholakh. In all these cases, their background is fleshed out - we are even reminded of the
Doctor's academic qualifications - and their motives well understood. Even the brief
appearance of the White Guardian gives the viewer a lot to catch on to, as he gently
blackmails the Doctor into accepting both the task and his new companion, by exploiting
the Doctor's love for interference. If the Doctor refuses the White Guardian's offer
"nothing will happen" to him, "ever". To fully appreciate The Ribos
Operation, it is necessary to examine the way in which the writer has achived this effect.
The story is significant especially in that it introduced Mary Tamm's Romana. It is
immediately obvious that this new companion will represent a considerable threat to the
Doctor's intellectual superiority, a fact that the Doctor very much resents. In this way
there is a complete contrast with the savage Leela of the previous season; there the
Doctor was dictating the necessary knowledge to both audience and Leela. But now the
Doctor finds himself being dictated to by this new upstart, a companion forced upon him by
the White Guardian. Through- out the story the Doctor is determined to prove himself to
his new companion. Although he ultimately succeeds, he finds her initial scepticism
extremely annoying. There is little of the warmth he later developed with Romana #2, which
was so obvious by the Metro scenes of City of Death. The following exchange sums up the
early Roman/Doctor feuding and wonderfully illustrates the skill of Robert Holmes :
DOCTOR This isn't going to work.
ROMANA Doctor, you're not giving me a chance. It's funny, you know, but before I met
you I was even willing to be impressed.
ROMANA Oh yes. Of course I now realise that your behaviour simply derives from a
subtransitory experiential hypertoid induced condition, aggravated, I expect, by
DOCTOR What's that supposed to mean?
ROMANA Well, to put it very simply, you're suffering from a massive compensation
DOCTOR Is that the sort of rubbish they're pouring into your head at the Academy?
ROMANA Do you know, I might even use your case in my thesis.
Romana's intellectual snobbery is constant throughout the story. She tells the Doctor
that "we have a negative empathy" and diagnoses both the Doctor's
"sarcasm" and Garron's "social maladjustment" in typically medicinal
terms. Yet for all her expertise, she lacks the Doctor's vast experience, an asset which
Holmes brings out very well. The Doctor realises this very early on, and determines that
this is the medium through which he is going to prove himself. Throughout the story this
contrast is used : Romana is very naive about the Shrievenzales, thinks that "we can
explain" their presence in the throne room, and does not suspect Unstoffe on the
grounds that "he had such an honest face". All these opportunities are seized by
the Doctor, after his initial sulk, to prove his worldly knowledge.
Tom Baker's acting is very good in this story, along with the entire cast. He plays the
more flamboyant moments extravagantly, but confidently adopts the right attitude for the
serious ones. He delivers his lines to Romana with a universal confidence in his
experience and capabilities. There are consequently several moments of delicious irony :
just as he explains that "the secret of survival is always to expect the
unexpected", a paradox in itself, he is ensnared in a primitive trap. However,
ultimately the Doctor's experience shows : he immediately realises that the Jethryk is the
Segment because of the coordinates having changed; Romana's inexperience of any world
outside Gallifrey prevents her from doing so. In some ways the situation is similar to the
one in The Wheel in Space when the Doctor gains a quick point over Zoe by suggesting that
they x-ray the "Gordian Knot" of the quick set plastic. In both cases the point
is made : practical experience is often more valuable than intellectual knowledge.
In some ways this contrast is drawn between the experienced Garron and his minion
Unstoffe. These characters are extremely well drawn. The audience is invited to sympathise
with them as the Graff closes in : they are essentially pleasant people, although the
writer uses them to set up a potential red herring by giving the Doctor a line speculating
about the possibility that they are really agents for the Black Guardian, and thus adding
the chance for a darker side to the two which he does not actually make use of. Holmes
uses their background extensively, especially that of Garron, via the use of English
accents and slang ("All right officer, I'll come quietly") and a mixture of
radio slang when using their communication bracelets : "Wilco" and
"Roger" are examples of this typically Holmesian technique. Although references
to Sydney Opera House and Harbour are a bit far-fetched, the audience can identify with
Garron, especially when Unstoffe talks about the perceived grottiness of Garron's home.
The character relationship is again well crafted, as is shown when they first enter the
Crown Chamber :
GARRON Have you got the Jethryk?
UNSTOFFE Of course.
GARRON Well, don't drop it, whatever. Guard it with your life.
GARRON I mean, just ... just guard it. Remember its value!
It has been said that Garron is a prototype of the recent Glitz character, and to an
extent this is true. They both show a contempt for the natives, and both have similar
views over profit and conscience. However Garron is a con man on a grander scale : "I
sell planets," he announces proudly. It is hard to see Glitz doing something on this
scale - in fact it's hard to see Glitz getting as far as second-hand cars! Secondly, Glitz
is more callous, especially when he plans the deaths of the Underground Dwellers in part
two of Trial. Garron is not the sort of character to indulge in mass murder. Garron
actually has more in common with Drax of The Armageddon Factor in background and style.
What he essentially is is a typically rich Holmes character in a typical double act. This
depth of character that is given to him is emphasised by some of the ironies Holmes
involves him in. His comment on the Graff carrying so many opecs to the Captain is
excellent : "He's putting temptation in the way of dishonest citizens"; and his
closing comment of "Is there nobody you can trust these days?" is a self
Finally, as concerns characterisation, there is the Graff and Sholakh. Again the
rapport that Holmes establishes is immediately convincing. The extremely good acting which
is prevalent throughout the story - it looks as if the actors are enjoying playing their
parts and are appreciating the reality which every part has to offer - is a great bonus in
portraying the clever handling of the characters. In this case, constant references to the
past expeditions of the Graff and the Graff's background being revealed by Garron gives
the character the necessary depth. The Graff Vynda K is a man who has been driven to
distraction and ultimately madness by his desperation to regain his throne. It is this
desperation that Garron tries to exploit and the Jethryk is the final bait to draw the
Graff into the trap. Although a reference is made to the concept of being "rich
beyond the dreams of avarice", the story is more concerned with determination and
desperation to achieve a goal, and how that can be exploited by unscrupulous people. The
Graff wants Ribos for its supposed Jethryk, and he wants Jethryk to buy and obtain the
resources to regain his throne. The Jethryk is a means to an end, and not an end in
itself. This is the basis for Garron's plan. However, the Graff is not an easy gull; he is
both clever and cynical. However he is so completely unbalanced and is frantic to obtain
his unrealistic goal, and so he is willing to give Garron the benefit of the doubt, even
when he finds the hidden microphone.
The story is also concerned with contrast : the experience/inexperience contrast, and a
superstition, ancient/science/modern contrast. Ribos reflects the earth of the late middle
ages. Garron even makes a reference to the native belief that the planet is flat. The
Guards believe that the Catacombs are "the home of the long dead and of the Ice
Gods". This sort of primitive superstition leads the Captain of the Guards to blow up
the entrance to the Catacombs; it is symbolised by the Seeker via her powers of Extra
Sensory Perception. It is contrasted with the icy views of the Graff and with the heresy
of Binro; that the stars are in fact suns and not Ice Crystals. Of course ultimately
science wins, but it seems that the inhabitants of Ribos are left with their
superstitions, and the strange men "from the North" are forgotten about. The
intrusion of the Graff and the Doctor will leave no lasting impression. There is also a
clever contrast between the immortality of the Guardians and the relatively emphemeral
nature of the Doctor's life, when the Guardian speaks of a length of time which is
"eternal as you understand the term". This reminder of the Doctor's mortality is
very necessary in a programme which is dependent on the title character remaining alive.
Blake's Seven was able to dispense with Blake for two seasons, and even make constant
inferences via Avon and Servalan that Blake was indeed dead. However Doctor Who could not
do the same with the Doctor. Perhaps this is because Doctor Who does not contain a
character with the necessary strength to carry the show, as Blake's Seven did in Avon and
Vila. Nevertheless, such a reminder that the Doctor can indeed die is important because it
awakens the audience to this possibility and thus enhances the danger.
Overall The Ribos Operation holds together well, not only in the script, which is
literally brilliant (The pages glow in the dark?), but also in the production.
The direction by George Spenton-Foster is very good and puts to good effect the superb
sets by Ken Ledsham, especially those of the Crown Chamber and the Hall of the Dead, which
is very well realised, giving an excellent feel of claustrophobia with all its candles,
and June Hudson's costumes, which reflect the Siberian conditions of Ribos by adapting a
19th Century Russian design. Perhaps the most effective example of this direction is in
the scene with the White Guardian and the Doctor, which is effectively realised by a neat
mix of long shots and close-ups, backed up by the organ noise of the incidental score,
which generally complements the visuals well. The direction of the Shrievenzales is good
too, making quite an unreal monster into a realistic threat, particularly in the
Catacombs. The adventure is marked by the typically lighter approach of Williams, but it
doesn't suffer from slapstick. The humorous moments are genuinely amusing, even the more
dubious scene when the Doctor slaps the Graff's face in reply to a similar act by the
Graff! This lighter approach is really symbolised in this era by the character of the
Doctor, who became a much more flamboyant and flippant personality. This new direction is
evident in this story : the Doctor relaxes and laughs with Garron while a guard stands
outside with orders to kill them, because "it's much more fun" than worrying
like Romana. However, at no time does he underestimate the threat or the seriousness of
the position he is in : "If we don't get out of here a lot of people are going to
die," he remarks. This is a point which is all too often ignored by reviewers of the
Williams era. The Doctor is flippant, but underneath he is nearly always serious - perhaps
with the exception of The Horns of Nimon.
The Ribos Operation is one of the most underrated Doctor Who stories and one of the
best and most subtle stories of the late 1970s. It is strong in every department and can
unite all its strengths into a single coherent and absorbing tale. It is only missing the
classic status it deserves because it has been so often ignored and overlooked.
Issue three contents
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