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The Ribos Operation

Reviewed by Michael Mayo

It's rare on Doctor Who to get treated to a believable alien society. The odd story might indulge in a bit of the above, such as the Solonians in The Mutants or the primitives in Colony in Space, but never has there been one that goes to great lengths to detail a complete picture. Of course, the most complex society would be the Time Lords, but next to them must come the Ribosians.

Full marks to Robert Holmes for these excellent four episodes. Not only do they prove at last that Holmes can create a detailed culture, but they also mark a significant change in the writer's style. This story was very different from his previous works, because instead of relying on action and fast plot development, it relies on suspense and mystery, giving Holmes more time to tell us about life on Ribos.

Despite the fact that the only natives we met were the Captain of the Guard and Binro (Ed: what about the Seeker?), we still had an insight into their lives, and that of everyone else on the planet. It would've been good to see a more higher ranking native, but Holmes has often said he writes best with just a small group of characters, which, incidentally, is why he turned down the offer to do The Five Doctors.

Garron and Unstoffe are to Doctor Who what gold is to a beggar: a dream come true. They were an excellent pair, and it was a joy to watch Garron lying his eyes out in order to run off with the Graff Vynda-K's deposit. Garron was a typical Robert Holmes creation, reminiscent somewhat of Gatherer Hade in The Sun Makers. In TSV 1, Paul Scoones said that Garron and Unstoffe were similar to Glitz and Dibber from The Trial of a Time Lord. Although both are indeed con men, I still think they're a very different duo. For example, Glitz would rob a bank at the first available opportunity, but Garron would wait until the armoured van had delivered first. Got the idea?

The Graff Vynda-K and his guard Sholakh were both excellent too. In the final scenes, where the Graff watches his friend die, and then is blown up himself (by the Doctor!?), one wonders just how much of what Garron said about the Graff being a tyrant was actually true. You couldn't help feeling a bit of pity for him. The sets and props were of an incredibly high standard, so much so that it was hard to believe that the story had been entirely studio-bound. The costumes were also excellent, and I wouldn't be surprised if they had been borrowed from some other BBC production (Ed: You're not surprised: they were indeed - both costumes and sets were left over after filming Anna Karerina, giving Ribos a distinct Siberian Russia look). All this was held together by some good direction from George Spenton-Foster (Image of the Fendahl).

The White Guardian was portrayed well, I thought, because the usual way of showing good beings of supreme power was to have them as shrivelled-up old men (e.g. the Keeper of Traken). Thankfully, this cliché was avoided, adding to the excellent story. Romana is a good companion, and I look forward to her next five stories. Let's hope she doesn't undergo a character degeneration similar to what Leela went through. All in all, a good serial worthy of a high-ranking place in the Season Poll. Unfortunately, because TVNZ aired it as two hour-long parts, the ends of parts one and three were somewhat obscured, but at least we're getting to see these old repeats.

This item appeared in TSV 4 (February 1988).

Index nodes: The Ribos Operation
Reprinted in: Special Reprint Edition