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The Ribos Operation

Reviewed by Peter Adamson

'Look, I'm sure there are other Time Lords who would be absolutely delighted -'
'I chose you.'
'Yes, I was afraid you'd say that. Ah! You want me to volunteer, is that it?'
'And if I don't?'
'Nothing? You mean nothing will happen to me?'
'Nothing at all. Ever.'

Thus begins The Ribos Operation, the first story of the six-part Key to Time season. In the brief prologue in which the [White] Guardian addresses the Doctor and sends him on his mission, aided by Romanadvoratrelundar, the concept for what is to be an 'umbrella device' plot spanning an entire season is introduced. The idea is simple: the eternal struggle between Good and Evil (or perhaps more appropriately, the struggle between Order and Chaos) is embodied in the White Guardian and his off-screen counterpart, and the solution to this is the formation of the six segments of the Key to Time. The battle between the forces of Light and Darkness is a staple Doctor Who theme, and the season structure differs little from Terry Nation's The Keys of Marinus, but as an entire season the device has thus far been unique. For better or worse, the prologue to the story proper, The Ribos Operation sets a precedent for the following six stories: one theme, six fragments, a new companion, and the fate of the entire Universe in the hands of two Time Lords.

Standing apart from the season entire, The Ribos Operation has little to recommend it for the casual viewer. There are no returning villains or monsters; special effects are limited to a few blasters and K9's rock-disintegrating nose-gun. The story is shot in studio, with one rather unthreatening monster thrown in. The story borrows from no particular idea rather than an intrigue, a treasure, hunt, and some well-run sleight-of-hand routines. Despite all of these things, The Ribos Operation works well within its function within the season: it sets up the premise for the search for the fragments, offers resistance in a villain and anti-hero who are surprisingly not connected with the Black Guardian (by appearances). By its unassuming nature the story kicks off the season by offering few surprises; in essence by offering nothing flash - no familiar past faces or monsters, no guest stars or glitzy special effects; just an entertaining story with nothing to sidetrack the viewer from the Big Issue - the Key to Time itself. In addition to this is an example of a Robert Holmes script less celebrated than its peers and others by Holmes, but which shows just what can be done with a simple story idea, traditional characters, and a studio-bound production team.


One of the successes of the story is its setting; the city of Shurr on the mediaeval world of Ribos. The world itself is never indicated outside the conversations of the players, and in same, it is noteworthy that only three of these characters are genuine natives of Ribos: the Shrieve Captain, Binro the Heretic, and the Seeker. Every other figure is an 'alien', and it is through these people and their exchanges with the Ribans that more of the planet's nature is revealed. Romana says that it is a grade 3 planet (comparable to Earth's being a grade 4); Garron claims the Ribans have yet to discover the telescope. The Seeker perpetuates the myth of Ribans two seasons; Ice-Time, and Sun-Time, being the result of the warring Ice and Sun Gods who dwell in the catacombs below the city. Only Binro can see past the imaginary blanket of 'ice crystals' over his world and recognise them as other suns. His discoveries are scorned by the ignorant population, who like the Shrieve Captain are easily duped by offworlders claiming they are simply 'from the North'. This ignorance has its own part to play in the story by making the threat of the Graff Vynda-K all the more real to the planet's simple inhabitants. The Captain (the highest Riban authority figure in the story) is rendered speechless when the Graff and Sholakh shoots spear-bearing Shrieves with laser blasters, and the only threat the city of Shurr can offer these war-mongering invaders in return is a collapsed labyrinth system inhabited by a colony of Shrivenzales.

The setting of Shurr is conveyed well through around ten sets representing four distinct locations: the crown jewel room, the Graft's quarters, the Concourse, and the catacombs. The sets are well designed and lighting contributes to the atmosphere greatly. Polystyrene snow (which is quite adequate) covers the studio floor, and in the Concourse scenes real torches provide illumination, just as genuine candlelight features in the superb cavern sequences.

Dudley Simpson's score is underestimated in its evocation of Ribos' infant nobility. There is a nice marriage between the score and script in the opening Riban scenes as curfew bells toll in the Concourse. This sort of detail, where the story's first two episodes are punctuated by the rituals of Shurr's city guards, provides an effective means of slowing down the pace of the story, drawing the viewer into longer descriptive scenes before the story's pacier, movement-based second half kicks in.

In all, the production design complements the scripts well, and in places recalls the gothic elements of Holmes' script-editing period during Seasons Twelve and Thirteen. Here also the costumes and makeup parallel the mood of the story - of an underlying bleakness within Shurr's society where half of its citizens' lives will be spent in winter, and visionaries are kept in tow by residual superstition. If The Androids of Tara, with its heraldic pageantry and Elizabethan Court splendour is high 'fantasy', then The Ribos Operation's snowbound Ottoman-styled mediaevalism with its animal skins and cold mausoleum stone is definitely 'low fantasy'.

Character and Plot

It has been a recent trend to see Robert Holmes' stories as embodying certain well-worn traditions of plot and character. Certainly with The Space Pirates, Spearhead from Space, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and most of The Trial of a Time Lord very little new ground is covered. The Ribos Operation follows suit to an extent, and though no direct source is identifiable the scenario is not altogether unfamiliar - a dovetailing of a quest-motif, the Graft's desperate clutch for power, and Garron's wily scheme to dupe his customer at any hazard all result in a race and swap-about over the nugget of jethryk.

Holmes enhances the story by incorporating others via his characters. With the exception of the Shrieve Captain, who is really no more than a cipher and whose sole purpose is to further the Graft's demise, every supporting character reveals their motives by having a story to tell. No story is complete in its telling by each character, and so the storytelling is shared as each character comes into play with another. Holmes achieves this by employing a traditional favourite of his: the duo. As in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Jago and Litefoot) and The Mysterious Planet (Glitz and Dibber), the Doctor and his companion are challenged by an, alternative pairing of 'rogues' in Unstoffe and Garron. Significantly, the Graff Vynda-K and his henchman Sholakh complete another pairing, though theirs' is separate for reasons which will become obvious later.

Throughout the story, each pair-group undergoes a different combination during which more about each character is revealed. The Doctor and Romana are initially set against each other and then meet Garron; and whilst in captivity by the Graff, Garron tells something of his own story, specifically that he is from Earth, is duping the Graff and knows the Graff to be desperate and unstable 'a madman's coins jingle in my pockets as well as anyone's'. Before this, we have heard of the Graft's exile and downfall, as told by the Graff himself to Garron. Meanwhile Unstoffe has escaped to the Concourse where he meets Binro (Binro's tale serves as both personal testimony and a critique of Riban learning), and later in the catacombs, Unstoffe provides more of an insight into Garron when he tells Binro that this is to be their last job together, and that Garron may well retire. Whether this becomes true or not is never revealed and may be in some doubt - Garron secures a deposit on the planet's sale from the Graff of two million opeks, but tells Unstoffe that there was only one million. Similarly, the revelation of the Graff's ship, complete with eighteen years' worth of booty is slightly too opportunistic to write both off too soon.

Each pair brought to Ribos has some element of desperation in their motives. The Doctor and Romana must retrieve the first segment before the Black Guardian tracks it, and them, down. The Graff and Sholakh are motivated by the Graft's lust for revenge, while Garron and Unstoffe are led on by the promise of this being their last mission, a matter urged further in Garron's suspicion that the Doctor and Romana are law enforcement agents (reciprocally, the Doctor initially wonders whether Garron is an agent for the Black Guardian!). This idea is captured neatly in the story's title; while the 'Operation' could be the Doctor and Romana's search for the segment, it could also refer to any of the characters' search for the missing jethryk - the reference changes hands as much as the nugget does!

Another tendency in critics of Holmes' work is to see his supporting characters as types often lacking depth. Garron and Unstoffe fall prey to this most frequently because they are seen to be obvious reinterpretations of other comic duos of Holmes' stories. Any such similarities are probably not unintentional; as with a children/young adults' series such as Doctor Who, the employment and play on standard types of character are necessary in respect to the tradition of short stories with only a few central characters remaining constant. Certainly with Graham Williams' brief to inject more humour into the series after the violent and doom-laden gothic period of Hinchcliffe and Holmes, the inclusion of such light characters seems fitting.

The Graff Vynda-K is another type at first glance: the power-mad, crazed despot. He is worthy of a closer examination, however, in respect to his development within the story and the significance of his relationship with Sholakh. When first we see the Graff he is immediately unpleasant; bitter and curt. An exile from his reign, he has returned from a long campaign of war to have been ejected by his half-brother, and is now left with a retainer and a retinue of four royal guards, and must bargain with petty swindlers like Garron. He is therefore a pathetic character, and it is only when Garron boasts of his client's paranoid delusions that suspicion falls on the Graff as anything but a sympathetic figure. Yet throughout the story, the Graff remains a threat beyond his sadistic tendencies (which begin to surface as late as Episode Three) because he is supported at all times by his henchman Sholakh. It is Sholakh who has become conscience and counsel to the Graff during his campaign and now in his exile. We see this when Sholakh suspects Garron of treachery throughout while his liege cannot, believing simply that 'No-one would dare to make a fool of the Graff Vynda-K'. As the jethryk is taken further from his grasp, the Graff becomes more desperate and less stable, and Sholakh's role as emotional crutch for the Graff becomes more firmly established. As the Graff takes more control of the situation, he once more becomes the pathetic figure he began as, and predictably at Sholakh's death becomes utterly unhinged, killing all around him to be the only fated survivor of the catacombs so he might return to fight once again. Ironically both jethryk and foe are in his immediate grasp at this time, and as for his death, quite plainly at the hands of the Doctor, we can only surmise that his destruction was an act of mercy and caution.

Other characters hold significant roles. Binro appeals most because, despite the Graff's ranting and rampaging, he is the main focus of pathos. He is curious in that his dynamic function is purely to allow Unstoffe's safe harbour and escape into the catacombs, which, if we were to believe that Unstoffe was any sort of thief, would be scarcely necessary if he had his wits about him. What Binro is able to do is tell his story, which not only sets the scene for Unstoffe's revelation that Binro's theories are correct, but allows the viewer to identify with Unstoffe immediately, a matter not completely allowed at the beginning of the story due to other plot devices set in motion. Binro therefore is a catalyst entirely - of small consequence to the action, but of great importance in the restoration of our sympathy for the remaining supporting characters Unstoffe and Garron.

Of all the characters in The Ribos Operation the most disappointing are the White Guardian and Romana. The Guardian is problematic because by his nature he ought to be an enigma much like the Doctor himself. His main role in the story is to set things in order, specifically for the season, which he does - sitting down at that! As a self-contained scene, the prologue is effective - if cheesy at times - potentially in Baker's Doctor behaving so petulantly that it is hard to take his audience with one of the Supreme Being's seriously. The casual 'M and Bond' nature of this meeting is dealt with mercifully briefly and returns only for the season's climax. Beyond this, Cyril Luckham has little to do and, despite having a wonderful line in subdued menace, can only sit and wait for the Doctor's success.

Mary Tamm's Romana suffers also from having a brief function. Initially haughty and by all appearances promising to deliver the come-uppance deserving of the Doctor mooted in the popular press of the day, her impact is reduced when she falls too quickly into the traditional role of the companion. For a triple-first student at the Academy she is strangely out of her depth confronting a less than convincing Shrivenzale at the climax to Part One. Touted as being the Doctor's equal, this is not a good start to Romana's time in the TARDIS, otherwise so far as performing the duties set down for her by the 'High Council', Romana becomes the stereotypical companion very well...

In spite of its few faults, The Ribos Operation emerges a less celebrated masterpiece, dwarfed too often by its immediate neighbours and seen too often as being a small link in a larger story. As a Robert Holmes creation it is indicative of the writer's love of character and comic relief - there is some wonderful repartee between Garron and the Doctor, and Holmes' rogue gets all the best lines. Ribos is a triumph because it makes a simple idea work so well, demanding little above normal from the viewer and delivering a memorable and conceivable moment from beginning to end. Aided by a strong cast and production values which belie many of the pitfalls of later years, Ribos is visually and aurally a treat. As the best installment of the Key to Time season it is functionally self-knowing, while capable of also existing in its own right. Like the first segment itself, the story's harmlessly modest exterior warrants closer examination to see the prize within.

This item appeared in TSV 45 (September 1995).

Index nodes: The Ribos Operation