‘The Ribos Operation’ (1978) – Thoughts

Moving on to the opener from season sixteen and even more quirky adventures from Robert Holmes, this time regarding the attempt by a pair of confidence tricksters to peddle a medieval planet to a murderous exiled despot. The Doctor meanwhile is (somewhat reluctantly) present as he has been tasked with obtaining the six segments of the Key to Time, thus giving this story and the whole season an overiding arc.

‘The Key to Time’ is a device to get the Doctor (and the programme) to focus on something a little different than the normal triumph leading to liberation and/or escape. Here he’s given an detection device (to home in on the pieces of the key) and also another Time Lord, Romana (the spectacularly glamorous Mary Tamm), to assist him. Accordingly they are directed towards the medieval realm of Ribos, where they get to work breaking into the jewel room.

Whilst they are commencing this, we find that the conmen, (the garrolous) Garron and the younger, greener Unstoffe are also engaged in breaking and entering, albeit one step ahead of the Doctor and Romana. This confused me a bit; as following the Doctor’s failure to retrieve the missing piece of the key and complete the mission in the first ten minutes, the remainder of episode one moves on to Garron’s endeavours to convince the Graff Vynda-K to buy Ribos from him. It’s eventually explained that the the two strands of plot, the con and the Doctor’s quest, are not independent of each other but existenially bound – they’re both after the same lump of rock.

Ribos is superbly presented (set, costume and direction) as a pesudo-slavonic medieval kingdom, all masonry, snow and candlelight. It doesn’t extend to much in the way of a travelog though (by comparison with ‘Snakedance’ five years later for example). There are only two local characters: the Captain of the Guards, who holds the keys to the storeroom and unknowingly enables Garron’s deception (eventually the Graff’s fury causes the Captain to lose patience and act as an agent of the destruction in episode 4)

The other local character is Binro the heretic, who by his scientific curiosity causes the absent society of Ribos to be damned in its omission. The scene between him and Unstoffe, which forms much of the third episode, is touching and moving. In fact it’s rather curious how Holmes moves much of the audience identification from the shoulders of the Doctor and his assistant onto those of Garron (played as a rogue with the customary charm of Iain Cuthbertson) and Unstoffe (a nice performance by Nigel Plaskitt).

The Doctor meanwhile, is very businesslike, certainly by comparison with the two series 15 stories I previously watched (where he is centre stage). Romana meanwhile looks on, detachedly remarking on proceedings, her pure white costume alluding to a lack of practical experience. For the last two episodes, the Doctor is either lounging around bantering with Garron, then in disguise trailing the Graff in silence (what concludes the plot is the Graff succumbing to his madness and impatience).

One last thing: it was nice to finally put an serial/story/adventure against the publicity shots of Tom Baker in chainmail (as he appears at the end of episode four), such as used on the cover of the 1980 annual:

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