The Ribos Operation ****

The White Guardian sends the Doctor on a season-long quest for the Key to Time and gives him Time Lady companion Romana

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Ribos Operation ****

Season 16 – Story 98

"Please don't panic, Romana. Come and sit down… when you've faced death as often as I have, this is much more fun" - the Doctor

Storyline
The Tardis is stopped in flight by the god-like White Guardian, who commands the Doctor to collect the six segments of the Key to Time. They've been scattered and disguised throughout the cosmos, but must be reassembled to avert eternal chaos. A reluctant Doctor is also saddled with a new assistant, Romana, a haughty graduate from the Time Lord Academy. First stop: the city of Shur on Ribos. It's an inhospitable, feudal world in the grip of an Icetime. Earth-born conman Garron and sidekick Unstoffe are conspiring to sell Ribos to the Graff Vynda-K, a deposed despot from Levithia. They reel him in with a lump of blue jethrik, "the rarest and most valuable element in the galaxy" - which no one yet realises is the first segment of the Key to Time…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 2 September 1978
Part 2 - Saturday 9 September 1978
Part 3 - Saturday 16 September 1978
Part 4 - Saturday 23 September 1978

Production
Studio recording: April 1978 in TC4

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Romana - Mary Tamm
Voice of K•9 - John Leeson
The White Guardian - Cyril Luckham
Garron - Iain Cuthbertson
Unstoffe - Nigel Plaskitt
Graff Vynda-K - Paul Seed
Sholakh - Robert Keegan
Captain - Prentis Hancock
Binro - Timothy Bateson
The Seeker - Ann Tirard
Shrieves - Oliver Maguire, John Hamill

Crew
Writer - Robert Holmes
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Ken Ledsham
Script editor - Anthony Read
Producer - Graham Williams
Director - George Spenton-Foster

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Season 16 acts for me like comfort TV. Its six stories provide a rich and varied degustation menu, some dishes more appetising than others, but each a tantalising taster of new humanoid societies (Ribos, Zanak, Diplos, Tara, Delta Magna, Atrios) - all of which could be, but never have been, savoured again.

Violence, horror and chills have ceded to humour, fun and adventure. Royalty and rogues replace maniacs and monsters; if the latter do appear, they're a sideshow and usually rubbish, but no matter. And in the quest for the Key to Time, we have an umbrella theme that engenders a sense of purpose lacking from Doctor Who for many moons.

It's easy now to forget the impact of the Tardis being stopped in flight by the hitherto-unheard-of Guardian, a deity above the level of Time Lord. To a magnificent organ fanfare, the doors are forced open, our hero is bathed in a golden light and a god-like voice booms, "Doctor, your presence is required." That this moment is neatly followed by the depiction of the Guardian as a twinkly colonial gentleman, perhaps on his way to Raffles, is typical of the deftness script editor Anthony Read brings to the series.

It was Read, not Robert Holmes, who crafted this opening scene, which elegantly sets up the premise for the season. One could almost imagine it as a reiteration of a meeting between Graham Williams and Tom Baker, as producer laid out his plans to reluctant star. (Doctor: "And if I don't? …Nothing? You mean nothing will happen to me?" Guardian: "Nothing at all. Ever." And later: "An assistant? Please, sir, on an assignment like this I'd much rather work alone.")

Ice maiden Romana is radically different from noble savage Leela. A rapid progression from the previous story's wet Rodan, she reminds us that, yes, women do exist and command respect in Time Lord society. Beneath the permafrost Mary Tamm suggests currents of warmth and looks stunning in a floor-length frock and snowy fleece that Marlene Dietrich would kill for. Romana's poise, intellect and hauteur sharply counterpoint the Doctor's scruffy, disreputable persona, and we sympathise with him when she claims he's "suffering from a massive compensation syndrome," and "We have a negative empathy."

As a side note, Romana is specifically introduced as "assistant", only the third in the series' history (after Liz and Jo). Also, despite succinct Gallifreyan names in recent outings, Williams/Read have decided to call her "Romanadvoratrelundar", even if Tamm pronounces it "Romanadvoratnalundar". Tom Baker also uses "…nalundar" in The Stones of Blood, and we will only hear it spoken "correctly" once - by Lalla Ward in Warriors' Gate.

By now, a pattern is in place for K•9's involvement: to feature early on in humorous Tardis exchanges then be summoned halfway into the plot - and, for me, he begins his transition from irritation to icon. Rather than growling at intruders, he bleats, "Sentient life forms approaching." What's not to love? Even mistress Romana warms to him: "There's a good computer."

The Ribos Operation is one of a small band of Doctor Who stories (many written by Holmes) that, despite a handful of sets and characters, manages to suggest an entire society. Beyond the relic room, Graff's quarters, concourse and catacombs, we believe there is a city called Shur, surrounded by a forbidding tundra with "several settlements to the north". It may be, as Garron says, beyond the comprehension of the "primitive, brutish peasants", but we also accept that Ribos is part of the Greater Cyrrhenic Empire and protected by the Levithian Alliance. Such is the scope and precision of Holmes' drip-feed dialogue.

"He's a terrible ham at heart," says galactic conman Garron of his protégé Unstoffe - a sentiment applicable to almost every member of this overripe cast. Even without his voluminous furs, Iain Cuthbertson is a screen-swamping presence. Such a shame Garron ("I don't sell mines, Doctor. I sell planets") never returned to the series.

Challenging him for prize-winning prosciutto are Nigel Plaskitt with Unstoffe's tall tale of scringe stone told in a cod Somerset accent; Paul Seed visibly salivating over the Graff's warmongering diatribes; and Ann Tirard as the delirious, daubed, bone-rattling Seeker. All good stuff.

But now I must hold up my hand to heresy: against popular opinion, I confess I cannot abide Binro the Heretic. His subplot may offer better-than-average filler, but Timothy Bateman's wheezing and gurning surpass even my appetite for gammon. And Unstoffe's line "One day, even here, in the future, men will turn to each other and say, 'Binro was right' " really tests my gag reflex.

The show's star, of course, can more than hold his own among such outré personalities. Tom Baker begins his fifth year in confident mood, even as the fourth Doctor is chastened by the arrival of the Guardian and Romana. He delights in Garron's company and is unfazed by the Graff's threats. Baker's mugging during the second cliffhanger may destroy the tension but the pay-off in part three ("Get up, you cringing cur/Don't hit the cringing cur", slapping the Graff with his own gloves) is comedy gold.

The risible Shrivenzale and its floppy claws aside (as I said earlier, no matter), this is an assured production, recorded entirely within Studio 4 at Television Centre. There are few effects, gorgeous costumes and fine sets, be they well-lit "exteriors" or the candlelit Hall of the Dead. Dudley Simpson provides one of his most entrancing scores in years.

A commendable start to a season but no pause for breath… Back in the Tardis the Doctor lets his comely new assistant transform the jethrik. "The first segment," he murmurs. "Simple, wasn't it? Only five more to go…" Can't wait.

- - -

Radio Times archive

The magazine looked back over the changing role of the companion in Who's girls (part one) (part two)

Here's a clean version of the lovely close-up shot of Tom Baker and Mary Tamm

RT billings

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

[Available on BBC DVD]