Tony Fyler thaws the cold, cold heart of Ribos.
That seems about the right word for The Ribos Operation. The first story of the Key To Time season, Doctor Who’s first real dabbling with the sophistication of a series arc, it’s received really just a little love over the years from fans, and even that seems to have been more directed at its novelization by Ian Marter than at the actual broadcast version.
While there are some fairly straightforward reasons why The Ribos Operation might be poorly thought of – the basic nature of the objective, the unnecessarily complex backstory and increasingly unlikeable over-the-top madness of the Graff Vynda-K, the name ‘Graff Vynda-K,’ the Shrivenzale – ‘Ooh, you scary puppet you!’ if that’s all you remember about the story, or if that’s what turns you off the story, you’re really missing about 80 percent of the point.
First, consider the scope. After Professor Higginsing around the galaxy of space and time with everyone’s favourite noble savage (except, notably at the time, Tom Baker’s), Leela, and with plans to reintroduce Sarah-Jane scuppered by Lis Sladen’s refusal to return to the part, Producer Graham Williams and Script Editor Anthony Read decided to once again try the most reliable trick in the Doctor Who playbook and go in absolutely the opposite direction: the Doctor would get an equal, if not a better, travelling with him – a Time Lady, an academic ice maiden who could get right up the dilettante Doctor’s nose with her competence, her knowledge and her overall way of being better than him in many, many ways. That would add a lightening, comic dimension to balance the dark horror of the Leela stories, and it would bring a new way of strengthening the companion – less in the way of Leela’s ‘Try that again and I’ll cripple you,’ more in the way of the Doctor’s own ability to roll his eyes at universal idiocy and talk his way out of things.
Plus, for the first time since the Pertwee era’s Earthbound stories, Doctor Who would have a point, a mission – to quote a much later companion, the Time Lord and Lady would be engaged in ‘purposeful travel, not aimless wanderings.’ The whole season would be built of six stories with different worlds and characters, but with a through-line of a hero’s quest, the Doctor reluctantly thrust into the role of the Finder of Lost Things.
It was the story who introduced us to both Romana, and to the wonder that was Mary Tamm, pitching her performance deliciously far into aristocratic territory, allowing her to be both straight-woman and foil for the Fourth Doctor’s quixotic sense of humour, and bringing a sense of style to the Tardis that made him look not a little like a Womble who’d just wandered in from a very windy day – her impeccable elegance heightening his Bohemian angle and bringing out the Troughton in his overtones.
Beyond this, The Ribos Operation is a Robert Holmes story, which means that while often the plotting’s not up to all that much, the quality of the characters is so superb that you frequently stop caring. With the possible contention of The Mysterious Planet, that’s very rarely more the case than here. The point about a quest is that it should be a struggle, it should be difficult, there should be all sorts of things in the way. If you’re going to have a) a time machine that takes you straight to the room where what you’re searching for happens to be, and b) a magic wand or tracer that helps you locate it even more precisely and turn it from whatever it’s disguised as into (as Tom Baker put it) ‘another dreary prop’ or a weirdly-angled piece of purple Perspex…there’s not an enormous amount of peril along the way.
Enter Holmes with his handy grab-bag of script-spinning secondary characters. In a slightly more cynical evolution of his Time Warrior concept, the people of Ribos are medieval and suspicious, and have a long way to go before they believe in people from other planets. Which isn’t going to stop con men Garron and Unstoffe selling the planet, lock, stock and ‘lost jethrick mine’ to the Graff-Vynda-K to fund his plans to raise another army and go kick seven shades of amber out of his ‘ungrateful’ people, who have removed him from his ‘rightful place,’ grinding their noses into the dirt. The machinations of these two con men, and the surprising fact that the Graff is not quite the mug they take him for act as complicating factors, as does the value of the lump of jethrick as which the first segment of the Key To Time is hiding. So what you get is a quest without much in the way of actual questing, enriched enormously by the shenanigans of two loveable rogues (Iain Cuthbertson as Garron and Nigel Plaskitt as Unstoffe – he of the honest face and the reliable line in local yokelry), and a warrior with a score to settle (again, several of the elements that would land the Doctor and Peri in trouble on Ravolox two regenerations later).
But then, just when you think that’s all The Ribos Operation is going to be – a fun romp with sophisticated criminals, an increasingly demented alien warlord, a bunch of local who have no idea what’s going on but have their own petty local concerns like making sure no-one steals their crown jewels, a carnivorous sock-puppet guard dog for larks and a slightly ridiculous threat – Holmes throws you Binro.
There’s no reason for Binro to be in The Ribos Operation really – he’s an avatar of the level of sophistication of the Ribosian people, making their way as they are through their equivalent of the Middle Ages (thank you, BBC period costume department). Binro’s just a shabby, smelly old man in a Ribos dungeon when Unstoffe meets him.
Except he’s very much more than that. For Binro, read Galileo – the lead heliocentrist of his day, mocked by fools who think they know better than that Ribos is a ball of rock going round a star, and that the other stars have planets going round them too. For his scientific heresies, Binro’s life has been ruined, and it’s this dedication to the truth of scientific rationalism that brings him to his shabby end. But Unstoffe – honest-faced Unstoffe – is able to be something of a Guardian Angel to the ageing scientist. He can bring him a revelation, that he is right, and that hundreds of years from now, Binro the Fool will be known by other, more appropriate, exalted titles, for daring to think the impossible, and being right.
There’s really no reason for this Galileo parable in the middle of the toing and froing of The Ribos Operation. But it is – a priceless lump of jethrik in an otherwise relatively unadventurous adventure. A moment of pure beauty, set in a band of icy otherwise-fun. Apart from which of course, it makes us think kindly of Unstoffe, and through him of Garron, who were, we conveniently forget, prepared to unleash the Graff Vynda-K on the clueless people of Ribos, for all his claims to own the planet were bogus.
The Ribos Operation struggles to make it onto anyone’s all-time favourite lists, because in 51 years of Who, there’s so much of peerless quality to choose from that anything less than utterly stellar has an unfortunate tendency to slide down the rankings. But in the scope of what it achieves, setting up the Key To Time season, introducing Romana, Mary Tamm, the Black and White Guardians, and introducing us to a couple of Robert Holmes’ finest loveable rogues, it more than repays a rewatch – if you can divorce yourself from the thought that once it’s over, you have to do the whole season. There are a couple of dodgy aspects, yes. But there’s also Garron, and Unstoffe, and the almost casual creation of the Guardians. There’s Mary Tamm’s Romana, and Tom Baker on form, a new K9 and ‘It’s Romana or Fred.’ And most of all, for no good reason at all, there’s Binro. That’s enough to earn it a special place in a Who fan’s heart.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk