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I’ve waited so long to write about this, and I’m so excited to write the next six reviews. Season 16 in Doctor Who is unique in that is was the first time the show had ever attempted to do a season long story arc. One can argue how successful it was, but ambitiousness, or over ambitiousness aside, this one is very important to me.
One day, many years ago, I was flipping channels and caught a glimpse of a cyborg on PBS. I dismissed it in my mind as a trick, but clicked back to PBS, just in case it was there for real . . . And it was. It was the Pirate Planet, the second story of Season 16, and I was in shock, having no idea that PBS had a sci-fi show. Soon, I saw Tom Baker and recognized that this must be Doctor Who. I was totally disoriented. It was interesting, sure, but not riveting. Why was it shot in video? Who were these people and where was it going? I called my best friend and told him to turn it on too. If I was getting sucked into something new, I wasn’t going alone. Pirate Planet is a very odd story with multiple change ups where the villain is concerned. But probably more unsettling is the fact that Pirate Planet was written by Douglas Adams, who also wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If his brand of humor is new to you, it can be unsettling while you get used to it. Fortunaletly for me, my local PBS station was playing the stories out of order, so, next, after Pirate Planet was The Ribos Operation, the story which precedes it and sets up the whole season long story arc.
At the conclusion of Invasion of Time, Leela (played by Louise Jamison), decides to remain on Galifrey, leaving the Doctor companionless as The Ribos Operation opens. This story originally aired 9/2/78 – 9/23/78 and stared Tom Baker as the Doctor and newcomer Mary Tamm as Romana.
Alone in his Tardis, the Doctor is summoned by the White Guardian to seek and assemble the ‘Key to Time’. The reason being that the universe has been slipping into imbalance and needs restoration, which can only be provided by the key. The six parts of the key are scattered throughout time and space and are in disguise. To help in the quest he is given the ‘tracer’ and an assistant, Romana, a time lady from the doctor’s own planet of Galifrey.
Romana was the latest in a long line of attempts to give the doctor a companion who would be his equal, rather than the ‘cute girl who asks questions and screams at the monsters’. And, at first, Romana seems to be smarter than the Doctor, but as time goes on, she often winds up asking questions and screaming at the monsters, because, at the end of the day, those are the most important jobs for a companion on Doctor Who, as they are the on screen representation of the audience. But I digress.
The tracer leads our heroes to the planet Ribos, and this is where the real fun begins as writer Robert Holes serves up his usual high quality banter and a few really good stories. The basic premise is that a pair of con men are trying to sell the planet to a disgraced Prince, after tricking him into thinking that the planet is rich in mineral resources which he can sell and use to rebuild his army and regain his former glory. Of course, we know that there is no mineral wealth, and that the two men in question have no right to sell the planet in the first place, but that’s part of the fun in seeing how the story unfolds.
If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of The Ribos Operation, and highly recommend it, but, it’s not without issues. This story is a kind of futuristic period piece. The costumes and sets are kind of Middle Age looking but are mixed with futuristic technology (by 1978 standards, lol). This is not bad, by any stretch, but, given the BBC’s deep well of all things period (costumes and sets), it’s clear that Ribos was done ‘on the cheap’. Plus, the monster is pretty awful, from a functional point of view. It’s not crucial to the story, and looks okay, but is totally unconvincing.
Holme’s trademark are his character pairs, and here we get two sets, the two con men, and the Prince and his general. These four characters are what make this story great and worth watching. There is lots of comedy and a good bit of drama too. The Prince is both revolting and sympathetic, a nice balance. While the con men are rendered in a way that is so friendly and slightly buffoonish, one can’t help but like them, despite the obvious criminal intention of their enterprise.
One exchange that always comes to mind when I think of this episode (paraphrasing):
Romana: Is he really a theif?
Romana: But he has such an honest face,
Doctor: he would make much of a thief with a dishonest face.
So, The Ribos Operation, first story in the Key to Time season story arc, super highly recommended and a pretty good bell weather. If you like this one, chances are, you are a potential fan of classic Doctor Who, if this one doesn’t float your boat, I’d abandon ship where this series is concerned.
*To learn more about Doctor Who see previous posts here on Robot Panic.