Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by George Spenton-Foster
Doctor Who is a British science fiction television series which has been around off and on since 1963. The main character is just known as “The Doctor” and is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. This means he travels through time to various places. One of his favorite places to visit is Earth. Typically, he has a companion traveling with him, usually female, sometimes male, sometimes one of each. He travels in a time machine known as a “Tardis” which is disguised as a British Police booth.
A Time Lord can regenerate if fatally wounded, which has accounted for all the different actors who have played The Doctor throughout the years. In this episode, he is portrayed by Tom Baker. Baker was one of the most popular incarnations of The Doctor, and by many fan’s assessments, he was the most popular.
The Ribos Operation kicked off a season-long story arc, something which was unprecedented for its time. This was a fairly ambitious undertaking and overall it worked quite well. It starts off with the Doctor about to take a holiday with his robotic “dog” known as K9 when he gets a summons from the White Guardian (portrayed by Cyril Luckham). He gives the Doctor an assignment to locate the segments of something known as The Key to Time which has been divided into six segments, disguised, and scattered across the universe. The White Guardian also assigns an assistant to work with the Doctor. She is ostensibly on an almost equal playing field. Romana (portrayed by Mary Tamm) is a fellow Time Lord, although not of the stature of the Doctor.
The two of them journey to the planet Ribos in search of the first segment. Ribos is a very cold planet with plenty of snow and ice swirling around. What the Doctor and Romana don’t realize when they first land is that their mission has put them on the heels of an Earthling named Garron (portrayed by Iain Cuthbertson) who is trying to sell off the planet to a greedy tyrant named Graff (portrayed by Paul Seed). Graff thinks the planet is valuable due to a supply of jethrik, a very rare mineral. The Doctor and Romana soon learn the jethrik was planted by Garron and is also the first segment of the key that they are looking for!
As usual, the Doctor seems to have arrived in the middle of a situation that impedes his mission. In addition to gaining possession of the first segment of The Key to Time, he now finds himself the third wheel in a game of cat-and-mouse between the con man and his mark. All of this is handled with quite a bit of humorous intrigue and the story moves along nicely.
Although the Doctor seems put off by having Romana assigned to him, there’s actually some terrific chemistry between him and Romana. This is good because The Ribos Operation was the first episode aired following the departure of the popular companion known as Leela. Romana is the opposite of Leela, and Mary Tamm brings her off quite convincingly with the amount of self-assuredness one would expect from a woman of that stature. It’s nice to see a strong woman depicted in this era, at a time when most were nothing more than wilting violets. The series Doctor Who was guilty of this as well, but here they have a great mix.
Tom Baker is excellent in the role and here he seems to really relish playing the part with Mary Tamm. He has the right range of emotions, usually staying in his whimsical nature which begins to drive Romana crazy. Tamm has a good beat on this where Romana doesn’t yet know the Doctor’s nature and even when he seems to be laughing at the situation, he’s actually taking an assessment and crafting a response to manipulate it to his advantage. The Doctor is quite crafty but doesn’t appear that way to most which is his advantage. Romana hasn’t quite figured that out just yet, and his nature seems to aggravate her. At the same time, the two have some nice verbal exchanges as they are trying to assess one another.
The story is a simpler one than others in this series, and I think that was to let the new dynamic of Tom Baker and Mary Tamm grow. The guest cast does a decent job, with Paul Seed doing an excellent job as the tyrant Graff. It’s not a strongly written character, but he makes him fun to watch on the screen.
The cheesy effects are here that endear most of us to the Doctor Who series. The beast which guards the crown jewels is quite laughable although a better job is done with the planetary setting than in most of this series.
I was pleased to watch The Ribos Operation and when I am done with all the shows, I want to go back and watch this story arc again in order. It’s really strong even when watched the way I did, but I imagine it would be even better watched in the order it originally aired.
The Ribos Operation has a good mix of acting and story. It’s a great way to launch a new season and a new story arc. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are excellent together and show the promise they achieve throughout the season. Definitely worth checking out, and newbies to the series would find it easy to start here and watch this story arc through with the background given to them.
NOTE: Although I’m viewing them out of order, the Key to Time series should actually be viewed in the following order:
KEY 1 – The Ribos Operation
KEY 2 – The Pirate Planet
KEY 3 – The Stones of Blood
KEY 4 – The Androids of Tara
KEY 5 – The Power of Kroll
KEY 6 – The Armageddon Factor
• Information Text
• Commentary with Tom Baker, Mary Tamm
• Photo Galley
• Who’s Who