Operation Brain Candy

Review of The Ribos Operation (#98)
DVD Release Date: 03 Mar 09
Original Air Date: 02 - 23 Sep 1978
Doctor/Companion: Four, Romana I
Stars: Tom Baker, Mary Tamm
Preceding Story: The Invasion of Time (Four, Leela)
Succeeding Story: The Pirate Planet (Four, Romana I)

Of all of Tom Baker's season openers, I think The Ribos Operation has to be my favorite (though Terror of the Zygons is strong, too). There are any number of details that contribute to my affection for this particular story, and I'll try to outline some of them below, but it probably doesn't hurt that it's the first installment of a series-long arc—the first ever.

Having cut my Whovian teeth on the modern era, a full series story arc seemed natural to me in my early fandom days. I knew when I started watching pre-Hiatus/Classic Who that the traditional style was serialized one-offs, so it's not that I found that format unusual or off-putting. However, when I got to Season 16 (also collectively known as The Key to Time), the familiarity of a longer arc felt comfortable and made it easy for me to settle in for the long haul.

The early minutes of the first episode are thus necessarily spent setting up the whole season. We are introduced to the White Guardian, who takes the Doctor and his TARDIS out of time and charges him with recovering the six segments of the Key to Time in order to restore order to the universe. We also meet the new "assistant" with whom said Guardian has saddled the Doctor: Romanadvoratrelundar. This young (though mature, at "nearly 140") Time Lady is quickly established as the intellectual equal (if not superior) of the Doctor, having graduated with a "triple first" from the Time Lord Academy (and looking down her nose at the Doctor for "scraping through with 51% at the second attempt").

In contrast, the Doctor's vastly more extensive experience proves to give him the advantage over his rather naïve new Companion. While she can analyze a situation based on surface evidence, he knows how to sniff out duplicity and when to trust his gut. Unfortunately, this sets the stage for Romana to be something of a dupe, but her overall charm and poise keep her from falling completely into "bumbling sidekick" territory.

Not to say there aren't bumbling sidekicks in Ribos Operation. In fact, the supporting characters are probably my favorite part of this serial. As the Doctor and Romana search for the disguised segment of the Key to Time, shenanigans unfold around them (of course). The viewer clues into the details of the con game in progress much earlier than the players do, but that allows us to appreciate the unfolding characterizations all the more, as we're not stuck puzzling out the plot.

On the con-man side of the equation, we have Garron and his apprentice Unstoffe. While Garron is the wily, experienced grifter, Unstoffe is still learning the trade. Earnest and overly eager to "show initiative," Unstoffe likes to play a little fast and loose with the plan until Garron takes him more firmly in hand. This is a well-established con; there's no need to improvise.

On the mark side is the Graff Vynda-K and his loyal general Sholakh. The Graff wants to bolster his position in the galaxy to win back his rightful (to his mind, anyway) place on the throne of his homeworld. The wares Garron is offering are perfect for his purposes.

Then there are the locals. While the captain of the guard plays a bit role being pawn to both sides, and the shamanistic Seeker an even smaller (if important) one, the most memorable bit character in the story—and perhaps all of Classic Who, for me—is the homeless beggar who shelters Unstoffe as he tries to escape the local authorities: Binro the Heretic.

Binro is Ribos's version of Galileo: he claimed that the little lights in the sky were not, in fact, ice crystals as the establishment would have everyone believe, but suns like Ribos's own, maybe even with worlds of their own around them. He even said he could prove that Ribos moves, but he was forced to recant and thrown out of greater society to fend for himself.

The most important part of Binro's story, though, is that Unstoffe is able to tell him that he knows first-hand that Binro's claims are true: "I thought I should tell you because one day, even here, in the future, men will turn to each other and say, 'Binro was right.'" For some, the scene in Vincent and the Doctor when van Gogh gets to stand and listen to an art historian talk about how brilliant he was is a shot to the heart, a way to retcon the unfairness of history. For me, it's this quiet moment of validation for Binro. It will always and forever be one of my favorite pieces of Doctor Who history.

As for the other players, some viewers will find the Graff's character to be overacted, so flamboyant and over-the-top as to distract from the others who share the screen. I find him merely... amusingly megalomaniacal. It's part of the charm of the serial to have such a bombastic villain, and makes his final moments on screen feel like an extension of the character we've seen developing rather than a non-sensical joyride off the rails.

And the Doctor? He's very much in his element. Everything about portraying the Doctor on screen was old hat by this point for Tom Baker, and if reports (and the man himself) are to believed, he essentially was the Doctor, both on and off screen. In later seasons, Baker starts to phone it in, no longer really relishing the role (or at least the scripts he was given), but as yet there is no evidence of that decline in enthusiasm. He doesn't grin with glee quite so often as he did with Sarah Jane at his side, but it's still an adventure, at least for a while longer.

Overall, The Ribos Operation is a delightful, fluffy story suitable for fans of any vintage. I never hesitate to show it to a newb as an example of the Fourth Doctor's mid- to late-run stories. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend tracking it down (it's available to stream for a fee on Amazon Video, or available on DVD through Netflix (rental) or Amazon (purchase))—it could be just the brain candy you need to distract you from heavier topics.

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Comments

This story is for me a Holmesian masterpiece in setting up a world. Typically this can be done badly, eg the Kaleds and the Thals are within walking distance of each other but Robert Holmes doesn't waste a syllable in creating the fabric of Ribos.

(Spolier) It's one of the few stories where The Doctor kills someone but in his defence it was in his defence!

If, like Binro, you are not in tears when Binro is told he was right and he sobs with pure joy, then you are clinically dead.

I think I should have given it five stars but I couldn't take the Shrivenzale seriously.

By Wholahoop
mrfranklin's picture

Oh, come on. You'll let the Shrivenzale overshadow Binro? ;)

By mrfranklin
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