By the time the sixteenth season had come around, the show had bumped into the problem which is inevitable for any show which had lasted that long - it had outgrown its founding mythology. The Time Lords, a seemingly all-powerful race of aliens that the Doctor belonged too had been in background all through the sixties had now become a persistent source of unwanted control. By the point The Ribos Operation rolled around the question of the show had become, what do you do when your hero finally defeats the one villain he was never supposed to defeat?
In those early seasons, The Time Lords were a cosmic, powerful and frightening mysterious alien force. The truth behind them was only really brought forward at the end of the sixties and the final episode of The War Games. The Doctor was finally caught and the Time Lords revealed themselves to be the antithesis of the lone man who had stolen a TARDIS from them and run away to explore the galaxy. They dealt with the Doctor with duel punishment. The Second Doctor was killed, sent into a forced regeneration and his Third incarnation was exiled to the Earth in the 1970s. But what really bothered the Doctor was that they would still interfere in his life, sending him on missions to do their dirty work for them. When the Doctor finally got the better of them, script editor Robert Holmes, took the Doctor back to Gallifrey for The Deadly Assassin. Both The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time allowed us to see the Time Lord society in full. It was burdened with ceremony and tradition, making it easy enough for us to understand why the Doctor ran away. During those two stories, while dealing with the real bad guys, the Doctor managed to change the relationship between the Time Lords and himself. Not only did he expose them as a gang of really old fogeys but wound up becoming their president. This job he abandoned almost instantly but once he had done that, he knew he had won. The Time Lords just weren't a credible threat anymore as the puppet masters of the show and the Doctor had proven once and for all that he could pull their strings just as much as they could his. It was the inevitable course of the relationship of course, but it left a void concerning the top of the Doctor Who hierarchy, who would be top dog now and give the Doctor missions he couldn't refuse?
It was producer, Graham Williams who came up with the answer. It would be God. Well, alright, not God exactly but a being with the power of God. The White Guardian who was working eternally against The Black Guardian to maintain universal order. God and The Devil. From this idea, Williams came up with a great way to involve the Doctor. Give him a quest. The quest would stretch over all the episodes and stories of series 16 and on the orders of the White Guardian, go on a search for The Key To Time. When put together, The Key To Time resembled a cube of unimaginable power, it literally had the power to shape the cosmos however who wielded it saw fit. The segments which made up the Key were scattered across the known universe and so the show was given its big stakes. But the season also formed a way for Williams to tone down the horror elements that had been the mainstay of the run which belonged to his predecessor, Phillip Hinchcliffe.
The Ribos Operation was the adventure which kicked it all off and it had the most important job of all - setting up The Key To Time plot. In order to achieve this, Williams turned to adored Who writer, Robert Holmes. Holmes took the overall series plot and ran with it, with The Ribos Operation ending up as arguably one of his best stories which he ever properly produced for the series. It is a fun, tightly crafted caper which pits two scruffy artistes against a pompous but disgraced ex-dictator whose demeanour made you cheer when his life comes to an end in episode 4. But it is hard to escape the impression that Holmes, while doing his job perfectly, didn't set up the whole good versus evil storyline and set about immediately undermining it but not setting the Doctor entirely on the side of the angels.
The story begins with the Doctor, played by the wonderful Tom Baker and K-9 voiced by John Leeson are in the TARDIS planning a holiday. To where, we will never learn as the TARDIS is commandeered by a strange force in mid-flight and the doors open of their own accord, filling the TARDIS with a bright white light. While it might not quite be a burning bush, a suggestion that Baker did offer, it works as just the same thing. Wherever the Doctor is, he finds an old man with a white beard sat, sipping a strange drink, in a wicker chair. He proceeds to tell the Doctor why it is so important that the Key is found in terms that threaten the existence of the cosmos, while not actually committing to anything just yet. This is probably because the writers didn't know what they were going to do with it yet. We are told that powers are threatening to unbalance the equilibrium of the universe, and if that seems to be unnecessarily vague, remember we are only about 10 minutes into a six story season and there is time later on to expand on this idea. This proves to be the biggest problem of the entire season, while the Doctor is searching for these segments, we are never really given the answer as to why he is doing it and what the consequences of him succeeding or failing will actually be. It isn't even until the final story of the season that he encounters someone else who is trying to find the segments as well. But this isn't the fault of The Ribos Operation which opens the season, not brings it to a close.
The real interesting thing about the White Guardian's mission is that it places the Doctor right in the centre of law and order, something which Holmes knew wasn't exactly a perfect fit for a character like the Doctor. He isn't a policeman, no matter what the TARDIS looks like. He is a wanderer of the universe, who randomly pops up in moments of crisis' on different worlds. Yes, he helps people but is also a force for chaos and in making him for the White Guardian, no matter how unwillingly, sets up a degree of tension between him and his new boss. And once the story begins it neatly subverts any easy equation that obeying the rules does equal doing the right thing.
Holmes also nicely gives the White Guardian the same effect that the Time Lords had when they first appeared, it appears he has the power over the entire narrative. So it is no accident that it is the threat that nothing will happen to the Doctor if he doesn't agree to go on the mission that stirs the Doctor into action. Nothing is what frightens the Doctor, the fact that there would be no more adventures, that he might - in effect - be cancelled.
We get one more introduction before the story really gets underway. Returning to the TARDIS, the Doctor meets his new travelling companion, a woman literally forced upon him, Romana, a female Time Lord. She is brought on board with minimal fuss as she is already inside the TARDIS when the Doctor gets back. This incarnation of Romana is played with arch humour from the brilliant Mary Tamm, who sadly passed away in 2012. I say her first incarnation because in the next season, beginning with Destiny of the Daleks, Romana appears in the form of actress, Lalla Ward. But more on that when we come to it. But for now, Romana is lacking in the experience that the Doctor has, as she is fresh out of the Gallifreyian Academy. But what she lacks in experience, she more than makes up for in intelligence, she is superior in many ways and isn't afraid to remind the Doctor of this fact. She appears here as something of an Ice Queen, dressed in white, all business like and serious. But Romana makes the perfect foil for the Tom Baker Fourth Doctor, she isn't happy to merely be considered an assistant to the Doctor and he isn't happy with letting her get into his way. This was actually the way that both actors could feel on set and was one of the reasons that Mary Tamm left after only one series. And unlike many companions, Romana isn't afraid to talk back to the Doctor and drag him down a peg or two. To date there have been very few companions who have actually acted this way around him, Liz Shaw, Tegan Jovanka, Peri Brown, Donna Noble and Clara Oswald are the only ones who have really treated him this way. And Romana's skill set is unrivalled. This is a good thing as Baker's sometimes erratic performance often needed some serious counterbalancing, especially towards the end of his era. It certainly didn't hurt to have two main characters who could bicker and argue and this worked as a brilliant springboard to introduce the comedy that Williams wanted to inject into the series, making the show more fun and light-hearted.
With the universal spanning storyline set up, The Ribos Operation wastes no time in jumping into the main tale and it is interesting to see how much it subtly undermines what the Guardian has just finished telling the Doctor what the season is going to be about. While collecting all the segments of the Key may be a race against time, Holmes decides to settle on telling us a story that is a crime caper, focusing on rogues and rebels and tells us to root for people whose main desire is to break the law. For a supposed force of order, the Doctor quickly allies himself with the deceptive Garron, a man who clearly has some beef with vile Graf Vynda K. While the Doctor pretends to be a policeman out with the intention of arresting Garron, he never once intervenes in Garron's plan to defraud Graf. It is almost as if he sees Garron as some kind of kindred spirit.
The segment of the Key is appropriately disguised as a gemstone, a plate-sized hunk of rare mineral, Jethrik, which is so highly valued because it works as propulsion for many spaceships. It is used by Garron to lure Graf into selling him a piece of property he doesn't actually own, the planet of Ribos. Ribos is a medieval type planet, which hasn't developed technology yet and doesn't know that other planets exist. This is why Garron and Graf and his soldiers are in fur and armour, they have disguised themselves so they aren't killed in the society which still believes in superstition. The Jethrik is the story's McGuffin, the object which motivates all the main characters, albeit for various different reasons. For the Doctor, Romana and K-9, it is the first step in completing their quest. For Graf it would be worth enough to buy back his former position of power. For Garron, it turns a mighty profit. The clear representative of law and order in this story can only be Graf, who is a power-crazed, arrogant and cruel man who is scheming to win back the very throne he was cast out of because he was so vile to the people he ruled. He is a perfect character to be involved in a con, he is dour and humourless and more than eager to use violence to get what he wants, even when it isn't necessary. In his final psychotic break, he begins to rant about victories from the past, while wandering off into a maze of tunnels in yet another instance where chaos decides to win the day.
And then there is Binro, a side-character who never meets the Doctor, until he is shot right in front of the Doctor. But Binro is important because he is a slight nod to the idea that the Doctor is taking orders from God. Binro's discovery of the lights in the sky being the stars and other planets and his treatment because of this mirrors Galileo's own persecution for daring to suggest that the Earth spins around the sun, causing religious establishments to uproar. And Binro's friendship with other con-artist, Unstoffe works as the only piece emotional resonance within The Ribos Operation. But Binro really represents is that order for order's sake is oppressive if it insists on enforcing facts and rules that are wrong...