This is part one of the famous ‘key to time.’ Doctor Who’s first attempt at a season long story arc. What’s astonishing is that whilst the premise of a ‘key to time’ is rubbish and frankly everyone knows it, the story is nonetheless absolutely brilliant.
The reason I love Doctor Who is that it’s driven by concepts. It is a show built on ideas. This is a story that starts off with the Doctor meeting God. This isn’t the first time the show has dipped its toes into theology. The writer of this, the brilliant Robert Holmes (more on him later) previously wrote a story where The Master summoned the devil. Which actually as a concept is quite difficult to top. Many years later, in the brilliant Satan Pit, the Doctor will again meet the devil, with the brilliant premise of a creature that existed before ‘time’ itself – don’t think about that too hard – and the script strongly alludes to the fact that the beast was jailed by the Doctor’s own people. This is an intriguing proposition. In the Ribos Operation, the allusion is therefore very much that the Doctor has outgrown his own people and therefore exists somewhere between The White Guardian, who although he persuades the Doctor to take on his mission under by threat of death and looks like a plantation owner, we will assume here is “good” and the Black Guardian who well, if the White Guardian isn’t all that good, the Black Guardian is a whole lot worse.
However, this is where Holmes’ craftsmanship as a writer comes in. He knows the premise is absurd. Tom Baker plays the Doctor, absurdly and then we introduce a new character, the brilliant Romana played by Mary Tamm, who nails it by refusing to take the narrative seriously. She basically plays both a mirror of the Doctor and in a cute piece of meta-fiction, the relatable companion, by treating it all as a bit of a joke. This is a brilliant way to handle introducing a super attractive, super intelligent alien who ostensibly appears out of thin air. By the way, what makes Romana ‘super attractive’ is not that she’s strikingly beautiful, it’s because her character possesses a mystique and is frankly kind of awesome.
That’s not the only thing that’s brilliant. No-one in the history of Doctor Who writes a villain quite like Robert Holmes, it’s telling that he is the writer who introduced The Master (and is the only person to ever write him properly), introduced The Sontarans in the Time Warrior – to be clear he didn’t create The Sontarans, and it’s intriguing that his villain in this piece was a Master replacement. Holmes is of the school where he is impossible to imitate. If you wanted to imitate him, then you’d do well to remember that he doesn’t reuse old stock characters, he invents new ones. He also wrote the brilliant Caves of Androzani where Peter Davison is violently put through the mill by a bunch of deranged psychos in a serial that both combines Dune and basically foreshadows The Revenant. Here, he brilliantly gives us some somewhat pathetic conmen in the fashion of ‘Count’ Victor Ludwig trying to flog a planet to a nutso tyrant. For a low budget seventies TV show where absolutely no-one is taking it seriously, it manages to ascend astonishingly close to being the most brilliant antithesis of Star Wars in the fundamental rejection of that style of narrative. However, I would go further and say that with Ribos’ lack of pretence it almost overtakes it. I didn’t really want to do this as a review, but seriously, this is brilliant and probably one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who ever.