Of course “Ribos” kicks off the Key to Time story arc, which will run throughout this season. It does so by introducing the concept of the White and Black Guardians, incredibly powerful beings who can manipulate time and space on a vast scale, but who are nevertheless limited by a physical object (the key) and who prefer to act through agents rather than directly intervene in events. The story never explains just exactly what the Guardians are, or why such seemingly powerful beings need the Key to Time. That can either be annoying to someone who likes every plot point explained, or it can be a nice touch that keeps the Guardians mysterious. I lean towards the second option, since any explanation for the Guardians would doubtless be disappointing.
The Doctor wants nothing to do with the assignment. He knows about the Guardians and respects their authority up to a point, but he chafes at being under their direction just as he does when the Time Lords give him an assignment. He accepts the mission to hunt down the various hidden Key to Time segments under threat of nothing at all ever happening to him again if he refuses. An offer he can’t refuse, if you will. He’s also given an assistant, which he’s emphatically not happy about.
Whenever I think of Romana, I almost always think of Lalla Ward’s version of the character. But Mary Tamm was the first, and she’s well-cast as an imperious, know-it-all Time Lady. She and the Doctor clash, which makes for some wonderfully entertaining scenes throughout the story. She taunts the Doctor about his age and the way in which he flies the TARDIS, and then psychoanalyzes him in the most patronizing way possible. The Doctor sulks and acts childish, and then takes great delight in showing how clever he is, which of course backfires on him as often as it works. It’s great, and proof positive that a new companion can often be very good for Doctor Who by shaking things up and highlighting different sides of the Doctor’s character. For the previous season and a half, the Doctor enjoyed his vastly superior knowledge compared to Leela. Now he’s paired with someone who knows quite a bit more than he does about some things, even if she lacks his practical, learned experience.
The search for the key takes the Doctor and Romana to Ribos, an icy cold planet with a sort of medieval society. What gives the plot its central conflict is the con game going on when the Doctor arrives. The con-men are Garron and Unstoffe, who are trying to swindle a good deal of money out of deposed tyrant Graff Vynda-K by selling him the planet itself. Vynda-K is assisted by his bloodthirsty adjutant Shellak. For those who love Robert Holmes’ penchant for pairing up characters as a “double-act”, if you count the Doctor and Romana we’ve essentially got three of them in this story, all working to cross-purposes both for and against each other. It’s a crime caper, wonderfully adapted to the sci-fi trappings of Doctor Who.
The production is very good as well. Robert Holmes always demonstrates great skill at world-building in his storylines, and the designers realize the snowbound city, along with the fur and cloak-wearing population very well. About the only real weak point is the Shrivenzale, the dangerous creatures who live in the tunnels under the city. The monster is less than convincing, but it doesn’t detract from the story all that much. We’re used to rubbery aliens in Doctor Who.
Overall: Robert Holmes’ storyline makes an excellent start to the season. It looks and sounds good, and the characters are well-drawn and played, with some great interaction that drives the plot. Graham Williams gets some grief for adding humor to Doctor Who and lightening up the show after Phillip Hinchcliffe left, but “The Ribos Operation” shows that his approach can still work well and produce highly entertaining Doctor Who.