Aired 2 – 23 September 1978
The Key to Time is an incredibly ambitious concept for its time, six interlinked stories spanning the entire length of the season scorning the incredible success of the standalone adventures that had formed the thriving core of the franchise for so long. With Leela remaining on Gallifrey at the end of the previous season, ‘The Ribos Operation’ and the season as a whole represent director Graham Williams’s and script editor Douglas Adams’s true vision and ambition for the show as the charismatic Mary Tamm is introduced as Romana.
Even without focusing too heavily on science fiction elements, writer Robert Holmes manages to create a fully-developed world in limited time. A deposed monarch buying a small planet- people included- is a great concept, and the lighthearted comedy that results as two con men try to steal riches is superb, especially as Tom Baker injects his presence into proceedings. However, the gradual revelation that the Graff is not the sympathetic figure he describes but rather a war criminal with an unspeakable history works incredibly well, adding emotional weight to the story and delivered believably by Paul Seed. Ending with a brutal confrontation in a desolate catacomb full of the dead, ‘The Ribos Operation’ is all the more effective for its gradual tonal shift and once more proves that Robert Holmes is one of the strongest classic series writers.
Despite how entertaining, funny, and serious ‘The Ribos Operation’ is, though, all strong elements that would make for a successful story at any other time, it is also tasked with introducing both The Key to Time and new companion, Romana. There’s a wonderfully British sensibility to the former as the White Guardian pulls the Doctor out of time for a sip of tea as he explains the Doctor’s upcoming quest for the segments of The Key to Time scattered throughout time and space. It’s rare to see the Fourth Doctor anything less than self-assured, and his nervous and apologetic nature around the White Guardian helps showcase how tremendously powerful this figure is regardless of appearances.
At the same time, the Doctor has Romana, a young and inexperienced Time Lady, thrust upon him despite his protestations that he would rather undertake this quest alone. A unique dynamic instantly forms, and the brief insight into the Doctor’s past as it is revealed that he wasn’t necessarily the bright student that his boasting would suggest puts him somewhat on the defensive for the first real time in a Doctor-companion relationship. It’s quite telling that Romana is more adept at flying the TARDIS than the Doctor is, but the combination of Romana’s academic knowledge alongside the Doctor’s experiences and knowledge of the universe as a whole is very effective and paints the Doctor as a much more human figure than usual. Mary Tamm’s portrayal of Romana as a haughty, arrogant, and rigid Time Lady hearkens back to the Time Lords’ first almighty appearance in ‘The War Games,’ and it will be interesting to see how both of these characters change as a result of traveling with each other going forward.
‘The Ribos Operation’ may not quite reach the heights of some of Robert Holmes’s other efforts, but it deftly sets the scene for the season to come while telling an incredibly entertaining tale in its own right. The shift from humour to rather brutal darkness and violence is exceedingly effective, and a few clever observations thrown in to the mix help to make this a suitably strong start to an incredibly ambitious quest.