Doctor Who's Best Episodes: The 1970s Era

Given Russell T. Davies’ 2003 pitch document specified human interest stories – as opposed to planets of people we don’t really care about – it’s notable that ‘Ribos’ goes out of its way to address the contrast between the ruled and the rulers, with the White Guardian’s abstractions, the Graff Vynda K’s petty megalomania, and the scenes with Binro the Heretic (an outcast from Ribos’ society). With Garron and Unstoffe (a ripe Iain Cuthbertson and sometime Henson workshop puppeteer Nigel Plaskitt) and the Graff with his loyal henchman Sholakh, Holmes uses double acts as mirrors of the Doctor and Romana (Garron and Unstoffe are more obviously akin to the Doctor and Romana, the antagonists’ relationship reflects the loyalty of companions like Sarah and Jo). The Doctor’s new companion definitely has the academic smarts, but is naïve in the ways of the universe (another contrast between more abstract knowledge and things that actually impact people’s lives). 

So it’s clever. Lovely. Is it actually entertaining? Oh hell yes. The entire story is worth it purely for the scene where the Doctor steals the Graff’s glove. Cuthbertson’s Garron a garrulous swaggering presence who makes Tom Baker raise his game. Unstoffe is the story’s heart, its moral conscience. The Doctor and Romana, by virtue of this quest for the Key to Time, are at a remove from Unstoffe and Binro, which begs the question of what they’d do if they arrived here without a pre-appointed task. The bad guys are vainglorious empire-builders who take themselves too seriously. ‘The Ribos Operation’ is an endlessly rewatchable crime-caper that defines what the Doctor stands for, and what he should stand for. 

1. The Ark in Space (Season 12, 1975)

Written by Robert Holmes. Directed by Rodney Bennett.

Doctor Who The Ark in Space BBC

In which the Doctor, Sarah and Harry land on a space station in the far future, and find a group of humans cryogenically stored to escape solar flare activity destroying life on Earth. The only problem is, something has got into the ark and its children are hatching…

It never gets tiring reminding people that this is essentially Alien for children, with the insectoid Wirrn based on wasps that lay eggs in other animals. A lot of the make-up and costuming is based around bubble-wrap, which was not ubiquitous at the time, but despite this, some of the visuals really land (the Wirrn grubs look disgusting) and the acting manages to sell the concept when it doesn’t. There’s a definite weight to the horror in this story, an immediate sense of how the show would be moving forward. The cosiness is dialled down, but crucially still present, and the peril levels raised.

Watching this outside of broadcast, it’s hard to truly appreciate how markedly different it is to ‘Robot’, the story that preceded it. Tom Baker’s first story was the work of the outgoing production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, whereas this is the first story of the new duo Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. The first episode features just the Doctor, Sarah and new companion Harry looking around a space station that seems to be trying to kill them. It’s like a William Hartnell story rather than the familiarity of UNIT.

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