11/06/11 “The Ribos Operation”
“Sarcasm’s an adjusted stress reaction.” --Romana
I wasn’t a fan growing up in the ‘70s so I wasn’t there to feel ownership toward Doctor Who and the much-slated shift from cinematic horror to a more light-hearted approach. I really like the idea of the Key to Time—to me it most presages our idea of story arcs—and links well to precedents like “Keys of Marinus.” I like quest stories. At four episodes, “The Ribos Operation” is perhaps half an episode too long, but that is probably the only criticism I can level against it. The story looks dazzling and is held together mostly by character rather than plot.
The mood of the Doctor is quite off-the-wall here, perhaps not as much as “Horns of Nimon”; his chat to K9 is interrupted by a spate of demonstrative organ music and the TARDIS being flooded with white light. Even though I knew who it was, and apparently the Doctor did, too—“do you really need to ask, Doctor?”—it was almost like an annunciation. The White Guardian is very detached, stylish—he’s out on safari somewhere, a bit like a less sinister version of Captain Cook from “Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” and the music is like that from Aggedor’s Temple. Why he has chosen the Doctor for this quest, or indeed why White and Black Guardians should exist, is not really clear from a plot point of view (from a moral point of view it makes more sense). Yet the irreverent Doctor is suitably awestruck, though he thinks things are going a bit far when the White Guardian gives him a companion in his quest for the six segments of the Key to Time. “I have to protect them and teach them . . .” It cramps his style.
Nevertheless, when he goes back to the TARDIS, young (age: 140) Time Lady Romanadventuralundar is waiting for him. The Doctor is as irritated with her as he was the first time he met Jo Grant (one suspects, rather resignedly, that it has as much to do with her gender as with her youth and inexperience). She doesn’t make things better by bragging about her “triple first” and the Doctor “scraping by with a 51% on the second attempt.” I’m with the Doctor on this one—such information should be confidential, and how childish is Romana to use it as ammunition? Still, he proves to have brought the game right down to her level by saying, “I don’t suppose you can make tea.” Really, with this inauspicious a start, I’m amazed I can have as high a good opinion of the two protagonists as I do.
Romana has been equipped with a tracer to make finding, identifying, and grabbing the segments easier. Also the coordinates of the segments get automatically punched into the TARDIS console. They are also making absolutely no bones about Romana’s identity as archetypal ice queen by giving her a rather impractical costume (though unlike Barbara’s in “Keys of Marinus” it does at least include a long coat which comes in handy as they land on Ribos, which is in the midst of a wintry period—though those sandals won’t be too useful!). However, I’ll unashamedly admit I love ALL the costumes and design work on this story, it’s a huge part of the appeal. June Hudson, you’re my hero. Do an interview with TTZ, won’t you?
Ribos is apparently medieval and backward, and from the first moments we set eyes on it, it’s a civilization modeled on Russia in the 16th century. This means gorgeous fur-trimmed costumes for the Shrieves (guards of a holy relic room) and beautiful and mysterious music from that most unlikely of sources, Dick Mills. The fact that Doctor Who at the time was lacking in budget is not apparent in the rich, Gothic and Slavic designs for this set, which I applaud wholeheartedly.
Not only that, there are some fairly convincing “outdoors” sets as well. A very Holmesian pair, con artists and thieves Garron and Unstoffe, have arrived on the roof of the Citadel with a cunning plan of some sort, which involves drugging the Schrivenzale (a sort of reptilian/puppet guard dog) and Unstoffe climbing down the air hatch into the relic room. The Doctor and Romana walk straight into this scam—“I love danger,” the Doctor declares, and Romana chides him for not acting his age (756). She gets a return volley from the Doctor. “Doctor, you’re not giving me a chance.”
Garron has gone to intercept the offworlders, the Graff Vynda-K and his comrade-in-arms, Sholakh (which sounds so much like “Chellak” that I kept expecting to see Sharaz Jek). Interestingly, for someone who disdains the culture of primitive planets, the Graff is regally dressed in a costume Peter the Great would have found himself at home in. It’s this, combined with Paul Seed’s forceful and enraged (if edging toward OTT) performance, that drives the Graff’s story forward and makes him more than a dime-a-dozen psychotic maniac. Sholakh, however, is not dressed for Russian court and instead is somewhere between the ancient Greeks and barbarian furs. (Unstoffe is similarly attired, while Garron is again closer to the Russian paradigm—and check out his fur muff on a string !) In any case, Garron apparently wants to sell the Graff the planet Ribos, convincing him to leave his guards on his ship—“primitive people, easily panicked.” Garron tells them and us that Ribos’ “climates are ones of extremes,” which the natives attribute to warring gods. Having planted a bug, Garron hears the Graff examine the contract in more detail, coming to the inevitable conclusion that the planet is rich in jethryk, an extremely rare and precious mineral.
The Doctor and Romana manage to get themselves locked in the relic room, and the cliffhanger is sadly all down to unobservant and inexperienced Romana, who wouldn’t know a Schivenzale if it sat on her (which it practically did). The idea behind this monster does seem quite Wizard of Oz (the Shrieves look like Winkies) but its execution is not really up to close ups. Romana and the Doctor manage to escape by the unknowing intervention of the Shrieves in the morning. Incredibly, they manage to avoid detection and even are there to stand around as Unstoffe gives his performance de résistance. Garron has convinced the Shrieve captain to allow a deposit of a very large amount of money within the relic room when he hasn’t even got it from the Graff yet (Garron’s confidence betrays the frequency with which he has pulled off this scam). We get a tour of the regions, with Unstoffe doing Irish and then Somerset accents (a fanciful story about his dad and the “scringe stone,” basically to convince the Graff that jethryk is indeed plentiful on Ribos) and Garron putting on a tremendous toff accent in addition to his native Hackney Wick (no, really).
The Doctor and Romana avoid detection by claiming “we’re from the north” (“lots of planets have a north”); endearing but foolish Romana is taken completely in by Unstoffe’s tale. The Doctor, much shrewder even than the viewer, has realized that the conmen planted the jethryk in the relic room for the Graff’s benefit—and that it’s the first segment of the Key to Time. They realize that they may have “competition” in getting the jethryk. The Graff has handed over his deposit, Garron is going to make a trip to his ship to settle the offer with his “clients,” and the Shrieves are closing up for the night. The Doctor temporarily forestalls being captured for being out after curfew by hypnotizing a Shrieve (is that really any different from what the Master does??) and goes back in to the relic room in time to interrupt Unstoffe in the act of stealing the Graff’s money. Unstoffe gets away, the Doctor gets captured, and the Graff realizes that the Shrieves have no idea about the jethryk (and that it certainly isn’t called “scringe stone”). Romana and the Doctor intercept Garron on the roof and are in the process of “arresting” him when the Graff’s guards take them all as one big band of blackguards. The Doctor gives a strange look.
Romana tries very hard to be polite to Garron while they’re all incarcerated in the Citadel; Garron gives more background into himself and his plans with Unstoffe. A bit like Captain Jack in the first few minutes of “The Doctor Dances,” Garron reveals his plans to “sell the planet.” The Doctor is able to call K9 with his dog whistle. Unstoffe, meanwhile, is waiting for Garron at the rendez-vous point. As guards search for him, his life is saved by Binro the Heretic, aka Pigbin Ira. Binro is a sad case, but I’m not really sure what his function in the story is, other than to provide a bit of local color and an ally to Unstoffe (thus eating up more time in this episode and the next one). Binro has been reduced to his present state of friendlessness and squalor by maintaining that the stars in the sky are not ice crystals and that there might be other worlds out there. Somewhat touched, Unstoffe confirms his theory, to Binro’s delight. Certainly we are meant to be disgusted with Ribos’ draconian regime based on superstition and religion rather than science (and by extension, Earth’s), but is all this just meant to show that things on Ribos will get better in the future? Because so much time is devoted to offworlders in this story (the only native Ribosians we see are Binro, the Shrieves, and the Seeker), so we have no idea about the actual lives of the people, we only have the prejudiced views of people like the Graff Vynda-K, whose only interest is himself anyway. As this is a Grade 2 planet we are led to believe that, like in “The Aztecs,” where the Doctor discouraged Barbara from making Aztecs’ lives “better” based on future knowledge, the Doctor and Romana are not going to go around offering to lead a rebellion of the people, with Binro as their figurehead, against the Shrieves, though in another context and perhaps with another Doctor, that might indeed by the story. A similarly “feudal” planet perhaps was Peladon, which was still at least on the verge of being accepted into the Galactic Federation, despite the limited views held by those like Hepesh.
The Shrieves and the Graff enlist the help of the Seeker—an old woman with a very far-out costume, both Scandinavian and Hopi in design, it seems to me, and copied in “The End of Time”—to find Unstoffe, and fair play to her, despite the absolute faith in science, she never errs. Because of her, Unstoffe and Binro flee to the catacombs, perhaps not Binro’s best idea. The opening set to this area is wonderfully Gothic. Binro and Unstoffe are soon joined by Romana, K9, the Doctor, and Garron, though they don’t meet up; everyone wanders around in the catacombs until the Graff sends his men in, at the instruction of the Seeker. The Doctor and co. quickly hide, and strangely, although Romana is getting ignobly groped by Garron, it’s the Doctor who gives their position away. The Doctor also comes to the rescue, however, by using his dog whistle to summon the Schivenzale (how he got it trained like that I don’t know).
In the ensuing confusion, Garron, Romana, and K9 wander off together, only for Garron to steal the tracer and leave them. Binro needlessly dies at the Graff’s hand, Unstoffe gets shot though not fatally, and the Graff forces the Seeker to go with them into the catacombs. From the outside, the rather rash Shrieves decide to blow up the entrance to the catacombs. The explosion claims most of the guards’ lives, including faithful Sholakh (the closest thing, it seems, that the murderous Graff had to a friend). The Doctor has managed to disguise himself as one of the (Templar-esque) guards and gets the Graff to explode himself (off screen) instead of the Doctor. K9’s miraculous laser helps him and Romana escape, and a thoroughly ungrateful Garron and Unstoffe are able to part with the Doctor and Romana like acquaintances if not friends. Romana is really having to bite her tongue, I think, to maintain her politesse with the thieves. Garron makes a very transparent attempt to steal back the jethryk, but the Doctor (fortunately) outwits him. At least Garron and Unstoffe will make a clean getaway with the Graff’s ship. In the TARDIS, Romana uses the tracer to transform the jethryk into the first segment.
The first episode was practically perfect, in my view, and throughout the story, the atmosphere conjured up by the costumes and the design work was second-to-none. Holmes’ thieves were likeable curs, and hopefully Romana has learned a thing or two she wouldn’t have been taught from the Academy. I sincerely hope she stops with the pseudo-Freudian analysis at every turn.