Monday, 27 April 2015

The Ribos Operation written by Robert Holmes and directed by George Spenton-Foster



This story in a nutshell: 'I don't sell mines, Doctor! I sell planets!'

Teeth and Curls: Verity Lambert never made a secret of the fact that she didn't like the set up of the Doctor working for UNIT during the seventies but it has to be said that he was working under duress for much of that time and had no way of escaping the Earth. Whilst it might not be in character to be on a leash, why not be where the action is whilst he is forced to cling to the skin of this tiny world? In the same breath you cannot really hold it against the Doctor that for the next 26 weeks he is holding down an (unpaid) job given that it is God that has roped him into doing a spot of benevolent volunteer work to help spring clean the universe. It's kind of hard for him to say no given the Guardians can halt the TARDIS in its tracks and summon the Doctor to another ether with the batting of an eye. If he said no he would probably wind up a novelty hat stand or something. The Doctor is both respectful of the White Guardian (he calls him sir) but also quite appalled at the notion of stopping everything even for a brief while so he can do a spot of dusting. I love the idea that it is the Doctor at his most facetious and childish that is given this awesome responsibility. He can't just flit about in the TARDIS anymore, he is on a temporary contract until this awkward business with the universe is sorted out. Somehow he manages to make sending Romana off to make tea (she doesn't know how) the least sexist chore imaginable. After the first few centuries things do tend to get a bit foggy but 756 (possibly 759) isn't old, it's just mature. Romana thinks he is suffering from a massive compensation syndrome but the truth of the matter is he's just a little full of himself. I love the way the Doctor can kick back and enjoy some time with Garron, laughing at his outrageous stories about his criminal background but when it comes to asking the tough questions (like why try and sell a planet to a war criminal) he can turn deadly serious. That is the joy of the Williams Doctor over the Hinchcliffe one. The gothic Doctor was always moody and introspective whereas this version is much more at one with the universe and ready to embrace a good time. Which makes his moments of choking depth and intensity have far more of an impact. When he says he is terrified, you believe him. You can't teach an old rogue new tricks and the Doctor's bait and switch to outfox Garron's bait and switch is the icing on the cake at the climax of this wonderful story. I can't think of many stories where Tom Baker is more delightful than he is here, for four episodes he is the most glorious Time Lord that ever existed.

Noblest of them All: 'It's funny you know but before I met you I was even willing to be impressed!' What was it about the spread of companions during the seventies that just worked? It wasn't even as if the producers stuck to the same formula;  a scientist (Liz Shaw), a dizzy special agent, a savvy journalist, a chauvinistic sailor, a violent savage, a metal dog and a Time Lady in two very different incarnations. And yet for the time they were with the show they were just about perfect, you wouldn't want to swap any of them. Fantastic chemistry with the lead actors (whichever it might be), good development and a strong presence in the show. What made being a Doctor Who companion so magical in the 70s that was completely deserted in the 80s? Was it the producer? The actors chosen to play those parts? The actors chosen to play the Doctor? Why was there so much sparkle in one era and not in the other? Romana was another knockout companion courtesy of Graeme Williams, who had already brought us K.9 at this point. He joins Letts and Hinchcliffe at booking some fantastic characters for the Doctor to travel with. Mary Tamm brought real glamour and aloofness to the show and made her mark by just how stunningly beautiful she was and how little of the Doctor's shit she was prepared to take. Whilst her character may have waned a little throughout the season, (and Tamm's interest is visibly inconsistent) I am sure she made a massive impact on both the kids (a really smart female companion) and the Dads (another reason to hang around after the football). The chemistry between Baker and Tamm is palpable from the off. Baker has gotten over his attitude problem with Louise Jameson and plays the Doctor at a much softer level with his new assistant (and I'm sure Tamm wouldn't put up with any of his nonsense). The conflict between the Doctor and Romana (her intellect and inexperience contrasting with his happy go lucky lifestyle) works a treat and bolstered by some delightful Robert Holmes dialogue and the first episode sings when they are on screen together. The Doctor has three rules for a new companion; do exactly as he says, stick close to him and let him do all the talking (and also don't be sarcastic)...however it is blatantly obvious even to a blind spielsnake that those rules will be broken. Especially by the Doctor.  Interestingly given her icy coolness, it is Romana who panics when the chips are down and their lives are in danger. Romana gets quite the education in her first adventure, not only about the dangers of the universe but also how quickly the Doctor assess the situation despite appearances to the contrary. She's about three episodes behind him whilst thinking (for the most part) that she is three episodes ahead of him.

Conmen: A hotly contested placing is the ultimate Robert Holmes double act. My money is on Garron and Unstoffe (although I would be willing to listen to argument made for double acts that feature in Carnival of Monsters, The Time Warrior of Talons of Weng-Chiang). It's a striking relationship because it is one that manages to be both very funny and something far more poignant and both characters shine in the pairing and individually. Like all good crooks, Garron is both charming and ruthless and in both cases is the head of the organisation. Unstoffe is his protégé, a much younger, sweeter man who acts the conscience of the duo. Watching Garron at work playing everybody around him is a wonderful thing, this is a man who could talk his way out of any situation. Only the Doctor can see through him from the start. So when he finds himself facing an execution squad it is not a situation he is accustomed to and he has to start improvising to keep his skin wrapped all over. Watch out for the entire 'Scringe-stone' sequence, utterly disrespectful to country folk but highly amusing. I love that the sting in this operation isn't selling the planet itself but hot footing it with the deposit, a small detail in the overall scheme of the business exchange but a massive punch in the face to the Graff given there was never a planet to sell in the first place. Garron is the sort of man who admires competence in the competition, probably because it forces him to raise his game.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Nothing? You mean nothing will happen to me?' 'Nothing at all. Ever.'
'My name's Romanadvoratrelundar' 'I'm so sorry about that, is there anything we can do?'
'It's you name' 'What about my name?' 'It's too long! By the time I call out...what's your name again?' 'Romanadvoratrelundar' 'By the time I call that out you could be dead. I'll call you Romana' 'I don't like Romana' 'It's either Romana or Fred!' 'Alright call me Fred then' 'Good...come on Romana!'
'There's no comfort in dying. I've always said it was the last thing I wanted to do.'
'He was an Arab. I sold him Sydney Harbour for fifty million dollars. Then he thought I should throw in the Opera House as well!' 'No!' 'Oh yes!' 'Yeah, the Opera House but I refused. I mean one must have some scruples, mustn't one?' 'Of course' 'I couldn't let that noble edifice to our cultural heritage fall in the wrong hands, could I?' 'No' 'But my refusal upset him. He took the impressive documents that I had prepared and so my little ruse was prematurely rumbled! He came after me! With a machine gun! I never went back.'
'K.9, don't stop at all corners' - is that the naughtiest line of classic Who?
'For years I was jeered at and derided, I began to doubt even myself, Then you came along and told me I was right. Just to know that for certain, Unstoffe is worth a life.'
'Money isn't everything, Garron!' 'Who wants everything? I'll settle for 90%'

The Good:

* Do you know what I love about the Williams era? It wasn't afraid to make the scope of the show BIG, even when it didn't always have the budget to support it. During these three years (and with the help of Holmes, Read and Adams) the show wasn't afraid of taking us to far away places, showing the vastness of the universe and constantly reminding us there is far more to explore than just the Earth. The beginning of Ribos is probably the finest case in point which introduces us to a figure in the universe that is even bigger than the Time Lords, a Guardian with the ability to stop the entire universe and correct the balance if necessary. That is a massive concept to get your head around. Even more impressive is that the season will consist of stories that see the Doctor on a mission to find the various components of the device that can make this temporal pause in the universe possible and that they are disguised across all of time and space. The canvas that has opened up for the show is awesome. And all of these mind expanding concepts are brought to life (and fire up the imagination in all the best ways) on a simples set with just two actors. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, George Lucas. You might have had the budget to splash special effects all over the cinema at the time but Doctor Who was working on a universal scale, for all intents and purposes working for God and traversing all of time and space to hit pause on all of existence while the big man tinkers about with things. The two are simply incomparable. And do you know what I like even more about this extraordinarily magnanimous opening? That it is tied to possibly the smallest scale Doctor Who story of all time, an intimate character piece that doesn't concern itself with much more than the dodgy deals of a pair of conmen on a under developed planet. The contrast between the epic and the intimate is palpable and very Doctor Who. Mind you, when you realise the scale of Garron's operation, not selling mines but entire worlds, the scale of the story tips dramatically again.
* There is talk of a moment approaching that will plunge the universe into eternal chaos. We never find out what it is...but it sounds really exciting, doesn't it? More conceptual excitement comes in the form of the Black Guardian, the polar opposite to the Guardian that we meet who is after the Key to Time for an evil purpose. And when we are talking about the entire universe being tinkered with that is a pretty awesome level of evil. He could have agents in any story. He could be in any story. He's a badass that would hound the Doctor for many years to come.
* After the embarrassing budget saving exercises that were Underworld and The Invasion of Time (which was especially humiliating when this was supposedly the end of season epic) it is wonderful for there to be some money in the kitty again at the start of a new season. And it shows. Ribos is a richly designed and lit story that takes place in detailed sets that feel as though they are steeped in a long history. Combined with one of Dudley Simpson's most striking scores (again the idea of a rich account of times gone by is conveyed through the soundtrack) and you have some of the most atmospheric scenes of the entire era taking place in this story. With polystyrene snow wafting about the place and church bells ringing in the distance, you can lose yourself entirely in this world even though you know it is being conjured up in a studio. Doctor Who sound effects have often saved the day when the budget has failed to conjure up visually what a script is hoping for but in Ribos they are used to add extra colour on this world; monks singing echoing through the corridors, dogs barking in the poorer parts of town, people screaming in the warrens. It must have cost a fortune in candles but the entrance to the catacombs looks amazing.
* When I think of Doctor Who planets that are conjured up evocatively through words it is Ribos that always springs to mind first. It's a world rich in mythology and history where everything from rituals, seasons, superstitions, poverty and a class system is considered in Holmes' script. There is so much more than just the world of Ribos that is magicked into existence through words alone; the Graff's military campaign and shocking family betrayal when he returned home, his long relationship with Sholack, Garron's dramatic and hilarious criminal history, Binro's personal mission to educate his people and his subsequent rejection. Ribos is a story that tells stories and paints pictures of events far beyond the scope of the events here. It's vast.
* The relationship between Unstoffe and Binro needs to be ripped out of Doctor Who and held aloft as exactly how to pull off a touching and meaningful relationship on television with relatively economic screen time. The two characters come together in the last two episodes and spend all of ten minutes together but with them Holmes manages to achieve the impossible, he manages to bring me to tears watching Doctor Who. Two people who never should have meet come together and an old man who has been rejected by his society for his outlandish theories has his life's work justified and a young con artist sees the value of friendship and respect for the first time. It's dazzlingly poignant and heart-warming. It makes my heart sing just to think about it. The fact that Binro is willing to lay down his life for a man he barely knows, just because he was kind enough to give him the gift of belief chokes me up every time. Unstoffe's reaction to his casual murder is unusually emotional for this period in the show and Garron's reaction to meeting Unstoffe's deceased friend ('charming fellow the little I saw of him') is a scream.

The Bad:

* I wish a little more money could have been spent on the desert landscape that the Doctor and Guardian have their little chat in because it is clearly a set despite the Guardian pretending to sun himself under the heat of the BBC lighting grid.
* Every Doctor Who story has its vice and for Ribos it is the realisation of the Shrivenzale, what should be a terrifying beast that is guarding the relic room but winds up looking like exactly what it is: a man in a cumbersome costume on his hands and knees trying to dash across the sets and look menacing with his floppy claws. A shame because the idea is really frightening (and I like the blood that is smeared around it's snapping mouth).
* The Seekers screams cut through me like a laser.

The Shallow Bit: Is there something kinky going on between the Graff and his aide? Everything about the Graff is incredibly passionate (he'll shoot a man in the face when he is kept waiting too long), from his attitude to war (naturally) to his feelings on betrayal to his opinion of his family to his relationships with his men. Never to take place in the list of the most subtle characters in Doctor Who, the Graff finds himself wiping away tears when Sholack dies and kisses him passionately on both cheeks, promising to bombard Ribos with missiles for taking this man from him (not for ruining his plans to buy the planet and take revenge on his brother). It certainly seems to suggest a deeper relationship and that's another unique aspect of this story. I wish the Graff could be the villain in every Doctor Who story, he's a vividly demented villain. Like all the characters in this story he has moments where he is outrageous but he's also written intelligently and is capable of moments of depth too. And given his penchant for shouting and stroking his ego, that is quite something.

Result: Just wonderful, The Ribos Operation kicks off the Key to Time season with style, wit and class. The plot of Ribos is highly unusual from a Doctor Who standpoint, a heist tale on an alien world where a pair of conmen are trying to sell an entire world to an intergalactic psychopath but trying out new things is exactly why this show has managed to survived for so long. Add in a fully fleshed world, a rich cast of characters and more fantastic lines than you can shake a stick at and the net result is an immensely pleasurable Doctor Who story which happens to be unique in tone and structure. Technically there are three double acts in this story; the Doctor and Romana, Garron and Unstoffe and the Graff and Sholack. Exquisitely written, it is how these six characters orbit one another that makes this story so sublime. Like all good heist stories it is when the shit hits the fan that it is most entertaining and so whilst the set up episodes are great fun, it is episodes three and four that score the best scenes (especially those between big Tommy B and Iain Cuthbertson and the unexpectedly moving relationship between Unstoffe and Binro). As discussed above there is an intimate and epic scale to this story and in both respects it impresses. Visually Ribos is a treat for the eyes with some gorgeous sets and costumes and if it was sold on it's atmosphere alone it would still be a winner (Dudley Simpson's music hits one of its peaks). But because its delights lie in it's scripting and performance, this story has hardly dated at all and remains as delightful now as I'm sure it was when it was first transmitted: 9/10

4 comments:

Ellie said...

Hello,
I'm enamoured with the seventies companions, unlike the eighties ones. How could they have such wonderful characters in a decade and such horrid in the next one remains a mystery. Fortunately Big Finish has long redeemed Nyssa, Peri and Mel, and I dare say Turlough, from the dreadfulness of their TV appearances.
I love your reviews of Sci-find shows and I'm now working my way through TNG season one, youre reviews are insightful and hilarious at times, very good.
By the way, just out of curiosity, how is that your reviews from The DW Ratings Guide of books and BF sometimes differ so much from the ones here?
Keep the good work!

Ellie said...

I forgot to ask, are you planning to review Star Trek TOS?
And, do you watch The Big Bang Theory? If so, would you review it?
The Wil Wheaton appearances are hilarious

Ellie said...

I would be very happy if you answered. Thanks

Joe Ford said...

Hi Ellie, sorry to take so long to respond...life has been pretty busy this week! Why do my opinions differ on here to those on DWRG? The simple fact is my tastes have changed over the years. If I'm honest I haven't looked at those reviews over at DWRG for years - I'm pretty ashamed of them and my writing back then (it was very enthusiastic but quite unprofessional) and I would have them taken off if it wasn't such a chore for the guy who runs the site.

Thank you for taking such an interest though, I am really flattered. TOS - probably not as I'm not a fan but maybe the Big Bang Theory when I get some time.