Doctor Who complete reviews: The Ribos Operation
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
A new mission, a new tin dog...and a very haughty new assistant for The Doctor...
Throw away your buckets and spades people, it’s Key To Time time!
In the days when an arc would probably refer to a floating cryogenic repository, Doctor Who committed itself to a lengthy 26-episode run of intertwined stories. The Key To Time ties Season 16 together very simply with the concept of a quest. Basically, The Doctor has to hunt through time and space for six separate parts of a key (not an actual key you understand, it’s a floating plastic cube) that when linked, will put the universe in balance and end the threat of eternal chaos.
As tasks go, this is something pretty daunting – this isn’t your archetypal Apprentice task in which SirLordWhateverHisBleedinTitleIsAlanSugar sends a horde of sweaty wannabes to hawk for business at a local art gallery. No, this is huge. For such an important mission, The Doctor gets an oddly low-key briefing by the awesome White Guardian.
Despite his meek appearance (at this point, he’s channelling The Man From Del Monte), The White Guardian is still a quiet force to be reckoned with. Not only can he subtly threaten The Doctor with the prospect of nothing happening to him, he plays a mean tune on a church organ that can force any Time Lord into submission. Cyril Luckham is very good as the Guardian (note that here, he’s just credited as The Guardian rather than The White Guardian so as to set up a nice bit of ambiguity as to who’s who in The Armageddon Factor). Luckham adds an understated power to his performance, which makes it all the more regrettable that his lone Eighties contribution resembles a kindly old granddad who’s been dragged along to a Giant Bird Fancy Dress Party. Ditto Valentine Dyall as The Black Guardian, but that’s another moan for another time.
"Tamm’s Romana is a bit more problematic, since her interpretation is more akin to a posh Countess being forced to work at a low-budget supermarket"
From The Doctor’s point of view, only K9 Mk 2 will do as a companion to assist him, since he reasons that he’ll have to spend too long teaching a humanoid being what to do. Nevertheless, he’s landed with haughty ice maiden Time Lady Romana. Hmmmm, debates will rage until the end of time about who’s the better Romana out of Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward. For my money, it’s Lalla (as long as I ignore her patronisingly haughty commentaries), who just manages that combination of clever clogs superiority and likeability. Tamm’s Romana is a bit more problematic, since her interpretation is more akin to a posh Countess being forced to work at a low-budget supermarket.
Tamm’s Romana spends The Ribos Operation with a faintly bemused sneer on her face all the time. In fact, it’s a good thing that the first Romana doesn’t go out in the pouring rain because she’d drown from the rain going down her upturned nose. Tamm’s performance is also half and half. There are some stories in which she gives a great performance, other times, she just gives an annoyingly lacklustre turn that’s both wooden and pompous at the same time. And she can’t scream for toffee either.
At least it’s a different take on The Doctor/Companion relationships though. The Doctor doesn’t want the snotty upstart around, since she’s too busy taking him down a peg or two, whether it’s over his less-than-stellar exam results or his age. When the tables are turned though and Romana’s freaked out by a rubbish monster, the frost does begin to thaw between the two. And it’s amusing to see The Doctor always try and impress Romana to little or no avail.
"The Ribos Operation itself is a marvellous start to the season with a witty script from Robert Holmes and some rather sumptuous production values"
So with the players all in place and the task now established, The Doctor can get on with the new adventure. The Ribos Operation itself is a marvellous start to the season with a witty script from Robert Holmes and some rather sumptuous production values.
The Ribos Operation is, despite the gravity of the quest, rather small scale by comparison. Broken down, the story basically revolves around a conman trying and failing to sell a planet to a demented warlord with a questionable moustache. It’s an interesting tack to take, but because there are minute details and nuances, The Ribos Operation becomes one of the season’s most successful stories. The tale is one of the most perfect showcases for Holmes’ talents for both character and world building.
It’s all in the dialogue, you see. On screen, there are a few sets which alternate between snowy and olde-worlde gothic. Beyond this though, we get backgrounds about the planet and its relation with other worlds in the solar system through clever Holmesian writing. For example, we get to hear of how Ribos has something of a stunted approach when it comes to learning. Binro The Heretic has become derided and ridiculed for daring to offer his belief that there are other worlds beyond Ribos. The planet’s occupants strongly disagree, claiming that they are ice crystals, and that if Binro doesn’t retract his beliefs, then the Ice Gods will send forth their wrath. In the end, he does, but it’s through force and brutal torture. Even the moustachioed guard (what is it with this planet and silly moustaches?) treats Binro like a criminal, sneering at the poor old bugger in his flea-infested cesspit.
The following scene in which conman Unstoffe tells Binro that all his beliefs are in fact true has become one of the most celebrated scenes in the show’s history. In keeping with the rest of the story, it’s all rather understated and low-key. But through both the charming dialogue and the quietly excellent performances from Timothy Bateson and Nigel Plaskitt, it makes quite an emotional impact (“Binro was right…”). And when Binro inevitably gets bumped off, this makes his demise all the more touching, especially Plaskitt’s shellshocked nod of the head at Binro’s last plea of reassurance that he was right.
Unstoffe is just one example of the strong characterisation in The Ribos Operation. Initially, he’s little more than Garron’s rather unwilling protégé, roped in to the jobs that his master wasn’t to do such as doping a Shrievenzale with drugged meat. But as the story continues, he is very much the conscience of the scamming duo, even commenting that “Money isn’t everything!” at one point. Excellent acting from Nigel Plaskitt, who knows when to turn the subtle tap on and off. And a great choice to do one of his Pipkins voices when he’s posing as the Throne Room curator.
Garron doesn’t change quite so much, although Iain Cuthbertson oddly can’t make up his mind whether he’s bellowing at the top of his voice in a posh drawl or in a Gorbloymey London accent. Garron is basically a parody of a con merchant estate agent – something of a glib generalisation. But then in my experience – having been involved with a flat that’s been flooded three times and a whopping great mortgage – maybe it’s not so far off the mark.
Anyways, Garron doesn’t reckon on trying to hoodwink the Graff Vynda-K out of several million opeks without a struggle on his hands. The demented fallen ruler is given a great deal of backstory, how he was deposed from the throne by his people and then replaced with his half-brother. This accounts for his wildly unbalanced nature – rejection by his subjects has turned him into a paranoid lunatic, and since Garron betrays him too, this tips him further over the edge. By the end of the story, he’s completely lost the plot as he threatens to blow the catacombs to kingdom come, and even more disturbingly, decides to start snogging his DEAD old buddy and comrade Sholakh who’s just bitten the dust in a rockfall. Mind you, at least Paul Seed (who went on to become a highly acclaimed director) adds a lot of weight to his performance. It could have become parody, but there’s something very realistic in Seed’s acting that makes The Graff a very dangerous foe indeed.
"The Doctor’s on fine form. This is really the season in which the happy-go-lucky fourth Doctor manifests himself properly"
Generally, the acting’s of the highest standard, although shrill old biddy The Seeker is a bit of a nuisance. Yes, they call her The Seeker. Who’s been searching low and hi-igh for a look that’s a bit less ostentatious. Stomping about in bizarre paint and a costume that makes her look like a demented antelope, The Seeker is a low-grade psychic who waves a few chicken bones in the air and has the annoying habit of making the sort of noise when you throw up at the top of her voice. “Now! NOW! NOOOWWW!!! BLLEEEUUAARRGGH!!!” It’s a blessed relief when The Graff shoots the wheezy old bat at point blank range.
Still at least The Doctor’s on fine form. This is really the season in which the happy-go-lucky fourth Doctor manifests himself properly. After alternating between sulky and cheerful in season 15, the fourth Doctor powers through his adventures with a big toothy grin on his face and a gleeful penchant for getting into trouble. What makes this more effective though is the way in which this cheer is nicely balanced by the odd serious moment. In Ribos, he momentarily lets his façade drop as he reveals that he’s “terrified” of the Graff’s crack squad of guards who are about to use his party for target practice. And at the end of the story, he still ruthlessly despatches The Graff, who’s blown to smithereens by his own bomb. The Doctor is still looking at the bigger picture rather than the affairs of small-time human tyrants. Tom Baker is still as brilliant as ever in the role, combining the endearing humour and the detached alien perfectly.
For a show that’s always been criticised for having poor production values, The Ribos Operation actually looks like a million dollars. Or a few thousand at least. The interior sets from Ken Ledsham are superb and finely detailed from the snowy rooftops through to the lush interiors of the Throne Room through to the gloomy catacombs – complete with several hundred candles and a neat soft focus camera trick from director George Spenton-Foster.
I can’t work Spenton-Foster out though. Give him an episode of Blake’s 7 and he blunders through with the detached air of a bored postman. Give him an episode of Doctor Who and he’s like a kid in a sweet shop. His casting is inspired throughout, he emphasises the grandeur and squalor of Ribos in equal measures, and adds neat little flourishes like the aforementioned soft focus camera work and the creepy sound effects of a past battle unfolding over the Graff’s last manic moments. Admittedly, the Shrievenzale doesn’t work at all. It is exactly what it is – a man crawling on all fours inside a pantomime dragon. Mercifully, it’s not on the screen too long, and most of the time, when it is, we only see subjective close-ups of teeth and claws. And Dudley Simpson’s atmospheric organ music again adds much to the ambience of the story.
Altogether, a near-perfect start to the Key To Time season. Inevitably, The Doctor and Romana are successful in their hunt for the first segment, although as The Doctor ominously points out, there’s still a long way to go. And several more weeks of enjoyable adventure.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.
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