The Ribos Operation
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most relative accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll. There are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara).
I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short. Which no doubt makes me a no-good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfying heist/caper seamlessly set against a non-interventionist backdrop more familiar from Star Trek. And, seen through the filter of today’s TV, there’s even a feeling that the Doctor has landed in Game of Thrones land. On a more limited budget and with marginally less incest, obviously.
The Williams era is undoubtedly a curate’s egg, (in)famously vilified by Sir Ian of Levine in The Unfolding Text (although he mostly had his claws out for the producer’s final season) and sullied with the putdown of relishing “undergraduate humour” by incoming producer JN-T, frequently maligned for its shoddy production values and generally scapegoated for not taking itself seriously enough (the stick Lawrence Miles beats the show with in About Time, while Tat Wood – mostly – offers a spirited defence).
At least some of those accusations are fair comment. Your mileage will depend on your tastes. I have very little time for the line in humour ever-present in Steven Moffat’s seemingly endless stint in charge of nu-Who (can his time really be up?) but it appeared to float the boats of many. And if Who for you is very much a beast of certain unchanging essentials, one of which being it that needs to lead with drama, then the change it went through, in the latter two Williams seasons particularly, where it became increasingly larky, may understandably not have been for you.
For me, though, I’d rather know that, tonally, the show is doing whatever it’s setting out to do well. So, since I find – for the most part – the Williams era funny (or witty, or clever, or amusing; however you want to phrase it), half the battle is won right there. It also helps that this approach imbues these stories with an energy and zest often absent from their more overtly dramatic counterparts of other eras. That is, they tend hold up better as a viewing experience (quality is more arguable).
Plus, and this is where Season 16 really comes into its own, it’s an era exhibiting a first-rate grasp of the essentials of storytelling. Anthony Read’s single year as script editor results it in some of the tidiest, most satisfyingly structured and composed stories in the series, getting full marks for consistency. Indeed, the only place it rather falls down – which is a crucial point for some – is in respect of the overarching theme.
Williams outline/memo for the season has taken considerable flak over the years, and the ins and outs of his attempt to structure a season around the creation of two opposing forces in uneasy equilibrium, via a key that can restore balance when chaos looms, has been torn apart/met with bafflement when trying to get to grips with how exactly it breaks down.
This extends all the way through to the season’s conclusion, where we’re left pondering what, precisely, if anything, was done in terms of completing the quest (some have argued, given the entropy of Season 18, that balance was not restored, although that doesn’t really help with the immediate takeaway of the scene). And, as About Time points out, the very nature of the Guardians – where one is striving for balance while the other is striving for destruction – places them off kilter to each other, since the White ought in theory to be endeavouring to achieve the opposite, if balance is to be maintained.
I don’t really have a problem with this nebulous quality; indeed, I rather like it. Yes, the season could have ended on a more definite, clearer note, but even there, there’s something appealing about the way Tom deconstructs the grand climax amid much eye rolling (that said, I don’t regard it as either a clever or justified choice).
It seems to me that – as sacrilegious as this may be to those who favour the show expounding “scientific” method and rational interrogation above all – the sketchy nature of the Guardians’ oppositional status directly reflects their nature as stand-in (Zoroastrian-tinged) deities. After all, in the vast majority of cases, religious maps break down when you begin asking too many whys and wherefores. Holmes got this very much in respect of The Ribos Operation, where, as has been noted by others, there’s a conscious reflection of the show’s newly announced prime movers in the “superstitious nonsense” the inhabitants of Ribos believe regarding the Ice Gods and The Sun Gods.
Is justifying the Guardians’ ambiguities a cop out? Perhaps. Philip Sandifer (in The TARDIS Emporium 5) was concerned enough to ponder if they should even be considered canon. I tend to think the show has enough room – at least when it indulged a procession of producers and writers with wildly differing ideas and outlooks – to include such characters. It’s only really an issue if one sees them intended as the genuinely ultimate arbiters, rather than looking onwards and upwards to the next outlier; who guards the Guardians?
The story nurses an uneasy tension between a heretical faith in science, as occupied by Binro and on an ongoing basis by the Doctor, and being at the mercy of the mysterious and unknowable. As much as the exchange between Binro and Unstoffe is rightly upheld as a fine and touching character moment – and also one that testifies to the show’s core principles – in practice, The Ribos Operation is much more ambivalent about the ultimate triumph of verifiable certainties.
The Doctor is sent off on his quest by God, who has a white beard, however tailored (and however much he falls into place as an exhibit of the old Empire; perhaps he appears that way to indulgence and acknowledge the Doctor’s predilections), a God engaged in an eternal duel with his very own Satan, and who has the power to spirit a Time Lord – the ones to beat in the universal power stakes – to a certain spot.
So too, the system on Ribos, where a Seeker proves unswervingly accurate in her predictions, predictions borne from faith in a system of warring divine opposites (if she’s right about the whereabouts of Unstoffe, the fates of the hunting party and has a spotless track record – Prentis Hancock tells us so, so it must be true – perhaps she isn’t so far off in her spiritual convictions).
Which I don’t think – as Tat Wood ponders, quoted in The Television Companion – undermines Binro, rather it suggests there’s always more to understand, which is why there have been attempts at explaining away the Seeker’s skills with reference to Guardians or Time Riffs (About Time). The Ice Gods and Sun Gods may be rooted in a pseudo-science explanation, or indeed the personified Black and White Guardians, but it’s clear the Seeker doesn’t need to understand scientific principles for her practices to achieve results, any more than the Sisterhood of Karn (not Moffat’s new model version). We have, after all, already seen more than enough examples in the Letts era of rites and rituals having tangible results by way of von Daniken-inity.
Garron: If mine’s mines, what’s yours?
But it isn’t the heavens that make the plot of The Ribos Operation go round; it’s money, not so uncommon in Bob Holmes scripts (of stories he originated, only The Krotons, The Deadly Assassin and The Two Doctors don’t). And in this case, the plot is a most perfectly-formed thing. Doctor Who plots, whatever their merits in the details, can’t often profess to being intricately fashioned, usually resting on unfinessed plans from unfinessed villains (the Moffat era mistakes self-congratulatorily tricksy construction –always of the same ilk – for clever plotting, when it’s nothing of the sort: see also Sherlock).
Not only is Garron’s grift of the Graff a joy to behold (along with Unstoffe’s ham addendum), it has the rare side order of putting one over on the Doctor, who underestimates Holmes’ latest loveable rogue’s ambition. And when the actual business of the deception is over and done with (the halfway point), there’s still the puzzle of how the Seeker’s foretelling will show out.
Yes, you could take issue with the Doctor pulling through by sticking a bomb down the Graff’s pants – you can bet it would have been used as a shitty stick to wave at Colin’s incarnation, had he done the same, likely the same one with the dog poo on he smeared all over his face in The Mark of the Rani – but it carries a similarly disrespectful level of wit and invention as Garron’s scheme (it’s also just plain funny, in terms of staging and performance).
Garron protests that all he does is take from those who have too much and spreads it around a bit “to keep the economy in balance”. Which, as Wood notes, is another example of the story’s layered commentary on the central theme of the season. Garron and Unstoffe are the materialists at the centre of the story. Above them sit the Doctor and Romana, and the Seeker, their heads in a more mental space, and above them dwell the Guardians and Ice Gods.
Below them all, meanwhile, is the Graff, thinking with his fists (although, this means he sees directly enough to shoot the Seeker outright – she presumably saw her fate as an inevitability – whereas the Doctor can outmanoeuvre anyone but the White Guardian (he achieves this with Garron and the Graff, in both cases achieved by way of sleight of hand, which is effectively what this story is about anyway – one might suggest the whole Key to Time/ Black/ White Guardian imagining is an inadvertent sleight of hand, which is why it doesn’t remotely bear up to scrutiny conceptually forty years later).
The White Guardian: Beware the Black Guardian.
The Doctor: Beware the Black Guardian.
The White Guardian: Beware. Beware.
It’s to the season’s credit that the White Guardian is presented as an old giffer sat in a deck chair, as much as it isn’t that JN-T stuck a dirty great pigeon on his head five years later. Notably, two years after that rematch, there’s a very similar set-up to the first, albeit more antically inclined, in The Box of Delights, where Kay Harker is pulled through time to meet Arnold of Todi, babbling away to himself, sat in a deck chair at the edge of time.
Some think the Doctor’s meeting with the White Guardian undermines the entire quest, but if you take that attitude you’ll inevitably see 1977-79 as a black hole for the show.
There are a few other comments that don’t really compute regarding this encounter, such as Sandifer’s assertion that the Doctor “visibly loathes him” (his reaction is nothing of the sort), even if he does act like he’s been summoned by the headmaster (“Sorry, sir”). Perhaps appropriate, since he was previously similarly deferential to Borusa. And, until I saw it repeatedly read that way, I never heard the Guardian’s veiled threat (“Nothing… ever”) as other than an explanation of what will happen to the universe (and by implication the Doctor) with the Black Guardian’s chaos reigning.
But words in a Holmes script are everything, and Williams and Read (it seems) wrote the opening, so perhaps that explains its susceptibility to interpretation (although, Holmes would be at it again when allied with Eric Saward, positing the indefinability of the Valeyard and never coming to a satisfying conclusion). The Ribos Operation, besides it’s devious construction, delivers some of the writer’s most satisfying creative conjuring, through his signature sprinkling of names and places and alluded events.
So Holmes gives us the Cyrhennic empire, the Megalanic Mining Conglomeration, The Alliance and Alliance Security, Mirabilis Minor (an attempted sale to three different purchasers) the Freitas Labyrinth (“Almost a year without sight of sky”) and even some classic cornballers (“They call it the Hall of the Dead”).
There’s also, as the prize McGuffin, Jethryk, “The rarest and most valuable element in the galaxy”, one of those astonishingly important substances we suddenly learn about with no warning hitherto and subsequently never hear of again (The Caves of Androzani, Vengeance on Varos), used to power space warp drives.
The story additionally sees Holmes offer his take on the aforementioned Star Trek ethos of non-intervention. Ribos is a Grade Three planet, the natives protected from outside forces, and the Graff can’t begin mining with all the technology it would be necessary to import. This is Holmes typically looking for the holes in the system, where Barry Letts, with his EU-membership-parable The Curse of Peladon, was suggesting how gaps could be bridged.
The Graff Vynda K: I flatter myself I know how to get the best from natives.
The gulf in scientific thinking and technological development allows Holmes to indulge one of his favourite and most amusing character traits, one that would make Basil Fawlty proud. Whether it’s Solon calling Cordo a “chicken-brained biological disaster” or Glitz beckoning “Come here, you ignorant, maggot-ridden peasant”, he can’t resist the affectation of superiority. There’s more than enough of it here, with Garron referring to “primitive, brutish peasants” (so primitive, simply announcing you’re from the North will explain away all suspicions regarding identity), and the Graff a non-stop litany of abuse, even to the point of using the natives as target practice until he gets his way (the Doctor, notably, gets on “terribly well with the aristocracy“).
Some of those peasants also get decent lines; the Seeker’s patter (“Bones, bones…” etc) has something going for it rhythmically. Either that, or Anne Tirard is so into her performance (and she’s absolutely great) that she carries the audience along with her (one of the Graff’s best splenetic outburst sees him exclaim “I’ll force that old witch to lead us even if we have to carry her!“)
The Graff’s serviced some wonderfully adjectival bombast, as Holmes villains frequently are, and helped considerably by Paul Seed turning it up to eleven: “I’ll bombard this stinking planet until its nothing but a hole in space!” (Seed’s maximum thunder is the only reason the two static cliffhangers involving the Graff work – whatever the merits of the story, the episode endings are not first-rate edge-of-the-seaters).
Garron: Who wants everything? I’ll settle for ninety per cent!
Choice dialogue would be wasted on Prentis Hancock, so he doesn’t get any, but the rest of the principals are dished out lavish plates full. And most lavish of all is Iain Cuthbertson’s. Next to Henry Gordon Jago, there isn’t a Holmes character who loves the sound of his own voice so much, or one with such a penchant for rolling around a turn of phrase. Although, Garron is more partial to anecdotes than linguistic somersaults. Most extraordinary here is that Cuthbertson manages to steal the show from Tom, and Tom seems fully on board with it (and to achieve this, Cuthbertson doesn’t even need to put on an outrageous accent like Lewis Fiander).
It’s an almost meta-acknowledgement and slap in the face to those who find The Ribos Operation “worthy but dull” that Tom rejects Romana’s suggestion they should really be getting on with the story rather than listening to Garron the fruity raconteur (“When you’ve faced death as many times as I have, this is much more fun”). I’m the same: I could listen to Garron recount being pursued by Arabs with machine guns for hours (his decidedly 1970s-futuristic frame of reference includes coming from Hackney Wick, selling Middle Easterners tall tales because they’re sure to be duped, and the efficacy of Japanese technology). When he calls Unstoffe “a terrible ham at heart”, it’s more than a bit pot and kettle.
Holmes also liberally throws around reversals and plays on words regarding the code of criminals, hence Garron’s “I mean, it’s putting temptation in the hands of dishonest citizens” and the Doctor’s “On the other hand, he might just be an innocent crook”, and other obvious but no less likeable lines for all that (“There’s no comfort in dying. I’ve always said it’s the last thing I want to do” – lands especially well thanks to Tom’s amused reaction).
And even if Garron’s outsmarted at his own game by the doctor – because he’s the Doctor – (“Oh, Unstoffe. Is there nobody you can trust these days?”), Holmes can’t resist rewarding him with eighteen years of loot waiting aboard the Graff’s ship (Holmes will be at that again with Glitz and Dibber in The Trial of a Time Lord).
The Doctor: We’re not a dirty gang, are we?
He doesn’t get away with everything, however. Holmes that is. Realising there’s a hole in the plot and having Romana point it out (namely, if the Jethryk is so valuable, why doesn’t Garron sit pretty with it) with “I don’t think it’s worth all that much” isn’t convincing anyone.
At other times – despite what The Discontinuity Guide may say – lines just don’t carry because of the performance and tone (the Doctor’s “Yes, terrified” reply to Romana’s “Aren’t you frightened?” is entirely without weight; well, at any rate, I don’t believe it). But the Doctor’s displays of frivolity throughout this season are at odds with any notion of a straight and true hero (although, I don’t feel inclined to adopt Sandifer’s tenuous celebration of The Ribos Operation as the first truly post-punk story; he also seems to think this was Holmes’ reaction against Star Wars, which had barely opened in the UK when the scripts were delivered; I’m not generally a fan of Sandifer’s chin beard-stroking, “psychochronographical” approach to the series – I suspect he’s suffering from a massive compensation syndrome – but it can, admittedly, reveal occasional nuggets and insights).
One moment, the Doctor’s slapping the Graff with a velvet glove, the next he’s hiding behind Garron and pushing him forward like he’s that cringing cur of a Sixth Doctor in The Twin Dilemma. This is the same season where he asks “How much?” when he’s told his services will be rewarded in The Androids of Tara. And, it bears repeating, puts a bomb down the Graff’s pants.
His waywardness is worth mentioning in respect of his new companion too. While I’m a bigger fan of Romana II in a couple of stories (City of Death mostly), I prefer Romana I as a whole, mainly because Ward’s snarling performance in Season 18 leaves such a bad taste in the mouth. Sure, Tamm can be seen by some as too arch, superior, too removed, breaking the audience identification factor (an overrated concept anyway, used as a tail to wag the decapitated robot dog by JN-T).
Sandifer (him again) may have something when he notes that Romana offers neither audience identification nor does she not take the story seriously (the respective extreme positions of Wood and Miles). Rather, she provides it with “a vehicle to overtly critique its own premises”. Albeit, in this era you have characters doing this a fair bit (Adam Colby in Image of the Fendahl springs to mind). I’m much less persuaded by his assertions concerning the repeated Doctor roles, however (Romana, Garron, Binro), as I suspect you could make similar suggestions of any number of supporting characters’ functions in any number of stories (in commenting on Garron as a non-heroic analogue of the Doctor, he doesn’t note how the Doctor becomes a not so heroic analogue of himself at times).
Tom seems fully on board with having the Doctor play the fool to Romana’s adult, showing off his “massive compensation syndrome” and happy to become the idiot (walking straight into a net), hoisted by own petard (undermining the experience vs naivety dynamic to some extent, even if the Doctor’s skillz show through in the end: “Honest, open face”), emphasising how old he is, that he failed his exams, and that, if there weren’t an essential frostiness there, well, they’d be all over each other. They nearly are anyway…
The Doctor: Really? You’re in wonderful condition.
Alan Barnes gave a winning defence of the season in DWM 290 as a “big, engrossing, children’s storybook piece of silliness… noted, noteworthy, and terribly, terribly good”, but his reductive “What you see is what you get” validation backhandedly undermines it as “far from clever”. I’d beg to disagree; it’s one of the most intelligent seasons of the show, and also one, unlike the very clever Season 18, that isn’t undermined by juvenilia (of its regular supporting cast) or poor production choices.
Read’s trick is to make the season appear deceptively simple, but the self-awareness Barnes scoffs at is infused in the entire project. It isn’t as pronouncedly self-reflexive as Douglas Adams would later be; this is a season of adults let loose on the world of fantasy and magic, and fully aware that it’s a delirious, unlikely thing.
Barnes cocks a snoot at the sausage sandwich affiliation of Vivien Fay as if there’s nothing to see there, but this is a season where Count Grendel comments that he once showed Madam Lamia a certain… courtesy, when it’s clear exactly what he means. And, as Clayton Hickman points out in The Ribos File doc on the DVD, there’s a curiously homoerotic undercurrent to the Graff’s relation with Shelak (even more than the kiss on both cheeks, his blazoning “Shelak! To me! To me!” is a pretty compelling way to go).
Add to that, you’ve got the Doctor all-but saying his new companion is a bit of alright (which is both easy to dismiss and simultaneously goes a lot further than “a very beautiful woman, probably”) and the highly compromising Time Lord-human-Time Lord sandwich in the catacombs between the Doctor, Romana and Garron, and there’s more than enough subtext to say “Rassilon’s rod”. Which is not to say I approve of the Moffat yard-of-ale approach in pouring on the innuendo; it only works when it’s restrained, and offhand. Which isn’t his game at all.
I won’t go on about Binro the Heretic. His scene’s marvellous, I think I said that. And Nigel Plaskitt’s marvellous too, particularly his “Scringe Stone” bit (Cuthbertson’s reaction shots are priceless). In terms of production values, as studio-bound worlds go, this is an agreeably effective one, fake snow and all, and the candlelit catacombs, in particular, are a surprisingly sumptuous touch for the Williams era. Admittedly, director George Spenton-Foster isn’t one of the most inventive Who directors; fortunately, it doesn’t matter too much here, with little in the way of action set pieces or suspense sequences to tax him, the occasional Shrivenzale aside.
Romana: Be quiet, K9. You’re a very irritating computer.
The final words go to K9 Mk II. The Doctor wasn’t permitted to complete the quest with his faithful best friend alone (“Couldn’t I just manage with K9?“), but the story signals a willingness to have more fun with the robot dog going forward, a state of affairs that will culminate in him “clearing his throat” in the finale before launching into a bit of fibbery.
Here, he restrains himself to some unusually colloquial language (“He’ll be out for hours”), elicits an apology from an exasperated Romana, and provides the best possible response, if you’re asked if you like the Key to Time season: “Affirmative. Affirmative. Affirmative”.