Saturday, September 23, 2006


Back to Old School: The Ribos Operation

We’re back from an exciting week at the seaside, and naturally feel we’d rather still be there. But this time, like when we were boys rather than in ‘youthful middle age’, the BBC has something exciting almost ready for us when we get back. Scary Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood is, appropriately, due to launch near Halloween, but in just a fortnight from today the new Robin Hood series begins. So this morning I watched a terribly entertaining Doctor Who with a malicious twist on an element of the Robin Hood story (as yet it’s only available on an American DVD). It originally finished broadcasting on September 23rd, 1978, but there had been a huge change in the programme in a year; it’s a remarkable leap from Horror of Fang Rock
“Do you think I can rest for one moment, until I have won back the Levithian crown which is mine by right?”
The Sixteenth Season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1978-9, was unusual in that it told a series of linked stories involving the Doctor’s quest for ‘The Key to Time’; The Ribos Operation was the opening tale that started it all off. Because the stories all fit together, they were released as a DVD boxed set in the States, though in a fairly minimal way compared to the UK releases – there are commentaries, comprehensive text notes (particularly interesting ones for this story, with details of several cut scenes) and the odd photo, but little picture restoration, no documentaries or all the other extras you’d normally expect. So unless you’re as much a completist as Richard and me, I’d wait for the inevitable UK release which will have a lot more in it, however delayed (it’s been out four years, so it’d be nice if they got their fingers out and released it here, too).

Still, it’s quite an enjoyable commentary, with Mary Tamm – who played companion Romana – well-informed and slightly bitchy, while Tom Baker plays up his advancing age and sexual longing: he sighs lustfully at the sight of Mary, talks of 87-year-olds clashing his trolley to try and pull him in Waitrose, and observes that “Fan love is superior to human love”. She keeps leading him into the temptation of saying rude things about her successor as Romana, Lalla Ward:
“Do you remember Lalla?” she asks, cackling.
“We got married, I think,” he replies.
“Did you? Gosh, that was brave.”
They also recall how they used to sign photos of the two of them: “I always sign across your bosom.” “And I always sign over your face,” she comes back at him, sharp as a knife. Like the viewers, they’re desperate for K9 to turn up, as the tin dog’s actually rather good here, but doesn’t make much of an appearance until half-way into Part Three…

At the Time…

I have rather fond memories of this story, not just for the usual ‘coming back to school but Doctor Who’s back on TV’ feeling, though the fact that the story opens with the Doctor planning to go on holiday, at which point the light fails and then he ends up being sent somewhere that it’s snowing has a certain appropriateness to British summers. I missed the opening titles of it first time round because we’d just hurried home from the first out-of-town shopping experience I can remember, at a big Habitat with sandpits to play in, out somewhere exotic like Wythenshawe. The book isn’t really a huge success; much of the serial’s strength is in its dialogue and lightness of touch, but while Ian Marter wrote some superb ‘serious’ Who novels, this one rather suffers from having all the jokes taken out. I still remember even that fondly, however, as I got it on an enjoyable school trip to York, and it was the first book I ever got signed by an actor when given the thrilling chance to meet Tom Baker soon after. Altogether, I really enjoyed the story at the time, but it’s even more enjoyable now that I’m old enough to appreciate how outrageous it all is.

The previous year, Graham Williams had taken over as producer of Doctor Who, and for me his first year is the only one with Tom Baker as the Doctor that doesn’t really work. Of course, it was also the one with That Man in the Scarf, That Woman in the Leather Bikini and The Tin Dog, probably the best-remembered team the show ever had, so what do I know? Anyway, while Mr Williams has been much-criticised over the years, for me this is where his approach really comes together. I could understand people’s vendetta against him if all he’d made was Season Fifteen – mostly good ideas, dodgy execution – but this is a huge step up. There’s wit, character and story, plus it even looks good, and almost all his stories from this point forward work on at least the first three of those levels. His stories aren’t really trying to be scary any more, but they replace terror with a feeling of fairy-tale and fun which is all enormously enjoyable.

The Story

Essentially, what happens in this story is that the Doctor is sent on a mission from God, but instead of winding up po-faced and portentous he ends up in a caper that’s the nearest the series ever gets to Hustle. We see a planet going through its own equivalent of the Middle Ages, with a beautifully drawn culture, instantly credible characters and great dialogue; it’s all so believable that the light, frothy plot arises naturally out of it (though the con-trick’s by no means as clever as those in Hustle, the canvas on which it’s painted is far more interesting). There’s also a lovely attention to detail in the costumes, sets and even lighting – the host of candles in the Hall of the Dead looks breathtaking – all accompanied by some gorgeous music, particularly for the various local rituals. And as for the astounding hats…

By this point, Doctor Who is very much Tom Baker’s show, and he dominates the story (which will, as usual, be betrayed by the odd spoiler here). Unusually, it’s not all in a good way; perhaps because he’s not settled back or possibly sobered up after his own holidays yet, perhaps because he’s having so much fun with guest star Iain Cuthbertson, he’s distinctly hammy at times, which can be a bit distracting. He does have a new assistant to cope with, though, and as Romana’s the first on his level – one of his own people, fresh out of the Academy and initially trying to put him down – it’s not surprising that both character and actor show a degree of petulance. If initially the Doctor is slightly overawed by ‘God’ and overwhelmed by greater academic standing, he reasserts himself through the value not of power nor qualifications, but of empiricism, improvisation and mixing it.

Romana first appears in an outrageously glamorous white frock with silver trimmings, waving about her triple first and knowledge that the Doctor only just passed, and she’s one of the campest things you’ve ever seen. Appropriately for 1978, she could easily pass as one of Abba – even exclaiming “Ooh, take a chance,” at one point – and she’s so bitchy and aloof that the Doctor just doesn’t know how to deal with her. Even as a boy, I thought she was fabulous. In complete contrast is the other leading character with whom the audience is supposed to sympathise, Iain Cuthbertson’s engaging con-artist, Garron. He’s from an Earth a thousand or so years in the future, but with his patter, repertoire of accents and stories of selling famous landmarks, he’s very much a voice from 1978 amidst the medieval characters populating Ribos. His horror at his accomplice Unstoffe’s improvising a side-scam is very like Mickey and Danny in early episodes of Hustle, though they have an even better reason for not stealing the Crown Jewels than the more glamorous Noughties team (with both using the local relics as a set-up for their real con). Much as he brings out the worst in Tom Baker’s acting, he’s great fun to watch, and I have to admit that ‘lovable con-artists’ are the weakness in my usual disapproval of stories that ask us to empathise with crooks. It helps that the Doctor sides himself with crooks and chaos against law and order and fascism (as usual), and that Garron’s so recognisable; he even comes from Hackney Wick – or, according to one particularly error-prone Doctor Who reference guide, the village of ‘Hackneywick’ in Somerset. The only point at which he’s neither plausible nor entertaining is when, with the whole plot centring on an incredibly precious mineral which he just happens to possess a large lump of, he goes to the trouble of using it to bait the fake sale of a planet rather than just selling the stuff. The Graff says it could power an entire fleet and is of incredible worth, certainly far more than Garron is taking him for, but while Garron admits it’s the rarest element going and is basing his whole con on its value, he then claims it’s not worth that much. Oops. Still, the rest of it makes sense…

The World

Ribos is a world resembling medieval Russia – when I saw Alexander Nevsky a few years ago, the look was remarkable despite the huge disparity in budget – that’s just entering its 500 [whoops! It’s not certain, but apparently] 32-year winter, and it’s a superbly detailed society (unusually for Doctor Who, we even hear of several other settlements than the one city of Shurr). Snow, bells, catacombs, religion… It’s only when a planet has its own theology, geology, cosmology and meteorology that you realise what makes so many others less convincing, and thanks to an author with a real gift for words, neither does it suffer from the worthy but dull Star Trek syndrome that makes the detail of a planet sound like it’s regurgitating chunks of a UN report. Though the token monster is, I have to admit, more than a little floppy, even that gets some natural history rather than simply ‘it’s a big beastie and damn the ecological niche’. I’ve always loved the Doctor’s adventures in history, and this is a brilliant new take on them – an alien world with such rich borrowed detail that you infer a full history of its own. I bet it took a lot less research, too. It’s a rather marvellous mix of sci-fi and historical, set on the fringes of great events that makes intergalactic politics seem like proper history.

Probably the two most memorable natives of Ribos are minor characters who you might call ideological opposites, the Seeker – in effect, the local witch-priestess – and tortured old local Galileo, Binro the Heretic. He’s absolutely a Doctor Who hero figure and the nearest in the story to a straight part (though occasionally played in rather too maudlin a way). He’s an old beggar with smashed hands like his near-namesake Giordano Bruno, who also suggested the stars were suns with worlds of their own. Here, he was crippled to make him recant for fear of the Ice Gods destroying the world, and a touching moment comes when Unstoffe (from another world) tells him he was right. An unusual piece of structure in this story is that the Doctor mainly interacts just with the con-artists rather than the locally ‘important’ people – as the con is tied up with the segment of the Key to Time he’s come to find – and so Binro isn’t there to be championed by the Doctor, but to bring out the heroism in Unstoffe. Similarly, the Seeker is there to hunt Unstoffe, and doesn’t notice the Doctor’s disguise right in front of her. She speaks in a shrieking sort of ritual rush which I’ve always found compelling, though it’s possible the actress was just peculiar, and her painted face, prophesies of death and huge horned headpiece all make her stand out. At the time, her prophecy that “All but one is doomed to die” caught my imagination; as I grew older, I realised the irony of her predicting her own death without realising it because, like the Graff, she thinks herself indestructible; but now I can see that the author was having a bit of fun with her on top of all that. We instinctively sympathise with Binro, yet she’s given equal weight – and while we know for a fact that his fledgling scientific observations are true, rather than this being the series’ usual moral that science is real and magic isn’t, when every one of the Seeker’s predictions proves true it seems that both are. Superstition still doesn’t get a good press, however, with the Shrievalty practising mutilation, the Seeker a nasty piece of work, and the Captain of the Shrievalty deciding to seal in our heroes by blasting down the entrance to the catacombs in order to propitiate the Ice Gods. I have to say, this isn’t a sign of his intelligence: as the Ice Gods are supposed to live down there, you’d imagine sealing their home would make them quite cross, to say nothing of all the dead people who can’t be buried now, but as our heroes escape without so much as breaking sweat it must have been a pretty inept demolition job anyway.

The character that’s always had the biggest impact on me, though, was the villain. Though another outsider from another world, the man Garron plans to sting is very much in a medieval mindset – the Graff Vynda-K is a deposed monarch, for all that he hopes to buy a planet rather than a province from which to raise a (space) fleet. He gets some great lines, for example when horrifying the local Captain of Shrievalty by just shooting people on getting bored both with waiting for information and with covering up that he’s from another world:
“What are you?”
“Impatient, Captain! …I flatter myself I know how to get the best from natives.”
He’s also revealed from the first as not quite the “big butch soldier” he’s said to be; he shivers in the wind, but even that’s clever scripting to explain why he later gets so close to the fireplace and is able to discover something there… He’s a soldier always on the edge of losing it, held in check by his loyal old general, and particularly well characterised and played, twitchily, by Paul Seed, an actor who went on to direct such series as House of Cards (he gets soliloquies of his own here). There’s a great deal about him that’s memorable, starting with his armoured knights with their ray-firing staves that, at the age of six, seemed immensely cool for me. Now, however, I can spot little touches of I, Claudius in the mix, though unusually for Doctor Who he’s greatly toned down from the original (but as that’s Caligula, you have to, really). When he finally goes all the way into madness, the descent seems unsettling and even tragic as he disappears into visions of old glories, and it’s the more unsettling because we hear what’s going on inside his head, as if the audience goes mad with him to the sound of cavalry and drumbeats.

The most striking thing about the Graff, though, is his relationship to a famous English monarch. Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore recently observed that, a year later, Destiny of the Daleks would make Davros a twisted version of Arthur, the once and future king; I suspect if you stopped most ill-informed passers-by in the street and asked them to name England’s two most famously ‘good’ kings of Ye Olden Times, they’d say Richard and Arthur (one probably not so good, one largely mythical, but both highly thought of). The Graff is, of course, a young warrior-emperor going away to fight in the wars while he leaves his plotting half-brother on the throne, only to find he’s been deposed when he gets back. I love this reversing the heroic monarch of the Robin Hood tales as Bad King Richard, where ‘restoring the rightful king’ is what the villain wants to do and his subjects are very happy with him deposed. I do wonder if writer Bob Holmes particularly had it in for Robin Hood, as the nearest Doctor Who gets to the main part of the legend is in his earlier story The Time Warrior, set around the Thirteenth Century and in which the outlaws are greedy ruffians and the archer is an assassin. And, in the end, though the Doctor brings about the Graff’s death, it’s almost an aside. Though there’s a bit of camp glove-slapping at one point, they never really face off; although he’s ‘important’ to galactic politics, for once the real story is the little con, so the Doctor can ignore the ‘big events’ in favour of ultimately universal ones. Turning this season’s love of royalty on its head before it even gets going by elevating a scruffy conman over a displaced monarch, it makes utterly the right decision for Doctor Who.

A Mission From God?

There’s one other key character, and I described him earlier as ‘God’. Though most of the story sees the ‘important people’ as dangerous, and sides with the underdog – the con-man, the heretic (magic and religion may apparently work, but all its adherents are gits, so you shouldn’t follow them anyway) – the story does begin with the Doctor being hijacked by an almighty power who gives him orders to seek the hidden segments of Key to Time. In this case, he’s called the White Guardian, and manifests himself as an old gent sitting sipping a mint julep. He has a casual air of authority that makes him quite the scariest thing in it, as God would be, I suppose, and you wonder if he inspired Terry Gilliam to cast Ralph Richardson in much the same role in Time Bandits. He’s a change from the sheer evil of all previous ‘gods’ in Doctor Who; this one is… cold, rather like the hard purity of the Light in the Dark is Rising books. He gives the Doctor one of the most effective threats heard in the series, when our hero asks what’ll happen if he doesn’t do the Guardian’s bidding:
“What – you mean nothing will happen to me?”
“Nothing at all. Ever.”
He appears to be the Universal personification of order, and his legendary opponent, the Black Guardian, that of chaos; returning in the 1980s, they become ‘goodly old man’ and ‘cackling Devil’ in huge costumes, but initially the Guardian was more ambiguous and rather sinister.

Looking purely at this and the other Key to Time stories, there do seem to be multiple possibilities about the Guardian. Though Graham Williams is known as the producer who promoted wit and lightness of touch in the series, perhaps he did want something grand and Manichean at the top of the Universe; in which case, Bob Holmes seems to be deliberately satirising the ‘black and white’ of it from the first. Summoned by the ultimate force of law and order, the Doctor sides with the first crooks to hand, and instead of the story being about portentous doom, it’s a funny con job that also implies that, even if religion is real, anyone involved in it is still a nasty piece of work. Ironically in view of some later writers seeing him as God, the Doctor’s firmly one of the little people, involved in shady little events and not seeing everything in black and white. There are other possibilities, though; in the season where the Doctor’s given orders by ‘God’, half the stories (including this one) debunk gods as not worth worshipping. Perhaps the same is true of the Guardian, as it is with that other ‘important’ character, Bad King Richard the Graff Vynda-K? At the close of the whole season, the Black Guardian appears as White to try and trick the Doctor, who splits the Key up again rather than let him take it. What if the same trick had been played at the beginning, and the three ‘gods are bad’ stories were hints that the Doctor was really working for the bad guy all along? The Doctor seems very mistrustful of his ‘boss’ in this story, so perhaps he went along with the quest to stop anyone else falling for it. Alternatively, what if the Doctor really is working for White, but absolute order is no more attractive than absolute chaos? About twenty years ago, I remember standing in a shop reading a Doctor Who fanzine short story where the Doctor sees a Dalek army at work and discovers they’re servants of the White Guardian, imposing their own fascist order on the Universe. I wish I’d bought that fanzine, now; no idea who wrote it, but it got me thinking. Whatever the intention was, I’m grateful that the ‘Grand Quest’ that you’d expect to be so terribly, terribly serious came instead when Tom Baker was at his most laid-back and Tommiest and it all became simple fluffy fun. I have a terrible feeling that deciding to give the Doctor a sense of purpose would be like enlisting him for national service to put some backbone into him and make him respect authority, damn it; a total disaster that would lose everything that makes Who Whoish. Yet it still manages to work, perhaps because the Doctor ends up cocking a snook at both ‘God’ and ‘the Devil’ in favour of making his own decisions about what he thinks is right and, ultimately, what he enjoys doing.

I love The Ribos Operation. It’s a hugely entertaining little story, deliberately going small-scale with attention to character and dialogue instead of aiming to be a po-faced epic. The author has clearly cried, ‘Sod realism! Look what I can get away with!’ but with enormous panache, and assisted by splendid actors, music and design – the whole thing’s mix of futuristic science and detailed history looks more believable and less cheap than anything in the previous season. There’s a witch and a wicked prince, and they both come to memorable ends; God is deeply scary; Galileo is a hero; everyone wears fantastic hats. What’s not to love? Well, an iffy monster, but that’s not a unique failing. There’s also a great relationship between the Doctor and a suddenly iconic, almost Abba-esque companion to push the whole thing along. It’s rare that anyone raves about this story, but for me it should be celebrated as sheer, flamboyant fun.

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This post takes me back. I had forgotten exactly what the two Guardians were supposed to represent. Now I am reminded and can compare them with the two super races in 'Babylon-5' - the Vorlon and the Shadows - who also represent Order and Chaos. In that show both are ultimately rejected by humanity.
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