Monday 31 May 2010

The Ribos Operation

The Fourth Doctor and First Romana begin their quest for the Key to Time.

This is a classic story; one of the greatest pieces of simple and straight drama in Doctor Who. As many have said this is a very Shakespearean story.

The Ribos Operation begins the quest for the Key to Time, a story arc that occupies the whole of season 16. The cosmic story arc meant that the plots of each individual story of the season could become rather more low-key. Thus, Ribos Operation concerns a con trick being played on a petty interplanetary tyrant.

The quest is introduced by the White Guardian, portrayed as a distinguished elderly gentleman in a white suit, relaxing in a mysterious desert. It is a wonderful scene, given atmosphere by the sound of wind chimes. The wind chimes seem to function as a kind of leitmotif for either the White Guardian or the Key to Time theme, though unfortunately, they were not used consistently this way across the Key to Time season.

The Doctor is given a new companion, the Time Lady Romana. Giving the Doctor a companion from his own people was such a daring idea, but it worked brilliantly. Romana brings out the less magnificent side of the Doctor's personality, his petty jealousy and arrogance. Romana is the perfect foil for the Doctor.

Although Romana 1 is not as well remembered as Romana 2, I think Mary Tamm was Lalla Ward's equal. In Ribos Operation, she instantly exudes elegance and sophistication. Her white gown is delightful. Despite her conviction that she is smarter than the Doctor, throughout the story, she shows herself to be remarkably naive. While sometimes described as an icemaiden, Mary Tamm shows a lovely youthful enthusiasm in this story. This is particularly seen in her delivery of the line "Alright, call me Fred!" She is not being sarcastic or facetious, she is genuinely excited by the quest and is amused at the thought of being addressed as 'Fred.'

Cleverly, writer Robert Holmes, matches the Doctor and Romana with another master/ protege pair, the conmen Garron and Unstoffe. These are hilariously portrayed and help to create a wonderful comic drama. I love the final scene with the Doctor and Garron, in which the Doctor outwits him. There is a sense of fellowship between the Doctor and this rogue. The Doctor, in his own way is just as much a thief and a cheat.

The Graf Vynda-K is a decent villain. He is a petty tyrant who would committ any atrocity given the opportunity. The viewer can cheer as he is cheated by the conmen. He is exactly the kind of humourless villain that works so well in the more comic Williams era. I like the fact that the Doctor plants the bomb on him and kills him. I hate the pacifism of the Third and Fifth Doctors. I like the Fourth Doctor's ruthless streak.

Binro the Heretic does not add much to the plot, but he is adds some nice drama and brings out Unstoffe's more sympathetic side. I hate to be pedantic, but his character does show a tendency in science fiction to romanticise the history of science. Scientific discoveries are not the work of some lone heretic by Binro, but come from the refinement of existing ideas over time. Binro says he took measurements that enable him to come to his conclusions. My contention is that in a society as primitive as Ribos, nobody would think of taking measurements of the heavenly bodies. There would need to be some philosophical tradition that had recognised that natural phenomena is open to scientific investigation.

Nevertheless, Binro is not simply used as a hero of science over superstition. I believe in the character of Binro, Robert Holmes was introducing a fascinating irony into the story. While Binro scoffs at the idea that the seasons are regulated by gods of ice and gods of sun, the viewer discovers that the cosmos is in fact regulated by two Guardians, one of Light and one of Darkness! The natives of Ribos are actually closer to the truth than Binro realises. This is supported by the fact that the power of the Seeker is never explained away as trickery. The Ribos Operation transcends the scientific materialism of many earlier stories and paves the way for more spiritual stories like Kinda and Curse of Fenric.

The Ribos Operation lacks expensive sets, but its production gives it wonderful atmosphere. I absolutely love the costumes that echo Muscovite Russia and the delightful organ score. The rituals performed by the guards suggest Gormenghast as an influence. It feels very otherworldly. Some fans have complained about the screeching Seeker, but I think she fits in well with the medieval atmosphere. The Shrivenzale monster looks fake, but this is Doctor Who.

My only complaint about this story is that the Graf's soldiers look just a little too medieval. I like the blend of medieval and sci-fi, but I think the Graf's men could do with looking just a little more obviously futuristic.

No comments:

Post a Comment