Friday, February 23, 2024

The Ribos Operation (2)

The Ribos Operation is not about the Graf. It is barely even about the Doctor. It's about two con-men, Garron and Unstoff. It begins with them bantering wittily as they break into the royal treasure house. It ends with them bantering wittily about how well or badly their heist has worked out. It's their story.

Garron is played by Iain Cuthbertson, the nasty squire from Children of the Stones. He was originally going to be Australian, but his accent shifts between stereotype cockney and stereotype cockney trying to sound posh. Although he's a galactic rogue only two degrees removed from Han Solo, he's also clearly a cockney barrow boy. The home he wants to return to isn't Coroscant or Trantor, but Hackney Wick.

Unstoff is played by Nigel Plaskitt. In 1978 it would have been impossible to see him without muttering "course-you-can-Malcolm" under your breath. He'd been in a very irritating series of adverts for patent cold remedies. The BBC was pernickety about product placement; but it is a heck of a coincidence that Ribos is stuck in it's winter season and Unstoff spends the opening scenes complaining about the weather. Plaskitt also voiced and operated Hartley Hare on Pipkins (and I believe subsequently worked with Jim Henson) so presumably he felt right at home sharing the stage with the shrivenzale.

Plaskitt plays the part absolutely straight while Cuthbertson teeters permanently on the brink of pantomime. Robert Holmes is far too clever too hammer the point home, but the relationship between the know-it-all youngster and the seen-it-all-before veteran closely mirrors that of the Doctor and Romana. One assumes that Big Finish made two hundred CDs about the pairs further adventures? They are far more original and funny then Jago and Litefoot ever were.

Garron's scheme is pretty clever and great fun. He started his career doing the venerable old trick of selling bridges he doesn't own to unwary tourists; but has moved up in the world and now sells planets. Unstoff breaks into the castle strong room and instead of stealing the crown jewels, plants a lump of precious metal in the vault. Garron "accidentally" gives his victim papers to show that the planet has vast unexploited mineral wealth; so his mark will be prepared to buy the valueless planet at an inflated price.

Who are they trying to swindle? Obviously, the Graf Vindar-K.

It's a weirdly brilliant set-up. A classic con-trick being perpetrated on a classic space-opera bad guy by a couple of classic con-men in a classic fantasy medieval setting. It's as if Grand Moff Tarkin arrived on the set of Hamlet and Del Boy tried to sell him Westminster Bridge. (This was before Del Boy, but after Moff Tarkin.)

The Plot Device leads the Doctor and Romana into the epicentre of the scam: the strong room where Unstoff has planted the precious jethric. But this in itself doesn't particularly embroil them in the story. They spend the bulk of the first two episodes pressed to the edge of the narrative; watching the scheme unfold and unravel. Romana directly says that the main action of the story is "none of their business" and that they should ignore Garron -- clearly the protagonist of the episode -- and concentrate on getting the first segment out of the strong room.

The Doctor briefly proposes one reason to become involved. He does not say that it is their moral duty to prevent the Graf being swindled; or, indeed, to prevent him from getting his hands on the valuable jethric. But he does suspect that Garron is "after the same thing" as he and Romana are. This would have been in line with Graham Williams' original concept: the Doctor and the agents of the Black Guardian in a race to find each precious Segment. But the story -- and very possibly Robert Holmes -- resists this resolution. Garron is not an agent of the Dark Side, even unwittingly. And he is not, in fact "after the same thing". In fact, he already possesses the segment, and has placed it in the reliquary, unaware of its value.

At the time of Ribos Operation, many of us were for the first time discovering Dungeons & Dragons. Heroes went into labyrinths (which did not exist for any reason) and faced perils (which did not exist for any reason) and obtained treasures (which did not exist for any reason). The Dungeon was, in effect, a physical embodiment of the Plot. There was no need for a plausible narrative to explain how the heroes came to be negotiating a pit full of spikes; or trying to avoid a dragon's fiery breath: they were doing it because that was what there was at the end of the corridor.

At the end of Episode Three, Unstoff stumbles into what is unmistakably a Dungeon. Surprised by the Ribos guards while trying to retrieve the jethric, he escapes into a series of caves and tunnels which just happen to run under the city and to be accessible from the strong room. They are completely impossible to navigate without supernatural or technological aid (meaning that he can stay lost for as long as the Plot requires.) They are home to a colony of fully grown shrivenzale (and can therefore provide peril and cliffhangers when called to do so). They are a hiding place for fugitives and outcasts (and can therefore introduce new characters into the story without any further explanation). Once Unstoff is lost in the Plot (the caves) with the MacGuffin (the jethric) the Doctor is obliged to go in after him.

In case we are in any doubt about what is going on, the Ribos guards enlist a lady witch doctor. It is agreed by all parties that there is no way of finding Unstoff in the caves without her aid. She's an odd fit to the overall story: a figure in a mask who keeps doing strange dance moves, a little like the Sisterhood in Brain of Morbius. She provides the Plot with a completely arbitrary end-point, "prophesying" that only one person will emerge from the Dungeon in one piece. She has exactly the same narrative function as the Tracer, and is in fact referred to only as the Seeker.

The Doctor does manage to claw back some of his status as the show's hero from Romana. But it is worth, once again, looking at what does not happen. It does not turn out that his poor exam results were the consequence of him being too cool for school; or that he was thrown out of college for tampering with knowledge that man was not meant to know; or that he is far more than a Time Lord and has a history that Romana can only guess at. But it does turn out that he has been round the galactic block a few times. He spots things that Romana misses. When Garron puts on a silly Mummerset accent, the Doctor notices that it is an earth accent, not a Ribos one. Romana is taken in by Unstoff's cock-and-bull story about an abandoned mine "because he has such an honest face": the Doctor points out (pityingly) that you can't be a successful crook with a dishonest face. (If all smugglers looked like smugglers, sir, my job would be a lot easier.) Romana assumes that the Crown must be the First Segment, because it is the most valuable thing in the strong room. The Doctor realises that it must in fact be the jethic. The audience have got there already: it has to be the jethric because the jethric is the main driver of the Plot. But the Doctor spots that the segment was moving between locations when the Tracer detected it; and Garron brought the jethric to Ribos from another star system (whereas the crown jewels are hardly ever moved). Romana thinks that this very obvious deduction is "brilliant".

And while this clearly restores the Doctor to the role of central character, it still represents a fundamental shift in the Doctor / companion dynamic. The Doctor is the street savvy one, the voice of common sense and intuition and occasionally local knowledge. Romana remains the clever, scientific one; and she still looks down on him.

But this can only go so far. The Doctor may no longer be wandering; he may be trying his hardest not to get involved; and he may have an assistant who is reluctant to assist. But he has one thing on his side: the format of Doctor Who. Episodes have to end with cliffhangers; and cliffhangers require the Doctor to be the Doctor. Romana, to her credit, does not scream when she is (inevitably) threatened by the shrivenzal. But she does call out "Doctor, I'm over here" and actually hug him when he frees her. "Are there many such dangerous creatures in the universe?" she asks, and the Doctor relishes the moment. "Millions! Millions! You shouldn't have volunteered if you are scared of a little thing like that."

No Doctor Who story would be complete without a little light capital punishment. At the end of Episode Two the Graf orders that the Doctor, Romana and Garron be executed by firing squad. But the Doctor entirely refuses to take the cliffhanger seriously. In the next episode he says, in effect "Please stop" and they stop, whereupon he and the Graf get involved in a mutual face-slapping routine straight out of the Marx Brothers. They are all held prisoner (while Unstoff gets lost in the Plot Dungeon) and the Doctor spends a fair chunk of the episode chatting with Garron about the heist.

"Doctor, there are men out there planning to kill us, and you're just sitting here chattering" complains Romana.

"When you've faced death as often as I have, this is much more fun" he replies.

More fun. It isn't merely that the Doctor is braver and less afraid of dying than Romana. It's that he doesn't take the universe entirely seriously. Which makes sense once you've realised that his meeting with the Guardian is essentially a con flab with the Author. He knows that he is the hero of the story, and that he can't be killed off. He probably even knows that the story is closer to being a comedy than a tragedy.

There is one last element to consider.

When Unstoff sets off into the impenetrable story-cave, he encounters Biro The Heretic. Biro fits into the story precisely nowhere, and is therefore, almost by definition, the best thing in it.

He's a stock character. I suppose his ultimate source is Benn Gunn, the castaway in Treasure Island. He reminds us of characters who Blackadder and Robin of Loxely encounter in prison cells; and the poor chained up fellow who has to push the pram a lot. (This was before Blackadder and Robin of Sherwood.) Old, beardy, raspy, dressed in rags, apt to talk to rats and not entirely sane: I suppose the purest version of the archetype was Geoffrey Bayldon's time shifted wizard in Catweazle. But this pathetic figure is Ribos's Galileo or its Darwin: pronounced a heretic for declaring the truth about the universe for the first time.

It's another strange structural moment. The crazy mad scientist is a little bit like the Doctor; and the fresh faced guy with the bunged up nose is a little bit like Ian or Harry or any number of straight men. But Unstoff is to Biro as the Doctor has been to so many mortals: the one who tells him that, yes, the world is round; yes, the lights in the skies are other star systems and yes, travel between the worlds will one day be possible. (No-one seems to care very much about the Prime Directive: at any rate, honest-looking con-men don't.) Reviews at the time, in fanzines, pinpointed the Unstoff/Biro scenes as being good examples of the Magic which Doctor Who didn't have any more. They are certainly good drama and good writing played straight by two good actors.

Tom Baker's Doctor is sometimes said to be a little callous: not psychotic like Colin's version but looking at humans from a slightly elevated perspective. But the ending of Ribos Operation is surprisingly cruel. The Seeker has predicted that only one person will survive the caves. After Sholakh dies, the Graf consciously tries to bring the Plot to its foreordained ending. He hands his remaining guard a bomb, and walks away: the guard gets an honourable death, and he himself gets to leave the catacombs in one piece.

He is ranting movingly about past battles, and talking about Sholakh as if he is still alive. One half expects him to say that he has nothing left but his panache. But the guard is the Doctor in disguise (of course); and the Doctor has switched the bomb for the jethric (of course). The Graf blows himself up and the Doctor gets the segment. We shouldn't mourn too much for Vinder-K: he was a bad man who had it coming; but it's a cold thing for the good guy to do. But then, Ribos is a very cold planet. Perhaps the Doctor could do with some Vicks Sinex.

But our focus is not on ridding the universe of nasty but impotent bad guys: it's on the Doctor getting his hands on the Plot Coupon. We head straight for a comedy climax. Garron switches the jethric for some worthless stone, but the Doctor switches it back again. Garron is cross, but only a bit cross; you imagine he starts planning his next hustle right away. The final lines; as the Doctor secures the First Segment in the TARDIS safe, slightly undercuts the adventure. "Simple wasn't it. Only five more to go."

A chap at a Doctor Who convention at the time told me that "the magic of Doctor Who" comes down to "how Doctor Who makes you feel". That's probably about right. Our joy in the show is subjective rather than objective: it's a romantic, rather than a classical engagement.

What is Doctor Who? Chases down corridors; old fashioned theatrical actors; chases down corridors; special effects departments doing the best they can; chases down corridors. Ribos Operation has them: Pirate Planet will have more of them; Power of Kroll will have very little else. The question is never what Doctor Who irreducibly is; but what the Doctor has at a given moment become. The disruptive figure, arriving on a planet and shaking everything up? The saviour, arriving at the moment of crisis? Or merely the curious, benevolent wanderer?

Professional fans at the time of Deadly Assassin complained that there was too much hyperbole. The Doctor no longer rescued individuals or cities or even planets: He only ever saved The Universe. Which may be one of the problems the Key to Time sets out to solve. The action is tiny: a small lump of precious rock; a swindler; a posturing noble. But the stakes are as ultimate as they can possibly be.

If we wind back to when Anthony Coburn created Doctor Who, single-handedly, by himself, without input from anyone else [is this right? -ed] the show was about two things.

It was about the idea of Space: the idea that this earth, containing everything we have ever known, is really a tiny part of the universe, and a wardrobe in a junk yard could contain everything. Ribos puts us on a planet which doesn't even know that space exists and shows us the Copernican moment when the ice crystals turn into stars and the universe turns out be bigger on the outside than the inside.

And it was about a sense of place: about spending long enough on Skaro or the Stone Age or Ancient Mexico that we started to feel at home there -- as at home as we did in the foggy London streets or the London secondary school. Robert Holmes, cleverly, wittily and economically draws us into the Ribosness of Ribos. This is not a story that could have been set anywhere else.

And perhaps that is another function of the Anti-Plot Device. For this season at least, the Doctor's function is to arrive, grab, and leave, and try not to get involved. Perhaps that enables us to see Ribos as Ribos would have been even if the Doctor had never shown up.

Don Quixote; Tristan Shandy; Hamlet -- even Watchmen. There is a longish lineage of work which set out to undermine a genre and end up becoming the perfect example of it. The Key To Time is the product of Graham Williams' disillusionment with the the whole idea of Doctor Who (and Holmes irritation with the idea of an Umbrella Setting.) But it's not only the best story of the season; it is, in anyone's book, one of the finest entries in the entire Canon.

Coming soon: The Pirate Planet.


Richard Worth said...

I am reminded a little of the David Tennant story 'Blink', that one of the strong points was that it didn't focus on the Doctor, so there wasn't the sense of the hero being bound to win through.

Anonymous said...

Isn't in Binro?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ah... I think that was a slip of the pen.