Friday, March 22, 2013

The Ribos Operation

Dear Gary—
I absolutely love The Ribos Operation; in fact, I love the entire Key to Time season. I have to remark, Gary, that by and large, as a rule, for the most part, I detest season long story arcs. I view them as a lack of faith in the show and its format. However, the Key to Time season long story arc is an exception.
The Key to Time arc, clearly announcing itself at the beginning of the season, embraces and complements the format of Doctor Who.
“Doctor, you have been chosen for a vitally important task,” the White Guardian informs the Doctor. His mission: to retrieve the six far flung and disguised segments of the Key to Time required to restore balance in the universe.
Simple, and if it sounds familiar Gary, think back to the William Hartnell story The Keys of Marinus. The Keys of Marinus was in many ways a Key to Time season in microcosm. I loved The Keys of Marinus, so the Key to Time season is in good company. And like the individual episodes of The Keys of Marinus, each serial comprising this Key to Time season is an independent storyline that stands on its own.
The Ribos Operation is the first installment introducing the White Guardian and his task. It also introduces the Doctor’s new companion Romana (Romanadvoratnelundar—“I’m so sorry about that; is there anything we can do?"). And again I have to say it, Gary. I absolutely love Romana (Mark I).
Mary Tamm as Romana—she is truly “the noblest Romana of them all.”
To begin, she is gorgeous. Cool and patrician. Sophisticated and refined. Intelligent and confident. And yet . . . there is a naïve quality to her and a warmth and depth that humanizes her in unexpected ways.
The natural antagonism of the set up is not ignored (“We have a negative empathy, Doctor”). Two Time Lords, both supremely intelligent and confident; one a hot-shot recent grad and one an experienced time traveling veteran; one foisted upon the other against his wishes. This is quite an interesting dynamic and it could have so easily gone wrong but it is handled with delicacy.
“Well,” the Doctor tells Romana, “I’d like you to stay out of my way as much as possible and try to keep out of trouble. I don’t suppose you can make tea?”
However, Romana is not your typical companion handing out test tubes and compliments: “Doctor, you’re not giving me a chance. It’s funny, you know, but before I met you I was even willing to be impressed.” And when the Doctor sulks (“You’re sulking.” “I’m not sulking.”), she is not one to cajole, conciliate, or kid him out of his mood: “That’s ridiculous for somebody as old as you are.” Finally she concludes that the Doctor is “suffering from a massive compensation syndrome.”
Romana is a Time Lord fresh from the Academy (“with a triple first”) and as such has all of the detachment of a Time Lord, but at only 139 (“I’m nearly 140, you know”)she is inexperienced and impressionable, the perfect student to take Leela’s place under the Doctor’s tutelage.
And that is where this relationship succeeds. Because at 139 Romana is still a student willing to learn. She never becomes defensive; she will stand by her point, but if proven wrong she takes it as a lesson learned and does not resent the fact. As the Doctor slowly begins to realize this a mutual respect arises between the two.  
As long as the Doctor can feel in charge: “Ground rules: rule one, do exactly as I say; rule two, stick close to me; and rule three, let me do all the talking.”
Once the ground rules are established and Romanadvoratnelundar is shortened to Romana ("it’s either Romana or Fred”), the two can get down to the serious business of finding the first segment to the Key to Time on the planet of Ribos where they have been led by the core.
And again I say: I absolutely love The Ribos Operation. Apart from the Key to Time set up, apart from the introduction of Romana, I love the story itself. This is a story without a monster. This is a story without a wrong to right. It hearkens back to early Doctor Who, William Hartnell Doctor Who, when the Doctor got caught up in events despite himself.
There is intrigue, there is villainy, but “that’s no business of ours, Doctor,” Romana points out. “I agree,” concurs the Doctor, “I wouldn’t dream of interfering.” The Doctor and Romana are on Ribos for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to find the first segment. It is this search which leads them into the middle of trouble, for it is the jethrik that is both the segment and the heart of the intrigue.
To get the jethrik/key segment, the Doctor and Romana have to get past the shrivenzale, the Shrieve Captain, Garron and his sidekick Unstoffe, and the Graff Vynda-K and his sidekick Sholakh. What fun it all is.
“Please don’t panic, Romana. Come and sit down . . . . Listen, when you’ve faced death as often as I have, this is much more fun.” Patiently teaching Romana as he chatters about jethrik with Garron while a death sentence hangs over his head, the Doctor gathers intelligence.
Garron and Unstoffe are con men intent on selling Ribos to the power hungry and mad Graff Vynda-K, with the planted lump of jethrik (“the rarest and most valuable element in the galaxy”) as bait. Unfortunately they have been found out and are being held under guard (Romana and the Doctor assumed as co-conspirators), but not before Unstoffe made off with the jethrik and the Graff’s gold.
A simple enough plot, a straight-forward story. The Doctor and Romana, on their own simple and straight-forward quest, caught up in events. What makes everything work, as in so many Doctor Who serials, is the high quality writing and the fabulous supporting cast. The Ribos Operation is chock full of great guest appearances.
It is not just the inspired teams of Garron and Unstoffe and Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh, but there is the added bonus of Binro the Heretic, not to mention the more limited roles of the Shrieve Captain and the Seeker (“All but one of us is doomed to die.”). Everyone is top notch and each is relevant to the plot.
I’ll start with Binro, arguably the least relevant character, yet the one character who adds the most depth. Binro is introduced in the third episode as a means of escape for Unstoffe, and the story could have easily left it at that. Instead we get a richly realized and touching individual, Binro the Heretic. “I know what it’s like when every man’s hand is against you,” he tells Unstoffe, and he goes on to relate his tragic history. Condemned for heresy for daring to postulate there are other worlds than Ribos, tortured and forced to recant, now living in the worst sort of squalor, broken and alone.
It is not only the story that is elevated by Binro but Unstoffe as well. The role of Unstoffe had settled comfortably into the caricature of stooge to Garron, but when he meets up with Binro he is given added dimension. “I know it for a fact,” he tells Binro of those other worlds. “One day, even here, in the future,” he continues, “men will turn to each other and say Binro was right.” It is one of those quiet, touching little moments in Doctor Who that always impresses me. After his encounter with Binro, and when he is reunited with Garron, Unstoffe seems a more thoughtful, insightful person, no longer merely a stooge but now something of a gentle conscience to the grifter Garron.
I can’t leave off without saying a word about the Graff Vynda-K (one of the all time great character names). “No one makes a fool of the Graff Vynda-K and lives.” This exiled tyrant intent on amassing an army to retake his throne could have turned into a stereotypical raving maniac. Instead there is a certain nobility in his mania as he takes a tender parting from his deceased general and gives final instructions to the last of his “Levithian Invincibles.” Then he draws one in to his mad world of glory as he soliloquizes his past battles, walking off through the catacombs to his end. I do find the Doctor’s rather flippant attitude to the fatal joke he has played on the Graff to be off-putting, but it is the only quibble I have with this story.
The Ribos Operation is not only well written and acted but it looks good too. Ribos is a backward, medieval planet but rich in ceremony, ritual, and superstition, and the costumes fit sumptuously in with this atmosphere. The shrivenzale could be a tad scarier, but then it spends most of its time in a drugged stupor and is not meant to pose any real kind of serious threat. The make-up and costume for the Seeker, too, is very effective, and I have to say that I envy Romana her dress and that marvelous matching coat that the Doctor somehow comes up with for her to wear.
Even the jethrik (scringe stone) is impressive (“You hang a bit o’ that around your neck and you won’t never suffer from the scringes no matter how cold it be.”). Ah yes, the jethrik, what it has all been about. Jethrik, without which “there would be no space warping.” This one magnificent lump of jethrik that has enough power for an entire battle fleet. It is this piece of beautiful blue stone that Garron has been carting about the universe to lure his prey that is in reality the first segment of the Key to Time. (Lucky for the Time Lords, the White Guardian, and the stability of the universe that Garron never sold this piece of jethrik for the power it harnesses.)
The jethrik, planted by Garron and Unstoffe in the relic room, stolen out again by Unstoffe, pursued by the Graff through the catacombs, switched out for a bomb by the Doctor, lifted by Garron and pick pocketed back again by the Doctor—sleight of hand, he was trained by Maskelyne.
“Simple, wasn’t it? Only five more to go.” Five more segments, five more stories. I’m looking forward and sending this out, Gary, forever hoping . . .

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