The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 27 April 2005 - Reviewed by A.D. Morrison

The Graham Williams universe seems to consist of planets that resemble the home counties populated by peoples who adhere to Terran middle-class etiquette. This is endearing and reassuring in one sense, perfectly fitting for the then tea time slot of the programme, and contrasts fantastically with disbelief-suspended extraterrestrial settings. It can stretch one’s sense of belief to the extremes however – think of Drax and his cockney lingo picked up from his days of dodgy dealing in London’s East End and his true identity as a Timelord trapped on another planet in The Armageddon Factor. No less incongruously, The Ribos Operation pits the Doctor against the cajoling machinations of Garron, an interplanetary con-merchant who explains in one scene how he had almost succeeded in selling the Sydney Opera House to an alien speculator. Garron, evidently incredulous to the Doctor’s well-travelled presence, particularly regarding Earth, impersonates a town crier at the beginning of this story which the itinerant Gallifreyan immediately recognises as “a Somerset accent”. Here then, at the very beginning of a story and of a season, the uncompromisingly parochial Williams micro-cosmos asserts itself substantially for the first time. One might even say it does so earlier in the opening scene when the Doctor irritably confronts the White Guardian who is dressed in colonial attire, replete with sun-hat, and seated in a cane chair in dire need of a veranda.

Then there is the setting of the planet Ribos: an extrapolation of 19th century Tsarist Russia complete with crown jewels, snow flurries and ushankas. The incoming companion Romana too has a faintly Russian-sounding name in full (sorry, can’t remember the spelling) and is wearing a Zhivago-esque white fur-collared outfit missing its own ushanka. The Russo-evocative setting is amplified too by suitably sombre organ music emphasising the gloomy wintriness of a planet steeped in backward tradition – so much so that its inhabitants are completely ignorant of life on other planets and that aliens are mingling casually among them. This planetary obliviousness is exploited to the full by Garron and his indeterminately aged, monkey-faced sidekick Unstoffe: together they attempt to manipulate the battle-weary Graff Vynda-K into buying Ribos from them for his new base where he might regroup his forces for a last stand against those who have usurped his Levithian crown. Garron and Unstoffe plant a lump of the adamantine Jethrik on Ribos in order to deceive the Graff into thinking the planet is rich in this, the most valuable mineral in the galaxy. Garron also claims the Ribans (note here how Holmes expertly avoids the semantic ease of calling the inhabitants Ribosians or even Ribons, instead opting for the slightly lateral variation of Ribans) are ignorant of Jethrik’s properties, not to mention reputation, and through a laboured elaboration improvised by a disguised Unstoffe, further lead the Graff to believe that the Ribans refer to the mineral as Scringestone, possession of which ensures “you’ll never get the scringes again” (Unstoffe). Though it is true the Ribans are unaware of the mineral’s true value.

But the honest-faced Unstoffe is later morally redeemed when his conscience is awoken to the ironic plight of the vagrant known as Binro the Heretic: his gift to this misunderstood genius who was persecuted for his theory of life on other planets is to tell him that he himself is from one of those distant stars – a truly moving scene. Equally emotive and harrowing is the Graff’s ultimate lapse into delusional paranoia on realising he has yet again been strategically out-manoeuvred by a typical Holmesian capitalist (also see the Collector in The Sunmakers, Rohm Dutt in The Power of Kroll and so on).

Otherwise The Ribos Operation is a fairly comical tale and one of the most uniquely static stories in the show’s cannon: there is virtually no action throughout the story and its impetus is almost entirely in the exceptionally colourful, detailed and lively dialogue between the writer’s proverbially caricature-style protagonists.

Detail is the word which springs to mind in summing up the strengths of The Ribos Operation – strengths which far outweigh its situational inertia and suspension of disbelief. Typical of Holmes’s imaginative genius, he teases us with hints of a planet with a rich history and geographical variation; more specifically in this case, he has the characters making geographically specific comments like “Are you from the North?” (to the Doctor); this is also to my mind the second and last time since The Keys of Marinus that a script has detailed an alien planet to such an extent that the concept of countries has surfaced: the events of this story are in the often-mentioned country of Shir (not sure about the spelling). Not since The Talons of Weng-Chiang with its allusions to an Icelandic Alliance, the Phillipeno Army’s final advance against Rejyavik, and the Peking Homunculus, has Holmes so vividly evoked a fictitious backdrop to his stories.

The Ribos Operation is not a classic Doctor Who story in the traditionally recognised sense – it lacks sufficient drama for a start. But it is a classic of its kind, that kind being of the dialogue-driven, stage-play style Doctor Who, an infectious medium in which the mind is gradually immersed in a trance of perfect escapism: a fictional scenario which feeds the intellect and puts all mundane preoccupations to sleep for a deeply rejuvenative period. And most of all, as previously mentioned, this story typifies Holmes’s gift at tantalising the imagination with half-sketched details never fully substantiated, which echoes of Hemingway’s theory of ‘omission’: that which is unstated strengthens the story and makes people feel something more than they have understood. This stimulating of the imagination was one of the vital functions series such as Doctor Who exemplified.