The Pirate Planet - Novelisation/ AudioBookBookmark and Share

Thursday, 5 January 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Pirate Planet (novel) (Credit: BBC Books)
Written By: James Goss
Based On The TV Serial By: Douglas Adams
Released By BBC Books: 5th January 2017

Audiobook Read By: Jon Culshaw
10 CDS/ Audio Download
Running Time: 11 Hours, 22 Minutes

Once in a blue moon, the hardworking, devout people of Zanak experience a 'new golden age of prosperity'. The stars in the night sky suddenly change position, and the economy skyrockets. The natives are assured by their mysterious leader - The Captain - that all this is part of a grand design.

But there is an outlier group of which the are wary, contemptuous, even scared. The Mourners. Looking decidedly pale and skinny, they always wander together, and can bring only trouble. Luckily, the Captain's many armed guards are there to ensure that there is no breach of the peace.

Now enter three odd individuals, in Zanak's main city, with no warning or announcement. The seeming leader is a toothy, excitable extrovert, with a long scarf and curly hair. With him is a somewhat younger-looking woman, much more smartly dressed, with beautiful looks, and a keen intelligence. And lastly, is a diminutive metallic creature, that has a red visor instead of eyes, a little tail that sways side-to-side, and a rather more impressive nose-laser.

The Doctor, Romana, and K9 - as they call themselves - soon make an alliance with a young couple. The male is Kimus: earnest, dedicated and open-minded. The female is Mula: thoughtful, pragmatic and diligent. This in turn leads to the Mourners becoming more engaged in the future of their world, knowing that suddenly a missing piece of information may be missing no more.

Soon enough, the mystique over the Captain evaporates. He is far more machine than man, and with a decidedly twisted sense of humour. But he has a plan or three in motion, and many cards in his deck to play. Zanak, and the wider universe, may both end up facing a change of cataclysmic proportions..


This joint release of both book and audio release sees the completion of the Fourth Doctor era into novel form. For many years, three stories were outstanding, and the common denominator was that Douglas Adams wrote the scripts. In the case of The Pirate Planet, Adams was still an unknown quantity in the wider world when first pitching his first contribution to Doctor Who. By the time this second story of Season 16 - or 'The Key To Time' arc - was transmitted, Adams' other work for the BBC - The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - steadily became a sensation, and eventually a global phenomenon.

Anthony Read was responsible for editing Adams' scripts into a makeable BBC production. He also made it build on The Ribos Operation, in developing new companion Romana. She was only the second Gallifreyan to assist the Doctor, after his own granddaughter Susan. The story also had to present a different kind of mystery over which item was the segment of The Key to Time.

Later on, Adams would take over from Read, and oversee Season 17 (which suffered especially from industrial strikes). Eventually, he realised he could not focus on both primetime TV, and further contributions to his 'baby boomer' Hitchhikers. Such was Adams' disconnect from Doctor Who, that none of his three major stories were adapted until very recently. (However he did introduce close friend, and second Romana, Lalla Ward to her eventual husband Richard Dawkins). Shada was the last of those three, but hit bookshelves first, with the aid of Gareth Roberts. More recently in 2015, the much-loved City Of Death was also converted into a richly detailed novel.

This new effort has the same author as City, in the form of experienced writer James Goss. Although The Pirate Planet was four episodes long, this book comes in at 400 pages plus - which is considerably more. Goss has clearly taken inspiration from Adams over the years, in becoming himself a successful author, and he decides to put as much of the original script (and related notes) as can fit. This means that this is one of the longest works of Who fiction, and it lacks the pace of action-adventure that is found in both the majority of the classic, as well as the modern, TV format.

Yet, most who are familiar with the TV original must concede that whilst great fun, it is not the strongest production, and really could have done with an American TV budget. Pennant Roberts has done great work for other TV shows, but few would call any of his Who work first-rate. The cast were not all stellar in their readings, with Kimus, Mula and the Mentiads being decidedly bland. This production and acting hurdle is removed entirely here.

The book does some excellent work in making the villains even more interesting. It gives them backstory, and motivation, that is rare to find in most Doctor Who books; and I include some of the best original novels in making that statement. The Captain is portrayed as a lot more intimidating, and macabre in design, as well as having a longevity which is mind-boggling. This also makes the subplot involving his subservience to Xanxia that much more emotive and engaging. The Polyphase Avitron becomes a much more intriguing monster, in contrast to the cod pirate parrot of TV. Goss evokes real sense of dread over the Captain's pet, and makes its lethal potential more credible and unpleasant in nature.

Xanxia - otherwise simply known as 'The Nurse' - is expertly introduced into the narrative. She appears to be someone that could help the Doctor and Romana. How wrong their impressions of her turn out to be! When the facade has fully receded, there is one of Kimus' better moments, in terms of showing some steely resolve. Also good, is the use of novel 'budget' (and reader imagination), as the Nurse suddenly is adorned in royal robes, thanks to the unique nature of her existence.

Mr Fibuli is a touch more likable than in the TV original, and there is little evidence of moustache-twirling cruelty, compared to his sneer and chuckle at the end of Episode Three. He has some inner thoughts that are very 'Everyman', and his brilliant engineering skills feel more layman too. Fibuli's constant awareness that he is replaceable - like any of the Captain's underlings - mean readers care for what fate befalls him. As it turns out, there is a heavy does of irony concerning this end-point, in conjunction with the final chapters' foreboding and tense action.

Although my synopsis suggested the guards were respected, even admired, by the (mostly faceless) Zanak citizens, both this novelisation and the TV story frequently take pokes at them for being witless and predictable. All the same, they are not to be taken as completely benign, and do sometimes make a successful capture, or take out a do-gooder with a well-aimed shot.

Of course, Goss seizes the opportunity to do some nice work with getting inside the heads of heroes as well, and that very much includes K9. The Fourth Doctor is relatively easy to write for, but few can really make him truly surprising and electric on page in a manner that the legendary Tom Baker could on-screen. Luckily, Goss is very much in that select group. The much-celebrated clash of "It is not a toy!" / "Then what is it for?!" is lovingly expanded on, and probably is the highlight of the entire book.

The Pirate Planet (audiobook) (Credit: BBC Audio)There is plenty of good material for Romana too, as she shows promise that would make her a long-staying companion, and eventually do great things for both E-Space, and Gallifrey itself. She is quick to learn, proactive, and consistently helpful to the Doctor. This sometimes makes the much older time traveller rather defensive. At one point he convinces her to complete a massive timetable, but barely achieves the delay effect he wanted it to. Nonetheless, she still is made to appreciate the Doctor's genius and quick wits, when he is forced to think of a solution to both the threat facing the universe, as well as the key objective of locating the Segment.  

K9 is of course secondary to the interpersonal drama, but still a personality; one that has emotions concerning tasks, and opinions regarding those he encounters. His one word summations on his 'owners' would be "odd" and "logical" respectively. The metal mutt's inner thoughts are generally the more light-hearted moments of the book/audio-reading.  

And now, time to recognise just how good an audio release this is, for both casual fans, and die-hards alike. Jon Culshaw has never done anything routine, forced, or ordinary to the best of my knowledge, (perhaps with the exception of singing on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy). Even with the weight of ten CDs, or eleven-and-a-half hours of running time, he puts in a wonderful solo performance. There is especially good use of third-person/first-person blending, which means that listeners can be caught out, thinking Culshaw will be talk in his own steady and affable manner, when reading Goss' prose. Much of the music gives this long story clout too. There are subtle strands, and a much more bombastic sense of 'What's Next?' upon the close of another chapter. 
 
I however need to come back to my point on the page count/ running time. This is possibly a case of Goss just slightly getting the balance between quality and detail wrong. The first half of the book, whilst not totally ponderous, does feel slow on several occasions. There are some digressions that display Adams' wit, and thoughtful wonderment at a vast interconnected cosmos, but they do not all feel as organic as in the Hitchhiker's novels (which admittedly used a guide book as the framing device). Thus some passages/moments outstay their welcome. Most odd is the sense of a Season 22 story opening, in that the TARDIS crew take an age to land on Zanak, and get involved.

Nonetheless, the final half of this novelisation  - especially the final third - is so much more urgent and gripping. It particularly delights in improving on the somewhat absurd Episode Three cliffhanger, by having a homage to the modern-day use of TARDIS in-flight to save a falling victim. Also, there is a very funny moment where the Doctor, in deep, deep trouble, thinks how clever it would be to rig a hologram. Thus when he actually does it, it banishes all feelings of indifference over the implausible onscreen execution.

One change I have more mixed feelings over, is the use of the 'Mourners' title, rather than 'Mentiads', which both sounded mysterious and ominous, yet also very funny depending on the particular dialogue context. At least there is much more back-story, and insight into their transformation, and also their "vengeance for the crimes of Zanak". Especially worthwhile is the detail on how Pralix's father was shot down, not long after he transitioned into being one of the select group. This means that the rather dour supporting character is now an angel of retribution, for both the planets and his own lost parent. There also is a change-up in making the Mourners mixed-gender, with at least one of them being female. This elder Mourner is given a few evocative moments in the narrative, helping reinforce how much more progressive Doctor Who was for women in the Graham Williams era, than it had ever been hitherto.


In sum, this is a very important book for anyone trying to get more insight into the Tom Baker period of the show - one which has been analysed and critiqued for many years now. It has a sense of something old, but also something new, and deserves at least being explored in either print or audio reading, if not both. A compression of gems, that is indeed most rich.



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The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 December 2006 - Reviewed by Finn Clark

I've decided that the Graham Williams era is like Steve Cole's. Both had to follow a highly esteemed run of Doctor Who but without one factor that had been fundamental to their predecessors' success (respectively horror and editorial competence). The Hinchcliffe and Virgin eras had brilliant clarity about what they were doing, while the Williams and Cole eras were perforce more experimental. I don't want to push this analogy too far because it's not a perfect fit, but The Ribos Operation is a story that I can't quite imagine under Hinchcliffe. The irony is that it's written by Robert Holmes, but even so this is a 1970s Doctor Who story with no alien threat to destroy us all. It's arguably an SF historical, but even that's an unsatisfactory description. The plot isn't driven by the villain (the Graff Vynda-K) but by two crooks (Garron and Unstoffe). It's a caper movie. Who will get away with the loot? Can our heroes fleece the bad guy? Note that for once even the Doctor's motivation is simply to get his hands on a valuable crystal.

It's different. It's smaller-scale than Hinchcliffe's epics, with character-driven suspense and danger that's nothing to do with monsters. Tom Baker's stories set in Earth's past were all emphatically pseudo-historicals. What's more, it's a "historical in space" in more than one sense. There's the backward medieval world of Ribos, a trick which Harry Harrison is fond of but has been mysteriously underused in Doctor Who. Even if the story hadn't worked, it would still be fascinating.

I suspect that the scripts appealed to Tom Baker, who gives one of his best performances. He's actually acting! He was dreadful in Face of Evil, doing his usual schtick without reacting to the specific situation around him, but here he's magnificent. He creates several relationships that we hadn't seen before, which are also all hilarious in different ways. With the White Guardian he's a schoolboy. With Romana he's prickly and affronted, his appalled reaction amusingly mirroring Tom Baker's real feelings about sharing screen time with a companion. It's fascinating that he gets on so well with Garron, though. They love each other, though they don't trust each other an inch and the Doctor's not above intimidating him. "I'm asking you, Garron."

There's some wonderful guest acting, though also some that's less so. The big roles are fantastic. I could watch the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh all day, who never give even a millisecond that isn't utterly real. On the other hand Iain Cuthbertson's Garron is delicious in another way, playing it broad in a way that augments instead of detracting from the character. There was too much overacting under Graham Williams, much of it painful. Binro the Heretic is pushing hard at those limits, though he's still a great character. Similarly Nigel Plaskitt loses it a little as Unstoffe in part four. If you've been going for broad comedy, it can be hard to switch gear and play sincerity in the same breath. Sadly I don't quite buy Unstoffe's scenes where he becomes a nice guy who genuinely cares about Binro. I even started wondering if this was another con, somewhere around the "this was going to be our last job" speech, but my theory had to go when Unstoffe kept up the act even after Binro was gone.

Similarly most of the production is great. Everything about Ribos is to die for, with the seedy grandeur of its Russian look. I love the snow, the candlelit crypt and even the church organ music. However the Shrivenzale is horrendous, another classic from the Year Of The Crap Monsters. It's not so bad when it's on the move in part four, but watching this I couldn't understand how people bash the rat in Talons or the magma beast in Caves of Androzani. It's so bad that I bet it's what sabotaged part one's cliffhanger, which makes perfect sense in the script but somehow fell apart when they got it into the studio. Although having said that, there's something off about part two's cliffhanger too.

I haven't yet showered enough praise on the Graff Vynda-K and Sholakh, though. Sharaz Jek, even Caven in The Space Pirates... does Robert Holmes get enough recognition for his psychos? How many others in Doctor Who even bear comparison? The Graff is terrifying, a totally humourless psychopath, but his second-in-command also couldn't be better. I love his scarred face. It's vital in caper movies for the audience to be rooting for the crooks and conmen, for which you need their targets to be despicable. You need the mark to deserve everything he gets... and boy oh boy, the Graff certainly does.

They're the epitome of the Holmesian double-act, incidentally, and not even the only example on show. I have no affection for all those phrases which got fossilised in fandom's consciousness because Doctor Who Monthly used to say them, but here unfortunately I've no choice. Garron & Unstoffe, the Graff Vynda-K & Sholakh... they're Holmesian double-acts. They're definitive. Frankly that would still be the case even if Robert Holmes had never written another Doctor Who story.

We get another look at Holmes's fondness for dodgy operators. Others include Carnival of Monsters and The Mysterious Planet, which incidentally has a lot in common with this story. Garron and Unstoffe even get a happy ending, although that double switcheroo provides the perfect ending. Even that Key to Time nonsense lets Tom close the show with "Only five more to go" (translation: "Let's kick some arse"). It's a blatantly ridiculous macguffin, of course. One could perhaps speculate about the significance of the line, "Such a moment is rapidly approaching", given that we're 'twixt Genesis and Destiny of the Daleks? Note that the White Guardian is carrying out precisely the kind of Protector of the Universe role which the novels assigned to the Time Lords despite their complete failure to do so on TV. Here the Guardians are the guardians, admittedly having some kind of relationship with the Time Lords but mostly seen as mythical demigods.

Oh, and Romana describes an "honest open face." It's the 5th Doctor! Episode three was where I decided that I really liked this story. That's where the story expands, giving us a deeper view of Ribos, with the catacombs, the Seeker, Binro the Heretic, etc. It's a scary world. It's curious that there's absolutely no explanation for the Seeker's powers. One might have expected Ribos to be portrayed as a world of superstitious idiots about whom the offworlders can run rings, but Robert Holmes rejected that option and went instead for something more compelling and mysterious.

Overall, an underrated gem. All the most interesting 1970s stories were written by Robert Holmes and for my money The Ribos Operation tops the list. Of course "most interesting" doesn't necessarily mean "best". There's a reason why production teams tended to stick to their successful formulae. Nevertheless The Ribos Operation is a lovely little caper that deserves far more attention than it gets. Maybe it's overlooked because of Ian Marter's somewhat impenetrable novelisation? I never could get into that one...





The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

The Quest for the Key to Time begins. Although there have been many longer "sagaesque" stories (Dalek Masterplan) or stories with sequels (Frontier In Space/Planet of the Daleks) or stories with significant through-themes ("The Guardian Trilogy" of Season 20) throughout the series, the Key to Time umbrella theme is still one of the most ambitious undertakings the show would ever indulged in. And, though there were some issues with how the whole season played out, it's definitely off to a good start in The Ribos Operation. 

First off, the whole introductory scene with the Doctor meeting the White Guardian was certainly dramatically poignant. Whilst, at the same time, not being overblown. Having seen "Enlightenment" first, it kind of threw me off to see him in such casual wear. Mind you, he does look a bit less silly in this outfit! Still, the TARDIS opening its door of its own accord while organ music piped away and white light blared in was very effective. Juxtaposing that with the Doctor speaking to an old man in a wicker chair was some great imagery. A well-directed sequence. 

The introduction of Romana was also great fun. She is certainly a very interesting and innovative companion (at least, at the beginning of the season. Mary Tamm's allegations about her just becoming "a screamer" after a while, is not entirely unfounded!). The bickering between them is quite amusing (mind you, I also liked the Sixth Doctor and Peri fighting so what do I know?!) and we get to learn some interesting things about the Doctor's past through their confrontation. The most interesting one being, of course, the fact that he only scraped by on his "Time Lord exams"!

So, everything is off to a crackling start. The foundations for the season are laid. Now it's time to embark on the quest for the first segment. How does the actual story stand up? 

Well, in the case of both "umbrella seasons" in Doctor Who, Robert Holmes was in charge of writing the first story. And that was a very sound decision. He shows excellent foresight in his plotting. Understanding that a sense of intensity needs to build up as the season progresses so he keeps the scale of his stories, for the most part, relatively small. Even the action is kept to a bare minimum. This is especially the case with Ribos. 

For the first two episodes of the story - we are, essentially, enjoying a sci-fi "caper" story. Almost a bit like watching a "Pink Panther" movie (City of Death would, of course, play this theme up even more). Which, to me, gives this yarn a great little "spin" to it. I hadn't really seen this sort of thing done in a sci-fi story before so I found it highly innovative. The sequences toward the end of episode two with Unstoffe and the Doctor dodging around each other were extremely entertaining. And it was highly creative on Holmes' part to work this sort of action into his tale. This is very memorable stuff, in my opinion. So much so, that it probably qualifies as one of my more favourite moments in this season.

I do have some mild complaints about the beginning of episode three. The Doctor goofing with the Graff is one of the few moments in this era where I do feel he's taking the farce element too far. He's hamming the goofiness up a bit too much here and it seems a tad unnecessary. 

My only other real complaint about this story is that the whole sequence where Binro explains how he was labelled a heretic tends to run on a bit. It might have been better if they had done a cutaway scene or two and gone back to it so that we heard his anecdotes in installments. Just to remove a bit of the "sag" that moment has. 

Other than those two bits, I have no real complaints about The Ribos Operation.

But I certainly have plenty of praise. I know lots of references have been made to the "Holmesian Double Act" formulae and that many feel the most endearing example of this is in Talons Of Weng-Chiang. But, personally, Garron and Unstoffe are my favourite double act. Not just because of some remarkably well-crafted dialogue, but also because of some great performances on the part of both the actors. Both together and apart - this duo shines magnificently. Particularly as Unstoffe's experiences with Binro cause him to develop a bit of a conscience. Again, fantastic characterisation on both the part of the writer and the performers (and, more than likely, the director too, while we're at it). 

The other thing that really "sticks out" in a positive way in this story is the use of K-9. To the best of my recollection, in any other story up until this one, he is either written out at the beginning, or adventures with the rest of the TARDIS crew throughout the story. It was neat to see him used this way. Only coming into the story halfway through it, when he's absolutely needed. It makes his rescue of the Doctor, Romana and Garron all the more poignant because of it. 

Altogether, Robert Holmes delivers a great little tale (as usual). By no means could we ever give it that "classic" label, of course. Mostly because, as I mentioned before, he seems to be purposely keeping the scale of the story small. But this an extremely solidly-written story, nonetheless, and it is followed up by some very solid production work. Even the outdoor shots with all the fake snow actually look pretty-gosh-darned decent!





The Power of KrollBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Jared Hansen

One of the greatly underrated stories that populate Doctor Who's archives. Why? It's a matter of defying expectations. Of course, now people lap it all up, with Russel T. Davies being congratulated galore for setting up an action-packed adventure about an exploding nuclear power plant, and delivering a soppy moralising sermon against the death sentence. Back, then, however, this behaviour was clearly frowned upon.

This is the second-last part of the mirthful Season 16, remembered for rampant whimsy and a general "Boy's Own" mentality. Furthermore, it is scripted by Robert Holmes, who was famous for his layered, bizarre plots and his sparkling sense of humour. Holmes, however, goes completely against expectations, and delivers a simple plot, filled with gritty violence. Oh, and a big squid.

Kroll, the squid in question, is the most criticised aspect of the entire episode. Holmes famously was asked by script editor Anthony Read to include 'the largest monster ever to appear in Doctor Who', and was relucant to integrate it into his plot. It was definitely a foolish decision, to create such a massive enemy on their often painfully small budget. That said, Kroll's legendary awfulness is much exaggerated. Especially compared to the Skarasen from "Terror of the Zygons"

And, this is all nullified by the skilled dramatic tension Holmes uses in the introduction of Kroll into the story, who is handled by typical horror style, as he is surveyed by the terrified personnel of the rickety refinery.

The plot is very simple. The imperialistic Thawn (the excellent Neil McCarhty) who manages the methane refinery is looking for any excuse to massacre the indigenous Swampies on the moon of Delta Magna. He finds his excuse in the form of a visit by gun-runner Rohm-Dutt to the swampie camp, and aside from attacks by Kroll the plot really doesn't advance much further than that.

What I find appealing about this episode are the gritty portrayals of all the characters. Neil McCarthy's maniacal Thawn is nothing short of brilliant. Phillip Madoc gets less material as second-in-command Fenner, but shows the same flair he had in "The Brain of Morbius". And, finally, John Leeson get to be on camera this episode, and plays Dugeen, the one sympathetic character in the story, and does a very good job. Glyn Owen, likewise, is great as the gruff Rohm-Dutt, even though his character is underused. The rest of the cast all do good work as well.

The episode ends on an exciting note, with a genuinely unexpected Key to Time revelation, and some of Tom Baker's best eccentric behaviour. Interestingly, the episode ends on a different note. No moralising, no judgement of any of the parties. The Doctor just gets the hell out of there! In a way, it shows that imperialism cannot always be fixed.

An episode like this, in my opinion, could only be considered sub-par in a tenure as consistent as Tom Baker's. Nowhere near Holmes' best work, it is true, but mostly because here he writes in another style altogether.





The Androids of TaraBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

No stories split opinion as much as the light-hearted ones do. Some universally love them, and some…well, you get the picture. I try to keep an open mind about them; I think The Chase is brilliant, for example, whereas others make me cringe as anyone who has read my recent review of Delta And The Bannermen will attest (and lets not forget Aliens Of London). While I wouldn’t call it comedic, The Androids Of Tara is certainly lightweight – and furthermore, it’s an example of a lightweight story pitched just right.

Having said that, it does get off to a shaky start. I’ve never held David Fisher in particularly high regard as a writer, and the beginning of this episode showcases why: his dialogue isn’t terrible, but it is completely lacking in any breadth beyond what applies directly to the plot. Every line spoken is the minimum necessary to push the narrative forward; characterisation, subtext and original panache are hardly present at all. The best I can say about it is that it has a certain simplistic elegance, but I feel that it is simply Fisher’s rudimentary skill that causes this. It is his well-known source material rather than him that makes this story the most enjoyable of his four scripts for the series. This isn’t a problem once the plot actually gets going, but in the early introductory scenes the script creaks through its inability to carry a conversation that doesn’t directly correspond to its core idea of Count Grendel’s political machinations. Hence we have Romana’s horribly delivered recap of their quest for the season, exposition so unsubtle it feels like being on the receiving end of Monty Python’s fish-slapping routine. We also get the Doctor’s desire to take a break, which judders along side the intention of the story as a whole. Just to get my gripes over and done with, four stories in and Tom Baker and the Ice Queen still have no on-screen rapport whatsoever. Baker tries his best, but Frostina undermines his efforts with boringly delivered lines that for all their efficiency aren’t much more interesting than her just saying “I’m going over here”.

Ten minutes in the plot gets going, and all is well. The segment is found immediately, and plays little part in the story. This adventure epitomises how to carry a plot-arc successfully: not to be concerned about it all the time. This serial comes as light relief to prevent the ongoing hunt for the Key To Time, which had been going on unabated for twelve weeks, and prevents it becoming boring – it works wonderfully well. In even the most dynamic of narratives (not that that’s an adjective commonly appropriate to the Graham Williams era) there comes a time when it’s good to take the foot from the accelerator and just cruise for a bit.

The core idea of a technologically-sophisticated society that is aesthetically archaic is a brilliantly original one, even if it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny; then again, this episode was never designed to stand up to scrutiny, or else it wouldn’t be “lightweight”. It creates a fascinating juxtaposition between culture and technology, and also presents the unique scenario of a science-fiction adventure with what is for practical purposes a period setting – and when it comes to period settings, Doctor Who’s hit-rate is well documented. It is helped by some pleasing design work (my jaw hit the ground when I saw that designer Valerie Warrender was also responsible for The Twin Dilemma), and some excellently directed location footage from Michael Hayes. I shouldn’t need to make that point given that Hayes also helmed the truly magnificent City Of Death, but he never seems to get much recognition. The only real failing in design terms is the wood beast, but then it’s really just the inanimate plastic face mask that lets it down; at least it can move at more than a snails pace, unlike several other monsters that space does not permit me to list. Also the incidental music sees Dudley Simpson on one of his better days, his harpsichord score appropriate to the story and unobtrusive.

In acting terms the story gets by with an average cast: Neville Jason is good as Prince Reynart but is cancelled out by the hamtastic Paul Lavers as Farrah. The real standout though is of course Peter Jeffery as Count Grendel, who makes a brilliant villain for such a story: pantomime-influenced, but retaining all his credibility. In short, I love to hate him in a way only really matched by Roger Delgado. Baker is flippant, as he was throughout most of Williams’s time as producer, but not lazy yet. Zadek’s and Reynart’s explanation of Tara’s political system is reasonable in the exposition field, staying the right side of stating the obvious, and signposts future action in which swashes will be significantly buckled.

The poisoned chalice is, unsurprisingly, a stock element but it makes for an enjoyable cliffhanger leading to a great final shot of the leering Grendel. Very little has happened of note in the first episode, which is odd given that the only purpose of each scene is to further the plot, but it has the perfect spirit.

I’m not criticising it as such, but the superficiality of this story does make it quite hard to find something to say about it beyond aesthetic details. For most stories this would be a final condemnation, but this is so intentionally daffy and confident in its execution it elevates it to the level of fun-for-all. It has to be said that even if the dialogue is not so simple intentionally it is very tight; a rare exception to its purely perfunctory nature comes with Farrah’s nervousness towards androids, to which the Doctor responds that androids feel the same way about humans. This is a good moment, even if it had been done better in The Robots Of Death. 

Cyril Shaps plays a whinger in all four of his appearances in the show, which is an unfortunate role to be typecast as, and this is his only story where he doesn’t get killed. He can get very annoying, especially when I’m so familiar with The Tomb Of The Cybermen is which is complaining reaches incredible levels. The cliffhanger is great if only because it’s so much fun to see the Doctor triumphant, even if it does undermine Grendel’s threat. Mary Tamm’s speech to the android king, however, sounds like it’s being delivered by a zombie. Tamm plays four roles in this story (a record), when she can only barely cope with one. However, two of the roles are only faceless ciphers - and the androids don’t take much skill either.

There is as tense seen as the characters blag their way through the android king’s malfunctions, and this leads on to a brief shot of the segment; it has no bearing on the story, and is only being shown through necessity as there is no real way of avoiding that this is a Key to Time story; of all of the six serials this is the one that could sit most happily in another season.

The Romana-android that fires a laser at womb height (a feminist commentary perhaps, or just laughable visual effects? You decide) gets by as this episode makes no claim to gritty realism. This makes it all the more jarring to hear of Lamia’s relationship with Grendel; a relief to see a moment of characterisation, even if it is slightly tokenist.

The destruction of the Romana-android is a stagy action scene: Hayes’s strength is with film. The action scenes that take place outdoors are much better, even if the guards cannot shoot straight; villains could very rarely shoot straight in Doctor Who, but here for some reason I found their ability to hit just about everything except what they were actually aiming at quite irritating. It is a shock to see Madam Lamia killed in such an inherently gentle story though; the mortality rate for this story (credited characters only* not including regulars) is only 11.1%.

Into the final episode, and Grendel’s outburst of “this is not wine but vinegar” is embarrassingly cheesy in a story that, while undeniably derivative, has an original twist. 

Tamm’s performance as Strella is even worse than her one as Romana, if that’s possible, and annoyingly K9 plays a significant role in the plot. Like the sonic screwdriver he’s OK for certain things but if he’s used directly in solving the plot then he’s just as galling as any other narrative device; there’s also the problem that I never feel so much like it’s a kids’ show as when K9’s on screen. That said he does get quite sarky in this episode, making him just about bearable. Even so, the “hamster with a blunt penknife” line is overrated.

There are lots of cuts between film and videotape here, which is helped by the darkness. The finale is wonderful: again it contains stock elements, but the oldies are the best: it has all the classics such as an unjust wedding interrupted in the nick of time and a very well choreographed swordfight that restores my faith in Hayes. However, Baker’s performance does verge on slapstick here which is inappropriate for a show that, while whimsical, was not a comedy programme. By contrast the lack of incidental music in the first part of the fight makes it seem very grim and serious, although it makes it less dramatic also.

A Gracht never surrenders: they take the honourable option of fleeing. It makes his last words of “next time I shall not be so lenient” seem very witty, and it is testament to how sweet natured this is that it feels totally right that the villain should escape free. I’d feel sorry for him if he bit the dust. This is followed by the quick, necessary scene of making sure they have the segment, and the Doctor’s line of “I didn’t catch one fish” must have seemed a very strange thing to say to the 500 000 people who hadn’t watched part one.

My top ten list is loaded up with the deep and rich stories such as The Curse Of Fenric, City Of Death and Kinda – The Androids Of Tara is a perfect alternative however, when I want one. It will never be a classic as it is so essentially empty and so I’m only giving it an average rating, but it gets that by default more than anything else; settle down with a swiss roll and some dry cider and it’s a delight from beginning to end.

*Besides, I think K9 probably only stunned those guards anyway. Wouldn’t really suit the tone otherwise.





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.