Well, this is something very different. The closest we have come to a season arc before was the Master appearing in every story in Season Eight, unless you count six out of the seven Season Five stories having the same plot (not a criticism!). I’ll save most of the discussion about the linking theme for a special article on Saturday, but for now let’s take a quick look at the White Guardian, who pretty much only appears at the start of this story.
So the first thing that it is important to realise is that this is a Robert Holmes script, and he likes to have fun with characters. He is known for his double acts, but there is more to his writing style than that, because he likes to set up parallel characters who invite comparison. This one might pass you by, but the White Guardian is set up in parallel to the Graff Vynda-K. The reason for that is that Holmes was presented with a brief where he had to introduce a big, important character: the White Guardian. But Holmes always subverts those kinds of characters and here we have the Guardian and the Graff who both think they are the centre of the universe and both end up with their bubbles burst. Tom Baker does a magnificent job in this respect, because he clearly couldn’t bring himself to play his subservience to the Guardian straight. So the White Guardian is a dangerous being but incapable of over-riding the Doctor’s anarchist tendencies. He forces the Doctor’s obedience but he can’t have his reverence. Importantly, there is more going on here than a simple White Guardian = good / Black Guardian = bad. Within the first few minutes of the season, the White Guardian is the one who has threatened to strike the Doctor out of existence. The last thing we want to see in that circumstance is a meek, compliant Doctor. When he comes up against a parallel character on Ribos, and the Graff asserts his superiority by slapping the Doctor with a glove, the Doctor snatches it from him and slaps him right back. Strong stuff (and very funny).
The Guardian is not the only force for good who can be a bit dangerous. The Doctor can be that too. So this is one story where it seems quite acceptable for him to basically murder his enemy, performing a switcheroo with a bomb and the jethryk. This is all about shades of grey, subverting the white/black theme. The Doctor can’t subscribe to that kind of simplicity. This is a game of chess with white and black pieces, merging to grey in the centre, and Romana is another shade of grey, despite her white feathery cape.
The original plan this series was for Sarah Jane to come back, but sadly Elisabeth Sladen said no. Instead we get a complete opposite to Leela, the most recent companion. We also get an interesting comparison with the Doctor. It’s not just that Romana is a Time Lady, but she is supposed to help the Doctor and shows little respect to that chain of command. Instead she offers a critique of the Doctor. Just like the Doctor and the White Guardian. For this reason it is somewhat difficult to warm to her as a companion, at least to start with. She is one of those live-life-by-logic characters who pop up in fiction from time to time, and they’re no fun. She needs to lighten up, and she will.
We also have a black piece on the chessboard, merging to grey: Garron. His scheme is absolutely hilarious and the sort of thing only a writer like Holmes would come up with (and actually it’s also quite Douglas Adams-esque): selling a whole planet he doesn’t even own. But he is not even remotely evil as a character, just a loveable rogue, and it’s hard not to warm to one of those, especially when played with such gusto.
And finally there’s Binro, inspired by historical “heretics” such as Galileo Galilei and, slightly earlier, Giordano Bruno.
UNSTOFFE: Binro, supposing I were to tell you that everything you’ve just said is absolutely true. There are other worlds, other suns.
BINRO: You believe it too?
UNSTOFFE: I know it for a fact. You see I come from one of those other worlds.
UNSTOFFE: I thought I should tell you, because one day, even here, in the future, men will turn to each other and say, Binro was right.
Binro often gets compared to the Doctor and that’s not quite right. He rejects superstitious belief in favour of science and as such exists outside of the main plot, an outcast from society. When he interacts with the story, he is killed. But he hails from a world where a psychic “seeker” seems to possess some real power, whether that power be supernatural, or simply the ability to influence people through stories, sending off the Graff on a killing spree that fulfils the prophecies. The Doctor in contrast is always the one to bridge the worlds of magic and science, and he does that by being a living story. He’s nothing like Binro. RP
The view from across the pond:
I remember seeing the movie Quick Change with Bill Murray and thinking “this guy reminds me of someone!” The guy in question was Mr. Russ Crane, played by Kurtwood Smith. He’s a pompous oaf that Murray encounters at the airport. I won’t get into the background of the movie, but needed to establish the character. Then one day, while watching Doctor Who, I realized who he reminded me of: the Graff Vynda-K! It’s not that they look alike; it’s that they are both over-the-top villains, so full of themselves in a comedy-drama, that the two were inextricably linked in my mind for all time. Now if only Bill Murray would smack Mr. Russ Crane with a glove!
The best thing about The Ribos Operation is the characters. Garron and Unstoffe are incredibly likable. (Come to think of it, why didn’t they get a Big Finish spin-off?) Garron has that smarmy charm of Star Trek’s Harry Mudd. Unstoffe is such a good sidekick to Garron that the double-act is more fun than the rest of the story. Not to say the story is bad, it’s a decent story with a few laughs but they just make it so much better. The Doctor’s interaction with them typifies that fun, manic energy that is Tom Baker. The Graff himself, beyond allowing his real-life dog to bite Tom Baker’s face, is a great villain one loves to hate. Romana is introduced and getting a new companion is always fun. And the White Guardian… well, I’ll come to him in a minute, but that relaxing scene at the start of the adventure sets the stage… and then dashes it as we go to the cold, inhospitable planet Ribos.
The real interesting bit comes from the Guardians and their quest. Doctor Who has done quests from the earliest days of the series, way back when they were on Marinus, looking for some keys. (Hey, come to think of it, keys also feature rather prominently in Doctor Who!) And who doesn’t love a good quest? But the problem Doctor Who suffers from is trying to go big. The Ribos Operation is a perfectly enjoyable, if basic, story. When a writer adds something as big as the universe’s pause button, or beings that represent good and evil, they can’t be forgotten in the next decade or two. Unfortunately, like Steven Moffat with New Who, Robert Holmes adds this immense piece of lore to Doctor Who… and we have never heard of it again. There should be others, like the Master, who want to get their hands on this galactic freeze-frame, but no one ever tries again. And it clearly wasn’t hard to find. 6 adventures in a row and not one miss? Come on! They even have a detector to lead them right to it, so how hard could it be? And the Guardians? Yeah, short of an appearance in Davison’s era, we’ve never heard a peep from them again. And that’s a shame really, because they could have an effect in Doctor Who the way Moriarty does in Sherlock Holmes. Moriarty only appears in one story but his presence permeates the whole of Doyle’s works. The Black Guardian specifically could do this, but the writers don’t elaborate on him. The thing is, I don’t actually think they should either! It’s a shame they were ever created, if I’m honest. But you can’t put all the feathers back into the pillow, so now that they “exist” and haven’t been “utterly destroyed”, we should encounter them again. To ignore that means these big, powerful entities are really not so big after all.
Unless, of course, the Big Bang 2 erased them. Or the Time War. Maybe the Time War didn’t happen since the Big Bang 2? Maybe the Big Bang 2 is what spawned the Great Intelligence who existed before time, because time was reset by BB2 and the Time War and… wait, I need Advil…
That said, we have a new companion in Romana and she seems like she’s going to be a handful for the Doctor. The aristocratic-yet-lovable Romana II is a ways off and Romana I just comes off as a bit high and mighty. Luckily Tom can carry the show for both of them. But looking for another key just doesn’t seem like it carries the weight of some other quests. At least this one didn’t have doors with riddles that blocked you permanently if you answered incorrectly. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Pirate Planet