Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Ribos Operation - " I get on terribly well with the aristocracy."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Ribos Operation - Details

Season 16, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #98) | Previous - Next | Index

Garron and Unstoffe via An Unearthly Doctor
A Very (Robert) Holmes-ian Pair
There's a brilliant series of posts going on right now at Shabogan Graffiti highlighting fifty moments in the series (#49 is about the value of jethryk) that are particularly open to analysis from a Marxist perspective -- if you're not reading it, you'll probably want to swing by there and check them all out. Go ahead, I'll still be here when you get back ...

Now, if nothing else, you've at least have an idea how proper intellectuals are able to tease fascinating insight out of any piece of entertainment that features the exchange of goods or services by any means. (As opposed to whatever it is I'm doing here.) My point is, it always pays to ask: What's the value of the dingus? Garron reminds me of Sydney Greenstreet, as so many characters of a certain dubious intent but pompous charm portrayed by talented character actors do, hence my mind leaps back to The Maltese Falcon for another example of an object highly valued by groups in competition to acquire it. What the black bird meant to O'Shaughnessy was one thing, to Gutman something similar -- but I don't think he'd turn around and sell it to the highest bidder as soon as he could, and to Spade it was something else entirely; the value he ascribed to the Falcon was never about his own monetary self-interest, he only represented as such to play Gutman, it's value to him was about how the value other people assigned to it allowed him exert influence to order his universe around his moral principles. And that's one reason I love The Maltese Falcon, but I only think "The Ribos Operation" is quite good. (Also, Iain Cuthbertson is good as Garron, but he's no Greenstreet.)

But comparing "The Ribos Operation" to one of the classic pieces of noir film making is only going to get you so far. Apples and oranges. What I'm more interested in is how "The Ribos Operation" works as a Doctor Who story, a Robert Holmes Doctor Who story in particular ... and that it does pretty well. In Garron and Unstoffe you've got a classic pair of Holmes supporting characters propelling the story through their world, the world of grifters chiseling a hunk of wealth off the self-styled upper classes, here embodied by Graff Vynda-K.  (Even the names are well-chosen here, "Graff" calls to mind a sort of Prussian aristocratic militarism that adds depth to the backstory of arrogant tyrant Garron is plotting to bilk.)

I'm less interested in the Key to Time framework around Season 16 than I am the constituent stories, it strikes as a gimmicky way to tie a series of otherwise distinct stories together that doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense, but it's by no means as ludicrous as the farce that was the Trial that wrapped around Season 23. And, to it's credit, it's the justification for putting Romana I in the TARDIS and that makes it OK in my book. The late Mary Tamm debuts as Romana in a classic pan from the ground up to highlight in 'hey fellas, we got a stunner here'-fashion how gorgeous she is. Tom Baker's reaction, he turns to K-9 as if to see if the robot dog has scanned her and reached the same conclusion with regard to her looks.

Enter Romana via Doctor Who Gifs

Romana's more than looks though, she's an entirely different sort of companion than Leela was before here. There'll be no Henry Higgins-ing around here, she may be inexperienced in the ways of the universe, being fresh out of the academy, but she wastes no time letting the Doctor know she did much better there than he did and knows her way around a TARDIS. Sure, she'll be the damsel-in-distress in the first cliffhanger, so there're somethings that don't change, but just as Leela was a marked contrast from Sarah Jane before here, Romana gets to shake things up and Tamm makes the companion role here own. It's a shame she only stuck around for one season, not that I've got a problem with Lalla Ward's Romana II, I just never got tired of this incarnation.

Baker's in top form as the Doctor here, though I gather a dog got hold of his lip and he looks a bit worse for wear. I wish the Doctor had paired up with Old Binro the Heretic for a while though. Instead it's Unstoffe who gets to give the old scientist some peace before dying. That character and his arc feel a bit tacked on, but balance out the strangely successfully witchery of the Seeker -- which itself seems to be a strange case of the series giving credence to hocus-pocus without giving any scientific, or even pseudo-scientific justification for how she's able to prophesy and clack bones together to track down Unstoffe. Any credit you give Holmes for the Binro character, you've got to turn around and dock him for the mystical nonsense of the Seeker, so the two become a sort of wash. That mush-brained magicky stuff and, to circle back to the beginning, the fundamental incoherence of Garron's strategy with regard to the jethryk undercut the story a bit, but it more that makes up for those flaws in other ways.

Oh, and I almost forgot to remark on how weird it was for Holmes to have Garron remark on how a gadget must be Japanese, and that the mark he sold the Sydney Harbor to was an Arab. Not exactly hard core racism, but these sly little mentions are sore thumbs in a script that doesn't make many other mistakes.

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