The Ribos Operation

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: George Spenton-Foster
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1978
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

You know, I'll forgive Tom Baker a multitude of sins. I love the guy, he's the man I grew up with. And, even though his post-Who roles have been non-acting caricatures, while he was in the role even his send-ups were witty, intertextual self-referentiality, rather than desperate ham. However, season sixteen - and most specifically, the first and last stories - are a different matter. I'll put it plainly - he gets right on my tits. His schoolboyish, "staggering out of Groucho's" lack of adherence to anything remotely resembling acting is just plain disrespectful to people who wanted to watch the programme. The Drunk's drunk again - and he's taking it out and relieving himself all over us.

I also dislike the introduction of the Guardians into the series, as such a quasi-religious angle overrides the grey areas of morality I like in the series. And even though Cyril Luckham has a better outfit than he got five years later, seeing the personification of all goodness in the universe sitting in an old wicker chair in a BBC studio doesn't exactly fill you with awe. He sends the Doctor on a quest - to find a Rubik's Cube made out of old perspex. It's a quest that will have some minor highs, though none of them are present here. With its painted backdrops it's a wonder the production team thought they could get away with it. I love Graham Williams - I think season 17 is a work of genius - but I have to concede to popular fan opinion and agree that Hinchcliffe was better.

This is also the introduction of Mary Tamm as the first Romana. She's possibly the least appealing Tom companion - and that includes Adric. Not only does Tom's constant baiting of her youth and inexperience distance a chunk of the core audience (we always wanted to travel with him, now he's saying he wouldn't want us?) but there's no rapport whatsoever between them. Tom, Sladen and Marter had mutual respect. Jameson and Waterhouse had his hatred. Ward had his love. Tamm has - nothing. Okay, she's a very good-looking woman, but one of the weakest actresses at this point in the series history, and you'd have more chance of chemistry in The Avengers movie than between her and Tom. Every quip, every "humorous" barb falls flat and seems oddly lifeless. (Anoraks may also note that the Doctor claims to remember the Sontarans from the previous story, despite his memory of events supposedly being removed). While giving psychoanalysis of the Doctor is inspired yet contrived, an example of the sophistication present sees Tom trussed up in a net during the first sixteen minutes. It's cartoon comic book humour, the sort of thing McCoy bashers had a field day with when they did it in Survival. Not only that, but it sees any dignity the character had flushed down the toilet.

I never believe in knocking a Who story for being cheap, but this one takes it too far. This is cheap. Dirt cheap. Price of a packet of crisps cheap. An old cardboard studio and some polystyrene snow are supposed to convince us we're on an alien planet, with Holmes supporters claiming that we learn all about the culture of the world in four episodes. You could argue that this is meta-television or some such, but it's impossible to take this tatty stuff seriously as an alien environment. Worse still, I just hate Robert Holmes stories produced by Graham Williams. Often his scripts steer too near to over self-conscious parody, but with the Williams administration there's the tendency for all concerned to overplay what are already slightly silly lines. Iain Cuthbertson clearly thinks he's an inspired wit in the role of Garron, but he's merely some embarrassing tanked-up luvvie. My only credit goes to Paul Seed as the Graff Vynda-K, who is infinitely camper than I remembered, and seems to believe his remit is to play the part as John Inman would.

But here's the genius of Tom - call 'em crap, call 'em stupid - how many of his stories are actually boring? And while Ribos episode one is indeed half-baked crap that insults its audience, it's always watchable throughout. Not only that, but with the heightened sense of camp melodrama, Dud-ley's OTT clashings do actually seem appropriate.
* * ½

The Shrivenzale is pathetic, no matter how much blood they put over it, though interestingly Simpson's music for the entrance of the Graff seems to presage the mood of season 18. What was I saying about this one not being boring though? Actually, it again comes down to Tom - he's barely in it for the first five minutes, and it shows. There's also an allusion in this episode that the Doctor and Romana might have "some competition" in their quest. This would have boosted the dynamic of the season no end, because, while Tom himself said that the first interlinked season "wasn't a failure" he also admitted it didn't quite come off. The quest theme is loose, of course, so this isn't Trial of a Time Lord, of which this has similarities. In fact, I often think of Trial when watching this, because both showcase overacting leads. As for the "scringe stone" scene - I had to phone an ambulance to get my sides sewn back up. On and on it goes, with slow handclapping not persuading Plaskitt and Cuthbertson to stop their nauseating unfunniness. Believe me, I tried. Though look out for Romana describing Plaskitt as having "an honest, open face" - Terrance Dicks heard that and used it for fifty Target novels.

Is this the only story where the Doctor says "guff"? Any other observations? Nah… this one's a yawner. Tom didn't need his pocket watch to send that guard to sleep, he just should have showed him this episode. And Tom's cliffhanger expression perfectly highlights why send-up only works in moderation.
* *

"I get on terribly well with the aristocracy". Again, the Doctor (the fourth Doctor, at least) seems out of character in this story. Sure, he's always a snob at heart, but being so blatantly in with the upper classes isn't like him at all. There's another bit that always strikes me as odd this episode - Cuthbertson's claim that dying is the last thing he wanted to do illicits what sounds like genuine laughter from Tom. Was the line an ad-lib or did Tom only just get the joke when he heard it? Actually, knowing him, he'd probably only read his own lines from the script and it came as a surprise.

Most famously, this is the episode that features Binro the Heretic. The moment where he discovers that he was right about life on other planets all along is supposed to be a heart-warming moment that touches all viewers. Personally I think it's a pile o' pap. Played as pure kids show ham cack it never registers on any genuine emotional level.

Some of the flaws of this episode are just down to age - the extended dialogue exchanges between the Doctor and Cuthbertson seem to go on forever, yet were probably acceptable 27 years ago. That said, the pacing of this story is a problem, largely because there isn't enough plot to support four episodes. Look at the cliffhanger - the Doctor, Romana and Garron, under threat of death from the Graff. But that's exactly where we were at the start of this one- so narratively speaking, nothing has changed over the course of the entire episode. To be honest this doesn't feel like real Doctor Who to me at all though. It's just a cardboard imitation, with hammed-up luvvies sending up a backslapping script. K-9 makes his first appearance here as function in the story, and is the lazy writer's device he always was at heart. The Doctor's remark about "don't stop at all the corners" is inappropriate because on one level it points out the limitations of the prop, and on the other - the way you're meant to take it - it's a rather crude remark about dogs sniffing other dog's piss or taking a piss. Am I taking it too seriously? Yeah, maybe. But while I like comedy Doctor Who, this simply ain't funny.
* *

The most notable actor in this one is Robert Keegan, who seems to not realise he's in a panto like the rest of them. I can't decide if he's wooden or just stands out from the scenery chewing going on all around him. There's only so much OTT acting I can take, and this is like the tachyon recreation chamber from The Leisure Hive has made multiple Colin Bakers. Yet also a stand out is Nigel Plaskitt, who seems to bring out some sincerity in the second half of the story.

At the risk of turning this review into one long moan (it maybe ain't THAT bad, well, not quite, and it is sort of watchable… ish) I also hate the way the Doctor resolves the situation by committing murder without regret or compunction. I remember reading a character study of the Graff in DWM where it concluded that this was one of the few times the Doctor saw himself as having no other choice, so ruthless was the Graff. However, the fact that this is presented here as a joke makes it more appalling.

Don't even get me started on "The Seeker", while special mention must go to George Spent On Foster's for his apocryphal direction. This is also a story that features Prentis Hancock, always the high watermark of incessant cack. Actually, forget what I said about this story not being so bad - it is. A messy, tatty, almost unwatchable abomination. I quite hate it to be honest with you, it's a pair of dirty girl's pants. Anyone who claims it's an underrated gem and a testament to the "wit" of Holmes is just allowing themselves to become part of those Emperor's New Clothes.
* *

While not as big a low as some of the 80s stories, this is still one of the biggest lows of Who's first eighteen years. Silly and indulgent, this cheap and self-amused story goes nowhere, but has to be watched in order to appreciate the five stories that follow.
* *