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THE RIBOS OPERATION

"I flatter myself I know how to get the best from natives."

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Well, here we go on the Key to Time season, and we're off to a cracking start.

The Ribos Operation's a low-key affair: no big SF concepts, hardly any explosions. Just a tyrant and his best friend, a couple of crims and a man who suspects that those things up in the sky aren't fairy lights after all. Some might say it succeeds despite this; we say it succeeds because of it. If Who scriptwriters in general had paid more attention to character and less to monsters, we'd have ended up with a lot fewer duff adventures. (And novels, but that's a whole other story.)

Robert Holmes almost always does knockout characters, and in The Ribos Operation he excels himself. Garron and Unstoffe, who are like Shakespearian clowns only actually amusing, are second only to Litefoot and Jago as Who's most brilliant secondary characters, with a particularly stunning performance from Iain Cuthbertson as Garron. (Hackney Wick, indeed.) The two of them are effortlessly dramatic when they need to be, but also killingly funny: Unstoffe's scringestone scene is one of the great classics and shows up the Doctor's supposedly comic mugging and goggling for the horrible error of judgment that it is.

Holmes also pulls off a great feat by making a character totally spurious to the plot earn his place through his emotional weight alone: Binro has nothing to do with anything, really, yet he makes an profound impact that lingers in the memory.

And when it comes to villains, Holmes outdoes himself: the Graff Vynda-K is one of the best ever, knocking other bad guys that get more press, like Paul Chase, into the composter. The Graff Vynda-K is one of those exceedingly rare objects: a three-dimensional, credible villain. While he starts off a bit campy, he quickly evolves into a genuinely chilling character, and even in the extremes of his madness at the end he never loses believability. Holmes gives us enough background for us to understand why the Graff is who he is, and it's his complex motivations and his shading that make him such a powerful character. A lot of scriptwriters seem to think that in order to be effective a villain has to be pure evil. Wrong-o. In the main, they're just boring. It's when we can see that evil is really just some guy who took a couple of wrong turns that things get really scary.

As well as the great characters Ribos Operation contains, the script overall is a joy. It's beautifully balanced, with a very nice symmetry between the three pairs of characters, and there's some lovely ongoing stuff deftly woven through it, like all the "We're from the North" stuff. And as with Binro, things that aren't strictly necessary to the plot, like the extended scringestone scene, earn their place for their sheer entertainment value.

As well as the aural feast provided by the script, the production looks fantastic, with gorgeous costumes and some magnificent furry hats. The only exception is the rather unfortunate Shrievenzale, of the genus Clothus Saddus, but since he has absolutely zero to do with the plot we can safely ignore him anyway.

As for the two leads, well. Romana gets off to a brilliant start in the TARDIS, calling the Doctor's bluffs and generally ruffling his feathers. But all too soon it's business as usual, and she has little to contribute to the plot apart from arranging to have the Key detector nicked from her.

And the Doctor? Hmmm. He's all right - we particularly like his "Yes. Terrified" - but his performance is spoilt by all that tiresome comedy business. Philip Hinchcliffe knew how to choke off those ghastly doubletakes and reaction shots at the source, and it's a shame Graham Williams didn't too.

You forgot K9, they cry. To which we can only answer that we wish we could. Again, his dull little tinliness is there to yawnsomely solve all yer problems. Got a rock wall? No worries, K9 will magically dissolve it in a trice. If difficulties are going to be that boringly easy to solve, then why put them in in the first place?

As for the Key to Time idea, we like it. It's a novelty seeing the Doctor actually land somewhere with a purpose. And the White Guardian is cool: he's so much more interesting than a more conventional portrayal, complete with white robes and thunderbolts, would have been. Of course, having defanged the Time Lords in Invasion of Time, there wasn't much alternative but to wheel on someone more powerful, Nature abhorring a vacuum and all. We're not sure it's such a good plan, in an arms racy kind of way - it leads inexorably to that Cartmel Oh-Davros-I-am-far-more-than-just-another-Time-Lord stuff. Before you start to decorate, it's better to check whether you're painting yourself into a corner.

Overall, it's a right little dazzler, innit? Seriously underrated, in our book.

MORAL: Before buying planets, check the ownership papers.

OUTTAKES

THE NECKLINE, THOUGH, JUST ISN'T TRYING

That coat of Romana's very Servalan, isn't it? And so's the cheesy pan up Romana in her opening shot. Gack.

LETTING YOUR SCARF DOWN

When the Doctor, Romana and Garron walk out of the Graff's apartments, the Doctor's scarf's all tucked up, but when they change to a different shot of him crossing the threshhold, his scarf's dangling.

THE LINES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

There are a couple of very cheaty cliffhangers here, with the recap quite different.

BAD DOG, K9. NO BISCUIT

The dog bite scar on the Doctor's lip's very evident in his scene with the Guardian, and again much later in the catacombs.

AND THAT GOES FOR THE TIN DOG TOO

The Doctor must have been rattled by Romana, as he says: "Never touch - never trust gimmicky gadgets!"

THE STREETS OF RIBOS ARE PAVED WITH KNOTTY PINE

The first scene on Ribos is all tres Dickensy and atmospheric with the falling snow and all. Shame the sound of the footfalls makes it clear it's a wooden floor!

NOT IF I SEE YOU FIRST

When Romana is hiding behind the screen, there's a guard to her right, visible side. He cuts his eyes to his left as he prepares to leave - how come he doesn't see her, especially as she's popping in and out round the screen as if from a cuckoo clock?

YOU CAN SAY THAT AGAIN

Tom and Mary go to sit down, but Mary's not quick enough, so Tom has to start again, saying "I get on - I get on terribly well with the aristocracy".

COLLOQUIAL MODULE NOW OPERATIONAL

"He'll be out for hours" - that's a K9 line?

WOULD THAT BE A ONE-HAND OPEN SLEIGH?

Sleigh of hand, Tom? Add that one to your collection.

Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK no DVD available US Buy Doctor Who DVD at Amazon.com

Buy this Dr Who DVD: US Buy Doctor Who video at Amazon.com

Download Doctor Who episodes at Amazon.com