Monday, 17 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation

Part One

“What will happen to me if I refuse?”

“Nothing will happen to you. Nothing at all. Ever.”

The Doctor’s got a new K9! Hooray! And then the story starts with a bang as the TARDIS doors open in flight in a scene which is made brilliant by inspired use of lighting. The Doctor’s been summoned by… well, God, and he’s been charged with a quest to find the Holy Gra- er, Key to Time. I love the way that, instead of depicting something cosmic and expensive, they’ve just depicted the White Guardian as some colonial type bloke in a hat sitting in a deckchair, which works much better.

Instantly it’s clear that, after last season’s unevenness, much thought has been given to things behind the scenes. It’s not just the (fan cliché alert) “umbrella theme”; the new era has now firmly acquired a confident tone and style of its own- no more scares and bangs, but a cheaper, less violent (well, you can’t have everything…), wittier and more postmodern take on things. And the script which heralds the new era in its fully-fledged form for the first time is… Robert Holmes, a man heavily associated with the previous regime. It’s a funny old world.

Anyway, the Doctor has a new assistant, an imperious Time Lady called Romadvoratrelundar, and she’s fab, as is Mary Tamm. Her guilelessly arrogant ways are perfect for winding the Doctor up, and we can tell straightaway that she’s going to be fun. Oh, and rather sexy too.

Apart from introducing Romana, this scene cements something new about the series’ style- wonderfully witty dialogue which is allowed freer rein than before, being let loose more often on that fourth wall, and something different about Tom’s performance. We haven’t really seen his sombre side at all since Horror of Fang Rock, and his more whimsical nature has been staging a gradual takeover for some time, but following the events of The Invasion of Time there seems to be a final shift. The Doctor is now more consistently witty, less prone to introspection, but still with a strong moral centre. But mostly he’s much more fun. I like this new Tom. And the great thing is, what with the events of the last story you could almost at a push call it character development.

Amusingly, we’re told that the Doctor only scraped 51% at the academy on his second attempt. And Gallifrey has a new president, who must be someone we saw in The Invasion of Time as we hear the Doctor say “I should have thrown him to the Sontarans when I had the chance!” Who is it then? It’s not Borusa, for constitutional; reasons. Bet it’s Kelner!

Anyway, Ribos. It’s a well-realised, wintry planet with a mediaeval level of technology which also has the fortunate side effect of suggesting a cultural hinterland in the way that futuristic metal corridors just don’t. There’s a lot of casually excellent design work here. The necessary exposition is handled admirably by means of the highly entertaining, ahem, “Holmesian double act” of Garron (the superb Iain Cuthbertson) and Unstoffe and their intended scam on nasty old offworld nobleman the Graff Vynda K. This planet has two seasons, Suntime and the present season Icetime, both of which last 32 years. Brilliantly, it’s actually part of the interstellar Greater Cyrrhenian Empire, but given that it’s only a “level two” civilisation, the offworlders who actually rule the planet have to claim they’re from “the north” and not display any advanced technology for fear of breaking conservation laws!

I’m loving this already. Garron is a great Holmesian character, a futuristic Horatio Bottomley with great lines, and the set-up is fab. I shall not speak of the Shrivenzale.

Part Two

“You hang a bit of that around your neck and you won’t never suffer from the scringes, no matter how cold it be.”

I love the way our conmen speak in cod-Mummerset accents when they’re pretending to be locals, and the Doctor actually pointed this out at the end of last episode! I love Unstoffe’s speech, but Garron’s the real star of the two of them. It’s fantastic how Holmes, incredibly, gets him to persuade the captain of the guard to deposit a load of money with the crown jewels, and makes it seem plausible. And indeed the fact that, as the title suggests, this is the first time we get a Doctor Who story that is essentially a heist movie. After years of Hinchcliffe era horror movies, Doctor Who is now plundering different sources!

The relationship between the Doctor and Romana continues to be brilliant, too: “An academy graduate doesn’t need things explaining, surely?”

Part Three

“When you’ve faced death as often as I have, this is much more fun.”

I think the scene where the Graff slaps the Doctor, and the Doctor slaps him back, is definitely in the running for my favourite Tom moment ever. The Doctor and Romana are captured and imprisoned, but it’s an interesting example of what a great writer Holmes is that while in the hands of a little writer this perennial Who cliché could be tiresome, here it’s just a pretext for a fun little chat between the Doctor and Garron, a bit of character stuff for Romana and some exposition. And once all this is achieved K9 just comes and rescues everyone, leaving the situation no time at all to become tiresome. Masterful.

The scene with Binro the heretic is of course wonderful, and almost distracts from the fact that Unstoffe seems to have acquired an RP accent what with all the stress of being hunted by the Graff. Interestingly, the Seeker seems to have genuine powers, so precognition works, which is a bit dodgy.

Part Four

“Well, I admit I had a great struggle with me conscience. Fortunately I won.”

There are so many great things about this story. I love the way the Seeker’s frenzied and tuneless shriek is supposed to be hugely annoying!

We get a well-crafted and entertaining conclusion. Binro dies tragically, the Graff disintegrates realistically in a surprisingly well done piece of characterisation, and our heroes have the first segment of the Key to Time. Only five to go.

Flawless. 5/5 and a good one too, only just missing out on a top ten spot. Great script, great new tone, great new companion, Iain Cuthbertson and, most relievingly, no obvious problems with the production. Well, Shrivenzale aside.. It feels as though the problems of last season are behind us already. Can things stay at this level?

1 comment:

  1. Love this episode.

    "Get up, you cringing cur!"