18 May 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 503: The Ribos Operation, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Because The Ribos Operation is a Robert Holmes script, I’m supposed to be telling you how ‘wonderful’ the double act of Garron and Unstoffe is, but that’s not really grabbing me all that much. For a start, I think that Jago and Litefoot may have managed to steal all the thunder on that front! No, I’m still more interested in the planet of Ribos itself, and everything that comes as a part of that.

I mused yesterday that because it’s styled as being a historical adventure that just happens to take place in the history of a planet other than Earth, it feels far more realistic than something in sterile white corridors and with bizarre ‘space’ make up would give us. The connection to Russian style of centuries past simply helps to reinforce the fact that this is real, identifiable history. But then today’s story really takes the fact that this is an alien world and runs with it. Put simply, this is the most rounded alien planet that Doctor Who has ever given us - certainly up to this point in the series, and I’d make the case for it being the most rounded location ever.

It’s mainly helped by the introduction of Binro the Heretic in today’s episode. There’s something wonderful about the idea that every world needs to go through that ‘Galileo moment’, and that certainly helps to add to the idea that we’re looking at a civilisation with a rigid set of beliefs. Simply from the guard’s recognition of the man, and Binro’s later description of the events taking place some time ago, you get a real sense that events were happening on Ribos long before the TARDIS touched down here. I really feels as though he has a history in this world, and his later descriptions of the way the people of this world believe in the various gods and the way that their religion works really do help to create a world that’s different to the norm.

This has quickly become my favourite aspect of the story, and I think it’s the finest writing that Holmes has ever crafted for the series. While he’s never been short of good concepts, unique characters, or sparkling dialogue, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so adept at creating a very real world, populated by very real people. Even when we make it down into the catacombs and are given legends that they were built so long ago that no one really knows how far they stretch it all feels very true to me, and I can’t really convey what an effect that’s having on me.

It’s a shame, then, that I’m not all that struck by the story that’s populating this rich and vibrant world. The Doctor has slipped back into being a bit of a smug know-it-all again (and it certainly feels like Tom Baker going overboard again, All that restraint he was showing so well when faced with the Guardian the other day seems to have been completely swept out of the window), but I’m loving the fact that his relationship with Romana has already started to thaw out. There’s some beautiful shots in this episode when the pair put their heads together for private conversations, and it feels both friendly, and completely different to the kind of thing I’d expect from Leela, or even Sarah Jane. It’s lovely to watch this relationship forming, and I hope it continues to grow over the coming stories in the season.

We’ve also got the first instance I’ve found of K9 being a bit of a cop out. The Doctor and his companion are locked up! There’s a massacre about to occur! There’s little chance of making any kind of escape…! But it’s ok, because the Doctor has got a new dog whistle, and K9 is able to come to the rescue, immobilising the guard for them and then becoming their bodyguard as they move into the catacombs. While there’s a part of me which looks forward to the idea that we might get to see him fight with a shrivenzale in the next episode, I can see how this kind of get out could start to become very wearisome…

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