A Trickster Or a Warrior (The Ribos Operation)


As we round to about a week away from what is, statistically speaking, probably a major gift-giving occasion for a lot of the readers of this blog, I wanted to take one more opportunity in 2011 to shamelessly beg for money.

I apologize for the raw crassness of this. So let me frame it another way. A lot of talk, in various spheres and contexts, goes on about supporting "independent" producers of things or about creating "new digital models" for creativity that get away from the normal models of publishing and the like. This blog is the sort of thing they mean.

I'm a barely employed PhD in English facing an economy that, realistically, means I will probably never see full-time employment in the field I spent a decade and went into crippling debt to train for. When you see stories about people staggering under the weight of their student loan debt, I am what they are talking about - if I devoted 100% of my paycheck to paying off my student loans then I would still be paying them off in twenty years. Full-time hires in my field barely exist. There were a dozen full-time academic jobs in the country that I was qualified for this year, and every one of them had 200+ applicants.

I think that's bullshit. I think there's way more demand for scholarship about popular culture and media, and way more people who want to learn about it than anyone gives credit for, but that academia as it stands is a noble profession badly corrupted by money and politics, and that publishing hasn't come close to figuring out how to cater to people insane enough to want to read 10,000 words a week about postmodernism and 20th century British sci-fi television. I think there has to be another way. But I'm not a business guy, and the extent of what I can really do to find that other way is to spend a lot of my time writing the sort of stuff I wish existed in the world and trying to find fair ways to let people pay me for it.

I don't want to get rich off of writing about Doctor Who. I do want to, off of the work I've spent my life training to be good at, eventually be able to afford my own place and support a family. Right now I can do neither. I mean, I'm not on the streets - I have a strong support system that will make sure I'm taken care of and a comfortable life. If you want to find someone to throw charity at, I'm not the guy. But on the other hand, if the issues I talk about in this blog are ones that matter to you, well, they're ones that matter to me in a very real sense too. And if you think that independent scholarship on popular culture that's aimed at a general audience instead of an insular academic one is something that should exist, well, you can help.

So consider whether there's anyone you know who might want the first volume of this blog's book version for Christmas. You can get it on Amazon here, in what I must say is a rather fetching paper edition, or on the Kindle in the Amazon stores for many other countries. Right now the paper one is only available from the US Amazon store, but it does ship internationally (albeit probably not in time for Christmas). It's available in a wealth of other ebook forms at Smashwords, and should be filtering out to other ebook stores like Barnes and Noble and iBooks within the next week or so. Please, consider helping out. If the entire daily readership of this blog were to buy a copy it would make a massive world of difference in my life.

Meanwhile, if you want to support what this blog does more generally, I'm still seeking support for my next project, a critical history of Wonder Woman. That's over at Kickstarter. I gather there's some oddities about supporting that internationally. If you're having trouble with it, shoot me an e-mail and I'm sure we can work something out.

I agree wholeheartedly with everybody who says we need new models for scholarship, new models for academia, new models for publishing, and new models for everything else. So here's my proposal for one: I write a bunch of cool stuff, make large swaths of it available for free, and then nice people pay me money because they appreciate what I do.

Many of you already have, and I'm incredibly grateful for it. The community that's formed around this blog is something really special, and it means the world to me.

As for the rest of you, I know times are tough for everyone right now. But if you can afford a $5 ebook, a $16 paper book, or to drop $10 in the Kickstarter pool, it makes a big difference over here. Again, if everyone who reads this post were to drop $10 in the Kickstarter pool, the project would be funded five times over. It really doesn't take a lot, and every bit helps. And if you can't - and I really do understand if you can't, or even if the blog just isn't worth that much to you -  at least consider splashing a link up on your Facebook, Twitter, blog, or anywhere else. Those links are how I get new readers, and every time someone does link and encourage people to support the blog I see a few sales come in. They work. They help. And they cost you nothing.

Thanks, and White Guardian Bless.


Tell me, Doctor. Do you like pina coladas?
It's September 2nd, 1978. The Commodores are at number one with "Three Times a Lady," and stay there for three weeks politely holding off Boney M, a European disco group. They are eventually unseated by 10cc's "Dreadlock Holiday." Andy Gibb, ABBA, John Travolta and Oliva Newton John, and Siouxsie and Banshees also chart, the latter with their debut single "Hong Kong Garden," which means we've officially made it into post-punk, so, you know, that was fast.

Since we casually dumped Leela back on Gallifrey Aldo Moro, the former Prime Minister of Italy, was kidnapped and murdered by Marxist terrorists, and the current prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was sentenced to death. Regular radio broadcasts of Parliament start in the UK, and, more tragically, regular newspaper publication of Garfield starts in the US. Pope Paul VI dies, and Pope John Paul I ascends to the papacy. Within a week of the last episode of The Ribos Operation, he dies too.

Moving backwards towards September 2nd, then, Carl Bridgewater, a thirteen year old paperboy, is shot and killed when he disturbs a burglary in progress in Staffordshire. Four men are eventually arrested and imprisoned for it, though the case is controversial to say the least. The Camp David Accords are signed between Israel and Egypt. Georgi Markov is murdered via a poison pellet injected via an umbrella in London. And the Camp David meetings begin.

While on television... actually, let's start a bit before television. This is the famed Key to Time season - Doctor Who's first attempt at a season arc. I say attempt pointedly in its capacity as a word that does not necessarily imply success. I don't mean to flip ahead excessively, but it all ends in Baker and Martin. But it's an idea, and it has many ways in which it does work and does do interesting things, and there's not really a way into the season that doesn't deal with it.

Normally in situations like this I have to go beat some sense out of the concepts with some close-reading coupled with a working knowledge of silly intellectual trends and, when all else fails, unsupported speculation. But this time I don't have to because Graham Williams did it for me in a spectacularly weird memo penned when he got the job and was briefly considering doing the Key to Time in his first season.

The memo, reprinted in Howe, Stammers, and Walker's coffee table book on Doctor Who in the 70s, is staggering. Opening with a mildly crank account of particle physics, Williams manages to pivot to where the weak nuclear force has become a quasi-mystical source of power for the Time Lords, who can manipulate it to a limited extent. However because of the quasi-mystical nature of this force, it becomes a problem - as Williams puts it, "control cannot be allowed to rest in the hands of so capricious a people." He then executes a flawless turn into a sentence that I will quote shortly.

I would like to pause here and list, just as a casual bit of name-dropping, a brief list of authors that I have read at length and understood: Jacques Derrida, Aleister Crowley, Iain Sinclair, William Blake, Jacques Lacan, Gertrude Stein, Immanuel Kant, William Faulkner. I say all of this at the risk of sounding as though I am simply showing off my erudition for the sake of it because I would like to provide adequate context for this next claim. The sentence I am about to quote is one of the most spectacularly incoherent things I have ever read.

"Eternity and Infinity, as concepts, do not, by their very nature, allow for an absolute Authority - the Pyramidical Hierarchy stretches through Time and Space and can have no apex."

If I were to take a flying leap into the cavernous mound of gibberish that sentence seems to gesture towards, I would end up concluding something like this. The first bit, about "Eternity and Infinity" not allowing for absolute authority, is a warmed over attempt at William Blake. (The alternative is that it is a bewilderingly vague stab at the "can God make a rock so heavy he can't lift it" paradox that has not actually troubled anyone who has worked with philosophy or theology at any length for some time) More problematic is his use of the phrase "Pyramidical Hierarchy" to describe something that cannot possibly have an apex, a sentence in which the overwhelming majority of interpretations simply have to take the premise that Graham Williams does not know what words mean. But his gist seems clear enough: it's turtles all the way down.

Given that, Williams imagines the next set of turtles as a balance between good and evil, which he describes in terms of the fact that Hitler believed in his principles too - in other words, a gibbering piece of moral relativism. At this point, let's note that we're only about one page into this monstrosity, which goes on for a while switching back and forth between the ideas of an infinite hierarchy of authorities and the idea that all things can be reduced into binary oppositions, but simultaneously that there is only one binary opposition. (He says, "There exist in our section of the universe ... two Guardians. One is for 'Good' one is for 'Evil'. One for 'Construction', one for 'Destruction'. One for... the opposites are infinite, as they must be.") He then proposes the Key to Time as an instrument of balance that has fallen into the hands of the Black, and a quest in which the Doctor must reclaim its six segments.

There are many candidates for the title of "strangest thing in this memo," but in a broad sense the strangest must be the way in which William clearly wants to suggest that the Doctor is not straightforwardly an agent of good any more than he's an agent of evil and the way in which Williams is not nearly stupid enough to say something like that to a television executive. This is worth remarking on in part because it's wholly consistent with the rest of the Williams era thus far. The anarchic and punkish tendencies that Robert Holmes displayed in The Sun Makers are, in part, a move beyond the idea that progress comes from the espousing of the good and towards an idea of progress as a freestanding force of change. This is, in its own way, nothing more than a restatement of the moral ambiguity found in Troughton's Doctor at his high points.

The problem is really that Williams, in the memo, doesn't seem quite sure what to do from this realization. On the one hand, he gets implicitly that the Doctor must be closer to the "good" Guardian than the "evil" one. On the other, as Tat Wood points out when talking about this story, there's a steady sense of the Doctor outgrowing his bosses over time. First he outgrows UNIT, and then the Time Lords. Simply setting him up with a new boss clearly doesn't work either. The end of Williams's memo gestures at this, suggesting that the final revelation is going to have to include some sort of step in which it becomes clear that there's a larger game than was immediately apparent. (We'll see how that plays out in The Armageddon Factor. Spoiler: not that well.)

In any case, faced with the task of getting this hazily-conceptualized behemoth of a story off the ground, Williams and Read did the single most sensible thing imaginable: they hired Robert Holmes to do it. And for their troubles they got a sublimely good script.

At the center of Holmes's script is Williams's notion of the same conflicts playing out on different scales. The conflicts of the Guardians give way to the conflicts of Ribos's Sun and Ice Gods, which give way to the political conflicts the Graff is a part of, which gives way to the petty crimes of Garron and Unstoffe. These shifts in scale are not flagged or called attention to in any particular way. Instead the script moves calmly and confidently among them, opting not to explain the vast philosophical edifice it's built on but instead to simply demonstrate it.

This, in turn, is connected to another philosophical line of thought: the Hinchcliffe-era theme of history's reiterations; Ribos is recognizably a medieval planet with obvious parallels to Earth. So not only do the same conflicts play out on different scales, they play out across different iterations of history. Similarly, the conflict between Ribos's gods is seen to simply be the shifting of the planet's very long seasons, and so the conflicts further play out in the realm of man and the realm of nature. It is a structure of frightening elegance that rivals the triumph of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The first and most obvious thing this structure allows Holmes to do is to handle the gapingly obvious problem that this and every single other attempt to do "epic" Doctor Who is ever going to face. To quote Eddie Izzard, "You're British. Scale it down a bit." Here we have one of the most masterful downscalings of Doctor Who history - one more triumphant even than Holmes's previous record best of The Brain of Morbius, in which Holmes exploits the basic premise of the epic to seamlessly change the conflict of gods into the story of a pair of washed up con men.

But the most interesting thing that Holmes does in the course of the story is to duplicate the Doctor across the numerous levels of the story. The first and most obvious duplication is, of course, Romana. It's worth pausing here, just as a moment to gape at the sheer breadth of influence that Holmes has over the course of the series, and noting that this is actually the fourth of five times in which Robert Holmes would end up writing a new companion's first script. (Nitpickers - I am correct. You can figure out why for yourself.) Two of the previous three times the new companion was a relatively straightforward modification of her predecessor. Liz Shaw was in many ways a contemporary Earth-based Zoe, and Sarah Jane was a light modification of the plucky adventuring spirit of Jo. This time, however, Holmes is back in the territory he was in in Terror of the Autons where the new companion is an explicit reaction against the previous one. Having done the "ignorant savage" with Leela, the series now has a companion who is largely the Doctor's equal.

Except she's not. She's something altogether stranger. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood find themselves feeling around parts of an elephant here in an interesting way. Wood (who offers the "defense" critiques of the Williams era, and who is generally on sounder footing here than Miles, who tends in his critiques of the Williams era to end up overvaluing poorly thought out narratological dogma and, in doing so, to end up blithely asserting the fundamental possibility of caring about the narrative in a way that can be fairly succinctly refuted by pointing out that it's clearly possible to care about the narrative as evidenced by the non-trivial number of people who do so) asserts that the "audience identification" role normally inhabited by the companion is "surplus to requirements" in this story, while Miles complains that Mary Tamm obviously doesn't take the role seriously.

This supposed dualism, however, misses an important fact obvious to anybody who sat through much of the previous season: the audience identification role, for a large swath of the audience, would in fact be defined by not taking the story seriously. Romana provides the story with a vehicle for overt critique of its own premises - an activity defined most obviously by her tendency to actively analyze the Doctor's character traits and reflect on the foibles of his psychology. So while she is indeed not taking the story "seriously," there is, if you will, a genuine seriousness to her dismissal of it. Her role is to rein the Doctor in and to bring balance to him. She is at once a second Doctor and the Doctor's counterpart.

This dual role illustrates one of the fundamental tricks Holmes uses to navigate this philosophical quagmire: having different levels of the system interact with each other in not-quite-harmonious ways. Just because two characters fill the same structural role within their respective milieus does not mean that they will get along or consistently help each other. (Nor, of course, does it mean they'll be at each other's throats - Romana and the Doctor do, generally, get on, but on the other hand, there's continual and visible tension between them) The same structures recur across time and across social situations, but as we have observed before, reiteration is not exact duplication. Differences exist.

This brings us to our second obvious duplicate of the Doctor, namely Garron. Played with magnificent relish by Iain Cuthbertson (familiar also as the villain of Children of the Stones, in which he and his butler, Broton, attempt to destroy Roj Blake), Garron duplicates the Doctor's anarchic function bringing balance to the world through the subversion of its order. Most notably, Garron strides around the story with what is simultaneously the most preposterously insane and delightfully brilliant scheme that Holmes has found yet for his vast array of con men and hucksters. See, what Garron does is plant evidence of a valuable mineral (of which he happens to own one sizable piece of) on a backwater planet and then attempt to con someone into buying the planet, which Garron in fact has no right to sell.

Garron, like the Doctor, is an actively transgressive character both diegetically (as a con man necessarily is) and extra-diegetically. This latter role is most obvious when the Doctor identifies him as a human (as opposed to a native of Ribos, despite the fact that they look indistinguishable from humans) because of his regional British accent - another in a lengthy and still delightful series of baits and switches in which a detail that is instinctively interpreted by he audience as part of the default conventions of the show (everyone in the universe has an English accent) turns out to exist diegetically and be of narrative import. (The original such instance, of course, is David Whitaker's brilliant fake monster in The Rescue, where it turns out that the villain has in fact been a man in an obviously fake rubber suit all along.)

But the existence of Garron as a Doctor analogue raises a larger and stranger issue for the narrative. The Doctor, ostensibly at least, is the hero of the story. Even if we accept what Williams clearly gestures at in his memo and grant that the Doctor is not a "good guy" in the conventional sense of that word, crafting an account of the show in which he is not even the object of the audience's sympathies but merely of their fascination is a radical step. And yet Garron, a clear analogue of the Doctor, is not a hero. Nor, crucially, is he a villain. He switches gamely between antagonist and ally, sometimes within the same line.

For a fleeting moment it is hinted that Garron might be an agent of the Black Guardian, but this too is clearly wrong. Still, it raises an interesting larger point. Ostensibly within this story the Doctor serves the White Guardian. But if we were to extend the logic of the Guardians (as Craig Hinton did in a story slipped into an fan-made benefit book), we would almost necessarily, when dealing with order and chaos, give order to the White and chaos to the Black.

This is further reinforced with the Guardian's appearance at the beginning of The Ribos Operation, which is, as Tat Wood observes, blatantly a case of God himself showing up to boss the Doctor around. But the White Guardian is an old white man sitting on some sun-kissed beach surrounded with the trappings of empire. And the Doctor visibly loathes him, even as he consents to the mission (if only because the White Guardian threatens to kill him). And, more broadly, in the order/chaos debate, we know what side the Doctor favors these days. Pertwee is far in the rear view mirror.

On the other hand, the Black Guardian is clearly intended to be a capricious dictator, with the Graff being his obvious representative within the narrative. To ally the Doctor with him is clearly incorrect. So where is the Doctor in the larger moral schema here? Some people have attempted to create more Guardians in order to deal with this problem, but this solution, while a philosophically sound way to handle excessive dualism, clearly has no basis in Williams' intentions or in the scripts for the period. This is clearly meant to be a dualist conception of the universe. So to return to the question we were stumbling on in the Williams memo itself, what gives?

The answer comes in the third Doctor analogue in the script, and Holmes's best touch in what is already one of his best scripts: Binro the Heretic. Clearly based on Giordano Bruno (himself an occultist and alchemist, providing yet another instance of Doctor Who's most improbable recurring motif), Binro is a rag-clad vagabond within the world of Ribos, cast out of society for his heretical claim that the twinkling lights in the sky are other suns.

The Doctor parallels are clear even beyond the mildly-strained Giordano Bruno/alchemy connection. Binro is a character that adheres to all of the traditional values associated with Doctor Who: he is kind, altruistic, stands up for his convictions, rationalist and intelligent in a world of superstition, and unwilling to bow to authority. He is cut off from Ribosian society because of his belief in a world beyond what Ribos sees - a clear parallel to the Doctor's own exile. And, on a basic level, surely all heretics are friends of the Doctor's.

What is most interesting about Binro, then, is that he never meets the Doctor. He is gunned down by the Graff's men in episode four right in front of the Doctor, but the Doctor is disguised as a guard and never even learns who Binro was. The most natural set of allies in the entirety of the story never actually meet each other, with Binro instead providing a Doctor-like role to Unstoffe in the Doctor's absence, thus functioning fully and truly as the Doctor reiterated onto the scale of Ribos instead of the scale of the cosmos. And yet this scene serves as the emotional heart of the story, with Binro's death sparking off a shockingly violent conclusion in which the bulk of the secondary characters are slaughtered in a manner that would have been considered terribly violent and over the top if Philip Hinchcliffe were still the producer. It is, in other words, Binro's murder that brings the entire house of cards crashing down. The death of a Doctor surrogate is what makes it finally impossible to maintain the fragile equilibrium of the story - a key moral point about the nature of the Key to Time.

The other emotional heart of the story (and if any show can have two emotional hearts, surely it is Doctor Who) is Unstoffe's revelation to Binro that not only is he right, but that the only fault his theories can meaningfully be said to have is that they are not heretical enough. None of the ways in which Binro is wrong about anything are cases where being closer to the position of all the other Ribosians would help. In other words, the heart of the story is when Binro gets to peer across the gulf of scale up towards the Doctor and the Guardians, neither of whom ever look down and notice Binro.

But if the Doctor is a reiteration of Binro on a larger scale and in a different social circumstances then what is the Doctor's heresy? It is tempting to suggest that it's whatever made him rebel and leave Gallifrey, but one of the major points of this story has been that the Doctor has moved beyond the Time Lords. No. The obvious conclusion to draw from Binro's presence is that the Doctor is in some sense heretical with regards to the philosophical system of this story. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that the same story in which the Doctor is given his marching orders by God himself is the story in which the single most sympathetic supporting character is a proclaimed heretic.

This, then, makes considerable sense out of the odd problems introduced by Garron and the Doctor's obvious lack of straightforward allegiance to either the Black or the White Guardians. Presented with a radically dualist universe, the Doctor's reaction is essentially to reject the entire premise. And, of course, he's right to. If the Black Guardian is a callous tyrant like the Graff and the White is an old colonial master, rejecting them in favor of a third option is clearly the correct choice. "Order and chaos" may be a phrase that goes together, but it no more forms a fundamental dualism of the universe than "jam and bread" does. Chaos, by its nature, does not fit into orderly dualisms, and the Doctor's role in this epic is not to bring balance between White and Black but to reject the notion of "fundamental balances" altogether.

What is most interesting about all of this is that even as Holmes deconstructs the entire premise of the Key to Time, he doesn't reject it. The Doctor remains on his mission. This is firmly part one of a longer epic. And there is still a powerful and compelling sense of scale to it. Holmes's anarchic pluck does not challenge any of that. Instead it just challenges the dogmatism of the mythos, rejecting the ways in which the mythos gets in the way of the myth.

It is, in other words, Holmes's reaction against Star Wars and its maniacal devotion to the monomyth. Here is a story with all of the epic sweep of Star Wars done on a BBC budget and while deconstructing its own mythology. And it's funnier to boot. We started this piece with an observation as to how punk had given way to post-punk with considerable haste. Now, having firmly introduced the punk subversion of the order of things in The Sun Makers, Holmes moves further to Doctor Who's first post-punk story.

Like post-punk itself, the anarchic spirit, the urge to tear it all down, and the rejection of dogmatic depictions of the future or destiny remain. But now these are coupled with unambiguous positive investments. On the surface, this is a contradiction. The anarchic "tear it all down" nature of punk is, superficially, a strange bedfellow for any sort of investment in what should be or any sort of construction. But this viewpoint has never been held by anybody who actually understands punk in the first place. As Robert Holmes shows us, chaos is not some fundamental opposite of order. The Doctor, like post-punk itself, is proof enough of that.


cupofassam 5 years, 2 months ago

"a brief list of authors that I have read at length and understood: Jacques Derrida..."

Now, few of my colleagues in the a School of English where I work could pull off that sentence with a straight face. Bravo. But, seeing as you're pretty much right about the state of Arts and Humanities now they've been more or less privatised, I'll do my bit and buy your book, because I love your blog and debt accrued for education is a terrible thing .

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 2 months ago

Have bought the Smashwords version, and I'll buy all the others from Smashwords as they come out in that format. I don't always agree with what you write here (I thought your argument with Millennium over 'big-ass science' came perilously close to outright trolling, frankly, and was unworthy of you) enough of it is good enough that it's definitely worth the money.

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 2 months ago

"More problematic is his use of the phrase "Pyramidical Hierarchy" to describe something that cannot possibly have an apex, a sentence in which the overwhelming majority of interpretations simply have to take the premise that Graham Williams does not know what words mean."

I think it's actually somewhat comprehensible. A pyramid of infinite size would never have an apex, but could have an infinite number of infinitely close approximations to an apex.

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andrewhickey.info 5 years, 2 months ago

Hmm... my comments using my Google ID appear to be getting spam-trapped (and not just comments from today, either...). Anything you can do to fix this on your end, Philip?

Have bought the Smashwords version, and I'll buy all the others from Smashwords as they come out in that format. I don't always agree with what you write here (I thought your argument with Millennium over 'big-ass science' came perilously close to outright trolling, frankly, and was unworthy of you) enough of it is good enough that it's definitely worth the money.

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Dan 5 years, 2 months ago

Would it be a fair summary of the sentence quoted to say that reality is like the internet in so far as it doesn't have a "front page"?

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Herms 5 years, 2 months ago

More problematic is his use of the phrase "Pyramidical Hierarchy" to describe something that cannot possibly have an apex, a sentence in which the overwhelming majority of interpretations simply have to take the premise that Graham Williams does not know what words mean.

Maybe I haven't had enough coffee (or perhaps too much), but the Graham Williams quote seems relatively straight forward to me. Surely his whole point is being intentionally paradoxical: Pyramidal Hierarchies have apexes by their nature, but an infinite such hierarchy couldn't, because it goes on forever and so there would always be something further above. Hence why eternity and infinity don't allow for absolute authority. Williams' real confusion in my view is in conflating Pyramidal Hierarchies with actual, physical pyramids.

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Adam B 5 years, 2 months ago

This is another example of your best work, especially your closing thoughts on punk and post-punk. It's probably too much to add to your existing alchemical framework, but I'd suggest that the Hindu conception of Shiva as god of both destruction and rebirth is also helpful for understanding a 'third way' beyond the binary of order and chaos.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

Right. I mean, the problem is that an infinite pyramid is still going to be defined by its apex, as each level of a pyramid's size is dictated by the adjacent levels. A pyramidical heirarchy is always going to have an apex; it's a base it doesn't necessarily have.

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Andrew Hickey 5 years, 2 months ago

Not necessarily. It could have a base and no apex. Base layer - 2 units. Next layer - 1 unit. Next layer - 0.5 units. And so on. Never gets to a last layer, so never has an apex, but it's definitely a pyramid with a base.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 2 months ago

That's just Xeno's Paradox though.

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Alex Wilcock 5 years, 2 months ago

One of the fascinating things about Graham Williams is his own inconsistency: thought of as the ‘funny producer’, several people he worked with (not just, obviously, Tom) thought he has no sense of humour; he wanted to reintroduce ambiguity, so he went for Manichean dualism. And then there’s that memo you’ve deconstructed, of course, whether or not he still agreed with it all once the ideas were fully formed a year later, and whether or not Anthony Read and his other writers agreed with it in terms of what was transmitted; there’s good reason to think Bob Holmes certainly didn’t. Williams seemed to have an odd idea that the Doctor could only be being ‘responsible’ if he was answering to some sort of authority, rather than making up his own mind, then gave him the biggest authority to report to and put him on a mission from God. Who turns out to be a bit of a bastard (and gives a chilly threat that’s much more scary to the Doctor than just killing him). So, at least in terms of what aired in 1978-9, it was a lot more ambiguous than definitely good versus evil or order versus chaos (and you may or may not be right about how chaos doesn’t fit into dualism, but that’s not to say it’s not what some of the creative minds on the series thought at the time). It was only really in 1983 that everything was made painfully obvious for the viewer.

Fortunately, as you say, they hired Bob Holmes first, got a sublimely good script, and he took the piss. I know you suggest his target’s mainly Star Wars, but I’ve written at length before that it seems more plausible that in The Ribos Operation he’s just stirring it about Doctor Who, as he did several times before and after, in being given a grandiose brief and deliberately satirising the ‘black and white’ of it from the first. He can’t “reject” it, but he can certainly send it up. Summoned by the ultimate force of law and order, the Doctor sides with the first crooks to hand, and instead of the story being about portentous doom, it’s a funny con caper. Good observations about the the reflections and scales all the way down, and I suspect (by suggesting that both the Seeker and Binro are right, for example) Bob’s refusal to give definitive answers is a deliberate statement about free will as opposed to doing what you’re told. Which might all fit in with your entertainingly plausible point about Romana being the audience not taking the story seriously, as well.

I can’t agree with you about the Graff symbolising the Black Guardian, though; I’ve always taken him as Bob writing a character who’s enormously self-important and thinks he’s the centre of the plot, whereas in fact he doesn’t matter at all and it’s the scruffy con-man who’s significant, and so another oblique critique of the producer’s wish to make the series about Terribly Important Beings (and as the Graff and the White are the only two characters who want to boss everyone about and complain that things have got out of kilter and need to be restored to how they were, if anything he seems more White than Black). At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Graff is blatantly Bob putting the boot into the Robin Hood legend. Again!

All that, and the history, music, and the hats are terrific, too.

Oh, and despite the shipping charges when it’s not on Amazon.co.uk, I do intend to order your first volume after Christmas…

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Aaron 5 years, 2 months ago

I never interpreted the White Guardian's threat as a threat to kill the Doctor. He says that "nothing will happen to the Doctor." For a being of pure order, it seems like what he means here is that the Doctor will never have adventures, but simply land places and have a boring time, for the rest of his life. Which fits perfectly with the aesthetic of the White Guardian, and also gives us a glimpse into the Doctor's psychology, since this is clearly a terrible fate in his mind. Anyways, I just think it's a very well thought out piece of dialogue.

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Anne L. 5 years, 2 months ago

I haven't read the whole entry yet, but I would just like to say that the paperbook edition is indeed handsome and worth buying even if you have the electronic version, if you're the type that likes to collect books. I bought the Kindle version for myself and the paperback for my sister for Christmas. After seeing the paperback, I'm now considering buying another one for myself after the holidays.

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Gavin 5 years, 2 months ago

It's been a while since I've seen it, but unless I'm misremembering, doesn't the Doctor recognize the accent that Garron is affecting, rather than his real accent? What he recognizes is itself a performance. Also, the fact that he recognizes it as a Somerset accent (unless I'm misremembering) is significant: Somerset suggests Mummerset.

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fdfc49e4-466d-11e0-963e-000bcdcb8a73 5 years, 2 months ago

Just ordered the print edition of this glorious blog, sir! :)

Also, just wanted to point out that amidst everything else he's doing here, Bob Holmes snuck in the first same-sex kiss in "Doctor Who" here under everyone's noses... ;-D

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Dr. Happypants 5 years, 2 months ago

Various things:

1. This is some of your best stuff yet; I'd already thought of "The Ribos Operation" as clever and funny, but you've helped me see it's actually cleverer and funnier. You know, what you do here on this blog is more valuable to more people than what most professors end up doing...

2. Graham Williams clearly makes more sense than Jacques Lacan. The Zeno's paradox pyramid makes solid mathematical sense--like an inverted Hilbert's Hotel--but Lacan butchered mathematics as badly as a LaRouchie pretty much any time he said a word about it in a way that isn't even helpful metaphorically. If you want to see math used metaphorically in psychoanalysis in a way that actually makes at least some sense, check out Ignacio Matte Blanco.

3. What's interesting about Binro is that he isn't modelled after the actual Bruno (the greatest magus of the Renaissance) nearly as much as he is after the iconic conception of Bruno as a proto-scientist speculating about other worlds. Even in a narrative universe where gods (or Guardians) are real, and the Seeker's powers may actually work, the virtues of Doctor Who are still associated with atheists, rationalists, and heretics: as you say yourself, the Doctor finally meets God, but loathes Him. It's an extraordinarily strong form of atheism: the very idea of God is intrinsically unworthy. We're firmly in Dawkins territory here, or for that matter Lucretius territory, who said more or less the same stuff 2000 years earlier. It's not atheism as a factual statement but as a moral imperative.

4. The Doctor's true mission, like NASA's, is to kill God.

5. The hats really are quite terrific.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 2 months ago

Philip - just ordered my copy as well, happy to support the blog and your writing. Thanks for giving so many hours of enjoyment in reading these posts, regardless if I always agree with them or not! (still disagreeing over Pyramids of Mars, but i'll get over it)

That being said, this is one of your best posts, and a perfect dissection of the many different levels of the story and how they work.

Couple of things: I've always taken the White Guardian's threat as being truly literal: the Doctor, stuck in the Tardis perhaps, never ever able to land anywhere again. Limbo. Utter boredom, worse than that which made him originally leave Gallifrey. Way worse.

I agree that the Doctor has become, not so much an agent for chaos, but for simply keeping things moving and interesting, for free will, for being independent. The white guardian and black guardian are so entrenched in the duality aspect of their thinking that they can't conceive of a different way. They are the antithesis of lateral thinking.

For all the Robert Holmes character in the world of Doctor Who, Binro is one of the all time greats. Seriously.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 2 months ago

If I could support you more Phil I would, I really would, but sadly I'm in your position too: An unemployed and unemployable academic with a very expensive and very esoteric degree. What I will do is buy multiple copies of your books, both in Kindle and dead tree version. Hope that helps you in some way.

That being said, this is one of my favourite posts of yours yet. I was giddy with anticipation waiting for you to get to the Graham Williams/Anthony Read/Douglas Adams era and it was well worth the wait. This is a provocative and incredibly nuanced analysis that helps me see one of my favourite stories in a new way. Also, major, MAJOR props for mentioning Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan: Two of my favourite writers and thinkers of all time and your subsequent takedown of Graham Williams had me literally laughing out loud. Bravo sir, my respect for you continually grows.

Today was just full of my favourite things: Siouxsie Sioux, Doctor Who, Order vs. Chaos, philosophical anarchy, Graham Williams, Anthony Read, Douglas Adams, Tom Baker, Mary Tamm, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and yes, even Robert Holmes. The fact you found a way to wind them all together just puts a smile on my face and brightened what had otherwise been a very dour day for me.

Good luck to you sir, and I'll be eagerly awaiting the rest of your take on The Key to Time!

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WGPJosh 5 years, 2 months ago

One more thing, Phil: you also have a link and hearty recommendation on my website for whatever that's worth, though I have a large feeling you get much, much more traffic than I do.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 2 months ago

I think more than Star Wars he's likely to have had in mind Moorcock's Eternal Champion novels, where there's an eternal conflict between Law and Chaos but each is dangerous if it grows too powerful, and while the hero may serve one or the other as circumstances dictate, he ultimately serves the Balance.

In which regard it's interesting that in Moorcock's historical-ish/high-fantasy stories (e.g. Elric, Corum) it's usually Chaos that has the upper hand and Law that needs a boost from the hero, whereas in his more contemporary stories (Cornelius, Karaquazian) it's Law that's more likely to be the bad guy(s).

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BerserkRL 5 years, 2 months ago

In other news, I realised for the first time this week that the opening scene of "The Beast Below" is a reference to a 1986 Bonnie Langford / Colin Baker publicity photo.

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BerserkRL 5 years, 2 months ago

I plugged your Hartnell book and Wonder Woman project here.

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Anna 5 years, 2 months ago

@Herms and @Andrew Hickey - On a given pyramid, infinite or otherwise, you can always prove an apex exists using calculus (a series approaching infinity) - i.e. the solution to Xeno's Paradox. A diminishing series converges.

A base, on the other hand... sure, we can extend in that direction forever.

Also, I can't help but note that that sentence is disturbingly close to some of the stuff I wrote when I was 13 and high off of incense and Gnosticism and Wicca.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

I too thought this was an exceptional entry, bringing out the resonances of the players in The Ribos Operation all the way down.

Having said that, this is still not a story I love (though I love that you were able to bring such weight to it). Like a lot of later Holmes stories, it has the weakness that we know who we're against but we don't know who we're for. If the Doctor hadn't showed up and Garron had successfully stiffed the Graf... so what?

In general, this is a weakness of the Graham Williams stories: they often have an intriguing central idea, they often have great dialogue, but they miss the cheap but vital pleasure of giving the audience a conflict to care about.

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Dougie 5 years, 2 months ago

Last time I watched it, I got tired of two fruity thesps obviously enjoying riffing off one another to the exclusion of the audience (me). Readers may not be aware that this season was trailed in Radio Times with a lengthy feature article introducing Mary Tamm as Romana and mini-interviews with previous "Who Girls". This was a clearly defined New Direction, further signalled by the casting of Iain Cuthbertson who was a big tv star, thanks to "Budgie" and "Sutherland's Law". Unfortunately, I find Garron the least appealing of Holmes's crooks.

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Adam Riggio 5 years, 2 months ago

I always considered this story one of my favourites from the Baker era, but you've opened my eyes to so many other layers of understanding that I'm indebted to you once again.

I bought the ebook version of your Hartnell Years book yesterday. It's a wonderful collection. I'm a trifle sad the Galaxy 4 episode was discovered so soon after your release date, though. But that's Doctor Who: always creeping farther ahead than its audience (or even its creators) knows.

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Alan 5 years, 2 months ago

It's interesting to me to review the Black & White Guardian concept right now, because I've been attracted for some time to the idea that one or the other of them is behind the current multi-season story arc with Matt Smith. After defeating Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, more Daleks plus Davros, and finally the Timelords, the only place left to go that is sufficiently cosmic is the Guardians. Also, the whole "Silence Will Fall" things makes me think of the White Guardian desiring a silent universe devoid of activity, and the Doctor having to fight against the White Guardian and in the service of the Black Guardian would make an interesting reversal of the set-up from the classic series, since Eleven is clearly being played as a force for chaos and change rather than order.

In a similar vein, I've also wondered what role, if any, the Guardians might have played in the Time War. Since the main combatants are the Time Lords (who had been portrayed as an ossified force for cosmic conformity) and the Daleks (who want to reduce the universal population to exactly one species), I don't really see a role for the Black Guardian. Indeed, I've thought that perhaps the entire war represented the White Guardian's attempt to figure out the most efficient way to eliminate change -- at the end, both races were working towards the elimination of all other life besides themselves. Viewed this way, it is the Doctor who represents the interest of the Black Guardian (thought most likely unwittingly) as he wipes the board clean before either faction can claim victory.

Which, as I read over all that sounds like fanwanking, but given Moffat's love of classic continuity, I can't believe he's never considered doing something with the Guardians. I mean, they've name-checked the Eternals, what, two or three times now?

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Alan 5 years, 2 months ago

Also, while I love this site, I must say it pains me that I didn't discover it's existence until last week, which means I missed Leela's entire run (except Invasion of Time). Granted, I've read everything back to the first entry, but it doesn't seem worthwhile to comment on posts from several weeks back.

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William Whyte 5 years, 2 months ago

Alan, I dip back every so often to see if new comments have come up (particularly if they're referred back to in comments on more recent entries, hem hem). And you could always affect Phil's thinking in time for the book version. Don't hold back!

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BerserkRL 5 years, 2 months ago


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Henry R. Kujawa 4 years, 10 months ago

Philip Sandifer:
"He is cut off from Ribosian society because of his belief in a world beyond what Ribos sees - a clear parallel to the Doctor's own exile. And, on a basic level, surely all heretics are friends of the Doctor's."

This makes me glad I read the "PageFillers" site, where they have posted several dozen reviews of each story. Almost everyone went on a bit about Binro, but nobody pointed out what you did here. So he does "make sense" being there.

On the other hand, only one person mention Prentiss Hancock, who, apparently, is a much better actor when he's given much less to do!

"THE RIBOS OPERATION" has long been a fave of mine. It was, oddly enough, the very 1st story shown in Philly in "movie" format. As I was in the process of taping the show (at a rate of 11 episodes per tape-- yep, that's how much you could fit at the medium "LP" speed which they no longer build into VCRs) you can imagine my shock when the story just kept right on going past where the cliffhanger should have been but wasn't. Oh my God! Oh my God! I had to slap another tape in to gget the rest of the story, then, wait until they reran it so I could get the entire thing on one tape. Grrrrrrr.

Leela took a long time to grow on me. Romana I liked instantly. I mean, even quicker than Sarah-Jane, though not quite as intensely. Romana's introductory scene, like that of several other companions, is one one her best-ever. It's sas how many times companions get great intros, and then later writers do so little with them the actors wind up wanting to leave-- as Mary Tamm did after only one year. (Gee, just like Liz Shaw.)

Funny how other things can influence your reactions over time. When I watched this again 2 years ago (and I just watched it again tonight), something hit me during Romana's 1st scene that I hadn't seen before-- and it had nothing to do with the show itself. There I was, watching her, so "smart", so well-spoken, that particular way of saying words and sentences... and it hit me. And I yellwed at the TV, "Oh my God! It's HERMOINE GRANGER-- all grown up!"

You know, it's funny how so many actors I've seen on shows like LOST IN SPACE, BATMAN, STAR TREK, DOCTOR WHO, I always remember for their appearances on these show, no matter what else they do, and usually they stand out instantly in anything else they turn up on. And yet, Mary Tamm turned up in a POIROT with David Suchet, and more than once, I had trouble even recognizing her! I guess she's an even better actress than I already took her for, to be able to just "disappear" into a role like that.

"My name is Romanadvoratrelundar." "We're so sorry about that, is there anything we can do?" (It's not only what he says, but the way he says it, to emphasize that he and K-9 are a team and she's an intruder.)

Now if you want a really disturbing blast, check out Iain Cuthbertson's appearance on CAMPION, where he plays a member of the British Secret Service... who isn't on the up-and-up (and before the story is over, tries to MURDER the show's hero).

I do wish they'd found a way to "shoot" the monster so you would have seen less of it...

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Austin Loomis 6 months, 1 week ago

"Ribos is recognizably a medieval planet with obvious parallels to Earth. So not only do the same conflicts play out on different scales, they play out across different iterations of history. Similarly, the conflict between Ribos's gods is seen to simply be the shifting of the planet's very long seasons, and so the conflicts further play out in the realm of man and the realm of nature."

I read this passage in my eBook copy, on a recent drive from Central PA to Central MI, and made the annotation "Ribos = Planetos?"

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