This is a rejigged new version of something originally posted at the old site. I’ve snipped a few irrelevancies and amplified some conclusions. Oh, and it’s dedicated to Iain Cuthbertson and Timothy Bateson, both of whom died last year.
‘The Ribos Operation’ seems, at first glance, to present the cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, spiralling downwards from a meeting with a quasi-God in a surreal conceptual landscape, downwards into a story about the vast conquest plans of an interplanetary warlord, further downwards into a heist caper about two semi-comic con-men, and then further downwards into a short meeting between and old man and a young man in a little flea-ridden hovel… yet it’s in the hovel that we find the real message of the story. But is Binro right?
Well, he’s right about the stars being suns circled by inhabited worlds (just like his somewhat-more mystical and flamboyant progenitor Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake by the Church for, effectively, founding science-fiction… fair enough, some would say). But, in the wider sense, isn’t the story’s most moving and thematically vital scene compromised by what goes on around it? After all, it turns out that the universe is caught in the battle between light and dark “gods”, and shaking bones about and chanting is a valid path to knowledge!
My feeling is that, ultimately, this story’s real gist is a little more complex and contingent than it seems. I’m not convinced that it’s really about oppositions between good and bad, or even science and superstition… but we’re going to have to work around this a bit.
For a story which sets up and begins a quest narrative about the conflict between two godlike entities called the White Guardian and the Black Guardian, ‘The Ribos Operation’ is surprisingly ambiguous in its treatment of morality. The White Guardian here is certainly no lovable Mr Nice Guy. On the contrary, he’s a sinister old bourgeois bully, twisting the Doctor’s arm into helping him for reasons that are (by anything he actually says) self-serving. If he’s God (and the opening scene cheekily teases us into momentarily thinking he might be) then he’s no kindly deity, but rather the Old Testament Yahweh in one of his quiet and scary moods.
(It’s interesting to note that, on the few occasions when the classic series had the Doctor meeting gods, they were usually played by plummy thesps and did an awful lot of sitting around in chairs being coldly inscrutable. Really, the “gods” in the classic series really do an astonishing amount of sitting, i.e. Sutekh, the Gods of Ragnarok, etc. By contrast, the only “god” to have appeared in the new series takes the form of a big, snarling Heavy Metal album cover. Now, the Beast may represent fine CGI, but, if you ask me, it possesses considerably less dramatic power than Cyril Luckham sipping creme de menthe.)
But, anyway… like the old geezer in the chair, Garron and Unstoffe are also hard to pin down morally.…