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. They’re crooks who happily talk about mugging people, yet they seem to lack cruelty. Like Vorg in ‘Carnival of Monsters’, Garron can be seen as an entrepreneur, an embodiment of the cuddlier aspects of free trade and enterprise, bringing some colour to the lives of the poor souls who don’t get to enjoy the benefits of the market… but he’s also a criminal, a con-man. There’s no doubt about that. But his saving grace is that he is not powerful himself, but preys upon the powerful. Poor rubes like the Ribans have little to fear from him. He’s the kind of capitalist who bilks big investors in a shady shares deal and then buggers off to the Bahamas. As such, he’s likeable. The Doctor certainly likes him (but then, he should – they’re very alike) and finds his anecdotes about past jobs laugh-out-loud amusing. Garron is another of Bob Holmes’ quasi-Falstaffs: a charismatic and adorably transparent fake, loquacious, cowardly but not weasley, hedonistic and debauched (though, unlike Falstaff, not in the sexual sense: charmingly, Garron takes care to avoid touching Romana’s boobs when he gets the chance).
These Holmes reimaginings of Shakespeare’s fat knight can go either way (c.f. Jago and Shockeye) but Garron is also one of Holmes’ quasi-Doctors, those characters of his that reflect the Doctor. In Garron, we see aspects of Our Hero. In his way, the Doctor can be seen as an expression of bourgeois libertarian individualism… though he’s too scrupulous for that role really. But he and Garron are both opt-outs, independants and chancers, in it for the thrills and the laughs. The Doctor coolly admits to being “terrified” even as he’s clearly enjoying himself. Garron is less into actual danger but evidently finds the con game, with all the attendant risk, highly amusing. Why pick on someone like Vynda-K if not from a desire to live dangerously? Garron could sell the jethryk and retire so why doesn’t he think it’s “worth all that much”? Because it’s not really money he wants. The jethryk is a means to an end. It allows him to work his big, audacious cons; it allows him to make fools of people he holds in contempt (like the Graff). If he sold it he’d get the money, but then what? Make Garron rich and you’d bore him to death. Similarly, the Doctor couldn’t cope with the easy life. He had it and he rejected it, much to Romana’s bemusement. The Doctor likes to be where the action is, or even to make the action. The White Guardian knows exactly how to threaten him: “Nothing at all. Ever.” is as good as a death sentence to the Doctor. Like the Doctor, Garron ran away from a home to which he can’t go back. Like the Doctor, in his way, he’s on a moral mission. And he has an inbuilt sense of justice – maybe not right and wrong, but justice. “All I do is take a bit from those who have too much and then I spread it around a bit. I help to keep the economy in balance!” Well, the story started with a warning about how concentrations of “forces” can lead to chaos. Garron, despite his criminality, is an agent of the balance that the Key supposedly represents. He just balances out the money. He really is the “innocent crook” of the Doctor’s description. In a way, the Doctor’s an innocent crook in this story too – trying to steal the jethryk not for its monetary value, but only because it’s the key to his further adventures. Just like Garron. In fact, even the Graff only wants the jethryk because it’s the key to his future adventures! I suppose it all comes down to what kind of adventures you have in mind.
And maybe Romana isn’t far wrong when she pronounces that Garron is labouring under a “deep seated sense of rejection” – the remark might be useless, but it isn’t necessarily wrong. Is Garron taking a kind of humourous revenge on a world he finds ridiculous and mean? Is he a poor boy who likes seeing the rich with egg on their faces? He wouldn’t be the first. He might not have Unstoffe’s righteous rage at the murder of Binro, but he certainly enjoys making the Graff squirm with his last-minute flim-flam about security agents. That’s the real Garron, I think: grinning as he mocks the Graff with what he thinks are going to be his last words, ridiculing the tyrant’s pretentions and pointing out that he’s just a crook like the rest of them.
The Graff himself is a less ambiguous character… though he’s not quite just the “big bad soldier” that he at first appears. He’s tough enough to wander around in caves for a year if he gets to kill with the lads, yet he whinges feebly about the cold. He genuinely loves his thuggish old general Sholahk, though his real distress at Sholahk’s death immediately transmutes into vengeful rage – a hallmark trait of the desperately immature. In fact, Sholahk appears to be the nearest thing the Graff has to family. Sholahk clearly loves and indulges his boy, too much probably. With Vynda-K you get the sense of a big kid in an adult’s body. He sulks, he throws tantrums, he has to be soothed and appeased like a baby. He’s a spoilt child, deprived of affection but overindulged. You get the sense of a fractured family from the mentions of his usurping “half-brother”. He’s none too canny either. He was silly enough to let his half-brother steal his throne while he was off killing people. And he’s completely fooled by Garron and Unstoffe (scringestone and all) until he accidentally finds Garron’s bug.
Even Binro has his shadowy ambiguities. He’s still alive, albeit with ruined hands. Why wasn’t he burned (or whatever)? Well, maybe – like Galileo – he did the pragmatic thing and recanted… not that I’d blame him.
What makes these people interesting is the fact that they’re all trapped between two different worlds and/or ways of living. The Graff doesn’t know if he’s a Prince anymore or not. Romana is fully qualified and well educated but next to useless in a world she’s never experienced before. Her scholarly diagnoses of everything she encounters are no good when she’s up against something with blood-splattered fangs. Meanwhile, Garron doesn’t know if he’s Ronnie Biggs or Robin Hood.
(Robin Hood seems to have been on Holmes’ mind when he wrote this. Apart from Garron’s idealised self-portrait of himself as a rebel wealth-redistributor, there’s also the fact that “Binro” is an anagram and that the Graff is displaced by a treacherous brother while away on crusade, which is very reminiscent of King John’s antics while Richard the Lionheart – or Richard the Warmongering Bastard as he probably should be known – was off splashing around in the entrails of Arabs. The Robin Hood myth is itself a product of a time of transition, a fable for people caught between forest and town, between increasingly centralised Norman power and the old Saxon ways, between the rock of law and the hard place of poverty.)
As usual in a Robert Holmes script, the story is powered by misunderstandings and, on the deeper level, by failures to understand oneself. This isn’t Garron’s last job, nor is Unstoffe leaving him. The Graff’s plans for conquering back his throne are as illusory as Garron’s business proposal, or Romana’s idea that she’s on a mission for her Supreme Council and can re-educate the Doctor by humouring him.
One hopes that Binro’s newfound hope of vindication isn’t illusory, but it may be; progress isn’t a concept that this story leaves unchallenged. Binro is certainly caught between two worlds, just like all the people of Ribos. Ribos is an entire world stuck between two phases. It’s not just at the mercy of extremely dualistic weather; it has arrived at the historical crossroads that divides the medieval from the modern. Ribos, one senses, is just a few Binros short of a Renaissance. It’s still superstitious, but inching towards enlightenment.
In this story, we see the mingling of the sacred and the profane. This is something that the people of the Renaissance felt deeply, as they struggled through the Reformation, as the rise of Humanism began to reflect the progressive ideas of newly forming economic classes. The Riban relicary (“a holy place” says the Captain) is actually a treasure vault, full of jewelled trinkets, guarded against obviously less-then-pious locals by coppers and their pet monster, available as a temporary safe deposit box to travelling merchants (once a gratuity has gone to the head Shrieve). In one of the story’s most telling details, the Graff pauses in the middle of haggling over money with Garron to notice that, outside the room, monks have started chanting matins. Even the Seeker goes all businesslike once her first Unstoffe-finding session comes to an end; you get a sense that this is one police psychic who charges overtime.
There are two worlds on Ribos, existing at once: the feudal world of shrines and devotion versus the new world of opeks and merchants and proto-banks and cannons (i.e. conglomerates and weapons tech… the Graff’s world). The Greater Cyrhennic Alliance from which the offworlders hail seems to be just Ribos a few centuries on. The strangers use the same currency and wear the same kinds of clothes as the locals. You get the sense of one culture at different points: before technology and afterwards. Ribos is at the cusp of history and the Graff Vynda-K is its future, if they’re not careful… because what’s the Graff but the sort of person who crushes a dissident’s hands, only armed with lasers and spaceships?
‘The Ribos Operation’, even as it champions the idea of progress through science and knowledge, interrogates the idea by showing primitive Ribos offset against a high-tech future that seems, socially and morally, to have progressed not a jot. If the Ribans embrace empirical thinking, and it simply leads them into their own version of the Graff’s culture, what chance has Binro of being reverently remembered? The Levithians call the Ribans “primitive”, but are they any better? Or just better equipped? Is that the only difference between “Grade 1” and “Grade 2 status”? Say the Ribans one day figure out how to get the energy out of the jethryk… maybe they’ll just fuel ships of conquest, like the Graff plans to do. The Levithians, for all their advancement, are still ridden by class and hierarchy. Their world has planet-sellers and galaxy-spanning capitalist industries. This is the world that the Ribans are just starting to develop, writ large and entrenched. The Levithians still have princes and thrones, but then so do we. Societies don’t develop in linear and simultaneous ways; indeed, it is the contradictions within and between them that drives history. The key to understanding why all that progress and science and reason (embodied by Binro) doesn’t automatically translate into an enlightened society for the Levithians is to be found in the concentration of power and wealth and technology into private hands, that have harnessed minds like Binro’s to developing fuel and weapons and industries.
Where does this all come from? Well, I think it has less to do with historical materialism or Trotsky’s theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ than Bob Holmes’ knowledge of Shakespeare. This story seems obsessed with people caught between different worlds… and that’s probably because a lot of it (at least in terms of story and motif rather than language) is ransacked from Shakespeare. Shakespeare provided Holmes with the literary DNA for this story, just as ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ gets its genes from Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Sax Rohmer, etc. Of course, that doesn’t make it necessary for Holmes to craft ‘Ribos’ as highbrow art (if it had, he wouldn’t have done it). On the contrary, much of Shakespeare’s output was, like Doctor Who, not at all “caviar to the general”. Shakespeare was a man who liked money and crafted most of his plays in the hope that they would do good box office. The occasional play may have been specifically created to impress elite audiences with his cleverness and erudition (like Love’s Labours Lost, which would almost certainly not have played at the Globe to thunderous applause from huge crowds of groundlings, as depicted in ‘The Shakespeare Code’) but, for the most part, Shakespeare was as concerned with bums on seats as any producer of Doctor Who. Falstaff – who, as I’ve said, bequeathed a little something of himself to Garron – was a big audience draw. The need to put on exciting adventures in thrilling historical periods and exotic foreign lands (adventures in Time and Space, you could say) explains why so many of Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the earlier Histories) concern things like excitingly devious warlords who usurp or get usurped, who challenge each other to duels by chucking gloves about, who bellow insults and taunts at their enemies, who go on killing rampages for political power. Sound familiar?
Yep, the Graff not only resembles such early-Shakespearean villains as the Duke of York and his son Richard (of the Henry VI plays and Richard III) but he also resembles the war-hungry Hotspur from Henry IV Part 1 and Prospero, the former Duke of Milan from The Tempest who is displaced and banished by his scheming brother (and who plots his revenge using the resources he finds on a remote island populated by a man he treats cruelly and calls a savage). In fact, he also resembles Macbeth in taking the prophecy of a witch and then making it come true by following it as though it’s his inescapable destiny. Most of all, perhaps, he reminds me of Coriolanus, who is a bloodthirsty Roman warmonger and a scornful snob, rejected by Rome for his overweening pride only to join forces with Rome’s enemies and return planning to destroy his home city. Coriolanus is a child-man, just like the Graff. A spoiled brat with homicidal tendencies. He likes nothing more than wading in blood but loses his rag if you call him “boy”.
At times, ‘Ribos’ lapses into what is almost Shakespeare pastiche… I’m thinking particularly of the “Freytus labyrinth” scene, in which the Graff and Sholahk start inverting clauses at each other and Sholahk comes close to launching into a soliloquy about their former campaign. Paul Seed catches what the script is up to and delivers a deliberately hammy, bombastic, full-throttle RSC performance to go with the quasi-Shakespearean character he’s been given. Watching him, at times, you almost think you’ve tuned into the BBC Shakespeare by mistake. In the early 80s, the BBC did Shakespeare’s first tetralogy for TV, starring Cully, Irongron, Cassandra, Major Daley from ‘Carnival of Monsters’, Bor from ‘Terminus’, Mr Magpie from ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, Zaphod from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Victor Meldrew’s wife (amongst others). The result was the jewel of the BBC Shakespeare series, a high-octane blast of fustian bombast, arcane politics, unrestrained violence and epic squabbling in a tiny, abstract studio set. Paul Seed’s performance in ‘Ribos’ (minus a little of the more deliberate mucking about) would have fit right in between Julia Foster’s venomous Queen Margaret and Bernard Hill’s seething York.
But I digress outrageously.
The thing that ‘Ribos’ most owes to Shakespeare is its depiction of a society caught between two overlapping and conflicting historical moments, and of how people get caught in the middle and are thus, sometimes, ground up like mincemeat. Shakespearean tragedy has less to do with “tragic flaws” of character (whatever our teachers said) and more to do with people caught inside social contradictions. In all his great tragedies, the story is the same. Hamlet is a modern, educated youth who is caught between a Humanistic version of the future and the old feudal order, built on blood vengeance and rigid hierarchies. His tragedy is that he can’t be true to himself and obey his father’s ghost, no matter how much he might want to. Similarly, Macbeth is caught between a different version of the same contradictions – loyalty to the old order that keeps him in his place, or advancement by the ruthless pursuit of self-interest. Lear dismantles his kingdom and sets up a new order based on competition, yet he can’t compete! Othello owes his promotion to the forward-looking commercial city of Venice, yet he cannot shake off his awareness of himself as an outsider or the resentments of the bigots… nor can his romantic nature fully handle the Venetian conception of marriage as a property relationship. Coriolanus cannot be both the imperious aristocratic bullyboy and the tactful politician, yet Rome demands both of him. Shakespeare reflected the anxieties of his age, a time when feudalism was in the process of being replaced by what would become capitalism. People, at that time, were caught between the old order (the rigid feudal class system, agrarianism, the power of the Church, etc.) and the rising new order (trade, industry, technology, social and economic mobility, innovations in religion). Well, as we’ve seen, exactly the same sort of thing is happening in ‘The Ribos Operation’.
Ribos is caught between an old pattern of authoritarian religiosity and the new possibilities (good and bad) opened up by empirical thinking, weapons, trade and money. Binro is caught in the teeth of this trap; neither free to think nor able to content himself with stories of battling gods. Strangely, the Graff is caught in the same kind of trap. He’s a tyrant without people to rule. He’s trying to regain his glory days, unable to understand that the world has changed forever and left him behind. The Alliance doesn’t need him anymore; presumably their period of feudal squabbling has ended and they’re becoming a mercantile culture, complete with mining conglomerates. His own people don’t want him back. The Graff and Binro are shadowy reflections of each other, walking onto the same flypaper but from different directions: Binro was trying to go forward, the Graff was trying to go backwards. And so, inevitably, they bump into each other. The Doctor’s not even there, but this is still one of the key moments of the story. Even at this moment, when trying to lie his way out of trouble, Binro instinctively comes up with a cover story that betrays his empirical habits of thought: he says he’s “looking for fossils”. Well, he’s found one… it’s called the Graff Vynda-K.
Binro then says that he sells the fossils, showing the way the rise of the new world of markets and money and commodities is inextricably linked to his empiricism.
But what about the apparent contradiction between Binro’s empirical insights and the story’s presentation of the apparently supernatural? Well, supernatural elements occur in many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Even Julius Caesar – sometimes described as a spare and austere tragedy – is full of ghosts, prophets, portentous dreams and weird visions. You have to understand these things as symptoms of the conflict between the old world and the new. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is less an actual ghost than he is a personification of the dying age. Hamlet (deceased) speaks of the tormenting fires he was sent to because he was murdered while unconfessed (as in Catholicism, which was the “old” faith in Elizabeth’s Protestant England) and commands his son to instantly exact bloody revenge in accordance with the old honour code. The Seeker and the Guardians in ‘Ribos’ can be understood in a similar way.
The Seeker seems to embody the old order on Ribos. She rattles bones while chanting about ancestors, she leads the story down into the Catacombs, the “home of the long dead and of the Ice Gods”. Her persona unites the past generations, the old religion and the forces of Riban authority. She brings the brutal officers of both the Shrievalty and the Graff down after Binro and Unstoffe. And this is key: she unites the forces of Ribos and Levithia in a search for two hunted men. When Vynda-K and Sholahk begin to despair of finding their prey in the catacombs, they decide to employ the Seeker as a hunting dog for them. They’re the ones from the world of technology, allying themselves with the world of witchery… and the link is in the brutality of oppression.
The Graff might be every inch the modern imperialist, sneering at the Ribans as “primitives” and “natives”, but he fits right in with their witch hunt. As already noted, he’s just them a few thousand years hence. He might loathe the Ribans and plan to slaughter them, but in so doing he just makes himself look more at home in their medieval world, strewn with bones and patrolled by monsters. At this level of the story, the Graff seems to fuse with the bones and the ghosts and the Seeker and the monsters and the forces that persecuted Binro. The morbidity of supernaturalism, the squalor of ignorance and the crazed imperialism of the Graff melt into each other. How fitting that he should die because – like some Islamist terrorist – he has tried to send one of his followers out to be a suicide bomber. Of course, he also resembles the neo-con warmongers whose cynicism and irrational faiths (in extremist free market economics, for instance) mirror and trump their Islamist enemies/counterparts in their levels of destructiveness.
This is why we can’t just say that Binro’s materialist and empiricist conclusions are an end in themselves. Dawkins and Hitchens and so on might see science as a potential guaranteur of humane, tolerant, liberal, modernity which ranges itself against the backward, regressive, medieval violence of religion… and there’s a grain of truth in that… but not when it is allied to the kind of culturalist ‘clash of civilisations’ hogwash beloved of Hitchens and Sam Harris. The thing that produces both Islamist terrorism and Western imperialism is the system of class, hierarchy and unaccountable power that also produced the Enlightenment and the scientific and technological revolution. We need more than just science and reason, however Baconian they may be.
Binro is no political philosopher, but he understands the need to protect a hunted man from guards. His insights are superb, but so is his humanity and his resistance to power… even the power that comes stomping in from the scientific, technological future. That’s what makes him right.