Timestamp #98: The Ribos Operation

Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation
The Key to Time, Part I
(4 episodes, s16e01-e04, 1978)



Our Odd Couple meets an intergalactic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sorta kinda.

The Doctor is training K9 to respond to a dog whistle, and then promises him a holiday. It is not meant to be as the TARDIS loses power and materializes in a bright white light. The doors open and the Doctor is summoned by the White Guardian, a being that the Doctor appears to deeply respect. The White Guardian tasks the Time Lord with locating and assembling the Key to Time, a powerful cube that controls the equilibrium of time. A Black Guardian, the counter to the White Guardian, is also seeking the Key. The Doctor is given a locator to find the pieces, as well as an assistant in the Time Lady Romanadvoratrelundar. For simplicity, let’s call her Romana. Or Fred. Nah, Romana is better.

Romana, a new graduate the Time Lord Academy, gives the Doctor the core to the Key. The core acts as a homing beacon for the pieces of the Key, and it takes them Cyrrenhis Minima, and then immediately to Ribos. Coincidentally, on Ribos, two men are sneaking onto a castle’s parapet. In the room below, the guards extinguish the lights and secure the treasure room. One of the shady figures, Unstoffe, slips the guard dragon a Mickey, drop into the room, and set to work. Instead of stealing anything, he leaves a large blue stone in the display case. Meanwhile, Garron, the other rogue, meets up with the Graff Vynda-K, and exiled tyrant.

The Doctor and Romana arrive on Ribos, and as he is warning her to expect the unexpected, he gets trapped in an unexpected snare.

The Graff is astounded by the supply of jethrik, a very valuable mineral, on the planet. Garron eavesdrops on the conversation, but is interrupted by the Time Lords. Garron escapes, and the duo continue on to the treasure room. They trace Key fragment to the Crown Jewels, but Unstoffe drugs the guard and sounds the alarm, causing the rest of the guards to converge and lower the door to the waking dragon as part of their morning ritual. The Time Lords hide as the guards enter and open the room. Garron follows, petitioning the guards to store a large sum of money for him in the vault. The Doctor presumes that the rogue is also after the Key segment.

The money is intended as a deposit by the Graff for the purchase of the planet, which Vynda-K intends to use as a base for an army and navy. Together, Garron and Unstoffe weave a con about a lost mine of jethrik, which intrigues the Graff. The Doctor and Romana investigate the jethrik that Unstoffe smuggled into the vault, and they deduce that it is the Key fragment. Meanwhile, the Graff finds a bug in his chambers and determines that Garron is trying to swindle him. If true, the Graff intends to kill the conman.

The Doctor unravels the con and sneaks into the vault from below as Unstoffe sneaks in from above, both targeting the jethrik. Unstoffe is one step ahead, however, and gives the Time Lord the slip. The Doctor escapes through the dragon’s den and attempts to run with Romana and Garron, but is intercepted by the Graff. He takes them into custody as he attempts to recover his money and discovers that the story of the lost mine was part of the con. From the cell, the Doctor signals K9 with the dog whistle.

The Ribos guards use the Seeker, a local religious shaman who uncovers Unstoffe’s hideout. The guards prepare a raid, but the Graff plots to kill the guards and take the stone for himself. Unstoffe takes refuge with an outcast named Binro, a heretic who eschews the mythology of two battling titans for a more scientific explanation of the seasons, which the rogue validates.

The captives use the listening device in Graff’s quarters to warn Unstoffe of the pending raid, and Binro offers refuge in the city’s catacombs. Meanwhile, K9 frees the captives, and they follow the Key’s core to the catacombs and the jethrik. The trifecta is completed when the Seeker sends the guards to the labyrinths (home of the ice gods) in pursuit of Unstoffe.

Convenient plot point: The catacombs also house wild shrivenzales, just like the one that guards the vault. As the Graff and the guards search for everyone, the Doctor inadvertently gives away their position by knocking loose a skull. The creatures come to the rescue, scattering the guards, and the Graff resolves to use the Seeker’s talents to find the fugitives.

Outside the catacombs, the Graff waits impatiently for the Seeker, killing a guard to prove his might. The Seeker reveals that if the Graff’s platoon enters the catacombs, all but one of them will die. They proceed regardless.

Binro offers to help find Garron for Unstoffe, but the rogue finds Unstoffe on his own with help from the recently stolen Key core.  Binro, on the other hand, is apprehended by the Graff. The Seeker leads the Graff to the rouges, but Binro sacrifices himself for them. Unstoffe is wounded as he charges the Graff, and Garron tries to bluff his way out. As the Doctor, disguised as a guard, signals for K9, a shrivenzale attacks. Romana and K9 follow the sounds of combat, and the guards outside the catacombs seal the labyrinth with cannon fire. In the resulting cave-in, Sholak is crushed and the Graff vows revenge.

Romana and K9 free Garron and Unstoffe. Elsewhere, the Graff kills the Seeker before turning on the disguised Doctor, determined to be the last one standing as the Seeker’s prophecy comes to pass. He hands the Doctor a timed explosive and leaves, but not before the Doctor exchanges it for the jethrik. The Graff is killed in the explosion.

The Doctor and Romana head for the TARDIS, avoiding an attempt by the rogues to pick the Doctor’s pocket, and leaving them to commandeer the former Graff’s ship. The Time Lords depart with only five segments remaining in their quest.

I really liked the dynamic between the two pairs. Garron and Unstoffe are evidently very close friends and colleagues, and the contrast between them and the Time Lord team helped drive the character drama. Placing the Doctor and Romana into an Odd Couple dynamic – newcomer Romana takes the role of Felix while the Doctor and his increasingly ratty scarf is our Oscar – added some humor to this already madcap con artist story. Even more interesting is how the reluctant mentor is evoking some of the grumpiness from regenerations past.

I settled at a 3.5, and I round up.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.




7 thoughts on “Timestamp #98: The Ribos Operation

  1. I would have liked more thoughts from you on Romana. I see that you liken them to the Odd Couple, but what did you think of the new addition? I personally like having a companion who’s the Doctor’s equal in many ways as it keeps him on his toes.

    One of the things that I find interesting about your posts is that you don’t hold the Robert Holmes stories on the high pinnacle that the rest of fandom does. That fascinates me even more because I usually feel that the new series mostly pulls from the later Tom Baker era, when the series became far more whimsical for most of its inspiration. From your ratings last season and the start of this season it seems like you’re not liking that direction in the classic series.

    I can’t wait to see what you think of Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet coming up next. If there was every a writer given to whimsy…

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