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"Binro was right."
The Ribos Operation
Series: Doctor Who -
TV Stories
Season Number: Season 16
Story Number: 98
Doctor: Fourth Doctor
Companions: K9
Romana I (Introduction)
Enemy: Graff Vynda-K
Setting: Ribos
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: George Spenton-Foster
Broadcast: 2nd September - 23rd September 1978
Format: 4 25-minute Episodes
Previous Story: The Invasion of Time
Following Story: The Pirate Planet

The Ribos Operation was the first story of Season 16 of Doctor Who. It was the first story in the season-long quest to find the legendary Key to Time. It was the first serial to feature Mary Tamm as companion Romana and was also the first to properly feature K-9 Mark II. The White Guardian also makes his debut.



The Doctor is recruited by the White Guardian to seek the six segments of the Key to Time, and given a new assistant, the Time Lady Romana. The quest for the first segment takes them to Ribos, a medieval planet that galactic confidence trickster Garron is trying to sell to the Graff Vynda-K.



Part 1

The Doctor meets the White Guardian.

The Doctor is busy planning a holiday when the TARDIS goes dark and a mysterious voice summons him from outside. The White Guardian asks the Doctor to complete a task for him - to find the six segments of the Key to Time, an immensely powerful cube which maintains the equilibrium of time. The segments are hidden throughout the cosmos, though they can be located using a locator and the help of a new assistant, a Time Lady named Romanadvoratrelundar, whom the Doctor calls Romana. Before the Doctor embarks on the quest, he is warned that there is a Black Guardian who also covets the Key.

The Doctor meets Romana inside the TARDIS. As a new recruit from the Time Lord Academy on Gallifrey, Romana is inexperienced, though believes herself just as capable as the Doctor, who would rather work alone. When inserted into the TARDIS console, the locator reveals a segment to be on Ribos. The Doctor, though incensed that there is now a hole in his console, insterts the locator and sees that the first segment is presently on Cyrrhenis Minima... at least, it is for a moment, before the coordinates change to new ones: Ribos.

Meanwhile, on Ribos, Garron and Unstoffe are atop a parapet of the castle of Shur that houses the planet's crown jewels. As guards in the vault extinguish the lights and secure the room, Unstoffe drops a chunk of drugged meat into the chamber, then lowers a ladder. Unstoffe reluctantly climbs down, stepping off the ladder next to the sleeping shrivenzale. Working quickly but quietly, he cuts a hole in the glass case housing the valuable jewels. But rather than steal anything, he places in a large piece of Jethrik, a precious blue stone and the rarest and most valued mineral in the galaxy..

Garron leaves to meet the Graff Vynda-K, an exiled tyrant. Shortly after they make their introductions and leave, the TARDIS materializes and our two Time Lords emerge. As the Doctor is instructing Romana on the value of always expecting the unexpected, he is unexpectedly caught in a net.

The Graff is impressed by the planet's supposed quantity of jethrik. Garron uses a bug in the Graff's chamber to monitor his conversation with Sholakh, the Graff's aide, but is interrupted by the Doctor and Romana in the passageway. He affects the manner of a watchman to make his escape, calling out "Four o'clock and all's well!" as he walks away. But the Doctor is puzzled by the fact that he does it with a Somerset accent.

The locator points the Doctor and Romana to the chamber containing the Jethrik and the crown jewels of Ribos. As the Doctor tries to open the locks to retrieve the segment, Unstoffe joins one of the guards atop the tower and gives him a drink which conveniently knocks him out. Unstoffe blows the guard's horn, and the guards below lower the door to the shrivenzale's chamber - trapping the Doctor and Romana with the waking beast...

Part 2

Garron negotiates with the Shrieve Captain.

The guards operating the door notice the obstruction and, fearing harming the shrivenzale, lift it again, freeing the Time Lords. The door is soon closed, keeping the shrievenzale at bay. The Doctor and Romana hide when guards enter the room, followed by Garron, who asks for a substantial sum of money to be kept there for protection. The Doctor is concerned he may also be after the segment.

The money will, of course, be the Graff Vynda-K's deposit for his purchase of the planet, which he intends to use as a base to build an army and a battle fleet. The Graff is intrigued when Unstoffe, pretending to be a native of Ribos, concocts a tale about a lost mine containing an excess of jethrik. He sends Sholakh for his money, but then discovers the bug planted in his chamber, and realizes that Garron is trying to con him.

Later, Unstoffe distracts the shrivenzale, recovers their piece of jethrik, and takes the money from the safe. By now, the Doctor has realised that the piece of Jethrik is the segment, and he also tries to take it, but the guards are alerted, prompting him to escape using Unstoffe's route, while Unstoffe bolts through the door with the jethrik. However, an angry Graff, who intends to kill them for deceiving him, intercepts the Doctor, Romana and Garron, and orders their execution on the spot...

Part 3

Unstoffe hides with Binro

Distracted momentarily by the Doctor, and advised by Sholak to remember the money stolen, the Graff instead takes Garron prisoner with his presumed accomplices, the Doctor and Romana. The Graff then confronts the Shrieve Captain to see what is being done, and, noticing the jethrik is gone as well, discovers the "scringestone" tale to be a lie. Sholak, meanwhile, discovers that Garron has an accomplice when his communicator begins beeping. After Sholak leaves, the Doctor uses his dog whistle to summon K-9.

Unstoffe hides with Binro, a homeless outcast who believes that Ribos is a planet orbiting a star, which Unstoffe confirms to be true. The Ribos guards summon a Seeker who locates Unstoffe's hideout, and the guards prepare a pre-dawn raid. The Graff has other plans, and instead orders Sholak to rally his men and go in massacre all the Ribosians, and take the jethrik and leave.

Using the listening device in the Graff's room, Garron warns Unstoffe about the Graff. While the Seeker and the Graff are in the concourse, Binro, thankful for Unstoffe's encouragement, leads him to the labyrinthine Catacombs under the city. K-9 helps the Doctor, Romana, and Garron to escape from the Graff's quarters.

The Graff and his men enter the Catacombs without the Ribos guards, who fear the place as the home of the Ice Gods. Binro and Unstoffe don't fear the Ice gods, knowing they are mythical, but do fear the nest of Shrivenzales they hear in the distance. The Doctor's group is not far behind them, but are forced to hide when the Graff's party comes upon them. Unfortunately, the Doctor gives away their presence when a skull falls to the floor...

Part 4

The Graff turns on the incompetant natives

The noise of the skull also draws the attention of a Shrivenzale, scattering the Graff's men. Reflecting on the difficulty of finding their quarry, Sholak advises the Graff use the Seeker, as her earlier information was accurate.

The Doctor sends the rest of his group on ahead and doubles back to the city. Farther down in the catacombs, Unstoffe and Binro split up, the latter also doubling back to see if he can determine Garron's fate. At the entrance to the catacombs, the impatient Graff kills one of the guardsmen in front of the Shrieve Captain, to convey his displeasure with being made to wait for the Seeker. After witnessing this display of the Graff's ruthlessness from a hiding place, the Doctor returns the Graff's chambers.

Garron steals the Tracer from Romana and heads off to locate the jethrik, and Unstoffe, in that order. The Seeker, meanwhile, forsees the death of the Graff and all of his men, but nonetheless leads them into the catacombs, where they find Binro. They proceed deeper, with the tail of a scarf peeking out from the robe last guard in line.

The Graff corners Unstoffe and Garron; Binro is shot dead and Unstoffe wounded. Garron bluffs the Graff by claiming the Doctor and Romana are interstellar agents who have stumbled across the Graff's crimes, but this only serves to enrage him further. Adding to the chaos, a Shrivenzale draws near. (Unnoticed by all, in all this activity, is one of the Graff's guards, blowing a dog whistle.)

The Ribos guards destroy the entrance to the Catacombs causing the ceiling to collapse on the Graff's men. The collapse traps Unstoffe and Garron, but they are dug out by K-9. With the money and the piece of Jethrik, the Graff recalls the Seeker's prophecy that all but one of his group will die. He gives his last surviving guard an explosive to kill himself with.

The guard, actually the Doctor in disguise, swaps the explosive for the Jethrik. The Graff walks off into the maze yelling like a madman before exploding.

After leaving the Catacombs, Garron and Unstoffe are free to commandeer the Graff's deserted ship. The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 depart in the TARDIS, and the Doctor and Romana reveal the first piece of the Key to Time. The Doctor looks at the first segment and comments, "Only five more to go."




  • The Doctor refers to the recent Sontaran invasion of Gallifrey. Chancellor Borusa has been promoted to President, and it was in this form that the White Guardian appeared to and recruited Romana.
  • This is the first appearance of the White Guardian, the Black Guardian would later appear to attempt to steal away the Key to Time.
  • Romana states that she achieved "a triple first" at the Academy, while the Doctor only got "fifty-one percent on the second attempt."
  • Romana gives her age as 140 and catches the Doctor in lying about his own age. Ironically, she would later lie about her age in City of Death, giving it as only 125.
  • K-9 Mark II makes his first appearance.
  • The Doctor hypnotizes one of the guards.
  • Garron's Jethrik was obtained on Cyrrhenis Minima.
  • After the Doctor blows his dog whistle to call K-9, dogs are heard barking in the background.

Story Notes

  • Working titles for this story include Operation, The Ribos File and The Galactic Conman.
  • The Key to Time prop was created by visual effects designer Dave Havard.
  • New companion Mary Tamm had attended RADA with her predecessor, Louise Jameson.
  • Originally, the shortened form of Romanadvoratrelundar's name was to be "Romy."
  • On the night before the last day of recording The Ribos Operation, Tom Baker was bitten on the left side of his upper lip by a dog belonging to Paul Seed (who played the Graff Vynda-K). Publicity photographs from late April show Baker with a plaster cast on that lip, and the wound had to be concealed with makeup, much to the actor's discomfort. The scar was quite noticeable on screen, and also throughout most of this season and the next.
  • This story includes a rare instance of the Doctor acting directly to kill a human(oid) enemy, when the Doctor does a switch and leaves the murderous Graff holding his own explosive.
  • Elisabeth Sladen, who as Sarah Jane Smith was last seen in The Hand of Fear, was approached to return to the series as a replacement for Leela (who had left in The Invasion of Time). When Sladen declined the offer, the character of Romana was created instead.
  • In retrospect, the frequent references to characters claiming to be from "the north" -- particularly the heavily-accented Garron -- echoes the discussion over the Ninth Doctor's accent in DW: Rose to which he replied "lots of planets have a north!"


  • Episode 1 - 8.3 million viewers
  • Episode 2 - 8.1 million viewers
  • Episode 3 - 7.9 million viewers
  • Episode 4 - 8.2 million viewers

Filming Locations

Myths and rumours

  • The previous story, The Invasion of Time, introduced a female Time Lord named Rodan, played by Hilary Ryan. A rumour/myth related to this serial is that Romana was originally to have been Rodan, but Ryan was unavailable so a new character was created.
  • Conversely, there is a related misconception that this story marks the first appearance of a named female Time Lord (Susan Foreman notwithstanding), and that female Time Lords have long, complex names. The appearance of Rodan in the previous story contradicts both myths (although it's possible Rodan is a shortened form of that name, just like Romana).

Discontinuity, Plot Holes, Errors

  • How can the coordinates of the segment change while the TARDIS is in the vortex (i.e. outside space and time)? Well, it is the Key to Time after all. In any case, if the reading was being taken outside of time all-together, then it would have to read the segment as being at an infinite number of points in time and space throughout its entire existence. To compensate for this, the locator is programmed to lock-on to a given segment relative to a specific timeframe. Once it has done so it will then proceed to track it within that timeframe, so any movements it makes would register even while the TARDIS is in flight.
  • Why do the trained soldiers stop when the Doctor tells them rather than obey the Graff's orders?
  • How can the Doctor walk out of the catacombs after they have been sealed? There is mention of alternate routes out of the catacombs, such as the tunnel the Shrivenzale use for hunting.
  • Exactly how Romana not only ended up in the TARDIS but inserted the tracer recepticle into the control console so quickly is not explained. Both of these events could have been the White Guardian's doing.


  • This story marks the beginning of the quest for the Key to Time, with all stories in Season 16 being linked around this theme. This was the first time a story arc encompassed an entire season.
  • The Black Guardian appears in DW: The Armageddon Factor.
  • The White Guardian next appears in DW: Enlightenment.
  • The original credits list the White Guardian as simply "The Guardian." This may be a hint at a suspicion the Doctor voices at the climax of The Armageddon Factor, that he and Romana have all along been working for the Black Guardian disguised as his more benevolent counterpart.
  • From this story until DW: The Horns of Nimon The Doctor will wear an extra long scarf, which is the original scarf and the stunt scarf sewn together.

DVD, Video and Other Releases

DVD Releases

  • Also released with same stories as Doctor Who: The Key to Time, an extras-laden box set limited to 15,000 in its initial UK release on 24th September 2007, later followed by wide release in Region 1 on 3rd March 2009 as The Key to Time - Special Edition.

Extras (2007/2009 version):

  • Commentary by Tom Baker and Mary Tamm (carried over from the 2002 set).
  • A Matter of Time - Documentary on the Graham Williams era as producer of Doctor Who, including the history of the Key to Time story arc and Douglas Adams' beginning with the series. Interviewees include Tom Baker, Mary Tamm, Louise Jameson, Lalla Ward, John Leeson, Douglas Adams (archival interview) and Gareth Roberts.
  • The Ribos File - featurette on the production of the first serial, featuring interviews with Nigel Plaskitt, Paul Seed and Prentis Hancock.
  • Season 16 trailer - The original BBC1 trailer for the sixteenth season of Doctor Who.
  • Continuities - Off-air continuity links from the story's original transmissions.
  • Radio Times Billings - Listings from Radio Times (DVD-ROM PC/Mac).
  • Coming Soon Trailer - Planet of Evil. (2007 UK release only)
  • Photo Gallery
  • Production Subtitles


Video Release


See also

to be added

External Links

  • BBC Episode Guide for The Ribos Operation, with video clips
  • Doctor Who Reference Guide: Detailed Synopsis - The Ribos Operation
  • A Brief History of Time (Travel): The Ribos Operation
Season 16
The Ribos Operation  • The Pirate Planet  • The Stones of Blood  • The Androids of Tara  • The Power of Kroll  • The Armageddon Factor

This article uses material from the "The Ribos Operation" article on the Dr Who wiki at Wikia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.


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