Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation

Doctor Who- The Key to Time Part One

Story 098
2-23 September, 1978

Summoned by the White Guardian, a mythical figure of Time Lord lore, The Doctor is given a task to assemble the Key to Time. A device capable of stopping all of time everywhere simultaneously, the Key is also being sought out by the Black Guardian, the White Guardian’s polar opposite. His first case involves a rock, a deadly monster, a pair of con men and an exiled Prince with plans for conquest. With K-9 and his new assistant Romana, the Doctor must out-fox a crafty con job where an entire planet is offered up for sale while avoiding getting himself killed by the enraged Graff Vynda-K.

Four years into his seven year stint as the Doctor, Tom Baker was a bit full of himself. That’s not a judgement solely of my own, but from the actor himself as well. He re-wrote scenes on the fly, directed other actors and even choreographed whole scenes while the rest of the production crew looked on, some bristling with frustration and others begrudgingly accepting that Doctor Who had become Tom Baker’s show.

A national institution of 16 years, Doctor Who had seen many producers, its most recent being regarded as one of the best, Philip Hinchcliffe. Blending sci-epic, period drama, suspense and Gothic horror, Hinchcliffe’s reign on Doctor Who is still seen as definitive by some. Under Graham Williams, Doctor Who became lighter, more fanciful and rarely took itself seriously. Tom Baker’s ego swelled to massive proportions as he waltzed around dangerous ray-gun wielding guards armed with only a jelly baby, talked down to monsters as absurd creatures and was basically an unbeatable fairy tale hero. In short, this was not at all similar to the Hinchcliffe era where the danger was real and the Doctor was very vulnerable to violence. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Doctor Who thrives on change, but never had an actor played the role for as long as Baker had and the program has never gone through so many changes as it did from 1974-1981.

While I personally prefer the darker Hincliffe era, I can appreciate some of Williams’ work, citing Key to Time as his finest outing. When I was a first-time fan I despised the Williams-era Doctor Who and was attracted to the more serious and darker stories, but when I got re-invested in the program, I found myself purchasing these stories on DVD as I had never really given them a fair chance. I’m glad that I did because there are some real corkers in here.

Cited as overly violent and far too horrific for children, Doctor Who was forced to lighten its mood after Hinchcliffe’s departure. Even so, it was not until William’s second year as producer that you can really see this change set in (many of series 15’s stories still feel a lot like the Hinchcliffe era).

An entire series devoted to an over-arching story is a concept that could be tied back to Keys of Marinus which is like a miniature Key to Time story in which the Doctor and his companions embark on a quest in six parts. It was attempted again in the Trial of a Timelord and is currently a device used in each series of the new Doctor Who. Even so, it’s a risky thing. If the connecting idea is to precise, you run the risk of alienating viewers who haven’t watched every week, but if it’s too weak the series fails to hold together as one story. Key to Time is a very mixed result. In places it works, but in others the concept shows as being very flimsy and tired (such as the finale Armageddon Factor). However, during the Key to Time storyline, Doctor Who functioned like a children’s adventure serial. Lighter in its approach and incredibly diverse in setting and character, it was a wild year.

I’m going to attempt to review all six stories which is quite an under-taking. I won’t be reviewing them one after the other and in fact will likely review many more Doctor Who stories in between, but this is the start.

Cyril Luckham as the White Guardian

The opening tale is written by fan favorite Robert Holmes (Terror of the Autons, Time Warrior, Ark in Space, The Brain of Morbius, Deadly Assassin) and plays out like farce with strong fantasy elements. Terribly witty dialog, overblown absurd characters and a main plot involving a planet-sized confidence trick, this is actually a great story and perhaps one of Holmes’ finest scripts in my opinion (and I really really like his work).

The opening sequence sees the Doctor in a kind of limbo where he is approached by a kind of cosmic being called the White Guardian. The White Guardian explains that there is a device that could be used in desperate situations to stop all time. Separated into six segments, they key is protected but could be assembled if someone knew of the segments’ locations. The Doctor is sent on a quest to assemble the key before the White Guardian’s opponent, the Black Guardian, can find the pieces. Even though the Doctor insists on operating with just K-9 as an assistant, he is charged with a new companion, the strikingly beautiful Time Lady, Romana. The two get on like oil and water, Romana being book-smart and the Doctor petulantly insisting on taking things as they come. The result is a series of mishaps that leads the pair into several dangers that they narrowly escape, something the Doctor takes for granted but Romana views as a death wish.

It’s a great mix.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Mary Tamm)

As Romana, Mary Tamm has a definite regal quality. Dressed all in white and painfully attractive she is just as strikingly gorgeous as Tom Baker is giddily amusing. A no-nonsense, straight-forward character, Romana has all of the fictional knowledge of a Time Lord and refuses to put up with any of the Doctor’s tom-foolery. However, the program is built around the logic of the Doctor and is far too silly to be approached from a linear logical stand-point, forcing her to eventually concede to his point of view (perhaps that’s why her regenerated form is so much like a female version of the Doctor?).

Fans are largely split on their view of the Key to Time as it is much lighter in tone than the previous two series and rarely takes itself seriously. One could view it as a pantomime of Doctor Who or as silly nonsense. That could be true, but when it works it is also great fun and Ribos Operation is a prime example of this.

The central piece of the Ribos Operation is a rock being used by a pair of tricksters Garron and Unstoffe who are operating a confidence job on a galactic scale, using it as bait to sell a primitive planet that they do not own. The two con men, the larger than life and lovable Garron and the young innocent Unstoffe are standard examples of Holmes’ double-act in which two characters play off of each other, their dialog climbing all over the place like a pair of squirrels fighting over the same nut. It’s just marvelous to watch.

Garron and Unstoffe are unwisely attempting to con the Graff Vynda-K into buying a planet that they do not own. The Graff is an exiled ruler, ousted by his own people while at war. Roaming the galaxy with his battle-weary troops, he seizes an opportunity at revenge when he finds that the planet that Garron has for sale is rich in a rare mineral called jethric. Garron has placed a massive piece of the mineral in the plain site as a local jewel… which also happens to be a segment to the key to time in disguise. With the jethric, the Graff could raise an army to take back his planet by force… and more. But the Doctor has other plans.

The Graff soon rumbles that he has been had, but he has seen the jethric and knows that it is real. Played by the classy Paul Seed, the Graff Vynda-K is a real piece of work. His eyes blaze with a genuine madness that has such threat to it that you fear what he may do if he managed to seize any real power on his own. Luckily, the jethric mine, like the deed of sale on the planet, is fake. Unluckily, the Graff is desperate and mad with power-lust. Sure that there is a wealth of the stuff somewhere on the planet, he seizes both Garron and the Doctor, who seems to know more than he lets on. Separated from Unstoffe, Garron gets to play off of the Doctor who is taken by the man’s charm while Unstoffe happens to meet a public pariah Binro the Heretic, a man who was stones out of society for claiming that there was life on other worlds. Played by veteran actor of stage and screen Iain Cuthbertson, Garron is a swarthy delight, just the kind of cartoon character that the Doctor could take seriously. Alternately, Unstoffe really is a good lad under it all and the moment where he tells Binro that he is in fact correct, there is life on other worlds, is truly touching.

The Ribos Operation is not everyone’s cup of tea and I can understand why. Tom Baker is clearly out of control and delivers a very uneven performance, the situations are contrived and silly and the quest is for what may as well be a magic wand. It’s all kid’s stuff and for a program that has screened such gripping drama as Pyramids of Mars and The Talons of Weng-Chiang, that can come as a disappointment. But this era of the program is a different take on the concept of Doctor Who, demanding that the audience allow it to be silly and more fanciful. If you can accept that, it’s a very fun adventure.

Doctor Who: The Key to Time (Special Collector’s Edition)

11 thoughts on “Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation

  1. I am an unashamed fan of the Key to Time series. Out of the three seasons produced by Graham Williams, it is defintely the most consistent.

    A lot of things went wrong in the Graham Williams era. Production values declined, guest actors (and to a large extent the regulars too) stopped taking the whole thing seriously, the tone became a bit too light and flippant, technobabble became excessive and the regulars became people that you struggled to identify with.

    On the other hand, season 16 has some of the wittiest scripts in the history of the show.

    The Ribos Operation as a piece of comic drama is fantastic. It is the closest the show has come to Shakespearean comedy. While many of the Williams-era stories are to light in tone, I do not think this is true of The Ribos Operation. You never doubt that the Graf Vynda Ky is a brutal killer and the Doctor is ruthless in the way he kills him (don’t let anyone tell you that the Doctor is a pacifist).

    Most fans adore the Hinchliffe era and in many ways rightly so. The production values were effective enough, the scripts were strong and everybody was taking them seriously. Hinchliffe, unlike Williams, was able to keep Tom Baker in line and prevent him from upstaging everything. However, I think the Hinchcliffe era was far from perfect. In particular, there was a strong note of sadism throughout many of the Hinchcliffe stories. A lot of the Hinchcliffe serials have an tendency to delight in pain and death for it’s own sake. I think Hinchcliffe went too far and Williams genuinely needed to tone it down a bit.


    • In my opinion, Doctor Who has always reflected the times in which it was shown. The Hinchcliffe era embraced the Hammer Horror vive that was in vogue around that time while the Williams era excelled in what has been called college humor (it starts off well in series 16 and tanks in 17 with only a few exceptions). This could be attributed to the target audience growing up.

      But I agree that series 16’s Key to Time is a delight when it works properly and featured some of the most intelligent and witty scripts of the classic series.


  2. I think I’ve said it before…but to me the worst parts of the Key to Time were the parts about the key itself. Sometimes that particular plot point seemed forced to connect all of the stories… but if you sort of ignore the parts about finding pieces to a key to time that are never really used for anything… the rest of the stories aren’t really that bad.

    I also liked both Romanas… the original and the next season when Lalla Ward took over the role.

    P.S. On a completely random note… I think I saw our humble narrator yesterday at Ed McKay’s.. I was waiting for them to price some trade-ins and was pretty sure I saw him in line but decided not to interrupt since the weather was a little dicey (icy) yesterday around that time.


    • If I had my sniffly son with me (both of us are sick as dogs today), yes that was me. I managed to find an ultra-rare album by Felt. But definitely feel free to say hello next time!


      • Yeah… I saw you pushing the stroller and like I said I saw some ice falling outside (though that melted fairly quickly as it turns out)… Next time I’ll make sure to say hello.

        On topic again… have you compared the original Key to Time release with the newer re-release? I bought the original and I know most of the story behind how/why that happened… and I’ve not double-dipped yet for the re-release that is supposed to be cleaner/sharper.


    • I think Doctor Who has always been rubbish at story arcs. I think this has been a problem with the New Series even more than the classic series. In my opinion the story arc running through the Matt Smith season was naff.

      Yes, the key to time concept was not thought through in the slightest and David Fisher in particular did not give a stuff about it (just watch Androids of Tara). But Season 16 is not really about the Key, it’s about intelligent, well written drama that does not take itself too seriously.

      With the lack of monsters and the subtle references to sex (“certain courtesies”- Count Grendel in Androids of Tara), Season 16 is probably one of the more adult and mature seasons of Doctor Who.

      For my money, I like Mary Tamm better than Lalla Ward, though I like the way her character developes after her regeneration. Mary Tamm was certainly a much stronger actress.


  3. This is a great review Dailypop. I think it should be mentioned that it got sillier after this. Ribos was only the start. One thing I think you should have added about this story compared to the rest of season 16 and 17,is that we see a more insecure side of the 4th Doctor. Romana’s academic credentials and intelligence threaten him. When she is scared he tell her that despite his joking he gets scared too. These extra bits of characterization make this unique for a WIlliams era story.


  4. I’ve just found this review, and fascinating it was too. I think that the Key to Time season has more than its fair share of problems (I don’t think Williams actually *got* Doctor Who that well so felt that he had to introduce the Guardian as a higher authority to keep the Doctor on a leash, note how he’s actually often actually portrayed as something of a fool in this era – with even K9 disparaging him – rather than sometimes *acting* the fool) but The Ribos Operation is, I think, the most consistent Season 15 story – despite my liking for parts of The Pirate Planet, that serial is too flawed – Tom Baker’s performance is rather erratic but Holmes’s writing of this rather more childish but still intelligent Doctor works quite well while Mary Tamm is gorgeous and haughty as Romana though I find her more assured in her next story. Ribos Operation is one of the few stories that manages to make the most of the more humorous direction without selling the dramatic elements entirely short (tho’ I think the Graff Vanda K’s psychosis would’ve been handled better under Hinchcliffe). Interestingly Garron and Unstoffe get to carry part of the story themselves.
    Cont’d Below


  5. Cont’d
    Garron and Unstoffe followed in the footsteps of Lightfoot and Jago but actually have more in common with Vorg and Shirna from Carnival of Monsters as they are a distorted mirror image of the Doctor and *his* “assistant”. In fact it’s Unstoffe (winningly played by Nigel Plaskitt) who gets to communicate with, be protected by, and finally validate the theories of – the major supporting character, Binro. It’s arguable that this one scene that gets to the core of what this story is about telling truth from falsity and standing against what is wrong; it can further be argued that Mary Tamm’s Romana never got a scene as good as this, one in which she is able to use her knowledge to comfort another. It would have been marvellous to see Romana come to see the reality of things with and without the Doctor’s help. It’s really only when Lalla Ward takes over that Romana becomes an assured Doctorish person who is more or less the Doctor’s equal (without losing a mockingly snooty quality or the occasional inability to the point of things cf. City of Death in which she praises Computer -drawing).
    The Ribos Operation combines a caper with philosophical smartness and nails both military dictatorship and the kind of religious conservatism that can lead to persecution, it is more than it appears and is certainly one of the three or four best Williams-era stories.
    I would say that the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era didn’t go too far, it wasn’t sadistic but rather featured *characters* who were and *clearly* stated that they were, it was more honest yet despite the stronger scenes it never went too far and the underlying wit and imagination provided a cushion against the suspense and horror. In my view at least. The Doctor always prevailed.


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