The Ribos Operation
The Ribos Operation was the first story of Season 16 of Doctor Who. It began the season-long quest to find the legendary Key to Time.
All four parts of The Ribos Operation ran over the allocated time, so much material was cut from the broadcast version. Some of this material was retained in Ian Marter’s novelization.
There was much debate as to whether K9 should return after the problems the prop had caused in season fifteen. The character was popular with younger audiences, however, so with the assurance that the new prop was more efficient, Graham Williams approved the introduction of K9 Mark II.
Tom Baker’s lip was cut in an accident in which a dog bit him. This meant he had a visible sticking plaster upon his face in the publicity stills for this story. The scar from the injury remained visible in much of this and subsequent stories.
The Ribos Operation was notable for seeing a number of debut appearances. It was the first serial to feature Mary Tamm as companion Romana and was also the first to properly feature K9 Mark II. The White Guardian also made his debut. He was not seen again until Enlightenment, though his voice was heard in The Stones of Blood.
Using a dog whistle to awaken K9, The Doctor begins busily planning a holiday to Halergan 3. Suddenly, 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 found with a locator. Before the Doctor embarks on the quest, he is warned that there is a dangerous Black Guardian who also covets the Key.
Returning to the TARDIS, the Doctor finds that he has been assigned a new assistant, a Time Lord named Romanadvoratrelundar, whom the Doctor calls “Romana”. As a new recruit from the Time Lord Academy on Gallifrey, Romana is inexperienced, but believes herself just as capable as the Doctor, who would rather work alone. The Doctor, though incensed to find that there is now a hole in his console, inserts the locator in the hole 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. Then, 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 Doctor’s TARDIS materializes and the 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 effects 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…
The guards operating the door notice the obstruction and, fearing harm to the shrivenzale, lift it again, freeing the Time Lords. The door is soon closed, keeping the shrivenzale 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, then discovers the bug planted in his chamber. He 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 realized that the piece of Jethrik is the segment. 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. He orders their execution on the spot…
Distracted momentarily by the Doctor and advised by Sholakh to remember the money stolen, the Graff instead takes Garron prisoner with his presumed accomplices, the Doctor and Romana. The Graff confronts the Shrieve captain to see what is being done. Noticing the jethrik is gone as well, he discovers the “scringestone” tale is a lie. Meanwhile, Sholakh discovers that Garron has an accomplice when his communicator begins beeping. After Sholakh leaves, the Doctor uses his dog whistle to summon K9.
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 the Seeker, who locates Unstoffe’s hideout . The guards prepare a pre-dawn raid. The Graff has other plans and orders Sholakh to rally his men, go in to massacre all the Ribosians, 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. K9 helps the Doctor, Romana and Garron 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…
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, Sholakh advises the Graff to use the Seeker as her earlier information was accurate.
The Doctor sends the rest of his group 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. Unstoffe gives Binro his communicator, to demonstrate to Garron that it isn’t a trick of any sort. 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 ruthlessness from a hiding place, the Doctor returns to the Graff’s chambers. There, he stands over the fallen soldier whom K9 had earlier incapacitated.
Garron steals the core to the Key to Time from Romana and heads off to locate the jethrik and Unstoffe, in that order. The Seeker, meanwhile, foresees that if they enter the catacombs, “all but one” of the party will die. Nevertheless, she leads the Graff and his men into the catacombs. They encounter Binro, whom they mistake for a grave robber. Seeing he has Unstoffe’s communicator, they take him with them to assist in finding Unstoffe. They proceed deeper. As they head off, the tail of a scarf peeks out from the robe of the last guard in line…
The Graff corners Unstoffe and Garron. Binro runs to try to warn them, and is shot dead. He dies content in the knowledge that he was right about his measurements of the stars. Unstoffe, upset, moves towards the Graff and is wounded. Garron bluffs the Graff by claiming the Doctor and Romana are interstellar agents, who have stumbled across the Graff’s crimes while they were arresting Garron. This only serves to enrage the Graff further. Unnoticed by all, in all this activity, is one of the Graff’s guards, blowing a dog whistle. Adding to the chaos, a shrivenzale draws near.
The Ribos guards use a cannon to 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 freed by K9. Romana reclaims the tracer that Garron stole. The Graff notices that Sholak is trapped, and tries to save him, but it is too late. 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 kills the Seeker, to make sure that he will be the only one who survives. His last surviving guard move towards her as she is killed, but the Graff announces that his guard will receive a more honorable death. He gives the 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 for Sholak before exploding.
After leaving the Catacombs, Garron and Unstoffe are free to commandeer the Graff’s deserted ship. The Doctor, Romana and K9 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.”