After leaving Leela and K-9 on Gallifrey, the Doctor and K-9 Mark II plan a vacation. But their plans are curtailed by an impromptu summons from the White Guardian. He has an important mission for the Doctor: retrieve the six segments of the Key to Time. It seems this key is very powerful, and in the right hands can restore balance to the universe. In the wrong hands, it can do untold evil. They Key’s power for good is needed, but its six segments are scattered throughout time and space. The White Guardian has chosen the Doctor to find all six segments and return the Key to him. As the Doctor prepares to leave, the White Guardian tells him he has given him a new companion to help, and to beware the Black Guardian–the White Guardian’s evil counterpart–who will no doubt want to take the Key from the Doctor.
Using a rod, called a “tracer”, to detect the segments, the Doctor and new companion Romanadvoratrelundar (Romana, for short) travel to the icy planet of Ribos. There they encounter a couple of dodgy salesmen who are trying to sell the relatively primitive planet to the Graff Vynda-K. The Graff is looking for a base planet from which he can build up an army to take back his home planet from his brother. They convince the Graff that Ribos is full of the rare mineral jethrik, and they show him some encased in the Ribos treasury as proof (planted there earlier, of course). When the Doctor and Romana visit the treasury, the tracer is drawn to the jethrik. However, the dubious pair take it back before the Doctor and Romana can get to it. And when the Graff calls the salesmen’s bluff, our TARDIS heroes are counted along with the conspirators. The Doctor and Romana need to get the jethrik and escape Ribos, or face the wrath of the Graff Vynda-K…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
For season sixteen, script editor Anthony Read and producer Graham Williams wanted to try something different: a series of stories connected by a unifying theme. Instead of the Doctor wandering aimlessly around space and time, they wanted to give him a purpose, a task to accomplish. They came up with the idea of the Key to Time, split into six segments, that the Doctor has to retrieve. Each of the season’s six stories would be devoted to finding a segment. This would mean each story could be self-contained, but would serve the overall story arc.
The idea of unifying the series around a theme is not bad, and we’ll see that happen again in Tom Baker’s final season (“The E-Space Trilogy” and “The Master Trilogy” in Seasons 18 and 19). I have my doubts about the whole “Key to Time” premise, though. It seems a bit flimsy. Why would the powerful White Guardian send the Doctor to gather these fragments? Couldn’t he do it himself? And why now? Of course, the whole venture will prove to be a waste of time in the end (see “The Armageddon Factor”), which only further undermines the premise. Nevertheless, it introduces us to Romana, and gives us another great Robert Holmes story to kick the season off.
“The Ribos Operation” presents us–or maybe just me–with another title issue (see “The Seeds of Doom” and “The Masque of Mandragora”). My instinct is to pronounce the name of the planet so it rhymes with “Why, boss?” It is, in fact, pronounced Ree-bos. So, there you have it for anyone else that was wondering. Probably just me. Moving on…
The story proper begins (after all the “Key to Time” setup with the White Guardian) with the introduction of Romana. She is a Time Lord (or Time Lady, I suppose), fresh from The Academy, with glowing exam scores and a lot of experiential naivete. In other words, she has a lot of book-knowledge, but she hasn’t set foot outside her own front door (so to speak). This forms the basis of her relationship with the Doctor. At first they clash because she’s a smarty-pants know-it-all, and the Doctor has been around the universe a few times, and understands the limits of book-knowledge. As time goes on, he will come to rely upon her smarts and her technical skill, and she will come to respect his wisdom and experience. But this is just the beginning, so sparks fly.
Being a Robert Holmes story, “Ribos” not only is well-written, with an engaging story, but it has interesting characters. There really isn’t a straight-up “good guy” in the story (aside from the TARDIS crew). Garron and Unstoffe are con men, and while Unstoffe appears to have a conscience, he’s not above lying to get what he wants, and he is easily impressed by Garron’s cunning. Garron is the quintessential shady dealer, but even he has a moment of moral indignation near the end. The closest thing we have to a “good guy” is Binro the Heretic, a wonderful creation who adds some great emotional depth to the story. Binro is an outcast, and considered wacko because he is convinced the stars are suns, that Ribos goes around its sun, and that there are other worlds like Ribos circling other suns. His brief but heart-felt friendship with Unstoffe is quite touching.
The Graff Vynda-K is the real villain of the piece. Garron and Unstoffe (played by Nigel Plaskitt, also famous for playing Hartley Hare and Tortoise in “Pipkins“) are just out to make a fast buck, but the Graff is bent on murderous revenge against his brother. His eventual demise at the hands of the Doctor is quite brutal and goes a bit against character for the Doctor. After all, the Doctor knew that what he did (spoilers!) would kill the Graff, but he did it anyway. And what a great name: The Graff Vynda-K! Where did Holmes come up with that one?
I like the fact that we have three different plans colliding in this story. The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 want the first segment to the Key to Time, which they suspect is the jethrik. Garron and Unstoffe want to make a lot of money by “selling” Ribos (it isn’t theirs to sell) to the Graff for a substantial sum, claiming it has vast, untapped supplies of precious jethrik. The Graff wants a planet to rule so he can build an army to fight his brother who usurped his throne on his home planet. Ribos appeals to him because of the supposed availability of jethrik, which he could use to fund his campaign. So all three parties have different reasons for being there, and all three want the jethrik for different reasons. This creates drama and tension, which makes for good storytelling.
The main weakness of the story is the shrivenzale, which is a large rubbery monster that walks the caverns, and is used to guard the treasury. Thankfully, while he provides the episode one cliffhanger, he is otherwise relatively inconsequential, though painful to watch.
I would consider most Robert Holmes stories essential viewing because they are usually well constructed, with three-dimensional characters and great dialog. “The Ribos Operation” is no exception to this, though it’s not quite a classic like “Ark in Space” or “The Talons of Weng Chiang.” So, maybe not essential Who, but very highly recommended, and well worth your time.