Recap: Doctor Who S16 E1 "The Ribos Operation"

Romana is kinda missing the point of camouflage...
The Doctor: Ah! You want me to volunteer, is that it? And if I don't?
The Guardian: Nothing.
The Doctor: What? Nothing? You mean nothing will happen to me?
The Guardian: Nothing at all. [beat] Ever.

A godlike guy in a casual white suit, the White Guardian, interrupts the Doctor's puttering around in the TARDIS to give him a quest: find all six segments of the Key To Time. Why and how and what the thing does isn't explained just yet, but the Black Guardian apparently wants it too. The parts have to be gathered before... well, there's a deadline, but it's not entirely clear when it is. But sooner would be better.

True to form, the White Guardian gives the Doctor some supernatural aid. Her name is Romanadvoratrelundar. She's a still-wet-behind-the-ears Time Lady, fresh out of the Time Lord Academy, where she acquitted herself rather better than the Doctor ever did. And she can out-smug the Doctor.

Romana reads the TARDIS Owner's Guide and effects a perfect materialisation on the icy, remote, pre-contact world of Ribos, location of Plot Coupon #1. They quickly track it to the royal bling room, where it's been disguised as a huge glowy blue lump of jethrik, an incredibly rare and expensive subtance.

But all is not as it seems. The jethrik has been planted there by one Garron: ostensibly a real estate agent showing the planet to a client (Graff Vynda-K, a psychopathic ex-dictator with a talent for shouting and grinding his teeth at the same time). But Garron is really a Snake Oil Salesman running a Violin Scam. Together with his friend Unstoffe, he's trying to trick the Graff into paying an inflated price for the allegedly (but not really) jethrik-rich planet. It works, and the Graff's million-opek down payment is stored in the royal treasury for the night. The next morning the money and the jethrik are gone, and the guards have no idea what the Graff Vynda-K is ranting about.

When the Graff finds out he's being scammed, both team TARDIS and the scammers have to make a run for it, avoiding the treasure room's watch dragon in the process. Unstoffe is rescued by a heretic named Binro, who was cast out for saying the planet moves in relation to the stars. Unstoffe is deeply impressed by Binro's theories and kindly tells him that he's right — he's from the stars, and one day, people will speak of Binro as the prophet of the future. Their Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene is interrupted when Garron contacts Unstoffe via radio and tells him to run. Unstoffe hands Binro his radio device in order to protect him. It has rather the opposite effect, and Binro is brutally murdered by the Graff for helping Unstoffe.

In the ensuing battle, the Graff's best friend dies as well, and the Graff suffers a severe Villainous Breakdown as a result. Since the local prophet-woman has been saying that only one person will survive, he immediately proceeds to murder her and strap a bomb to his one remaining soldier, telling the man that he's destined to make a Heroic Sacrifice. The Graff, now having war flashbacks, walks away while the soldier stays behind to get blown up. Unfortunately for the Graff, the soldier is actually the Doctor in a bucket helmet, who strapped the bomb to the Graff with a bit of sleight of hand and merrily laughs as the Graff gets blown to pieces. He then pulls a similar trick on Garron and Unstoffe, leaving them with a worthless rock while he takes the jethrik, which he converts into the first segment of the Key.

This is another one from the man who was probably Doctor Who's greatest writer, Robert Holmes, and as such it's well-regarded. Watch it here


  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Unstoffe's friendship with Binro.
  • Attack Animal: The Shrivenzale, which guards the vault holding Ribos' wealth (and briefly the jethrik).
  • Aliens Speaking English: A peculiar variant. Garron affects a strong Somerset accent as part of his con, apparently to sound like more of a rube. The Doctor identifies it as such, and goes so far as to wonder why an accent specific to a few counties on an Insignificant Little Blue Planet is being heard on Ribos. It eventually turns out that Garron is a native of Earth.
  • Because Destiny Says So: When it turns out the Seeker's prophecy is becoming truth, the Graff starts actively enforcing it by killing off all others on his party.
  • Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word:
    Doctor: Where did you get your piece [of jethrik]?
    Garron: Stroke of good luck. I acquired that some years ago.
    Doctor: You stole it.
    Garron: Oh, now, that's a very blunt word, isn't it?
    Doctor: "Fraud" is another one. Tell me, Garron: how many jethrik mines have you sold since then?
  • Cassandra Truth: Binro's belief of other planets existing in the universe which Unstoffe's presence confirmed.
  • The Caligula: The Graff Vynda-K.
  • Crazy Enough to Work: The Graff's second-in-command suggests using the seer to find the Doctor, as they could spend months searching Beneath the Earth for him otherwise. And if it doesn't work, they can always have fun blowing the seer's head off.
  • Chewing the Scenery: The Graff has a peculiar talent for shouting really loudly through clenched teeth.
  • Compensating for Something: Romana is convinced the Doctor is.
  • Cosmic Keystone
  • Damned by Faint Praise: Lampshaded. Romana praises the Doctor's actions quite faintly, to which he says he doesn't like getting faint praise.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: The opening encounter with the White Guardian.
  • Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?
  • Enemy Mine: Or the way Garron puts it: "We were temporary allies in adversity."
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: The Graff really cares about his friend, and goes on a rampage when he dies.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Ribos looks a lot like old Russia. This may be why it looks so damn cool. That or good World Building. Or both.
    • For an entirely studio-bound story from the hyper-inflating late 1970s, it looks brilliant. Big furry hats off to the designers.
  • Fate Worse Than Death: The White Guardian hints at one (see page quote).
  • Feudal Future: On another planet, with pre-industrial technology.
  • Gotta Catch 'Em All: The different parts to the Key to Time.
  • Green Rocks: The jethrik.
  • Grenade Tag: The Doctor brutally murders the Graff by strapping a bomb to him.
  • Grim Up North: The universal cover story for aliens visiting Ribos is to claim to be "from the North," where the winters are harsher and there are fewer settlements. Binro the Heretic has been there and isn't fooled.
  • Heroic Bystander: Binro the Heretic
  • Hidden Wire
  • I Have to Go Iron My Dog: When Garron sneaks off, he still finds time to use the old 'see a man about a dog' excuse to K-9.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: Averted — but the Graff finds it anyway.
  • Landmark Sale: Mentioned as part of Garron's back story. Apparently he tried to sell Sydney Harbour when he was still on Earth. He declined to throw in the Opera House and that's when the buyer went to the government.
  • Large Ham: Garron, the Graff Vynda-K, and the Seeker.
  • Light Is Not Good: The White Guardian claims to be Good, to balance the Black Guardian's Evil, but we don't know.
  • Literal-Minded: K-9, being a robot and all. He answers when Romana talks to herself, and falls completely for Garron's I Have to Go Iron My Dog excuse.
  • Man in a Rubber Suit: The Shrivenzale.
  • Mineral Macguffin: Jethrik.
  • Nice Hat: There are a good deal of them in this story.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Binro claims that stars are actually suns and his planet moves, for which he is branded a heretic. Galileo Galilei did exactly the same.
  • No Peripheral Vision: The Doctor and Romana hide behind some screens in the treasure room. Guards come in, stand against the wall just beside the screens and still don't see them.
  • One Last Job
  • Plot Coupon: The parts to the Key to Time.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right
  • Really 700 Years Old: Romana gives her age as about 140 years old — a mere time tot!
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Garron finally letting the Graff have it for all the trouble he's caused.
    The Graff: And where are your two accomplices [the Doctor and Romana]?
    Garron: Not accomplices, Highness! You mean the security agents!
    The Graff: (rattled) Security agents?!
    Garron: Yeah! That's the irony of it! They only arrested us for landing on a Class 3 planet, and didn't even know of your presence until you made it felt!
    The Graff: You lie!
    Garron: Why should I bother?! No, Graff! Their report will be with the Alliance shortly, and you'll no longer be a nobleman of the Serenic Empire and an honoured war veteran! You'll just be a common criminal like us!
  • Seers: The Seeker
  • The Shill: Unstoffe.
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Garron.
  • Vindicated by History: Discussed In-Universe — Unstoffe tells Binro the Heretic that he will be vindicated in his claims about astronomy and Ribos being one of many planets in the universe.
    Unstoffe: Someday, even here, people will look at each other and say: "Binro was right!"
  • Violin Scam
  • The Window or the Stairs: The Doctor is given a mission by the White Guardian, and told that "nothing" would happen to him if he refused. The Doctor responds, "What? Nothing? You mean nothing will happen to me?", and the Guardian replies "Nothing at all. (pause) Ever."