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Recap / Doctor Who S16 E1 "The Ribos Operation"

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Romana is kinda missing the point of camouflage... not that the Doctor's a master at it either.
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.

The One With… GOD HIMSELF.

Written by Robert Holmes. This four-episode serial first aired from September 2—23, 1978.

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.


  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Unstoffe's friendship with Binro.
  • Affectionate Pickpocket: Graff and Garron both try this on the Doctor — the first to plant a bomb, the second to swap out the jethrik with a stone. Both times the Doctor returns the favour.
  • 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.
  • Alien Non-Interference Clause: When the Graff asks Garron why the mining consortium he claims to represent is selling Ribos instead of trying to exploit its mineral wealth, Garron says that any profitable exploitation would require bringing in equipment that is illegal to ship to a Class 3 world, and Ribos isn't likely to become a Class 2 civilization for centuries. It later gets pointed out that the Graff and Garron being on a Class 3 world like Ribos at all without the proper clearances is also a crime.
  • Attack Animal: The Shrivenzale, which guards the vault holding Ribos' wealth (and briefly the jethrik).
  • 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.
  • Big Bad: The Graff Vynda-K.
  • "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?
  • Book Dumb: The Doctor apparently only barely passed his examinations — on the second try. This in comparison to Romana, who graduated with a triple first.
  • Cassandra Truth: Binro's belief of other planets existing in the universe which Unstoffe's presence confirmed.
  • The Caligula: The Graff Vynda-K.
  • 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.
  • The Con: 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.
  • Consolation Prize: At the end of the story, Garron and Unstoffe's con has failed: the gold is buried in the catacombs and the Doctor's swiped their jethrik. But the Graff's ship, stuffed with loot, is theirs for the taking.
  • Continuity Nod: The Doctor mentions the Sontarans' attempted invasion of Gallifrey.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The guard on duty on the vault when Vynda-K finds the jethrik just happens to know the provenance of the stone. Justified because the guard in question is actually Unstoffe, who planted the jethrik and made up the story of its provenance on the spot to further the con. Later on, Garron berates him for pushing his luck.
  • Cosmic Keystone: The serial kicks off a season-wide search for the pieces of the Key to Time, which will give the wielder control over all of time and space. The first segment disguises itself as a lump of the highly-valuable mineral jethrik.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Enemy Mine: Or the way Garron puts it: "We were temporary allies in adversity."
  • Establishing Character Moment: Romana is introduced in a slow pan up her legs wearing a stunning white feather cape.
  • 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 Worldbuilding. 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.
  • Finding the Bug: Garron and Unstoffe's bug in the Graff's room is well hidden, but the Graff finds it anyway.
  • Glove Slap: The Graff gives one to the Doctor, who snatches the glove and returns the slap.
  • Good Is Not Soft: When the Doctor asks what will happen to him should he not volunteer for the quest for the Key to Time, the White Guardian replies: Nothing at all. Ever.
  • 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. To be fair, the Graff was trying to do the same 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 doesn't really do much in the way of advancing the plot for the vast majority of it, but sympathizes with the Doctor, Romana, Garron, and Unstoffe thanks to the whole lot of them being looked down upon by the people of Ribos in some way. Eventually, Binro moves out of his bystander status and helps Unstoffe hide from the Graff's forces in a labyrinth of catacombs.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Since the Seeker's prophecy says that only one member of the Graff's party will survive, the Graff decides that his sole remaining man shall make one so that he can escape and plants a bomb on him. Said guard (the Doctor in disguise) discretely gives the bomb back.
  • 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. A discrete listening device about the size of a thumbnail is hidden on the inside of an architectural folly, out of sight for anyone not thoroughly searching the room or who is phenomenally lucky. It still gets found.
  • Insane Admiral: The Graf Vynda-K is the perfect example.
  • Large Ham: Garron, the Graff Vynda-K, and the Seeker.
  • Let's Mock the Monsters: Averted when the Doctor meets the White Guardian, possibly the first time we've ever seen him unfailingly respectful to a figure of authority, being wary even of raising his voice too loud and even calling him "sir". While he tries to look for a way out of the mission to recover the segments, once the Guardian obliquely threatens that "Nothing at all" will happen to him if he refuses ("Ever.") he just glumly accepts the charge.
  • Light Is Not Good: The White Guardian claims to be Good, to balance the Black Guardian's Evil, but we don't know. Literally the first thing he does is bully the Doctor into doing something he doesn't want to do, though.
  • 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. It's actually operated by two people in the manner of a pantomime horse. By the standards of classic Who, the costume is actually rather good.
  • Messianic Archetype: By and large, the White Guardian is pretty much God in all but name. This being a script from Robert Holmes, one of the most blatantly anti-authoritarian Who writers, his Establishing Character Moment is to bully the Doctor into doing an errand for him with threats.
  • Mineral Macguffin: Jethrik.
  • 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.
  • No Indoor Voice: Lampshaded — the Doctor overhears the Graff's plan to execute them due to the fact his henchman has no in-door voice.
  • The Not-So-Harmless Punishment: The Doctor asks what will happen to him if he refuses the White Guardian's order to find the parts of the Key, and is surprised by the answer of 'nothing'. The Guardian placidly clarifies "Nothing at all. Ever."
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The Fourth Doctor is usually very flippant and rebellious in the face of authority figures, be they humans or Time Lords, but the White Guardian is powerful enough to make him show respect. He even offers a timid "Sorry, sir" when he speaks out of tone.
  • Overly Long Name: The Doctor insists that Romanadvoratrelundar shorten her name to Romana. Or Fred.
  • Plot Coupon: The parts to the Key to Time.
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: The Seeker is able to perfectly sniff out anyone that the Graff asks her to, eventually managing to corner Garron and Unstoffe in the catacombs by burning and rubbing bones.
  • 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
  • Snake Oil Salesman: Garron.
  • Sound-Only Death: When the Doctor tricks the Graff Vynda-K into blowing himself up with his own bomb, the result is portrayed by the Graff deliriously wandering down a hallway while having a war flashback before the bomb explodes offscreen, accompanied by a burst of smoke and the Graff screaming in pain.
  • Sticky Bomb: In one of his more coldblooded actions, the Doctor sticks a magnetic grenade to the Graff's back and lets him get blown up.
  • Those Two Guys: Garron and Unstoffe, another example of the Robert Holmes double act.
  • 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!"
  • 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."