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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (The Key to Time Part One)

"It's funny, you know, but before I met you, I was willing to be impressed."

For his sophomore season as producer, a more confident Graham Williams proposed a bold new idea for the show: an entire series of stories all linked together to form a single quest. Thus The Key to Time saga was born.

Story arcs were nothing new to Doctor Who. The show's early years chronicled Ian and Barbara's attempt to get back home while the Pertwee years often focused on the Doctor's exile on Earth. But they were usually simple affairs, often going on in the background and rarely ever drove the narrative of an individual adventure. The Key to Time was the first time that a season would be tied together by a single overreaching storyline.

The quest itself isn't really anything revolutionary. In fact it almost exactly the same as the one the First Doctor and his companions were sent on in 'The Keys to Marinus'. Man from Delmonte look-a-like the White Guardian sends the Doctor on a quest across the cosmos to find the six missing segments of the Key to Time, an all-powerful thingymajig that can stop all time in the universe once assembled. Why the White Guardian needs the Key is never exactly made clear. He says he needs to stop time to fix the universe or something. Is the universe really something that needs to be turned off so you can install an update?

The whole thing kicks off with 'The Ribos Operation'. It's a wonderful little tale from Robert Holmes that shoves the Doctor and new girl Romana (she wanted to be called Fred) head first into a lively intergalactic conman caper, which makes for a refreshing change of pace from the usual mix of ‘save the universe’ or ‘free the slaves’ plotlines the show usually churns out.

It is rather ironic that one of the architects of the show's Gothic era is the one to prove that a purely light-hearted, family friendly, comedic approach to Doctor Who could still work. Sure, some die-hard fans grumbled that the show was getting too silly and kid friendly for their liking. Which is kind of true. The Williams era was too childish and silly, more geared towards comedy instead of drama, but let’s not forget that above all else it was unabashedly fun.

There are a lot of things I love about Holmes’s writing (his witty dialogue, his clever stories, his wonderful characters), but one thing he doesn’t get enough praise for is his world building. All the worlds he sent the Doctor and his companions to, whether it was another planet or the distant past, always felt like real places, regardless of how cheap the sets looked. Ribos, which has the look of pre-revolution Russia, feels like living, breathing worlds with their own customs and traditions. This is one of the many reasons why I will always consider him to be the very best writer who ever wrote for Doctor Who.

Of course, Holmes' greatest strengths have been in writing great dialogue and creating characters, and there's an abundance of both in this one. Iain Cuthbertson is a blast as intergalactic grafter Garron, gleefully devouring the scenery with relish. Not to be outdone is Paul Seed’s sneering Graff Vynda-K, an exiled tyrant planning to retake his kingdom. The Key to Time season may not be a great one for memorable monsters (just look at the shrivenzale), but it is a great season for memorable homicidal maniacs.

And then there is the one season wonder that is Mary Tamm. There’s just no denying it, the woman is a goddess. From the get go she and Baker play off each other magnificently, creating one of the finest double acts in the show’s long history. The addition of Romana completely changes the dynamic in the TARDIS. For the first time since Susan, the Doctor is traveling with a member of his own race. But Romana is no dutiful granddaughter. She sees herself as the Doctor’s intellectual superior and she’s got the exam results to prove it. All she lacks is the Doctor’s real world experience, and even that isn’t proving to be much of a handicap so far.

Notes and Quotes

--The Doctor now wears an extra-long scarf. This was the original scarf and the stunt scarf sewn together.

--The producers approached Elisabeth Sladen about returning to the series as a replacement for Leela. She declined the offer and the character of Romana was created instead.

--Loved the Doctor grabbing the Grath's glove and slapping him right back in the face.

--This was Prentis Hancock’s fourth (and final) appearance on the show. He’d previously appeared in ‘Spearhead from Space’, ‘Planet of the Daleks’ and ‘Planet of Evil’.

The Doctor: "Look, I'm sure there must be plenty of other Time Lords who'd be delighted..."
The White Guardian: "I have chosen you, Doctor."
The Doctor: "I was afraid you might say that. Ah! You want me to volunteer, is that it? And if I don't?"
The White Guardian: "Nothing."
The Doctor: "You mean nothing'll happen to me?"
The White Guardian: "Nothing. Ever."

Romana: "I may be inexperienced but I did graduate from the Academy with a triple first."
The Doctor: "I suppose you think we should be impressed by that too?"
Romana: "Well, it's better than scrapping through with 51% at the second attempt."
The Doctor: "That information is confidential!"

The Doctor: "Ground rules. Rule one: Always do what I say. Rule two: Stay close to me, and rule three: Let me do all the talking. Do I make that perfectly clear?"
Romana: "Couldn't make it clearer."
The Doctor: "Good. One more thing...your name."
Romana: "What about my name?"
The Doctor: "It's too long. By the time I've called out, 'Look out'— what's your name?"
Romana: "Romanadvoratrelundar."
The Doctor: "By the time I've called that out, you could be dead! I'll call you Romana."
Romana: "I don't like Romana."
The Doctor: "It's either Romana or Fred."
Romana: "All right, call me Fred!"
The Doctor: "Good. Come on, Romana!"

Three out of four pieces of jethrik.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.


  1. I recently decided to start watching the classic series, and I wanted to start with who I suspected would be the most interesting companion, Romana. Now I can read these reviews as I watch the episodes, as if I'm watching a new show. Thank you for writing them.

  2. You're welcome, Aronpuma. Romana is a great companion to get started on, certainly of the all time great companions, regardless of who is playing her.

  3. Robert Holmes is indeed my favorite writer for the show in all it's history, and this fun romp amply displays why. He does have some misses, but he's firing on all cylinders here!

    The world building and characterizations are so good that as a kid I made a board game where bad guy leader was called the Vinder-V after the Vynda-K. That game wasn't good, and it's lost to time, but I still enjoyed stories like this that much.

    I wish Mary Tamm had stayed longer and had gotten more stories where she could be awesome, and wish we hadn't lost her so young too. No shade on Lalla Ward, but Romana I is my favorite Romana, and she's so good here!

    For me, this is the high point of the Key to Time, and it only goes down from here, but this one is a hard act to follow!


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