Serial 5A:
The Ribos Operation


The Doctor is called upon by the White Guardian, the embodiment of order and light, to find the six disguised segments of the Key To Time -- scattered throughout time and space -- so that the Guardian can restore the faltering universal balance. To this end, the White Guardian provides the Doctor with a new assistant in the form of the young Time Lord Romana. Their first destination is Ribos, a mediaeval-style planet which a con man named Garron is trying to sell to the megalomaniacal Graff Vynda-K. When the Graff uncovers Garron's treachery, the crook's assistant, Unstoffe, flees into the monster-infested Catacombs, little realising that amongst his possessions is the first segment of the Key To Time.


When he became Doctor Who's producer in 1976, Graham Williams planned to take a brand new approach to Season Fifteen. Williams was leery of the level of coincidence involved in the Doctor stumbling upon an adventure in each successive serial, and also felt that the Time Lord's free-agent status placed him in a morally ambiguous position. The producer thought that it would be more effective if the Doctor was acting on behalf of a higher power, who would send him on a series of missions.

To this end, Williams developed an overarching storyline which would run through the entire season, in which the Doctor is despatched by a cosmic force known as the White Guardian to salvage the six segments of the Key To Time, which is essential to maintaining the balance between good and evil in the cosmos. This powerful artefact has been stolen by an agent of the White Guardian's opposite number, the Black Guardian, who has disguised and scattered the segments throughout time and space. During his quest, the Doctor would be racing against the clock -- having been provided with a “candle” whose glow would fade as chaos overtook the universe -- and would also be hampered by acolytes of the Black Guardian.

During his quest, the Doctor would be provided with a “candle” whose glow faded as chaos overtook the universe

Williams submitted a three-page outline of his plans for Season Fifteen on November 30th, 1976. However, the production team had to start commissioning scripts early in the New Year, and the Key To Time concept demanded considerable forward planning and coordination. Consequently, it quickly became obvious that there wasn't enough time to implement Williams' vision; instead, the producer decided to postpone the Key To Time storyline until Season Sixteen. The services of Tom Baker for these episodes was secured on November 25th, 1977, when he was contracted for all twenty-six installments; this meant that Baker would match Jon Pertwee's tenure on the programme, which had been the longest of any Doctor to date.

Towards the end of 1977, Williams and script editor Anthony Read fleshed out the Key To Time format and assembled a potential roster of writers for the season. Amongst them was Robert Holmes, Read's predecessor, who had written The Sun Makers for Season Fifteen before handing over to Read. Holmes had also been approached to write that season's concluding adventure, but had declined the offer in favour of spending some time away from Doctor Who. Instead, Holmes agreed to write the first adventure of Season Sixteen, designated Serial 5A. This very much met the approval of Williams and Read, because the veteran writer could be relied upon to deliver scripts which would require minimal work -- an essential start to a season which promised to be more logistically challenging than usual.

Working to the requirement that his adventure feature no film work of any sort, Holmes devised an idea called “The Galactic Conman”, for which the scripts were commissioned on December 9th. This became “Operation” (slang for a confidence trick) and finally The Ribos Operation. The planet Ribos was patterned after mediaeval Russia, with the name being an anagram of the common Russian name “Boris”. The currency of Ribos, the opek, was a reference to both the Russian kopec (one-hundredth of a ruble) and OPEC, the Organisation of Petroleum-Exporting Countries.

Holmes originally wrote the Seeker as a man and Garron as Australian (hence the reference to his fradulent sale of the Sydney Opera House), although the latter detail would be changed to make Garron a Londoner when Iain Cuthbertson was cast in the role. Holmes left the opening sequence involving the White Guardian to be written by Williams and Read, while the script editor also contributed the notion that the piece of jethrik was actually the first segment of the Key To Time. Initially, the jethrik was important because it was actually a source of incredible energy which could power a fleet of spaceships.

Graham Williams pictured Romana as a Grace Kelly-esque ice queen to provide a sharp contrast with Leela

In addition to kickstarting the Key To Time arc, another important function of The Ribos Operation was the introduction of the Doctor's new companion. Williams had tried until the last minute to convince Louise Jameson to stay on Doctor Who for another season as Leela, but the actress had refused. Choosing to err on the side of caution, Williams had developed a replacement character in the form of the Time Lady Romanadvoratrelundar (whose diminutive form was originally “Romy” and then “Romana”). The director assigned to Serial 5A, George Spenton-Foster, was brought on board early to help Williams cast Leela's successor. The Ribos Operation would be Spenton-Foster's second and final Doctor Who serial, after working on Image Of The Fendahl the previous year. He went on to helm episodes of Blake's 7 and Cribb.

Out of about three thousand applicants for the role of Romana, six actresses were selected to audition with Tom Baker on February 14th, 1978 (the same day that John Leeson was contracted to voice K·9 in The Ribos Operation). One finalist was Belinda Mayne, who would later appear as Delta in Delta And The Bannermen. But despite the fact that Williams had pictured Romana as a Grace Kelly-esque blonde -- a traditional ice queen to provide a sharp contrast with Leela -- the role ultimately went to Mary Tamm.

By coincidence, Tamm and Louise Jameson had trained together at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Since then, Tamm had made several television appearances in shows like Coronation Street, and had also earned a number of film credits, including The Odessa File and The Likely Lads. Although she harboured some misgivings about becoming the Doctor's latest companion, her fears were assuaged by the character's strength and promises that Romana would not be just another screamer. Tamm was initially contracted for two serials, and her casting was heralded by a press photocall on February 17th.

A major question mark at the end of Season Fifteen had been the status of K·9 as an ongoing element of Doctor Who. Although the character was very popular with young viewers, the prop was noisy and broke down often, and his remote control mechanism sometimes interfered with the studio cameras. Williams was reassured that K·9 could be improved, however, and so The Ribos Operation introduced a “Mark II” version of the robot dog. To address the various problems, visual effects designer Dave Havard collaborated on the new prop with K·9 operator Nigel Brackley, who had recently moved from the Radio Control Model Centre to Slough Radio Control.

K·9 Mark II was a new prop designed in response to the problems experienced during Season Fifteen

Meanwhile, upon his return from holiday on March 7th, Williams met with his superior, Head of Drama Graeme McDonald. At this time, McDonald asked that Williams tone down the level of jokiness exhibited in Season Fifteen serials like The Invasion Of Time. There was a degree of irony in this request, because Williams had chosen to emphasise humour in his stories following criticism of the levels of violence and horror exhibited in Doctor Who during the three-year tenure of his predecessor, Philip Hinchcliffe.

The Ribos Operation was recorded in BBC Television Centre Studio 4. Work began with a three-day session from April 9th to 11th. The first day dealt with scenes in the relic room, the shaft and the landing. Although Tamm quickly forged a good relationship with Baker -- something that Louise Jameson had never really enjoyed -- Baker quickly took exception to Romana's bright white dress. Plans for Romana to always be seen in white (to reflect the concept of her as an “ice queen”) were hastily dropped.

The rest of the material on the landing was taped on the 10th, along with sequences in the Graff's room and the passage, and on the tower roof. The final day of the first block dealt with the sets for the city wall, the concourse, and the corner door leading to the Hall of the Dead. This session was disrupted by continued demarcation disputes amongst the crew, a situation which had played havoc with the recording schedule for The Invasion of Time at the end of 1977. On this occasion, there was disagreement over who was responsible for lighting the torches seen in many of the Ribos sets.

A serious incident occurred shortly before the start of the second studio block. Tom Baker was trying to get George, a Jack Russell terrier owned by Paul Seed (who played the Graff Vynda-K), to perform a trick when the dog inadvertently bit him. The accident left Baker with a deep cut on the left side of his upper lip. As a result, the actor was forced to wear a large plaster cast, visible in some of the publicity photos for The Ribos Operation. More painfully, the wound had to be concealed using make-up during the final two studio days on April 24th and 25th. Fortunately, the nature of the scenes left to be recorded at least meant that the star's face could often be partly hidden, so that continuity with the previously recorded material was not completely lost.

Before the second studio block, Paul Seed's terrier inadvertently bit Tom Baker, leaving him with a deep cut on his lip

Creating further chaos with the remainder of the recording schedule were the ongoing labour disputes. Spenton-Foster had planned to enlarge the scale of sets such as the White Guardian's limbo and magnify the size of the Shrivenzale by erecting coloured screens to facilitate the use of Colour Separation Overlay. However, the floor technicians could not agree on who should handle the screens, and so the effect had to be largely abandoned. Making its debut during this block was the Key To Time prop, several copies of which had been constructed by Dave Havard. The segments of the Key actually fit together and the prop was based on a puzzle given to Havard by Williams. To ensure that the segments were not confused with one another, the producer kept the props locked in his office, divulging only the appropriate segment on recording days.

The second studio session took place on April 24th and 25th. The first day involved the completion of the remaining Ribos scenes: in the Hall of the Dead, the Catacombs and the caves. The climax of episode four was significantly altered at a late stage. Originally, the Graff did not murder the Seeker but instead sent her back to the Catacombs, whereupon the Captain set off the explosion to seal the caves (killing the Seeker in the process). Believing himself to be the prophecied survivor, the Graff -- insane and hallucinating about past campaigns -- then took an ammunition pouch from a supposedly dead guard. The Doctor would reveal himself at this stage while an explosion detonated, proclaiming the Graff's final end. Work on The Ribos Operation concluded on April 25th, which was dedicated to the TARDIS material and the prologue in the White Guardian's domain. These scenes then heralded the start of Doctor Who's sixteenth season on September 2nd.

  • Doctor Who: The Handbook: The Fourth Doctor by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1992), Virgin Publishing, ISBN 0 426 20369 8.
  • Doctor Who: The Seventies by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1994), Virgin Publishing, ISBN 1 85227 444 1.
  • Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special 1995, “Archive: The Ribos Operation” by Andrew Pixley, Marvel Comics UK Ltd.
  • Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #9, 22nd December 2004, “I'll Put You Together Again” by Andrew Pixley, Panini Publishing Ltd.
  • In·Vision #32, July 1991, “Production” edited by Justin Richards and Peter Anghelides, Cybermark Services.

Original Transmission
Episode 1
Date 2nd Sep 1978
Time 5.44pm
Duration 25'02"
Viewers (more) 8.3m (42nd)
· BBC1 8.3m
Appreciation 59%
Episode 2
Date 9th Sep 1978
Time 6.21pm
Duration 24'46"
Viewers (more) 8.1m (36th)
· BBC1 8.1m
Episode 3
Date 16th Sep 1978
Time 6.32pm
Duration 24'42"
Viewers (more) 7.9m (38th)
· BBC1 7.9m
Episode 4
Date 23rd Sep 1978
Time 6.21pm
Duration 24'50"
Viewers (more) 8.2m (36th)
· BBC1 8.2m
Appreciation 67%

Doctor Who
Tom Baker
Voice of K·9
John Leeson
Mary Tamm
The Guardian
Cyril Luckham
Iain Cuthbertson
Nigel Plaskitt
Graff Vynda-K
Paul Seed
Robert Keegan
Prentis Hancock
Oliver Maguire
John Hamill
Timothy Bateson
The Seeker
Ann Tirard

Written by
Robert Holmes
Directed by
George Spenton-Foster
Produced by
Graham Williams

Incidental Music by
Dudley Simpson
Special Sound
Dick Mills
Production Assistant
Jane Shirley
Production Unit Manager
John Nathan-Turner
Jimmy Purdie
Richard Chubb
Visual Effects Designer
Dave Havard
Electronic Effects Operator
Dave Chapman
Video Tape Editor
John Turner
Costume Designer
June Hudson
Make-Up Artist
Christine Walmesley-Cotham
Script Editor
Anthony Read
Ken Ledsham

Working Titles
[The] Galactic Conman

Updated 9th January 2011