Chapter 52. Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation (1979)

Synopsis: The White Guardian compels the Doctor (on pain of nothing… ever) to undertake a mission to find the six segments of the Key to Time. As part of the mission, the Doctor is given a new companion in the form of Romana. On the planet Ribos, a pair of grifters called Garron and Unstoffe are setting up an elaborate con, assuming the locals are too primitive to see through their scheme. Unfortunately, they have underestimated a visiting despot by the name of the Graff Vynda Ka .

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Unwelcome Strangers
  • 2. The Beast in the Citadel
  • 3. A Shaky Start
  • 4. Double Dealings
  • 5. Arrest and Capture
  • 6. Unlikely Allies
  • 7. Escape Into the Unknown
  • 8. The Doctor Changes Sides
  • 9 .Lost and Found
  • 10. Conjuring Tricks

Background: Ian Marter adapts the 1978 scripts by Robert Holmes.

Notes: The opening scene has the Doctor and K9 being rather snarky with each other. The Doctor suggests ‘Occhinos’ as a holiday destination.The TARDIS doors are opened from the inside by a brass handle. The Guardian sits within an exotic garden that features huge orchids and fountains. The garden disappears along with the Guardian, leaving the Doctor teetering on the edge of space and he has to propel himself backwards into the TARDIS. The Guardian makes no mention of a new companion for the Doctor; it’s left to Romana to introduce herself. Her tracer device is presented as the ‘Locatormutor Core’ and she knows of the existence of the Guardian (on TV, she’s left under the belief that she was selected for the mission by the President of the Time Lords). She graduated from the Academy with a ‘Triple Alpha’ and claims the Doctor achieved a ‘Double Gamma… on [his] third attempt’. The initial destination is Cyrrhenis Minimis (not ‘Minima’). 

We learn that, while he was away fighting campaigns alongside his Cyrrhenic allies, the Graff Vynda Ka (‘not ‘K’) was deposed by his half-brother on the Levithian throne; his alliance forgotten, he received no help from his former allies and he now lives in exile (we lose the rest of his back story from the TV episodes). Thanks to its elliptical orbit, Ribos’s summer (the ‘Sun Time’) lasts 11 years. The Doctor refers to Garron and Unstoffe as ‘Laurel and Hardy’ before apologising to Romana for the reference. When the Doctor is searched, Sholakh finds ‘an ear trumpet. a corkscrew, string, marbles, a magnifying glass, a paper bag with a few jelly babies melted into a lump…’ – some of which have been referenced by Marter in his previous books. There are many Shrivenzales living in the catacombs under the city. The Seeker is…:

… a scrawny hag dressed in long strips of crudely dyed remnants. Her frizzled grey hair was parted on the crown of her domed head, and it reached almost to her feet in a thickly tangled cascade.

She survives the knives of the Graff Vynda Ka and crawls off towards the Hall of the Dead, only to be caught in the blast of the Shrieve’s cannon. Despondent after the cave-in, Garron wonders if it would be possible to commit suicide with the Locatormutor Core. 

Chapter 7 brings Ian Marter’s take on a popular title, ‘Escape into the Unknown’, almost the same one Terrance Dicks used in Death to the Daleks. 

Cover: John Geary created an atmospheric shot of the Doctor, a shrivensale and some moody candles.

Final Analysis: It wasn’t one of Robert Holmes’ greatest scripts and sadly it’s not one of Ian Marter’s best books either. There’s little room for Marter’s violent imagery here and it’s all a bit flat. Without the performances to help sell the characters, Garron and Unstoffe lack any depth beyond their grift, while the Doctor is a horrific bully to Romana (something that was thankfully phased out on screen within a couple of stories, but which comes across as much more savage here). Marter is able to make the lumbering TV shrivenzale into a fearsome beast with claws that make sparks against the catacomb walls and he takes on the death of Sholakh and makes it a little bloodier, but… no, this is largely as dull as I’d expected.

I’ve got to be honest, this is the beginning of a run of books I’ve been dreading.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 52. Doctor Who and the Ribos Operation (1979)

  1. I remember the Guardian’s intro in the book so I was decidedly underwhelmed by the TV version.
    The TV version of this is quite…charming, (I didn’t see it until an 90s UK Gold omnibus) so it IS sad the book is flat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I quite like this one but then I quite like the original serial. The story’s rather different *feel* saw Robert Holmes illustrating his range. That different feel makes for an agreeable experience in both incarnations. Some of Ian Matter’s alterations to dialogue don’t work but others contradictorily do no harm. I like the Marter-Romana (but then I find the Mary Tamm Romana appealing and I adore the Lalla Ward Romana. But then all right-minded true-hearted people do. Hah!), the Doctor is semi-annoying here, however, Romana smug assumptions about the world/universe have to be knocked into a cocked hat.
    Ian does a very good job with the Graff Vynda Ka and Garron, both of whom arguably work even better on the page, which might even be true of Unstoffe occasionally. Alas, words can’t really summon up how luminous Romana looks in her white dress while the page can’t quite equal Mary Tamm’s Louche sarcastic delivery. In contrast, Ian does achieve a real sense of place with Ribos and the shrievanzales are rather more…effective than they were on screen.
    One missed opportunity is glaring in both versions. *Surely* it would have made more sense for *Romana* to encounter and develop a rapport with Binro the heretic? Much as I like Unstoffe’s scene with Binro it was a missed opportunity to deepen and develop the first Romana and show there was much more to her than perspicuous wit, book- (or computer-)learnedness, and beauty. Certainly I’d find that more convincing than the superduperness we were supposed to accept from Rose (Zzzzz), Martha (Zzzzzzzz), and Donna (Oh dear God, make it stop… Shuuuuutttt Uppppp!). *ahem*


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