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Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Keys of Marinus originally aired in 1964.

While the initial thirteen-episode block helped established Doctor Who, it was the follow-up stories that built on those initial blue-prints. Marco Polo was a historical adventure in the style of An Unearthly Child, paying homage to the original educational aim of the series, designed to teach kids about history and science. However, the real breakout of the initial run had been The Daleks, with those adorable psychotic pepper pots. Keen to capitalise on the success of the futuristic adventure, another adventure serial was commissioned to take place on an alien world, with Terry Nation’s The Keys of Marinus helping to establish science fantasy as a concrete part of the show’s identity.

All a-Voord!

It’s funny. It’s typical of fans to praise Terry Nation’s work on The Daleks, a story that I find a bit too long for the great ideas that it contains, while fans are very quick to write off The Keys of Marinus. Of course, due to the nature of its production, The Keys of Marinus was written very quickly and was drafted as an “episodic serial” with each individual episode of the six part serial having its own environment, plot and guest cast. It does add a rather disjointed feeling to the whole thing, but I tend to admire Nation’s pulp sci-fi charm.

The Keys of Marinus is a rather unambitious story, but I think that’s part of the charm. The villainous Voord are never given enough personality to emerge as a potentially iconic alien menace on the same scale as the Daleks, but I think that’s the point. Unlike the incredibly distinctive and decidedly alien Daleks, the Voord feel like a handy plot device, and a rather concrete example of the fairly bland humanoid aliens that the production team was keen to avoid. They exist to move things along, and that they do. I think the major appeal of The Keys to Marinus for me is the fact that it flies along.

Snow body but you…

Six-part adventures are typically fairly padded, following a conventional template established by Nation himself with The Daleks. It can feel a bit much at times, with the Doctor and/or his companions getting constantly captured and escaping and so forth. However, The Keys of Marinus has none of that, by virtue of each of the six episodes unfolding on a different part of the planet with a different threat facing the cast. As such, it flies by, as the team deal with one problem before moving on to the next.

It’s an unashamedly simple “quest” story, and actually seems to prefigure the whole Key to Time arc that the show would adopt years later: the TARDIS crew are tasked with tracking down a set number of important objects that can be combined to form a plot device, encountering a variety of different circumstances along their way. Indeed, I even have a fondness for how Nation frames his story. Again, it sort of firmly codifies a lot of the adventures that would follow, while putting a unique sort of spin on it.

A touch of glass…

On hearing that Arbitan needs the keys to vanquish the Voord invaders, the crew actually seem rather sort of passive about it. “I don’t know about you,” Barbara remarks, “but I felt terrible leaving that old man. We seem to be his last hope.” Ian replies, “Yes, I wish there had been something we could have done for him.” Later TARDIS crews (or even Ian and Barbara from a few episodes ahead) would have been all over that cry for help, and volunteering to save the day, but Nation seems aware that this is the first time the TARDIS crew have done something like this.

While the team agreeing to help Arbitan would propel the plot in the right direction, Nation is smart enough to point out that it’s hardly something that flows naturally from these people in this situation. If I wander across a foreign war zone, I’m more likely to wish everybody the best of luck and be on my way instead of single-handedly attempting to win the war effort for one particular side. So the script uses a plot device to spur our heroes into action. And this, admittedly, is where things get weird. I mean, really weird.

Trial and error…

Arbitan basically locks the crew out of the TARDIS to force them to help, which is a bit of a dick move, to be honest, given they’re foreigners. “If you help me find the keys of Marinus,” Arbitan explains to them, “I will let you have access to your machine when you have delivered all the keys to me. If not, you will stay on the island without food or water. The choice is yours.” The doctor correctly describes this as “blackmail”, but the crew are forced to go along with this. What is strange, however, is how Nation’s script seems to treat Arbitan as a completely unambiguous good guy despite this action – which he shows no regret over. The Voord are seen to be unambiguously bad, when it really would seem like both sides are equally morally ambiguous.

What’s even more confusing about Nation’s set-up is the super-computer that is going to be able to resist the Voord attack. This was a telepathic computer that was used “to eliminate evil from the minds of men for all time.” Arbitan clarifies, “Robbery, fear, hate, violence were unknown among us. Yes, yes, for seven centuries we prospered, and then a man named Yartek found a means of overcoming the power of the machine. He and his followers, the Voords, were able to rob, exploit, kill, cheat. Our people could not resist because violence is alien to them.”

He’s behind you!

Given that Nation’s last script, The Daleks, was a condemnation of fascism, it seems strange that The Keys of Marinus is built around a super-computer that mind-controls a planet’s population into behaving. It seems more and more likely that the Voord are simply misunderstood freedom fighters, fighting for the right to self-determination. How is what the super-computer does any different to the vile mind-control in Morphoton? Yet, despite that, it seems that the Doctor and his companions are in favour of the mind-controlling super-computer, while the Voord seem like card-carrying villains.

Indeed, only lip-service is played to how crazy investing your trust in a mind-controlling super-computer is. “But surely by this time this machine had become a great danger to you?” he asks. “If it had fallen into the hands of the Voords, they could have controlled Marinus. Why didn’t you destroy it?” The Doctor offers a closing observation on the matter that really seems like a bit of common sense that somehow slipped past everyone over the source of the six-episode serial, remarking, “But I don’t believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that.”

The minds behind Morphoton…

Still, these complaints aside, I do quite like The Keys to Marinus. I think part of it is the relatively exotic nature of Marinus itself. Most planets in science fiction tend to be pretty much the same all over – they are desert planets or jungle planets or ice planets. I like that Marinus actually seems to have a bit of biological and technological diversity, even though the separate zones are seldom really connected in any tangible way. It does create a sense that Marinus is a world with many different inhabitants and lifestyles, much like our own. It’s very rare to get that sense in science-fiction on television, and that alone is reason to enjoy The Keys to Marinus.

More than that, though, each of the four zones visited by the team are distinct enough to support a half hour of adventure, which is fun. And next time it’s another place. So it doesn’t matter that the ideas wouldn’t necessarily support a four-part serial, Nation can still give us wacky stuff like killer plants and brains in jars and ice warriors and so forth. The fact that there have been serials based around each of those concepts illustrates that he was on to a good thing. In short, it holds the interest quite well, which is something to be celebrated.

Does not compute…

I do especially like the zone where Ian is placed on trial, only to find the burden of proof has shifted. Of course, I studied law, so I eat this stuff up, but I love how Nation makes sure everything is backwards. “Our decision on the report of Chief Enquirer Tarron is that the prisoner, Ian Chesterton, is guilty of murder and that his sentence is death,” the judges decree. “The said sentence to be administered three days after the end of this hearing, unless the representative for the accused can show positive proof why the execution should not be carried out.” They literally start with the sentence and work backwards, with the first statement described as a “reply.” It’s actually clever high-concept stuff. Total insane, but that’s why I love it.

The Keys of Marinus sees the regular cast on fine form. Indeed, Hartnell’s Doctor is much more like the character we know from his later incarnations, with his scientific curiosity pushed to the fore. “Glass instead of sand, eh?” he asks. “Intriguing, intriguing, my boy.” When Ian wonders if the sand had been turned to glass, but Hartnell’s Doctor replies, gleefully, “Or was the glass put here deliberately, and if so, why, hmm?” Even when he chides Ian, it’s more playful than grouchy, “You mustn’t get sloppy in your habits, you know. Good gracious.” Indeed, when Ian’s at risk, the Doctor seems single-mindedly committed to getting his companion out, demanding, “Leave? I can’t leave now. I must find new evidence and re-open the case.” It’s not that hard to believe that the Doctor would have gladly left without him only a few stories ago.

The rhyme of the ancient Marinus…

Indeed, all the cast seem to be coming into their own, fully comfortable with their roles and characters. I continue to think that Ian and Barbara are a couple, and there are further hints here. There’s a sense that she’s just a bit frustrated at the way that Ian asserts himself, “I do wish Ian wouldn’t treat us like Dresden china.” When Susan makes the observation that Ian is quite good at it, Barbara concedes, “Yes, I know, but just once in a while…” Susan finishes, “You rebel?” This sort of makes sense of her rather shameless flirting with a Thal in The Daleks – essentially acting out at how Ian tends to take charge of the situation. However, she’s very clearly in love with Ian, even opting to keep Susan’s abduction from the Doctor to keep him focused on Ian, which is not her decision to make.

Even Susan gets a bit of characterisation here, beyond her capacity to scream at the top of her lungs. “I don’t like to say goodbye,” she remarks, a line that seems to very faintly foreshadow her departure in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Carole Ann Ford is a great actress, and she really does the very best with what she’s given. It’s just a massive shame that she was really the character who defined the “scream queen” role of companion.

Witty Barbs…

By the way, I find it funny that the early years of the show are dismissed as children’s entertainment. On top of the skull-smashing antics of An Unearthly Child, here we’re treated to some fairly adult undertones around Vasar’s… ahem, plans for Barbara. “All right, I’m in no hurry,” he remarks. “There’s no one coming to help you. I can wait.” Later on we cut to him trying to corner Barbara as she defends herself. We even get fairly explicit scenes of domestic abuse between Ayden and Kala in the last two segments of the story, hardly suitable material for the younger ones watching, and clearly aimed at some of the older members of the target the audience.

I’ve remarked before that the wonderful thing about these black and white stories is that they tend to mask the relatively low budget remarkable well, with matte paintings and model shots seeming more effective than they would in colour. I should also acknowledge that I adored the sound effects for the pulsing brains in Morphoton. However, there are still some awful special effects shots, like the Voord Ian throws into the sea of acid in the very first episode, which is very clearly a model. Still, moments like this are the exception rather than the rule and the serial mostly looks quite good.

Ian’s defense is in the Doc…

The Keys of Marinus isn’t a classic, but I’d argue that we wouldn’t get a true classic until the following year’s The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It is a highly enjoyable science-fiction run-around adventure with a variety of concepts provided in rapid-enough succession that none has time to over stay their welcome. It might be relatively shallow, but it’s never boring.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:

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