A quest-based serial that takes some of the themes from The Daleks and spins them out in a new direction, The Keys of Marinus has a mixed reputation. It is either a six-episode borefest or a thrilling new direction for Doctor Who, again demonstrating the flexibility of the concept; depending on who you ask, of course.
Having previously only been acquainted with the adventure via Philip Hinchcliffe’s novelisation (the one with the oddly-coloured TARDIS on the completely-unrelated cover art) I can declare this to be a far more enjoyable series of episodes than I had previously been lead to believe. Hinchcliffe’s retelling is certainly entertaining but I always felt that the story was more at home in its printed form. Watching The Keys of Marinus in its entirety for the first time for Kasterborous’ marathon of reviews leading up to the 50th Anniversary in 2013, I was shocked to find the adventure proceed at quite a pace – after the pedestrian first episode, that is.
Interestingly, the serial comes just a few weeks after Terry Nation’s immense success with The Daleks. I wonder what must have gone through his head when he saw the success of that story, when comparing it with The Keys of Marinus? Might he have wondered about children mimicking the knife-wielding Voord? Or the increasingly camp Altos?
The Voord make strange, purely two-dimensional villains. In a storyline that features the usual Terry Nation tropes (hidden doors, assassins, duplicates, countdowns) the Voord are remembered only because they are largely ineffectual and because Doctor Who Weekly tried to retcon them into being the original form of the Cybermen (The World Shapers). Despite the huge legal ramifications for Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler, the idea is frankly ridiculous, hinging only on the fact that both races have handlebars.
After the impressive (1964) model shot opening of the TARDIS arriving, and William Hartnell’s slightly shorter-than-usual wig, we eventually meet the Voord after a ponderous start alongside The Sea of Death. The episode’s title derives from the fact that the apparently stunning ocean is in fact acid, rolling up against a short of sand and glass. After finding a Voord suit – once worn by the now-melted occupant of a James Bond-style one-man submersible – the travellers head off to investigate a nearby tower, a structure that might remind some viewers of the later City of the Exxillons (Death to the Daleks).
Arbitan’s quest for the travellers is simple: retrieve the keys so that he can power up the Conscience of Marinus, an ancient law and order machine and use it to defend his people against the Voord. So off they go, only to find that the occupants of Marinus are potentially more dangerous than the wetsuited monsters…
The concept of a law and order machine that is currently ineffectual – leading to the dispersing of the keys until Arbitan is able to upgrade it – is quite a clever way of sending the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara on the quest, although the lack of any audio and some poor editing in the scenes with the Voord leaves us with little clue as to their intent.
Fortunately, The Velvet Web presents a far more recognisable challenge. After their initial arrival is disrupted by strange sounds and visual effects, the Doctor, Susan and Ian find Barbara enjoying the trappings of a highly affluent lifestyle. Impressed, they decide to stay, only to find that the world isn’t quite what they thought it was. This faster episode boldly places Barbara as the hero, saving her companions from the Brains that have subjugated the City of Morphoton. Making good use of POV shots (although continuity obsessive’s may notice a few mistakes) this episode illustrates the serial not only as a pre-cursor to the Key to Time quest of Series 16 but also the reborn Doctor Who of 2005, where adventures are self-contained in single episodes. The Velvet Web runs for 25 minutes; Rose ran for a little over 35.
The Keys of Marinus is genuinely pioneering stuff, easily accommodating a two-week break for the series’ star during The Screaming Jungle and The Snows of Terror. Rather than hang around, the Doctor opts to leap forward to Millenius city, leaving his granddaughter and their teacher friends with Altos and Sabetha – the latter Arbitan’s daughter. It is a sign of how close the travellers have come that the Doctor trusts Ian and Barbara so.
Things don’t go so well for Ian, Barbara and Susan, sadly. The talking, whispering jungle found in The Screaming Jungle leads the travellers to believe that Susan is unwell/over-(re)acting, when in fact it turns out that they have transported their way into more danger, a Seeds of Doom-style plant-on-house siege eleven years before the fact. High on boy’s own adventure but low on genuine shocks, this episode proves to be crucial to the entire quest with the introduction of a duplicate key – a trick by Darrius (played by Edmund Warwick, who would later play a double of the Doctor in The Chase) to deter unwanted key searchers. Ian and Barbara are the focus of this installment, once again giving the audience the chance to enjoy their understated closeness.
One thing about Terry Nation’s writing that often amuses me is the way in which his planets all seem to have single environments. This isn’t the case in The Keys of Marinus, however, where dry nature of Aridius and jungles of Kembel seem a long way off. Marinus, by contrast, is painted as a thriving, living world, especially when we see our travellers arriving in The Snows of Terror where Vasor – character actor Francis de Wolff – (appropriately) hunts wolves and other creatures for their coats – he’s a fur trapper living in an extremely cold area of Marinus, a treacherous area littered with snow, ice, crevices and even frozen soldiers protecting the penultimate key.
Again, this is gripping stuff, with a sinister undertone to Vasor’s pleasure at Ian leaving Barbara in his “care”. The undertone becomes quite clear a few minutes later and it is pretty adult stuff for a so-called “children’s program” in 1964. Vasor’s treachery has put the entire expedition in danger, leaving the girls in a cave and Altos for dead. What a cove!
Culminating with the fur trapper getting his just desserts, the group of Ian, Barbara, Susan, Altos and Sabetha head to the City of Millenius to find the Doctor and the final key.
Here begins a thrilling two-part conclusion to the story – almost like a Russell T Davies series – in which Ian is framed for the murder of Eprim, Altos’ friend who was previously sent by Arbitan to retrieve the key. In Millenius, the accused are guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent, a situation that isn’t that different from modern society despite the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra that is often repeated as an example of western civilization’s “superior” attitude to law and order.
But I digress.
Ian’s Sentence of Death can only be prevented if he can find help. “I need a man to defend me,” pleads our heroic teacher, “I am that man!” announces the Doctor as he arrives at the court. It’s a great moment, a setup for a story that Hartnell is clearly relishing. Rather than deal with monsters and villains, the Doctor is plunged into the role of defence barrister, putting Chesterton’s case to a rather ridiculous trio of judges who all resemble The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
As with many whodunnits, however, the presence of esteemed actor Donald Pickering is enough to get your Time Lord senses tingling, although Nation-watchers can tick their checklist – there’s a character called Tarron (which isn’t a million miles from Tarrant, I think you’ll agree!)
As events enter the final episode – called The Keys of Marinus – Susan’s life at is at risk after being kidnapped by the conspirators. With detective legwork by Barbara (and an increasingly camp Altos), however, the day is saved with plenty of time to return to Arbitan with the keys intact, ready to repel the Voord.
But are they too late? Suffice to say that the Voord aren’t the quality of villains that might deserve such measures to be taken. (Note, however, that their leader, Yartek, has a name not too dissimilar to “Yarvelling”, the creator of the Daleks according to the Nation-approved TV 21 comic strip.)
Having reached the end of the quest, it’s back to the TARDIS, and off on another adventure. Genuinely a fantastic ride, The Keys of Marinus is a greatly under-appreciated classic that foreshadows so much of Doctor Who in both format, story-telling and basic plotting.
While you would be hard-pressed to find a popular adventure series in the mid-1960s that didn’t have Terry Nation’s name attached to it, this doesn’t mean that the common Nation tropes should be considered tired or cliched – indeed, the writer was getting into his stride at this time, and displays as much originality as he did in The Daleks.