Doctor Who and the Keys of Marinus
There’s a reason it’s called ‘a classic’
I know that I often come across as a cranky old fan who praises scratchy old black & white TV programs and decries the failings of CGi and strained histrionic acting… but this is another one of those times. The first season of Doctor Who is so dynamic and vibrant that many of its episodes still hold up well today. Granted, not all of them are golden (I was dumbfounded when I finally got to see the first full story ‘An Unearthly Child’ in the 80′s only to struggle to stay awake), but it is so incredibly brilliant and inventive that it’s staying power over 40 years is no surprise. Just look at the first Daleks serial or the Aztecs and you’ll see what I mean. But one of my favorites has to be the Keys of Marinus. A story that fully utilized the episodic format of the program, the Keys of Marinus is a sprawling adventure tale encompassing several settings and plots that has to be seen to be believed. This is long before the dreaded ‘episode three’ curse where it was apparent that a 45 minute story was stretched out to 4 parts. Don’t be fooled, this is Doctor who at its best. Given the recent results of the top ten fan-rated stories I have to question why this wasn’t included. Perhaps the upcoming DVD release will improve its popularity as fans will no longer be forced to watch a faded VHS recording of this classic.
Comedy writer Terry Nation’s second script for Doctor Who, Keys of Marinus often gets lost in the shuffle between the Daleks and the 12 part epic ‘The Dalek’s Masterplan.’ This is a shame since it’s such a cracking adventure story full of ideas and suspense that will become hard to come by in later years as a reliance on monsters takes over. With episode titles as thrilling as The Sea of Death and The Velvet Web, you have to wonder why the program abandoned the episodic naming convention for full story titles. The story opens with the TARDIS crew arriving on an alien planet seemingly devoid of life. What appears to be a placid sea turns out to be made not of water, but acid, introducing the audience to the idea that things are not what they seem. After finding an abandoned glass submarine containing the rubber husk of an intruder, the crew become separated by several intricate traps set to capture any invaders to the island.
Eventually the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan meet the keeper of the great computer called the Conscience named Arbitan. The Conscience is such a powerful computer that it can control the planet’s inhabitants, eliminating all criminal activity. The evil Voord are striving to take control of the Conscience, but wisely all of the 5 keys needed to power the device have been hidden across the planet. Eventually Arbitan enlists the Doctor’s aid in compiling the 5 keys to activate the Conscience and finally defeat the Voord with its power.
The First and the Best
The Doctor as played by William Hartnell has often been described as an anti-hero and while that label fits I think that his outstanding level of charisma and stage presence is forgotten. This Doctor takes no lip from anyone and is always in control. While there may be more than ten versions of the character, I have to say that once I saw Hartnell I realized he was the real deal. A powerful authority figure with an air of nobility and a hint of alien origins, there is just no touching the performance of William Hartnell as the Doctor… when he can remember his lines, that is.
A supporting cast never to be topped
The supporting cast of Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright and Susan Foreman are equally impressive and flesh out the stories quite well. Ian is so dashing and forthright, often in direct opposition to the cranky self-gratified Doctor. However, the true star has to be Barbara who has not received anything close to enough recognition as a classic companion. Stubborn and intelligent, Barbara is a rare thing in companions. I have my issues with Susan, a companion who changes character from episode to episode, but here she is quite good. A young and flighty girl with just a twinge of oddness about her, Susan appears subtle in comparison to more recent companions such as Rose.
The quest for the Keys of Marinus
The quest to collect the 5 keys takes many twists and turns resulting in 5 distinct adventures. This allows the program the opportunity to stretch its creative muscles and the result is quite impressive. Not only are numerous settings and characters introduced, but also entirely different story ideas are explored from a monster yarn to a murder mystery and even a legal tale. There are many stand out moments but chief amongst them has the be ‘The Velvet Web’ for a couple of reasons. The mind-controlling brain creatures of Morphoton who have tricked the inhabitants into believing that they are living in luxury when in actuality they are dressed in rags living in filth. This allows for several sly jokes on the limitations of the production staff such as a moment where the Doctor happily regards a rusty old coffee mug as an extremely advanced piece of scientific equipment. I have to laugh each time I see this moment. The designers must have been relieved to not have to create anything ‘breathtaking’ or ‘intricate’ that week.
The episodic adventure style was carried over from the sci-fi serials that preceded Doctor Who, but it fits so well that I often wonder why it is not utilized more often. In fact, outside of the Key to Time and later The Infinite Quest, Doctor Who has rarely relied upon the proven story formula of the classic movie serial. As the TV format matured, producers were more likely than not self-conscious of appearing too retro or behind the times and instead attempted to work in a more contemporary format. But after watching Keys of Marinus I am just gob-smacked at how perfect it is for the series. With no fixed base of operations and no regular supporting cast or premise outside of the depths of space and time, one can do just about anything with Doctor Who and therein lay its strength. Keys of Marinus is a touchstone of that era, and I’m very excited that finally new viewers will get a chance to experience it.