One of the best things about Doctor Who’s format, all across the decades but especially in the early years of William Hartnell’s First Doctor, is that it’s free to do almost anything. If the Doctor can travel anywhere in the universe and any point in history, the show is limited, in theory, only by the imagination. And if he never knows where he’s going next, the viewer is always off guard too. When it’s done well, it makes Doctor Who delightfully disorienting—you never know what might be around the next corner. So far in its first season, those surprises had included cannibal cavemen, genocidal alien mutants, and Kublai Khan, emperor of 13th-century China.
1964’s “The Keys Of Marinus” takes that to an extreme, putting the TARDIS crew through a whirlwind quest across the planet Marinus that has them struggling even more than usual to cope with the shifting array of dangers they encounter on the way. Acid seas! Eyestalked brains who rule through mind control! A jungle that screams and kills! There’s almost as much concentrated weirdness and diverse exotic locations packed into the six episodes of this serial as there is in the rest of the first season combined. It’s almost like the series, growing increasingly confident midway through its debut season, was showing off what it was capable of. It’s audacious and bold, and it’s hard not to love it for that.
(On a practical level, it’s wasn’t easy to pull that off with the production values available to early-1960s low-budget black-and-white TV, and watching it a half-century later, all the rickety sets and bobbled line readings become even more glaring. I mention this not to criticize, but as a reminder that early Doctor Who has to be watched with a forgiving eye toward details like that, because given the technical limitations under which the show was created, it’s closer to a stage play that happened to be caught on video than what we expect from modern TV drama.)
And yet in the end, “Keys Of Marinus” is maybe most notable as an example that more is not better. A mad flurry of ideas can be worse than sticking to just a few, if the constant change-up keeps potentially great ideas from having time to develop into something that actually is great.
Written hastily by Terry Nation (writer and co-inventor of “The Daleks”) to replace other planned stories that fell through, “The Keys Of Marinus” came by its unusually extreme episodic structure in part to help Nation and story editor David Whitaker finish the story in a rush. It’s also a favorite trick of Nation’s, though, to split up his characters and send them off on separate journeys over the course of a story, one he relied on frequently in his Doctor Who scripts. Here, though, the episodic quest structure is handled pretty badly. Its flaws are especially apparent when you look at the serial directly after it, “The Aztecs,” which is one of the strongest stories of the First Doctor era precisely because it focuses on one major, compelling story point and thinks it through.
Nation splits the plot into five almost totally unrelated stories, all of which are shallow and riddled with plot holes because they zoom by so fast. The story begins with the TARDIS landing on an island in the middle of Marinus’ acid sea, where the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and her schoolteachers Ian and Barbara soon meet Arbitan, a lonely old man who keeps watch over an artifact called the Conscience Machine. This ominously-named device once kept the peace across the whole planet and created a 700-year period of prosperity by eliminating evil on Marinus. How? Mind control, says Arbitan: People “no longer had to decide what was wrong or right. The machine decided for them.” That sounds a lot creepier than it’s apparently intended to. The Conscience Machine sounds like a device for creating a society of pacified zombies—not more moral but less, because the element of free choice has been removed. And indeed the queasy morality of using such a thing is almost entirely unmentioned except a single statement by the Doctor at the very end of the last episode—the story itself never deals with the issue. The Conscience Machine, it turns out, also had another flaw even worse than telepathic fascism: Anyone unaffected by its power was free to do anything they wanted to the other Marinusians, who would no longer know how to defend themselves. Enter the villains, the Voords, whose rise to power forced Arbitan to remove the Conscience Machine’s five control circuits—the Keys—and hide them all across Marinus. By now, he’s had time to fix the Machine so it’ll work on Voords again also, but he can’t get the Keys back because he’s under siege by the Voords, who want the Machine for themselves.
Exactly how long the Conscience Machine has been disabled is unclear. Arbitan says he did it himself, which implies that it happened maybe a few decades ago at most, when Arbitan was a young man. But the entire courtroom subplot in the final two episodes is based on the idea that Millenius has its own complex legal system—which they could only have developed after the Conscience Machine was shut off, since its whole purpose was to decide matters of justice so humans didn’t have to.
Arbitan has sent all his friends and family to retrieve the Keys, but none have returned—all dead, perhaps, he has no way to know. With no alternative, he’s forced to turn to the Doctor and his friends, and chooses a surprisingly brutal way to convince them for a guy whose life goal is to return peace to the planet: He threatens them with imprisonment and starvation if they don’t pick up the quest. It’s exactly the kind of thing he wouldn’t be able to do if the Machine were switched back on.
But it works, since if it didn’t there’d be nothing happening in episodes two through six. The first stop is Morphoton, a city that seems to be a paradise, but is actually a trap. Beginning with Barbara, the crew are bedazzled by offers oftheir heart’s desires—luxurious clothing, fine food, and even a fully-stocked lab for the Doctor. But it’s all an illusion caused by hypnosis, and everything they’re given is actually trash. The city is actually controlled by disembodied brains called the Morphos, who have enslaved everyone via their mental powers. By luck, Barbara resists them long enough to smash their glass cases and kill them. The city’s humans awaken, understandably very angry once they realize what’s been done to them, and riot, burning everything down. And that dark, pretty unhappy ending is pretty much it—Key in hand, the Doctor’s crew leaves. It’s disquietingly abrupt, another in a long line of instances where the plot moves too fast not to leave a lot of lingering questions behind. (It’s also noteworthy that the Morphos used essentially the same method as the Conscience Machine to enslave Morphoton. And wouldn’t there have been a similar period of anarchy across all of Marinus, though perhaps less violent and rage-driven, after Arbitan shut off the Machine and everyone could suddenly commit crimes again?)
Arbitan, by the way, has already been killed by a Voord moments after he sees the TARDIS crew off, bad planning on the Voords’ part because he’s the only one who knows where the Keys are. Then again, it seems that Arbitan hasn’t really given the Doctor’s group great directions either—other than giving them some wrist teleporters that take them near where he hid each Key, he’s told them nothing about what they can expect. The problem is highlighted in the third episode, when Ian and Barbara are told that “only those warned by Arbitan” could avoid the traps that they were just unable to avoid because Arbitan didn’t warn them. Oddly, Ian and Barbara don’t seem angry about that, or even to realize it. Tha’s because it’s really not Arbitan’s fault so much as Nation’s overhasty, lazy scriptwriting—I can’t shake the idea that the plot hole wasn’t fixed because Nation and Whitaker may not even have realized it was there. This was a rush job. They were focused on coming up with the red meat of visual spectacle and action scenes, and connecting them together with half-baked explanations was the best they could do at that point. And sure, a certain amount of that is forgiveable in the name of keeping story momentum going. The elements of “The Keys Of Marinus” that work really well are mostly the thriller-chiller bits—the jungle smashing into the house, the frozen knights waking up, Vasar’s slimy attempt to attack Barbara. But the parts meant to connect one part to another are repeatedly vague, illogical or hand-wavy, and that becomes increasingly hard to ignore. (Who are the frozen knights, anyway? If they’re guarding a Key, wouldn’t that mean that they’re working for Arbitan, and would therefore willingly give the key up to people who are also employed by Arbitan?)
Another good thing—and by all means, let’s talk about the good things here, because I really didn’t dislike the story as much as it probably sounds—is the evolving character dynamics between the main cast. After the mutual distrust between the Doctor and his unwilling companions that marked the early part of the first season, their growing friendship is ever more apparent. The old man is clearly distraught when he thinks he’s failed to save Ian, a scene Hartnell nails. Ian and Barbara carry a large part of the story themselves, given that the Doctor disappears for the middle two episodes (Hartnell was on vacation). Susan, though, has little to do except scream and panic a lot, and get kidnapped in episode five. She’s all too easily written as superfluous and annoying, and Carole Ann Ford’s range doesn’t help—small wonder she’ll be the first of the companions to leave the show, early in the next season. But her freakout when she arrives alone in the screaming jungle, hearing something “horrible” that she can’t describe, makes sense for her character. As revealed fully a bit later in this season in “The Sensorites,” Susan is a nascent telepath, though at this point she probably doesn’t realize it. And since the jungle around her has been turned murderous alive and, apparently, conscious by the mad scientist Darrius, she’s picking up on that. But also, she has good cause to be terrified by jungles, having gone through a longer, even more frightening ordeal in “The Daleks.”
• Originally broadcast April 11, May 16, 1964.
• A little surprisingly, given that Doctor Who was so heavily reliant on episodic stories because of its serialized schedule, “The Keys Of Marinus” was one of the few times the series used the collect-the-widgets quest format, which seems like a natural fit. The only other notable instance is season 16’s Key To Time arc—which I’ve been working my way through over the last few months of this feature, so it seemed appropriate to look in at “Marinus” too.
• After Barbara asks if the oddly unmoving ocean they’re looking at is frozen, the Doctor replies, “No, impossible in this temperature. Besides, it’s too warm.” You think?
• Upcoming schedule:
• Doctor Who Classic reviews will publish monthly at 2 p.m. CST on the first Saturday of the month. For the next few months, every other review will tackle the Fourth Doctor’s “Key To Time” arc from 1978, skipping around to other seasons inbetween. Coming up:
• Nov. 1: :”The Keys Of Marinus”
• Dec. 13: “The Androids Of Tara.” UPDATE: Sorry to do this, but flu has made its way into the Bahn household and taking care of my two feverish little patients has kept me from finishing the scheduled Dec. 6 entry. We’ll pick it up next week instead. —CB
• Jan. 3: “The Robots Of Death.”
• Feb. 7: “The Power Of Kroll”
• March 7: “The Sea Devils”
• April 4: “The Armageddon Factor”