Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Keys of Marinus

There are some Doctor Who stories which get less interesting or enjoyable with every viewing. The Ark in Space comes into this category for me. It's a rather dull story once you have seen it a couple of times. In contrast, The Keys of Marinus becomes more enjoyable with every viewing. Each time I watch it, I get something new out of it. I did not care much for The Keys of Marinus on first viewing, but since then I have come to love it. Yes, the production values are very low in this story, but it still has a simple charm that does not fail to entertain. The Keys of Marinus reveals Terry Nation's main skill as a writer; he is brilliant at filling a story with exciting events. There is no shortage of tension or excitement as he takes the characters on a roller-coaster ride from one danger to another.

At the time of The Keys of Marinus, the format of Doctor Who was still in a state of flux. The Doctor was still not that likable and Barbara and Ian were the main characters. The loose-structured nature of this story, with it's episodic narrative makes a strong contrast with later serials, but it reflected the experimental nature of Doctor Who at this time.

Remember the Chrystal Maze? That program had different zones, an Aztec Zone, an Industrial Revolution Zone, a Medieval Zone and a Futuristic Zone. This serial likewise puts people the main characters into similarly diverse settings. And like the participants in The Chrystal Maze, they have to hunt for keys.

The first episode has a few problems, most caused by the small size of the sets. The cast do their best, but they are clearly struggling to make it convincing. This is not helped by the remarkably large number of fluffs from William Hartnell.

The Velvet Web's sets are a little cheap-looking as well, but this episode uses them better. The premise of things not looking like what they are is very cleverly done, with different points of view shots. The brains in the jars are very well conceived and their voices are highly effective. It is just unfortunate that their final scene is ruined by Jacqueline Hill's inability to break the glass.

There is a nice eeriness to the Screaming Jungle and this is backed up by a real sense of urgency. Unfortunately, this is a really cheap looking episode, with the dreadful idol and the laboratory that appears to be in a garden shed.

The next episode is more effective, mainly because of the great acting from Vasor, the trapper. I must admit, I am a bit in two minds about the scene where he appears to threaten Barbara with rape; it is a children's show after all. There is something a little worrying about the way that Barbara is repeatedly threatened with rape in the Hartnell era, though I suppose it is sadly true to life.

The ice warriors (what else do you call them?) look as cheap as the rest of the story but they are hilarious. The moment when they are stuck on the wrong side of the chasm is hilarious. I recently watched the Eisenstein's Russian classic, Alexander Nevsky. Every time I saw the Teutonic Knights, I kept thinking of the ice warriors in The Keys of Marinus and it made me crack up.

From the snows of the mountains, we are brought into a murder mystery in the more modern environment of Millennius. There is plenty of suspense and tension in this. I love the way Hartnell conveys frustration as Ian's plight becomes more desperate. I also really enjoyed the performance of Fiona Walker as Kala, which is especially impressive, given that it was her first role.

The conclusion is rather clumsy. Having a villain who only appears in the final episode can sometimes work, but in this story it does not. The Voord also appear to have changed their nature. In the first episode, they appear to be humans or humanoids in wetsuits. Now they are described as 'creatures' and Yartek their leader seems unable to remove his mask while disguised as Arbitan. That said, Yartek's pretence at being Arbitan is hilarious and not a little camp. Coming across as Fu Manchu in a rubber suit, he is one of the sillier Doctor Who villains.

As with a lot of other serials, Susan does not come across well in this, as she goes into a screaming fit at the slightest provocation. She is slightly redeemed in the fourth episode when she summons the courage to crawl across the deep chasm on a fragile pole of ice. I love Susan. She was such a great character, but if only she had been given a better deal by the writers.

Sabetha and Altos are interesting in the pseudo-companion like role they take on. They might have worked a little better if their background had been fleshed out a bit more. Their romance is suddenly sprung on us at the end. Sabetha is rather bland, though I do like the way she is so prim and proper. Altos is just a little bit too camp and definitely needed a longer tunic.

One piece of Doctor Who lore that deserves to be discussed here is The World Shapers comic strip, by Grant Morrison and John Ridgway. This remarkable story revealed that Marinus is Mondas and that the Cybermen were originally the Voord! A lot of fans are unwilling to consider this story canon, as it has Jamie McCrimmon dying an horrible death. Yet there do seem to be some good reasons for thinking that Marinus really might well be Mondas. The only reason identified in The World Shapers is the physical similarity between the Voord and the Cybermen. Both have handlebar like appendages on their helmets. There are other reasons. Marinus is an earth-like planet inhabited by near humans. It could easily be Earth's twin planet. There is also the stuff about computers controlling people's behavior. The episode The Screaming Jungle gives hints that Marinus might be threatened with environmental problems. Perhaps the ice creatures are cybernetic proto-Cybermen. As one of them screams, they cannot be robots. Personally, I am very keen on this theory as it seems to enlarge the importance of an otherwise throwaway story.


  1. I only want to disagree on one point - Altos' tunic is EXACTLY the right length. Trust me on this.

    1. I can't imagine why you would think that. Thanks for dropping in.