The Keys of Marinus

The Keys of Marinus

Well, this was bound to happen sooner or later.  Here we are at The Keys of Marinus, the first “bad” Doctor Who story.  One of the weaker scripts and some of the more shoddy production values (speaking 1964-wise) of the first season.  Oh, there are all sorts of extenuating circumstances – the script was commissioned in a hurry after several other projects fell through on short notice, it was produced mere weeks before transmission, etc.  This is all documented in greater detail on a better website.  But, even if you are aware of the behind-the-scenes mishaps… you still have to sit through six episodes of unfortunate acting choices, a plot motivated by people making deliberately stupid decisions, and lots of on-screen production goofs.  Coming off the highs of The Daleks and Marco Polo, this is the first serious lull you’ll encounter when watching Doctor Who in chronological order.

Truth be told, all this happened 49 years ago.  So I have no hate for The Keys of Marinus.  One thing I’ve gained through this watch-’em-all-from-the-beginning project is a new respect for Terry Nation’s storytelling abilities… of course, I’ll have lost all that when I get to his 1970s output.  But as paper-thin as the Marinus scripts are, it’s got several moments of charm.  And with even the absolute great stories of the 1960s now looking dated, having been betrayed by decades’ worth of advances in TV scriptwriting and production values, I have a kind of soft spot for the stories that nobody loved to begin with (and we’ll see more of this when I get to The Sensorites).

"For the love of G-d... I was in Citizen Kane!  Orson, get me out of this..." "I'm sorry, George. I'm busy doing wine commercials.  Say, what do you know about Nostradumus?"

“For the love of G-d… I was in Citizen Kane! Orson, get me out of this…” “I’m sorry, George. I’m busy doing wine commercials. Say, what do you know about Nostradumus?”

So, the basics.  The TARDIS lands on a beach of glass surrounded by a sea of acid – a typically vivid Nation landing pad – and our travelers are quickly locked out of the TARDIS by a mysterious forcefield.  Meanwhile, strange intruders in reptilian wet suits are stalking the pyramid that is the island’s lone sign of life.  Arbitan, the keeper of the pyramid, is played by George Coulouris, who was in Citizen Kane.  He was Doctor Who‘s first real larger-than-life guest star… naturally, the show could only get him to appear for one of this story’s six weeks.  He quickly dispatches the TARDIS crew on a mission to collect four “microkeys” which, when assembled into a supercomputer that’s ominously called “The Conscience of Marinus”, will turn the planet’s entire populace into law-abiding citizens, including the Voord and their wet suits.

The keys are, of course, hidden across the planet, in a variety of dangerous locations, and surrounded by deadly traps.  The Doctor and friends are literally Arbitan’s last hope to retrieve these keys and put the planets to rights.  Naturally, Arbitan doesn’t bother to tell them about any of the traps.  Or that Rosebud was the sled, a tragic symbol of Charles’ lost youth.  What’s worse is that, in a performance characterized by goggle-eyed stares, awkward “dramatic” pauses, and strange emphases on the wrong syllables, Coulouris appears awkward and out of place, much like Kane suffering through Susan Alexander’s opera performance…

Over most of the next five episodes, we zip through a succession of memorable locations, with a lot of punchy episode titles to help us figure out where we are.  Not just a jungle, but The Screaming Jungle.  Not just a snowy landscape, but The Snows of Terror.  William Hartnell was famously on vacation for Episodes 3 and 4, for which Ian temporarily takes over as hero (which he was doing for most of the episodes prior to Hartnell’s vacation anyway, to be fair).  The final two episodes turn courtroom drama, as Ian is framed for murder, and the Doctor’s return to the story comes in literally the first stand-up-and-cheer moment the character will ever earn, as he volunteers himself as Ian’s defense counsel (naturally, Ian is quickly convicted and handed a Sentence of Death, but there are fewer things more awesome than watching Hartnell savor his turn as Perry Mason).

This should all be really good stuff, with a selection of short padding-free mini-adventures in different exotic locals before all four keys are assembled.  The problem is, and this is exacerbated because we’ve now had 49 years to pore over the scripts’ shortcomings, that there are enough logical gaps and oversights to implode most of the story’s tension.  Why does Ian go from being skeptical of The Velvet Web to trying to strangle Barbara 15 minutes later?  Makes it harder to buy him as the de facto series’ lead for the two weeks after that… Fur-trapper Vasor’s efforts to rape Barbara (he literally chases her ’round a table in Episode 4)  are close to being offensive, probably the series trying to push its envelope a little too far, too early on.  Ian’s heroic rescue efforts in the Snows story are also reckless and stupid; he crosses a rickety bridge over a bottomless pit (our second in two Nation stories so far) ahead of Vasor, who promptly tosses the thing into the chasm and leaves all our heroes stranded.  When Susan is held prisoner in the final episode, why doesn’t she just use her travel dial to escape?

Terry Nation's sinister but elegant invention spawned a cottage industry, Voord-mania.  Don't you own the hit record, "I Want To Spend My Christmas With A Yartek?"

Terry Nation’s sinister but elegant invention spawned a cottage industry, Voord-mania. Don’t you own the hit record, “I Want To Spend My Christmas With A Yartek”?

But.  Now that we’re watching this thing for historical value, looking for signs of the show’s evolution into greatness, and for charming William Hartnell moments, and now that we’re no longer invested in the actual plot, or plot holes, or anything related to the story that Terry Nation was actually trying to tell, Marinus becomes a treasure trove of goodies.  Setting aside his character’s attributes, Francis DeWolff as Vasor is the creepiest and best-acted human villain on the show to this point (“You don’t kill anybody in this country…the cold and the wolves do that…”).  The “growth accelerator” that speeds up the trees’ and vines’ creeping devastation in The Screaming Jungle sounds a lot like Terry Nation workshopping the idea that would later become the “Time Destructor”.  Edmund Warwick, who plays the crazy old coot responsible for the growth accelerator, is actually very good in his two scenes, and leads one to wonder why the show later relegated him to bit parts and doubling William Hartnell.

Speaking of Hartnell, he’s just an absolute joy to watch in the courtroom episodes; he tries on his Sherlock Holmes (“Elementary, elementary!”), which was clearly a tremendous influence on a young Steven Moffat, and his “attack” on Barbara during a crime scene recreation is the first time on the show that we’ve laughed with the character instead of at the character.  There’s the frisson of realization that the cliffhanger at the end of Sentence of Death is actually the show’s first-ever double cliffhanger, with Ian having just been sentenced and now Susan being menaced by the nice-looking young lady who would later play an evil 17th-century vixen for Doctor Who‘s 25th anniversary episode.  For his second story in a row, Nation nods at the limitations of the TV medium; when Ian complains about the lack of a color TV in the TARDIS,  the Doctor sticks up for the show’s black-and-white format by announcing that he does have a color TV screen… but it’s hors de combat.  Finally is the clever fact that in the final episode, The Keys of Marinus, the villains in both plot strands (Kala, and Yartek the chief Voord) give themselves away by verbal slips…

Fiona Walker (as Kala) urges her vacillating accomplice to have the courage of his convictions...

Fiona Walker (as Kala) urges her vacillating accomplice to have the courage of his convictions…

I think part of the reason that I remain fond of Marinus, in spite of its just not being very well made, is the Philip Hinchcliffe novelization.  Hinchcliffe, the show-runner for Seasons 12 through 14, the man who brought a gothic horror flavor to the series, seems an odd choice to have penned a Season 1 book adaptation, but he renders vivid each of Marinus’ exotic locales.  I bought the novelization at my first Doctor Who convention in July 1985, on a Saturday afternoon in Manhattan, and spent most of the rest of the day reading this one.  It was that, and the convention airing of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, which was the first time I’d actually watched a Hartnell episode, that helped cement my love for all things black-and-white-Who.  I wasn’t worried about plot holes or production goofs, and I’m certain I didn’t pick up on the rape thing at age 11.  But I can’t watch Marinus now without flashing back to that convention, grabbing the novelization off a table in the dealer’s room (because of the nifty TARDIS-in-flight cover and the ’70s-vintage orange spine), and falling right down the William Hartnell wormhole from which I have yet to escape.

I’d like to think that this story was fun to produce, as well, if not so much fun to sit through as a fan.  During the closing moments of Episode 6, as (in typical Nation style) the plot is being resolved by the push of a single button, the TARDIS crew engage in some comedy antics in Arbitan’s pyramid.  This is the first time in the show’s history that we get a sense  that the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara are actually having fun together, and enjoying each other’s company.  And the next story is set in 15th-century Mexico.  That should be just as much fun for them, right?  Right?  Whoops…

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About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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14 Responses to The Keys of Marinus

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  5. Aaron says:

    I have a soft spot for a lot of the early episodes of the series that are rough around the edges, and this is certainly one of them. Had a chuckle at the idea of “Voord-mania.”

    • drwhonovels says:

      Thanks! By the way, I’ve been enjoying your blog too. Looks as if we started our rewatch projeccts at roughly the same times, and probably for the same reasons!

      • Aaron says:

        Thanks! Yeah, I’m willing to bet we had similar motives…what with that big 50th anniversary coming up.

  6. ealnyc says:

    Wow– this is amazing! I don’t understand a word of it, but I LOVE it!!!!

    • drwhonovels says:

      What, Liz, you don’t read reviews of 49 year-old foreign TV programs on the regular? 🙂 Just don’t make me show you one of these here episodes I’ve been writing about…

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