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The Keys of Marinus

Review by Peter Adamson

Six episodes set in five different locations spread across a mosaic world of futuristic cities and exotic creatures. A quest for six near-mythical devices with which the story's heroes might restore a society fallen to crime and corruption. A race of silent, evil assassins who plot to gain unchallenged rule over a docile populace. Terry Nation's The Keys of Marinus at first promises an adventure of truly epic proportions, equalling its predecessor the historical Marco Polo in breadth and scope, not to mention intrigue. Unfortunately, what results after a relatively promising start is something more mixed - a ‘road movie’ without a destination.

The Sea of Death

The Keys of Marinus begins with a sun-baked island in the middle of a glass-smooth sea, towards which a group of submarine vessels silently make their way, their occupants unseen. In the middle of the island, awaiting invasion by this unseen menace, is a pyramidal structure comparable to the living units on Metebelis Three in Planet of the Spiders. As sequences go, it's the most evocative and may also be the most expensive of the entire story.

Nation's second serial for Doctor Who initially offers little to suggest its author is deliberately attempting to break the Dalek mould in style and genre, but when this finally happens, the result is in places a disjointed sequence of contrasting locations and storylines. Purportedly about the search for six circuit board ‘Keys’, this is little more than an ‘umbrella’ plot, with its chief baddies the Voord mere bookends to an assortment of escapades. A close comparison is the cinema adventure serials of the 1950s; with each episode ending on a cliff-hanger arrival to a new and dangerous location, one can't help but also think of Quantum Leap.

The Keys of Marinus is also the story that introduced us to the Voord, whose supposed alien-ness is something of a presumption. What are the Voord? Are they really alien? It's one of a number of frustrating and unanswered questions in the story. The Voord wear rubber suits which cover their entire bodies; Yartek's even has holes which show a human face beneath, though this is surely unintentional. Darrius later asks Barbara if she is a Voord, and Arbitan refers to Yartek as a “man”. At least the script doesn't actively work against the (lack of) imaginative costume. It would seem then the Voord are costumed humans, despite Altos' later assertion that “there are many different races on Marinus”. Similarly, the Masters of Morphoton seen later aren't strictly alien in nature either, but developed [human?] brains. Dalek comparisons aside, it seems odd that while on the one hand great lengths have been made to impress the idea of an unearthly ‘mosaic world’ of exotic races and cultures, there is little in the broadcast version which supports this as strongly as Nation's earlier contribution.

The Sea of Death begins with a remnant of Sydney Newman's writ for the series, as the Doctor and his friends piece Marinus together methodically and deductively, discovery following discovery. Later, Barbara furthers the didactic bent by observing (with Ian) the similarity of Arbitan's pyramid to those on Earth, right down to their method of construction. Within the pyramid is Arbitan, played by George Colouris, in what is perhaps the series' first genuine guest star role - albeit only for the one episode.

It's not made clear just what status Arbitan has or once had, which at best suggests a change from the usual encounter between the TARDIS' occupants and rulers or rebels. Arbitan remains a bit of an enigma - what happened to his “people” to whom he refers? Presumably they fell prey to Yartek and his followers. Perhaps it's all in his name - an arbiter being a judge or ruler of some kind; though as we see later, this doesn't seem to extend in a global sense. Admittedly, his obvious expository dialogue helps to fill out the background a little, but it doesn't explain what he's been up to all this time aside from sending young people to their doom - even before they reach the first Key, as we soon discover.

The Velvet Web

[Susan and Altos]

The location changed, episode two has nearly as much to do as the first, introducing the story's secondary characters Altos and Sabetha. Indeed, as a stand-alone story it shows the most promise. Morphoton, pronounced with such pedestrian manner by Altos as though it were a mere Palmerston, is a wholly interior location, as are nearly all other settings. Although the scenario borrows from a stock premise: a population under ‘alien’ mind control, there are redeeming qualities, in particular the first use of the episode soundtrack, the Eastern hints of which complement the set design ideally. Amidst this setting the mature relationship between Ian and Barbara is freed up - making for a refreshing change of pace before the real drama begins in Barbara's failed ‘hypnotism’. Inventive camera direction means that with the illusion of Morphoton's luxurious surroundings broken, the audience is allowed a self-conscious ‘point of view’ through the companion's eyes - potentially for the first time in the series. The contrasting shot/reverse shot technique allows for a dialogue between Barbara and her still-deluded friends that alternates in a sometimes disturbing, sometimes comic exchange - made all the more effective because the viewer isn't informed of the nature of the delusion until after seeing it first through her eyes. This is extended later in an illusory ‘laboratory’ in which Ian and the Doctor marvel at their new equipment, but to diminished effect. For all the wonder with which Hartnell examines a phantom apparatus in his hand, he still treats it as he would do the tin mug that it actually is; picking it up by its handle and looking inside it.

The episode's revelatory scene, where Barbara ‘smashes’ the glass cases of the Masters of Morphoton, is probably better-known for its failed effect: only one in four jars smashes due to budget limitations, and the rest of the effect is demonstrated by a drooping eyestalk and surreal, hysterical screaming from the disembodied voice. However, there is some innovation here: Barbara, the clear hero of the episode, is given the chance to reverse the traditional gender roles in such adventure serials, actually reassuring Ian after saving the day single-handedly. It would be a long time in Hollywood before this could be allowed elsewhere.

The Screaming Jungle

After the relatively populous Morphoton, the TARDIS crew split up for reasons of expediency, and episode three attempts some ambitious pairings, with Barbara and Sabetha, Ian and Sabetha, and Altos and Susan, who prove short-lived in this instalment also. There's much recycling of elements here already - the swinging wall-trap must have been in vogue on Marinus, and what looks to be a tropically-climed Ice Soldier reanimated to assassinate thieves at best foreshadows the next episode's events. As the only other cast member in this instalment, Edmund Warwick's Darrius is a hastily-drawn sketch, barely coherent and little more than a means of moving the plot along and pointing out the rough location of the next Key. This is something of a pity, as the idea of “nature's tempo of destruction sped up” could have been explored in greater depth, instead of being a last minute peril. As it stands, the amount of time spent on the one idea was probably well-measured if the effects are anything to go by.

The Snows of Terror

[Ice Soldiers]

Episode four allows the pace of the story to slow further, but does present a rather disturbing dose of reality in Barbara's capture. The Snows of Terror, with another solo villain in the questionable Vasor, is something of a let-down, not in the least part because of the mixed effect of that character's required menace. The idea of a vulnerable female hero trapped in a mountain hut with a large male stranger with sexually predatory motives is one which could be handled in a number of ways; the strong impression I received was of a theme which proved awkward for the production team. I seem to recall being more bothered by Phillip Hinchcliffe's guttural version of Vasor in the former's otherwise disappointing novelisation. Elsewhere, the discovery of the Key relies on an obviously limited set and judicious lighting as the travellers enter the apparently haunted ice caves. The Ice Soldiers, guardians of the fifth Key, begin promisingly, but like the Voord in episode one, lose their silent menace when one falls unconvincingly from a ledge, screaming as he does so. It also doesn't help that they resemble greatly ‘The Knights Who Say “Nii!”” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Up until this point, they could have been anything from androids (albeit with eyelids) or ‘zombies’, suspended in animation until triggered by the Key's defrosting; to reduce them to emotional beings is something of a shortfall - pardon the pun! Immediately afterward another disappointment occurs back at Vasor's hut: the trapper's abject terror at the heroes' return would be enough to see him off - his death at the hands of the pursuing Soldiers is superfluous.

Sentence of Death

“Ah yes, Millennius - the futuristic City” proclaims the Doctor in The Screaming Jungle. It's somewhat curious that the evidence for this in episodes five and six is somewhat contrary - unless wood veneer and hand held telephones are Marinus' idea of high technology. Only the mentioned glass factories in the nearby deserts provide anything close to exoticism, though these could be little more than an extension of the idea of a Ukrainian salt mine. Then again, the wrist-dials given to the travellers by Arbitan are regarded with wonder by the city's inhabitants - presumably then the Conscience machine is still the apex of the planet's technology? The scenario in this instalment, that of Ian imperilled by being ‘framed’ as a murderer, offers less of the alien wonder that the overall story is presumably attempting. In particular, the travellers' incredulous frustration at Millennius' laws being based on the tenet of “guilty until proven innocent” is confusing, as they all ought to be aware that this same idea is the basis of France's own justice system. Perhaps not in the Who universe. There are some highlights - both conscious (Susan's numb delivery “they're going to kill me” over the 'phone before being cut off provides a quite disturbing cliffhanger) and the unintentional (Hartnell's thuggish re-enactment of the attack on Ian, this time upon poor Jacqueline Hill!), but the overall impression one has is that too much time is spent in Millennius telling a routine, modern day court intrigue - a genre which has not traditionally been held in high regard throughout the show's history.

The Keys of Marinus

And so, with Ian given a reprieve and released with the final Key, the travellers return to the island, where the last two heroes (other than the Doctor) are finally given their turn to be captives - this time of Yartek and his Voords. With all options presumably exhausted, their foes having hostages and five of the six keys, the TARDIS crew have to rescue their friends while preventing a Voord takeover of the Conscience machine. This takes less than fifteen minutes to achieve. It is in this instalment that the last vestiges of the Voords' alienness disappears, as Yartek, the only aggressor lacking accompanying antenna, talks up a storm, human mannerisms intact. Although all loose threads are tidied up and most questions answered, the resolution of The Keys of Marinus still comes as something of a disappointment. The Doctor is never convinced that the recovery of the Keys and revival of the Conscience will necessarily solve the kinds of problems that the rampant Voords (and possibly the Masters of Morphoton?) embody, nor the basic urges of Vasor, unless the Conscience is supposed to be more of a pacifying influence along the lines of the Morpho machine. It's somehow odd that the Doctor's resolve doesn't come as a result of being present seeing such misuse of science promote social collapse elsewhere on the planet - as with Darrius' experiments, or in the Masters' chambers in Morphoton. Indeed, he is able to convince Altos that the planet should continue without the help of the Conscience, and despite Ian's close call, should be convinced that Millennius at least seemed to have adapted to life without the machine's judgement quite reasonably. This begs the question that if human legal systems exist on Marinus with the consent of its inhabitants, does that make Arbitan's blackmailing of the Doctor and his companions into the quest of a delusional scientist? At the end of the day, would a fully functional Conscience be any better than the Masters' Mesmeron? While the Doctor is opposed to the machine itself, it is odd that it isn't this aspect to which he most strongly objects.

Ultimately, the serial's largest obstacle is the very device it employs. By changing location with each episode, dividing the TARDIS regulars into smaller permutations and setting up a slight and not entirely engaging plotline, the story itself is at times spread very thinly. The overall impresion one gains is that which, perhaps, its heroes might have had of Marinus itself: briefly diverting, but somewhat transient - too many short stops to gain any overall attachment. The Keys of Marinus isn't a bad story - it's not even, dare I say it, a poor story; it's merely a victim of its own ambition - limited resources and scope for supporting cast used to suggest something larger and more populous. It is encouraging however to see some attention given to the Doctor's companions as potential heroes - Barbara in particular. For this reason, The Keys of Marinus doesn't utterly fail, but by no means is it either memorable or momentous - perhaps a return visit is in order?

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: The Keys of Marinus