Reviewed by John Hussey
Having missed the events of “Marco Polo” we move onto “The Keys of Marinus”. After the success of “The Daleks” it wasn’t hard to assume that Terry Nation would be brought back to write more serials. This time he delivers an adventure story which has the TARDIS crew travelling to various locations during a quest to find five specially crafted circuit keys.
It’s strange watching this serial after watching “The Daleks” as it lacks all the elements you would normally associate with Nation’s writing. Though there are still some dark messages, and imagery, scattered throughout “The Keys of Marinus” mostly focuses on being a quest for the main cast to tackle, resulting in a fun adventure that explores new areas of exploration within the structuring of Doctor Who.
Though “Marco Polo” was a serial based around a long journey for the TARDIS crew to attend, “The Keys of Marinus” took this element into space as The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan travel to Marinus. Upon arrival in “The Sea of Death” we are given a familiar Nation tone of mystery as the TARDIS crew uncover the strange goings-on around the island. This results in the suspenseful presence of the Voord who are attempting to penetrate the temple, stalking the TARDIS crew in the process.
It’s interesting how Nation once again creates an alien world but this time he strays away from having connections to Earth and goes full-on with exploring the dynamics of science-fiction, creating a somewhat traditional space adventure. The air of mystery soon turns into a quest as The First Doctor and his companions encounter Arbitan, the creator of a machine called the Conscience of Marinus.
I rather like the idea of the Conscience of Marinus being able to control the minds of man, adding in some interesting personal opinions on how technology can one day determine our actions. Not only is it an interesting premise from a negative stand-point but also intriguing when you consider the possibility of having a machine that can potentially rid the world of evil. You have to wonder whether the cost of free-will is worth having a world free from violence and hatred, where children can be raised in a safe environment.
The machine was, however, turned off due to the evil Yartek who had found a way to escape the influence and attempted to corrupt the Conscience of Marinus. In retaliation Arbitan had the five special keys that control it scattered across Marinus. With the Voord drawing near it was up to The First Doctor and his companions to retrieve the keys and restore balance to Marinus.
Nation’s second script is one of his best due to the unique formula of having a different adventure each week, with its own unique setting, tone, and storytelling. “The Sea of Death” serves as a slow-paced narrative of discovery, accompanied with suspense, that sets-up the consecutive episodes. “The Velvet Web” became a psychological thriller as the TARDIS crew face the terrifying truth behind the city of Morphoton.
Barbara comes across a city where anything is possible as she, and her fellow time travellers, are treated like kings as their every demand is met. Ian is obviously sceptical and ponders on the catch to the entire affair. It’s rather intriguing watching this scene as he questions the alien culture, comparing things back to Earth methods which really cements the ideas of other-worldly ideals. Things get complicated when Barbara’s trance lifts after a failed attempt by Sabetha to control her mind.
She begins to see Morphoton for what it really is – a massive lie. Before them lied a ruined city and everything they had been granted was an illusion, created to pull the TARDIS crew into a false sense of security before dominating their thoughts. It is discovered that the city is under the control of the Morpho, brain-like creatures that use hypnotise to control the population to work for them. It’s an interesting premise, though it is my least favourite story from the serial’s run.
Despite this I still love the aspect of the narrative in which Barbara gets a moment to shine. It’s a nerve-wracking experience having her the only one who sees the truth which immediately cuts her off from the others. They are still under the control of the Morpho, and are ultimately at their mercy, whilst Barbara is placed in peril because of her resistance. She must escape the minions of the Morpho and find a way to free The First Doctor, Ian and Susan before they are completely taken over, resulting in a moment where she has to fight against her own friends to destroy the Morpho.
“The Screaming Jungle” is a great segment because of its simplicity. Barbara, Ian and Susan, with the help of new friends Sabetha and Altos (who were both sent by Arbitan to retrieve the keys but fell victim to the Morpho), have to venture into the jungle in order to find the next key, but from the very start it is clearly indicated that there’s something not quite right. The plant life appears to be alive and is constantly trying to attack the TARDIS crew, resembling the fantastic tale The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
This is the first of two segments to “The Keys of Marinus” that feature an absence of The First Doctor, due to William Hartnell being on holiday. It was a common thing within the 60s era of Doctor Who due to the extensive filming schedule, resulting in characters being written out of certain episodes because the actor is having a break from production. Ian and Barbara are eventually left on their own to find the third key and are eventually trapped within an old house as the jungle tries to get in and kill them.
In the nick of time they discover the key and teleport to their next location, a snowy wasteland. “The Snows of Terror” again takes on a new genre and faces the TARDIS crew with a new kind of foe in the form of Vasor. His greed and cunningness is slowly revealed as he manipulates the different characters in order to steal their possessions whilst leaving them for dead. He truly feels like a dangerous adversary due to his nature and sickening attempts to attack Barbara.
Ian is nearly killed when he goes out looking for Altos, discovering he was chained up by Vasor whilst Ian was expected to be eaten by wolves after being lured-in by the meat in his bag. Ian quickly takes control and forces Vasor to lead them to Susan and Sabetha, whom Vasor left in the cave systems of the mountain. They eventually stumble upon the next key as they come across its guardians – a group of Ice Soldiers.
“Sentence of Death” moves the tone into yet another completely different direction as Nation delivers a crime drama. Upon landing in the city of Millennius Ian is struck down by an unknown assailant and accused for murder. Nation introduces a cunning system in which the law system of Millennius states that an accused is guilty until proven innocent, a reverse of our own law systems. It makes for a greater challenge for The First Doctor, now back in the adventure, to help his young friend from being executed for crimes he didn’t commit.
I find this to be my favourite section of “The Keys of Marinus” as I enjoy watching the plot unravel, even if it does seem completely obvious at times. Perhaps the narrative needed more time to get across a clear mystery but it’s still entertaining none the less. I will admit that I find it hilarious at how easy it is for the TARDIS crew to get the assailants to give up their secrets, making them the worst criminals in the universe.
The courtroom scenes were well done and added many moments of annoyance for Ian as each piece of evidence to prove his innocence results in further accusations against him. In these moments we really saw how much The First Doctor had developed since “An Unearthly Child”. He was no longer a grumpy, uncaring, and selfish man. Now he was willing to defend Ian and pushed himself to secure his safety, even becoming frustrated with himself when he believes he cannot save his young companion.
“The Keys of Marinus” concluded the investigation by having Susan kidnapped and held hostage to ensure that the TARDIS crew couldn’t prove Ian’s innocence, thereby allowing The First Doctor to reveal the true murderer and attempted thief of the last key. But, once again, the assailant gave away their position by slipping up. With all the keys now in their possession the TARDIS crew returned to Arbitan to activate the Conscience of Marinus.
However, they quickly discover that Yartek has taken control of the temple and attempts to trick Ian into handing over the last key (having already obtained the others from Sabetha and Altos by force). Suspecting something was wrong Ian switched the keys and gave Yartek a fake key that Barbara found in the jungle. The Conscience of Marinus then explodes, killing Yartek and the Voords.
“The Keys of Marinus” is an enjoyable adventure but it does have its flaws retrospectively. The narrative is clearly disjointed due to each episode having a different theme and narrative to tell, with the only connecting thread being the quest at hand. But even that gets buried under the individual threat of each episode, resulting in multiple villains and ideas which could’ve easily been placed within their one unique serial. Instead we get a jumbled mess of ideas crammed together to formulate a series of adventures under one serial banner.
Even the conclusion is lacking due to the fact that Yartek is only mentioned in the first and last episode. And even then his significance is only brushed upon to grant the quest more urgency, but that is quickly taken away once Arbitan is killed once the TARDIS crew leave, meaning no matter how long they took to find the keys they would still return to be greeted by the enemy.
It’s made worse by the fact that “The Keys of Marinus” spends half of its runtime concluding the trial segment, meaning we have even less time to focus on the serial’s supposed main adversary, who ultimately becomes rather stereotypical and underused. But I still like this serial none the less for its unique concept of giving us a different tale each episode, each of them in which grant me a different kind of entertainment.
I will also admit that I’m impressed that “The Screaming Jungle” and “The Snows of Terror” did really well without Hartnell’s presence. I found the episodes stood-up well without The First Doctor, delivering both engaging stories as well as allowing Ian and Barbara plenty of moments to prove themselves – showcasing perfectly that the companions can operate without The Doctor’s supervision and ultimately win the battle.