The Keys of Marinus [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my 50th birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. Although in this case, I’ve had this one on DVD for a while, and recently enjoyed it again mostly by myself.

(Daily Doctor Who #154)

The Keys of Marinus

Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions:  William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright and Carole Ann Ford as Susan
Written by Terry Nation.  Directed by John Gorrie.

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  April – May 1964 (Episodes 21-26 of Season 1)

I bought the DVD for this story some years ago, back when I was trying to give my kids as much of an “original order” experience of Doctor Who as possible. I’ve long since abandoned that idea, but it does mean I own a story which I might not have otherwise gotten around to purchasing for a looooong time.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Keys of Marinus has got a number of things working against it that might have been seen as advantages back in the day. For example, a miniature is used to depict the TARDIS arriving and departing. This means that we can have cool wide-angle shots like the TARDIS arriving on the island at the start of the story. But it also means that those moments look like someone is messing around with their Doctor Who playset–when I first showed this story to my children, my youngest daughter (who I’m pretty sure would have been under ten) just burst out laughing.

Also, the serial’s format has our travelers hoofing around to four different zones on this one planet in order to track down the “micro-keys” which control the Conscience of Marinus. This gives our story an epic scope, but also (presumably) stretches its budget and resources, and it shows. Old Doctor Who has always looked “quaint”, but by the time we get to the fourth episode and the “ice caves”, things are looking especially bad.

Of course, Doctor Who fans have long been used to looking past the inherent weaknesses of its production for the sake of a good story, but The Keys of Marinus is a let-down in this category as well. And there are some neat idea, like the twin-views of the City of Morphoton and its brains-in-jars rulers.

But more and more as the adventure wears on, the ideas come and go without sufficient development. Again, the worst offender here is the ice-caves where the treasured key is guarded by a series of frozen medieval soldiers.

There’s not even a hint of an explanation for what the heck is going on here–who in the world hid the key in this particular spot and why and how did they choose this method to protect it? The answers of course don’t matter because before long we’re onto the next chapter locale…and not a moment too soon considering how clunky those caves and ice soldiers actually look.

And the serial’s main villains, the Voords, don’t fair much better, from the standpoint of either story or design. The end result is that the serial feels like a loose collection of second-hand ideas lazily strung together without any real narrative focus. By the time it’s over, we’re mostly glad to be moving on.

On the positive note, the Doctor, Ian and Barbara all get some good moments of intellect and courage, which continues to make them fun characters to watch. Susan is not well-served here, however, something which Carole Ann Ford was apparently unhappy about. The guest cast includes George Colouris as Arbitan. It’s only for one episode but it’s a major part, and make The Keys of Marinus the only Doctor Who episode to feature somebody who was also in Citizen Kane (as Mr. Thatcher) .

And finally, even if much of the serial is not strong, it at least avoid a common science fiction trope and presents Marinus as a world that doesn’t just have a single eco-system. So that’s nice.

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