Doctor Who (Classic): S01E05 “The Keys of Marinus”

Season 1
Directed by John Gorrie
Written by Terry Nation

After an experiment in missing episodes and historicals, we are back to the realm of the extant and the sci-fi. We also return to a more episodic structure after last time’s failed experiment with a long form story.

This time, to make The Doctor and his companions stay a monk named Arbitan puts a barrier around the TARDIS so they will go on a bunch of fetch quests (for the titular keys) for him. The invisible barrier itself is hilarious. The only evidence to its existence is the crew doing some halfhearted mime work, and they put little effort in trying to maintain a consistent barrier. At one point Ian even clearly steps through where the barrier is supposed to be and just kind of stands there. I can’t really hold it against the episode because it is Doctor Who, but still. I guess this is as good a time as any to talk about special effects. Doctor Who is, and always will be, constrained by the budget of being on the BBC even beyond the fact that this episode is over 50 years old. Therefore to watch the show, you are going to have to accept things like toy looking miniatures, varying qualities of matte painting (the one used on the exteriors to make the walkway seem longer really stand out here looked especially bad and it’s telling that it is one of the things I had remembered about the serial before rewatching), and aliens who look like bad cosplay.

The basic outline of the plot is that a machine was created that was able to modify the thoughts of man in order to make everyone good (somehow the creators of this kind of machine aren’t considered the villains) at least until a group called the Voord were able to overcome it. To prevent the Voord from taking control of the machine while he fixed it, Arbitan spread the keys needed to use it all over the world and those he had recently sent to retrieve them (having fixed the machine) have not yet returned. If this doesn’t sound like the plot of a video game, I don’t know what is. With each episode being a different locale (though episode 5 bleeds into 6) it makes the most sense to split the story up in describing it.

The first place they are sent to is a palace type setting where first Barbara, and later the rest are treated to food, shelter, and clothing. Of course this eventually revealed to be a decaying shell of its former self with a laboratory that is nothing but a mostly empty room. The people there are under hypnosis from the power of some discs and controlled by brains with giant eye stalks or at least that is until Barbara straight up kills them all. I know it’s early and they were evil, but I do admit to being taken aback by a lead in Doctor Who killing a bunch of living creatures with almost no hesitation or ill side effects. Arbitan’s daughter and one of his followers are two of those who has been captured and hypnotized so with two more party member, the group splits up with The Doctor heading one way (and taking the third and fourth episodes off) and everyone else heading to the next scheduled location.

The second place is a jungle with a temple in the middle of it. This trip is not nearly as interesting with it mostly being Barbara and Ian bumbling about and being slightly menaced by the traps in the Temple. There’s also the fact that the forest is alive which is used to scare Susan (then again what doesn’t) and kill the world’s dumbest man who manages to be strangled by a slow moving branch while turning his back to the only place it can get in (a later staple of zombie movies) but isn’t particularly intimidating.

The third place is in mountains complete with a creepy bearded man where everyone nearly freezes to death (thanks for the heads up Arbitan). Here at least there are legitimate threats with group dealing with the freezing, a large bearded man who strands them multiple times, takes their stuff in return for basic things they need to survive, and almost rapes Barbara, a cave which threatens to collapse and of which they can’t even be sure of a way to escape it, some Last Crusade style guards protecting the key, and a bridge which threatens to collapse.

The fourth and final place is the city of Millenius where Ian quickly stumbles into being accused of theft of the key and murder. Therefore, this episode takes on the form of a mystery and court thriller where Ian must be proved of innocence beyond a reasonable doubt (see it’s just like many places on Earth, but the opposite). This would be a lot more interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that even to an outside observer, Ian is innocent considering he couldn’t have been the one to kill the other man implicated in the crime. This just makes everyone seem extremely dense and robs the concept of any intrigue. It is still fun to see The Doctor in Sherlock mode and slides in quite naturally to the role of lawyer with his grandiose manner of speech.

The serial moves much quicker than the last thanks to its format but the format also lends itself to a very uneven quality as some stories work better than others and everything feels so loosely connected. Of course it is all eventually revealed to be a shaggy dog story when they are forced to destroy the machine (which they do with ease) and Arbitan being dead by the time they return (his daughter seemed remarkably alright by this turn of events) and it leaves the whole thing feeling rather lightweight. It’s almost as if they had five different ideas for stories but not enough material for a complete serial so they just threw them all together. I’d rather have just seen a couple shorter serials than lumping them all together, but in the end it is still a decent effort.

Grade: C+

Stray Observations

– “The Keys of Marinus” is one of only two non-Dalek serials that Terry Nation wrote (the other being “The Android Invasion”
– Ian spends the serial wearing some of the clothes
– “But I was gonna paddle in it.”
– It’s hard remembering that Susan was supposed to be intelligent at all at the start. Her clever moments are few and far between and it is pretty apparent that she only seemed smart because she is from the future as they make her more and more infantile.
– There is another hint about Susan that is dropped here that feels a bit like spoilers, but there is one obnoxious moment in the jungle that acts as a bit of foreshadowing for “The Sensorites”
– DE3O2 is not a real chemical formula so I guess the translation capabilities of the TARDIS were slacking off (not that they’ve been established yet)
– The falling sound effects are hilarious including one happening during a shot of an obvious dummy falling through a trap door.
– The judges in the court scene look straight out of a Monty Python skit with two of them even bearing vague resemblances to John Cleese and Eric Idle.
– Really can’t emphasize enough how little everyone seems to care about a man being shot down in the middle of a court with no effort to find who did it
– Once again no cliffhanger for the next serial. My memory fails me if we are to see them again or if we are just going to see end of episode cliffhangers from now on.

Next Up: “The Aztecs” on Monday 12/28 because even though it feels appropriate to have Doctor Who on Christmas, I will be too busy that day.