Doctor Who, “The Keys of Marinus”

Now that I have every classic series episode on DVD (including the ones I had to buy on Region 2 because I couldn’t find them at a decent price on Region 1), I’m going back to watch the ones I haven’t seen in far too long, over 20 years in some cases. The original plan was to pick one from each classic Doctor in order, but I realized I’ve watched almost all the Troughtons I own very recently and will run out of Colins and Sylvs in a hurry. So the plan is now flexible, but I’ll still avoid the same Doctor twice in a row and go in a roughly chronological order.

Image copyright BBC, I’m sure

We begin with Hartnell and “The Keys of Marinus”. He’s my least favorite Doctor by a wide margin, and this is a difficult era of the show for me to enjoy. On paper it all sounds wonderful: the most diverse mix of stories ever, a relatively down-to-Earth TARDIS team, a brand new show exploring its possibilities and laying down the foundations for something stronger than anyone could foresee. On screen, it’s more of a children’s programme than it ever would be again, almost impossible to suspend disbelief in from the perspective of 2018 and the budget of 1964, and with a lead actor who — I realize this is subjective — is frequently unpleasant, and terrible at covering his incessant dialogue fluffs. On paper, this unpredictable, irascible, mysterious old man seems so much more interesting than the crowd-pleasing hero/buffoon character he became in most of his subsequent incarnations; on screen, I find I would just rather be crowd-pleased most of the time. He’s not terrible (and weirdly, I quite like the First Doctor in any multi-Doctor story, no matter who plays him), but someone has to be my least favorite, and he is that someone.

There’s a similar on-paper/on-screen problem with “Marinus.” It’s kind of crazy to think this is just the fifth Doctor Who story ever. We’ve had a caveman story, a far-off futuristic aliens story, a remarkable bottle episode psychological thriller, a historical epic, and now this: a six-part science fantasy anthology. It’s a mini showcase of classic Star Trek ideas just before that became a viable point of comparison: memorable aliens, a supercomputer justice machine, a place where your every desire is catered to via hypnosis, a courtroom drama in space. It even changes genre every episode or two so unlike “The Daleks” it can’t drag on for seven parts and outstay its welcome. And yet somehow what makes it to the screen is just kind of…okay.

The shortness of each segment of the quest for the Key To Time — I mean, the Keys of Marinus — works in the story’s favor, but also means it’s hard to get too invested in each location. Morphoton, the land of the disembodied brains hypnotizing their slaves into thinking they live in paradise, is probably the most successful for me, being both an interesting (if not exactly unique) premise and a fairly well realized one. There’s a bit of a Wrinkle in Time vibe to Barbara’s emergence from the trance while everyone else is still under the influence, and I love the scene where Ian and the Doctor inspect the “laboratory” and hold up a dirty coffee cup as though it’s a scientific marvel. It’s a nice surprise when Altos and Sabetha become temporary companions instead of just memorable guest characters.

After this the returns diminish a bit. The land (I keep wanting to say “planet,” but presumably all these radically different places exist on Marinus) with all the booby traps and the accelerated foliage never quite seemed like a legitimate place to me. Then there’s the strange snowy region with the four undead knights guarding a block of ice, a fantastic image that’s easy to forget when it’s overshadowed by the extremely unpleasant bit where Barbara is stuck in a cabin with a gigantic man who — there is no real doubt about it — is determined to assault her. Though it’s cheering to watch her fend him off with a poker from the fire, it’s as difficult a scene to watch as anything in Doctor Who has ever been.

It’s a relief to get to Mellennius, the land of letting Hartnell play a detective and a lawyer. It’s also the land of psychometry, i.e. the parapsychological phenomenon of holding an object and psychically divining its history, which is thrown into the mix as casually as the supercomputer from the first episode that was “simply a judge and jury that was never wrong or unfair.” The tone of all of this is still kid stuff, but again there are jarring moments like the implication that a guard is abusing his wife, who is in turn poised to abscond with another guard with whom she is in cahoots, that seem surprisingly adult.

After which we return to the start of the quest, where the old man who sent them on it has been murdered by the strikingly designed Voord, an alien race who never take off their wetsuits and rubber hoods. It’s supposedly because of the acid sea but you get the sense they’re a bit kinky. Certainly the head Voord, Yartek, is keen on role-play, doing some fairly solid improv work dressed up as the late Arbitan.

“The Keys of Marinus” is as much a fairy tale sequence as anything science fictional, and arguably it’s the first Who story in this genre. “The Daleks” might have been somewhat far-fetched, and “Edge of Destruction” verging on the twilight zone of horror, but the illusory paradise, the deadly vines, the frozen knights, and even the trial all feel drawn from a series of Scheherezade stories. It’s a remarkable mix of elements that in many ways predicted the future of the show more than anything that came before it — except the previous Terry Nation story. For this alone it’s worth watching, even if it’s easy to understand why its designer, asked in an accompanying documentary if there’s anything in the story he’s proud of making, replies matter-of-factly, “no.”

A few notes about the individual episodes:

Episode 1: “The Sea of Death”

  • I’ve always loved Susan as a concept, which makes it such a drag that she’s so easily flustered and scared. On the one hand, when she screams, you really think that something awful is happening; on the other, the truth is it’s usually not that bad, so she starts to look a bit ridiculous. This is one Gallifreyan who probably should never have left home; she would have been much happier there.
  • The Doctor refers to “all my travels” as though he’s been to many other planets without Ian and Barbara. It seems clear he didn’t come straight to Earth from Gallifrey, or if he did, he somehow left and came back.
  • These six-parters really give the crew time to work things out methodically, e.g. the crack in the Voord submersible and the empty suit.
  • The designer may not have liked his set designs, but I think the pointy trees and Arbitan’s building are beautiful.
  • Terry Nation loves his teleport bracelets. We’d see the TARDIS crew travel by Time Ring later on in “Genesis of the Daleks,” and these aren’t all that unlike the vortex manipulators we’ve seen since Captain Jack.

Episode 2: “The Velvet Web”

  • Offered anything he desires, the Doctor asks for a fully stocked laboratory. It would be nice to see this science obsession recur in 2020 (after the nice taste we had in the 2018 premiere).
  • I wrote “this place is like that one where they just are high all the time [in the Odyssey]”. That’s probably a sign that I need to be rereading the real classics a bit more often.
  • It’s great that the Doctor isn’t the one seeing clearly. In 21st century Who it seems like this dynamic would almost never happen.
  • The brains with eyes: indelible. What a great, ridiculous design.
  • I wrote “Altos has great legs” so I was very pleased when he stuck around.

Episode 3: “The Screaming Jungle”

  • This story is obsessed with rotating walls.
  • You could imagine this story where they use the TARDIS to travel, but obviously it would allow them to escape. But also the dials allow them to travel accurately, unlike the TARDIS.

Episode 4: “The Snows of Terror”

  • I can see why they eventually moved away from individual episode titles; coming up with 4-6 Doctor-Who-style “The X of Y” combinations for every story would in the long run have been murder.

Episode 5: “Sentence of Death”

  • “Obv the guard did it,” I wrote. I was wrong about which guard, but then again they aren’t easy to tell apart.

Episode 6: “The Keys of Marinus”

  • Love the Doctor’s mention of meeting Pyrrho.
  • I would not have minded Altos and Sabetha as permanent companions. Nothing against Ian and Barbara, but, well….
  • “I don’t believe man was made to be controlled by machines.” Right??