Monday, 9 September 2013

TV Review 5: The Keys of Marinus, written by Terry Nation (1964)

Broadcast: 22nd February-4th April 1964


The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Sabetha – Katherine Schofield
Altos – Robin Phillips
Eyesen – Donald Pickering
Kala – Fiona Walker
Arbitan – George Coulouris
Vasor – Francis de Wolff
Tarron – Henley Thomas
Senior Judge – Raf De La Torre
Yartek – Stephen Dartnell
Aydan/Voord/Ice Soldier – Martin Cort
Darrius – Edmund Warwick
Eprin – Dougie Dean
First Judge/Ice Soldier/Guard – Alan James
Second Judge/Voord/Ice Soldier – Peter Stenson
Voice of Morpho – Heron Carvic

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – Terry Nation
Director – John Gorrie
Designer – Raymond P. Cusick
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Incidental Music – Norman Kay
Make Up – Jill Summers
Production Assistant – David Conroy, Penny Joy
Studio Sound – Jack Brummitt, Tony Milton
Studio Lighting – Peter Murray

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS arrives on the planet Marinus, on a mysterious island surrounded by an acid sea. At the heart of the island is a Temple that houses the Conscience Machine, guarded by a lone figure called Arbitan, which is used to artificially neutralise the negative emotions and motivations of the planet’s population. However, a rebel cult, known as the Voords, led by Yartek have broken through their conditioning and now attempt to invade the island, hoping to re-program the machine to help them take over and dominate the whole of Marinus. To prevent this, Arbitan and his people initially dispersed the electronic keys the Conscience Machine needs to operate, across the planet, hopefully giving them time to modify the machine so it can be effective once more, before Yartek succeeded.

Now though, the situation has become ever more desperate as Arbitan’s assistants have become lost or killed attempting to retrieve the four remaining keys of the Conscience Machine. With the unexpected arrival of the Doctor and his friends, Arbitan forces them to attempt to find the four keys themselves before he allows them to leave again in the TARDIS.

With the aid of teleportation bracelets, the Doctor and his companions visit different areas of the planet Marinus, searching for the keys, and coming across many dangers, challenges and difficulties along the way. From a society brainwashed into slavery to mutated brain creatures, to a living forest of plants, to an area of ice caves guarded by frozen knights in armour, the time travellers are never safe for long. Fortunately, they numbers are strengthened by an associate of Arbitan’s, Altos, as well as Arbitan’s daughter Sabetha, both originally lost trying to find the keys themselves.

After saving Ian from being falsely charged and executed for the death of an official, the return back to the Temple to find Yartek in control. To prevent the success of the Voords, Ian gives them a false representation of one of the keys found earlier, which causes the Conscience Machine to self-destruct. The Doctor and his companions escape the Temple in the nick of time, and say their goodbyes to Sabetha and Altos before leaving in the TARDIS for adventures new.

Story Placement

Between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Virgin Missing Adventure Novel) and The Aztecs (TV Serial)

Favourite Lines

The Doctor – “...and you, my friend...”
Ian – “Yes, what can I do Doctor?”
The Doctor – “Trust me”.

The Doctor – “The important thing is I believe I know who did the killing”.
Barbara – “But how? Tarron’s been working on it all day, you’ve only been here five minutes”.


The Keys of Marinus is a serial that both entertains and infuriates in equal measure. Terry Nation returned back to Doctor Who for the first time, just weeks after the gigantic success of his Science-fiction epic adventure, The Daleks, which created seismic cultural waves that continue to this day. However, The Keys of Marinus also represents the first real dip in quality of the TV production of Doctor Who since it began. On the surface, the reasons for this are mostly accidental. Terry Nation had indeed already been asked to write a second Doctor Who serial, but was working hard on a historical adventure called The Red Fort. So when one of the other proposed early Doctor Who serials fell through, and was ultimately rejected, Terry Nation was asked to quickly write a six part Sci-fi slanted serial to replace it as pre-production was due to take place in days. The result was the scripts for The Keys of Marinus, rushed and mostly underdeveloped with little time for important script editing by David Whitaker, and for a great deal of the production it shows.

Despite the difficult circumstances of the story’s origins though, Terry Nation wisely creates a simple quest format to the story, splitting up the episodes into separate mini-adventures with their own individual plots as the Time Travellers search for the titular ‘keys’ of the main over-arching plotline. Doing this allows Nation the freedom to come up with nearly anything he likes in most of the episodes, without worrying about what he did the episode before, as well as importantly allowing him time to come with a resolution to the main plot in the last episode. The “quest” format also adds a continuing sense of adventure, following on from the epic voyage in Marco Polo, as well as their recent struggles with Daleks and Cavemen.

What Terry Nation does well is to create five unique settings within his mini-adventures that are both alien and interesting, even if most are far from convincing. The citadel within a large monument, on an island with glass beaches, surrounded by an acid sea, has to be one of the most vividly imaginative creations for a Doctor Who story ever created, even if the events and characters that happen within it, fail to echo that same imagination and skill. Then there’s the society of Millenius, a city where fascinatingly the concept of law is reversed, so a charged or accused person is ruled to be guilty until proven innocent. Terry Nation clearly relished this idea, as his written execution of the last episodes is significantly better than the three before it.

However, the big demand for six episodes in a short time still takes its toll on Nation’s scriptwriting. I’m sure the ideas of a living jungle, or frozen knights coming to life in a cavern of ice caves may have seemed like great concepts for episodes three and four on paper, but ultimately they are little more than set pieces which Terry Nation builds up to and fills out the rest of the two episodes with padding and slow plot meandering. Episode three features gimmick after comical theatrical gimmick, like the android knight of armour with a robotically manoeuvred axe, or the moving statue, or the jail trap, or the falling roof – all of which are there to waste time and artificially contrive tension. Episode four in comparison splits up all of its main characters, so much time is used up by them searching for one another. For such a ‘difficult’ quest, the puzzles of the keys themselves are very simple, but then on the upside, I suppose it makes the episodes very accessible to a casual audience. For viewers hoping for more challenging and complex narratives however, a fair amount of The Keys of Marinus will feel non-eventful or slow.

In contrast, episode two is one of the better-executed of the mini-adventures. The seemingly idyllic city of Morphoton hides a society brainwashed into slavery. While it isn’t an original premise, the conceit of the leisurely paradise and its rotten truth is very well handled and executed. Rather than some gratuitous reveal, Terry Nation instead has the time travellers taken in by their ‘perfect’ surroundings, and makes sure that one of them fails the brainwashing process, so that we then can see the truth through their perspective as they struggle to convince and work against their friends in order to both survive and recover their senses. Brilliantly, it is loosely crafted in the same manner of one of Grimm’s fairy tales, as the Time Travellers are lured into the trap by sleight of hand and cunning illusion. The choice of Barbara as the character who remains uncontrolled is also a perfect one, as it gives a chance for the companion to shine, and maintain herself from the shadow of the other regulars, particularly Ian, who the former schoolteacher is frequently (albeit naturally) paired with considering their older friendship. Another great element in the script is how it maintains and demonstrates how powerful the brainwashing is of the TARDIS team, firstly by them being taken in by false objects, and then even seeing the Doctor amusingly being taken in by a non-existent laboratory. The great conceit though, hides the fact that the motive and beings behind it are, in a daft and frankly corny Sci-fi twist, the brains of humanoids that have become too big for their bodies, and require slaves to survive (since all of the places are within Marinus, and seem to all be humanoid, it’s a reasonable assumption that these brains are humanoid too). This development, coupled with the brains’ gimmicky appearance, complete with “eye-stalks”, has more than just a passing resemblance to the goofy and dumb alien creatures thought up in bad 1950s Sci-fi B movies, and unfortunately is a definite step backward from the otherwise more up-to-date and developed storytelling displayed in the series up to this point. However, given that the 1960s was still a big and popular period for the retro sci-fi style comic, such as The Eagle made in the UK between 1950 and 1969, it’s not surprising that this form of Sci-fi still prevailed in Doctor Who and other television into the 1970s, until Sci-fi in UK comics took a different turn with the arrival of 2000 AD in 1977.

The best segment of The Keys of Marinus though, is clearly the adventure in the city of Millenius, where the Doctor returns to help his friends solve a murder mystery, and save Ian, who has been framed for the crime, from execution by the state. In the mad rush of reeling off production scripts, it’s great to see Terry Nation come up with a more developed plot, and one that judging by how much more fluent and fun it is, he clearly enjoyed writing. After the average first two episodes, and the very mediocre episodes 3 and 4, it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air to get a short story with considerably more meat to it. From the outset, it’s clear that there is conspiracy and intrigue afoot, and pleasingly the mystery is dealt with succinctly and to the point. The Doctor solves most of it in just a couple of minutes, and a lot of the short story involves his struggle to defend Ian in court. Although the Doctor uses some rather dubious methods to unveil the murderer in court, he fails to provide enough proof to exonerate Ian from his fate. I like how the downturn of events comes as a result of the logical process of the trial, and given what the Doctor offers, it’s natural and credible that Ian would still be charged. Despite this though, beyond the Doctor’s initial efforts, the culprits of the crime are very easy to figure out, either down to sloppiness in the script, or a deliberate leaning towards theatrical villainy, that has to reveal itself to the audience and headline its presence in events. Personally I feel it’s a bit of both. Later, some contrived jeopardy occurs with Susan being kidnapped, in another display of increasingly sigh-worthy pantomime villainy by one of the co-conspirators, although it does give Barbara a welcome slice of the detective work for a short moment. However, I do like how once again the other culprits are caught and convicted, through a key piece of dialogue used earlier in episode 6. It sets the audience up for a great little denouement, as the Doctor sets a trap for, and confronts, his intended target; and the TARDIS team celebrate their high spirits and success in a light-hearted conversation with their former accusers.

The overarching basic storyline that frames this serial though is remarkably less satisfying. Despite the interesting ideas thrown up by the first episode (glass beaches, acid seas, a machine that dictates the conscience of the whole planet), it delivers very little overall. The Voords are merely unthinking, unfeeling, one-dimensional villains, even more so than any other villain in the rest of the story, and only seek out the conscience machine for power and dominion alone. Since the machine has to be destroyed in the end, the quest, and the story itself, almost all seems to be for nothing, bar the safe return of Altos and Sabetha, and the defeat of the Voords. So after five and half episodes, the story builds up to a non-existent climax and delivers a flat ending, to an otherwise fairly active story.

Another casualty of Terry Nation’s underdeveloped, sometimes rather basic script is much of the characterisation. Fortunately, most of the regular characters come through unscathed with their integrity intact, but many of the supporting characters leave a lot to be desired. As I mentioned above, the Voords are really disappointing antagonists, one-dimensional characters that rant on about their obsession with power. Then we have Darrius, in episode three, a pathetic and dithering scientist, whose only presence is partly as another obstacle for Ian and Barbara to overcome (the code behind the location of the key), and to give the living jungle idea interesting scientific reasoning – the meddling with nature’s “tempo of destruction”. Episodes 5 and 6, present us with a trio of theatrical and clumsily-scripted murderers and conspirators, Aydan, Kala and Eyesen. Aydan is undoubtedly the worst of the three, who cowardly lashes out violently in private, and very unnecessarily at those that challenge him, in this particular case, his supposed wife, in a rather uncomfortable moment. This controversy aside though, Aydan is still poorly characterised by some quite terrible and unconvincing hammy dialogue, where he ‘accidentally’ says too much and instantly gives himself away so easily and unsubtly, again in the traditions of basic pantomime villainy. I greatly dislike it, when otherwise great (or any other kind of) writers have to resort to such lazy, stupid and contrived characterisation to get their points across. In this case in particular, it robs the Millenius story of a great deal of its intrigue and dramatic tension, and the maintained theatricality of the accomplices merely compounds the problem. Kala by contrast is probably the most interesting and entertaining of the three, and by far the most calculating, (perhaps understandably) murdering her husband, faking grief and worry, delivering barefaced lies with ease; although even she succumbs to theatrical villainy, vocally delighting in and feeding off Susan’s plight and fear. Eyesen on the other hand, is the cool and controlling manipulator, taking everything in his stride, pulling the strings, advising his fellow accomplices and doesn’t feel much emotion, if any whatsoever. Unfortunately, despite the great scene, where he’s caught out by the Doctor at the end, Eyesen too is very undermined through some bad theatrical dialogue, and betraying his importance in the narrative by his utter contempt for Ian, and quite clearly posing as the Doctor’s opponent in court, rather than merely being ambivalent like the judges.

The worst of the story’s protagonists, by some quite considerable margin, is the huntsman, Vasor, on whom nearly every ounce of subtlety and believability is just thrown away. Considering though, that episode four undoubtedly seems to be one of the scripts that took a quality control hit due to the tight deadlines Terry Nation had to bear; it would be unfair of me to completely blame him for all the scriptural flaws that occur, or expect high quality scriptwriting at all come to that. However, the flaws still took place, and Vasor is perhaps an example of some of the worst characterisation to enter into the show so far. A cowardly, self-serving and mean-spirited huntsman, Vasor is almost the very definition of a pantomime villain, explicitly and overtly announcing to the audience in almost every other sentence reasons why he’s the bad character of the piece. You can almost hear the ‘boos’ and hisses in the gaps between his dialogue. Having said that though, Vasor starts off the episode quite natural and calm, but after the first five minutes, it doesn’t take him long before he gradually rises to a crescendo of theatricality. For instance, I can’t think of any credible villains who openly reveal their intentions so easily in comically bad dialogue like, “That door will keep anything out...or in!” Then again, it’s equally possible that Vasor is meant to be a hammy villain for fun; however as the rest of the episode is “performed” and written to be straight drama, it seems unlikely. While the camp theatrics can be laughed off though, the worst and perhaps rather uncomfortable aspect of Vasor is the fact that initially he clearly intends to rape Barbara. While the inclusion of such a serious issue could have worked if used sensitively and in a dramatic context, as The Time Meddler did, its casual use around a comically ridiculous and theatrical character feels crass and inappropriate, leaving something of a bad taste in the mouth.

Fortunately the protagonist characters fare better during The Keys of Marinus. Arbitan for instance, is a cautious and intelligent man, who while clearly an amiable and loving person, has an interesting subtle dark side to him. Arbitan’s desperation to succeed and survive, has lead him to be rather calculating and manipulative. Despite his shadowy machinations in the Temple though, he recognises the TARDIS crew as innocents fairly quickly. Then there’s the question of the conscience machine itself. Is Arbitan merely an authority figure upholding a planet-wide state tyranny? The one-note villainy of the Voords suggests not, and yet by the end of the story, Terry Nation seems to do a complete 180 degree reversal and decides that the machine is an obstacle to civilisation, and best destroyed after all. Due to the motive of the Voords (power) he just gets away with it, but there is certainly a sense of sleight of hand going on, as well as an underlying thought that maybe the quest for the keys was largely inconsequential after all this time.

Sabetha and Altos though, are far less interesting. They’re clearly kind and worthy people, quickly becoming friends with the Time Travellers, but ultimately they’re there firstly to add dramatic weight, scale and depth to the ongoing quest for the keys. The visual presences of Arbitan’s former friends, lost in their own attempts to find them, mythologises the adventures and challenges that await the TARDIS crew during their own attempt, but they also act as dramatic warnings to what could happen to them if they fail themselves. Later Terry Nation adopts Sabetha and Altos as two more pairs of hands to help fulfil the basic action and investigation requirements. However, this has the unfortunate result of actually displacing some of the material for the regulars, which is made all the more unsatisfying by the fact that Sabetha and Altos end up being mainly inferior stereotyped duplicates of Susan and Ian. Nowhere is this more obvious than when Sabetha and Susan are lost together in the ice caves during episode 4, saying exactly the same kind of words, and expressing and feeling in very similar ways. Altos meanwhile pretty much becomes the stock action stereotype after episode 2, but fortunately Ian is saved the same indignities as Susan, by being taken out of some of the action, thanks to him being framed for murder in Millenius, allowing him to take advantage of different and slightly better material. In fact, the added presence of Sabetha and Altos in the second half of the story also helps Nation to pad out his script more easily, until he come up with more meatier material. All these flaws combined make it a struggle to actually care about Sabetha and Altos throughout most of The Keys of Marinus. Seemingly recognising this, Terry Nation tries to contrive a romance between the two of them in the last episode, but it’s far from convincing.

Much of the best characterisation, perhaps predictably goes to our regulars, particularly the Doctor and Barbara. Once more the Doctor continues to evolve and develop before our eyes. In a marked change from previously, he now takes great notice and care of the safety of his friends and companions, and has more affection for them than ever before. Even when faced with the prospect of investigating a fascinating new alien world or culture, it doesn’t overrule his personal responsibility to them. It also says a lot about how much the Doctor’s character has mellowed, that Barbara’s momentary irascibility is now seemingly worse than his!

So just as the Doctor becomes mellowed and more affectionate, so too do we, the viewer, warm towards him in return. The Keys of Marinus shows the first hints of the ensemble dynamic of the regulars beginning to break down, as the Doctor starts to occasionally take the lead of some of the story, and by extension the TV show itself. It’s a beginning of a very gradual process that doesn’t reach its conclusion until The Time Meddler, when the Doctor himself finally develops to become THE lead character of Doctor Who, and the group ensemble lead ends. This change is also evident by the Doctor’s absence during episodes three and four of The Keys of Marinus, when the flow of the story becomes less urgent and starts to meander, but it’s only when the Doctor returns, that we suddenly realise what we’ve been missing all along – not just a decisive and meatier narrative, but also a strong positive leading character to take control of it. Furthermore, the Doctor’s resolutely bold, witty, charming and increasingly warm and kind-hearted nature makes me feel (and I hope the audience too) very fond of him as a character now, much more than previously (much helped by Hartnell’s superb performance), when I was fascinated and thrilled experiencing the Doctor as anti-hero, and gradually developing into a hero. I confess it wasn’t until the Doctor returned after a sizeable absence in episodes three and four of The Keys of Marinus that in chronological terms, I started to feel and consciously root for this character, as opposed to Ian and Barbara, and I suspect that will be the case for most viewers too. Noticeably, the Doctor is becoming a bit more virtuous as well, seemingly looking to do the right thing, not just for his friends, but also in his respectful treatment and integration with Millenius’ society.

Another interesting point is that the Doctor only really decides that the conscience machine, dictating the thoughts of man, is a bad thing, during the final episode, after much consideration. It’s clear that the Doctor’s own perspective on morality is still developing, even now, and still moving even closer to the hero we know, as each story passes.

In contrast, while Barbara’s personality remains  the same, her character is challenged by difficult situations to become even braver and more daring, not just to merely survive, but also to save her friends. The danger the history teacher encounters may get progressively direr as her travels in time and space continue, but no longer does she succumb to fear like in times past. Barbara’s ordeal in Morphoton during episode two is a particular trial-by-fire for her, as she finds herself alone and driven from the city into some dark and dirty dwelling, while her friends are lost to her, and under the control of a tyrannical power. If this wasn’t enough of a hopeless situation to overcome, Barbara singlehandedly infiltrates into the centre of the city; destroys the brain creatures and frees her friends from their brainwashing. No wonder Barbara thought she had the strength of will to change the course of Earth history in The Aztecs. Seriously, Rambo has nothing on Barbara Wright. Sure, the schoolteacher may not be as aggressive or gung-ho as Ripley from Alien (1979) (or Rambo), but she’s just as courageous and gutsy, and as good a hero as TV has ever devised. In fact given that The Avengers’ heroines are more charismatic sidekicks than fully-developed characters, Barbara is quite possibly one of the first multi-dimensional female “action” hero characters ever produced for Television.

Ian on the other hand, is partly sidelined to the duties of being a ‘male action stereotype’ for the first time in the show; he gets some good material and dialogue in the last two episodes, but overall this is the character’s weakest representation to date. There’s not a great deal to talk about, as for this story, Ian is entirely cast in the role of as a supporting character, mainly fulfilling some of the script’s action requirements, and setting up some of its comic moments. Even when Ian is under the sentence of death at Millenius, he still comes across as something of a spare part. Ian eventually gets his moment in the last episode, when he quietly (albeit easily) outwits Yartek with a fake copy of one of the Keys to the Conscience machine. He also enjoys some wonderful exchanges with The Doctor in the last two episodes.

For Susan though, The Keys of Marinus marks the beginning of the inevitable decline in her character and sows the seeds for Carole Ann Ford’s departure in the role at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan may not have been the most fascinating, complex, or exciting of the lead characters, but up until this point, was always interesting and maintained multiple dimensions that made her convincing and enjoyable to watch. However, as the other three lead characters continue to grow and blossom out, not only does the ensemble lead threaten to break up, but Susan is increasingly given less and less meaningful things to say and do as time goes on. Furthermore being sidelined by the inclusion of Sabetha in the continuing story, and left to be the screaming damsel-in-distress, almost acts as a visual premonition of how ineffectual the character will eventually become in subsequent adventures. Fortunately the next two serials (The Aztecs, The Sensorites) will offer Susan a bit more to do, but as of The Keys of Marinus, it’s clear that the character’s shelf-life has been rapidly reduced, and is now continuing under borrowed time.

The quality of the production seems to be just as mixed as that of the script, particularly the direction by John Gorrie. He comes up with some great creative shots like in episode 2 when he shoots from Barbara’s perspective to reveal the brainwashing of the others, or Ian being framed in the foreground with the clock in the background in episode 6 to emphasise the tension around his potential imminent execution. However, there are equally plenty of dull and poorly staged shots too, like the death of Arbitan in episode 1, for instance, or Aydan being assassinated in court in episode 5, which are both so clunky it feels like amateur theatre on a bad day. Then there’s the theatricality of the antagonist characters, which are never reigned in at all (unless they’re accentuated by the director, is even worse), however in Vasor’s case, camp theatricality is probably the only way to make the character entertaining and enjoyable. Then there are some other equally bizarre theatrical moments, seemingly interpreted by the director. The most obvious one that comes to mind is during episode 5, when the Doctor announces that the Millenius murderer while not being Ian, is someone else present in the courtroom. The edit instantly cuts to the Senior Judge, whose eyebrows hilariously leap several inches up his forehead in reaction. Overall the direction feels decent and adequate, but also at times fairly ineffective too. Norman Kay’s incidental music has a similar feel to it too, with the exception that it is effective, but mostly lacks imagination, identity and development, and is used so sparely to the point that it feels music is mainly used just to score over the duller moments in the episodes, and stop viewer interest from completely waning.

In contrast, designer Ray Cusick uses every scrap of imagination and ingenuity at his disposal, having to craft brand new sets, creatures and props for almost every episode, on an extremely slim and stretched budget. In more recent interviews he may have hated working on the serial (understandably so given how much pressure he was put under, even more than Terry Nation), but his work here, clearly helps to prop up the story, and making the most of a meagre budget to reflect Terry Nation’s imaginative ideas very competently. One of my favourite images from the story is the grand view of Arbitan’s temple, surrounded by a field of mini shoulder-height pyramids of glass, reaching out from the ground, like trees in a forest. Simply astounding!

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say about the cast performances in The Keys of Marinus, or at least the supporting cast anyway. There are a lot of decent, but also fairly wooden performances throughout the story, by many of the cast, very likely accentuated by the theatricality of the direction and characters they have to play. While the serial is still enjoyable to watch, it does make both the drama and characters in it fairly unconvincing, and appear rather amateurish, so you never really take a lot of it seriously. Apart from the regular cast, there are a few notable exceptions to this. Fiona Walker is a renowned and exceptional actress, which is just as evident here, as Kala, in one of her earlier roles, as it is in the parts that made her famous, such as Agrippina in I, Claudius (1976). Despite John Gorrie’s poor direction to Kala’s feigned reaction to Aydan’s assassination, Walker imbues her character with a feistiness that adds an instant life and energy to most of the scenes she stars in. Donald Pickering as Eyesen, and George Coulouris as Arbitan, are two very reliable quality character actors, who add a bit of welcome gravitas to everything they appear in. Despite being hampered by the weak aspects of the characters they have to play, they are never less than enjoyable to watch.

For the regular cast, The Keys of Marinus is an opportunity to settle down in the roles they’ve grown to understand over the last four productions, and finesse them before more interesting new directions for their characters turn up. William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill relish their turns leading parts of the story, with Hartnell in particular evidently enjoying himself, and getting his character performance down to an art form. With Ian getting more of a backseat role, you’d think William Russell would get more of a chance to take a break in proceedings, but instead finds himself performing a lot of the main legwork the story requires with none of the character benefits. Carole Ann Ford though gets the most thankless material, with Susan reduced to singular dimensions. Ford does her best, but there’s only so much one can do with a character that’s clearly going nowhere just yet.

However despite a lot of apparent mediocrity in the script, characterisation and direction, The Keys of Marinus does create a fascination innovation in both television and Doctor Who. Firstly, Terry Nation’s management of the ‘quest’ format of the story, along with having several different types of adventures/sub-plots in very different locations (and genres), not only borrows from similar styles of format from early radio, film and comic strips to produce its first implementation on UK Television; but also Nation’s adaption of the format, pre-echoes the kind of plotting that would become prevalent in both videogames and gamebooks.

Secondly, the big range of story types and subgenres that Terry Nation plays with throughout The Keys of Marinus is almost a microcosm of what the early years of Doctor Who and its whole franchise would eventually become: a TV programme that would and could not be easily defined or boxed in by a couple of genres or sub-genres, but one that almost magically danced with ease across every or any genre that ever existed, where there’s a good story to be told. In other words, a TV show, and eventually, multi-medium fictional work that would be an Omni-genre show, if you like, or show which defied genre completely, and refused to belong to one genre in particular. Arguably it’s from this point that the show as a whole (and its production team) began to culturally understand what it wanted to be, completely by accident through broad experimentation in the show’s very first season. This particular unconscious realisation, coupled with the important first steps and innovations of the previous four stories, and the lesser one from the story to come (The Aztecs) meant that at last the production team was able to understand exactly what they were making, and could finally see what it could do, but perhaps more importantly, where they wanted to go with it. Unknowingly, Terry Nation had once again helped to provide an additional element to Doctor Who’s success, to show itself that it could be, and was limitless, could go anywhere, and nearly do anything, and that its imagination and potential was only bound by that of the writer itself. It’s a great shame then that years later, a few subsequent future production teams would go on to consciously narrow Doctor Who’s genre definition. However, that was all in Doctor Who’s future, and I’ll come back to it when I reach the relevant periods. In 1964 though, Doctor Who was expanding and getting bigger, not smaller; going from strength to strength.

Looking back at The Keys of Marinus specifically though, it’s a fascinating curiosity. Born out of necessity, rushed, underdeveloped, sometimes fairly padded and insubstantial, with mostly ineffectual and theatrical characterisation and direction, Keys is a serial that on the surface appears to be doomed to failure. Yet, within this chaotic production lies some magnificent imaginative ideas and concepts, even if they’re not wholly original, some magical performances from the regular cast, especially William Hartnell, and a wonderfully mad range of small stories and sub-genres, all thrown into the mix, and shows Doctor Who laying down its final foundations as a programme and coming of age before it heads off to new, brighter and mostly better horizons.

Score: 7/10

P.S. At this point I have to hold my hands up and confess that part of the conclusions I made in the third and second-last paragraphs of the review are wholly inspired by the astute observations of TARDIS Eruditorum aka Philip Sandifer on The Keys of Marinus. I greatly recommend his writings, which are both very clever, and very culturally knowledgeable, even if I sometimes disagree with his opinions from time to time.

Check out his writing on The Keys of Marinus at:

Or alternatively check out any of his critiques and writings on other Doctor Who stories at:

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