Doctor Who doesn’t really do “collect the puzzle pieces” stories very often, for the very simple reason that it requires a new set or location for each piece. The one major example of course is the Key to Time, but this was done over the course of a whole series, so did not place any extra demands on the budget. Attempting it over the course of a single story is akin to insanity, and you have to admire the bravery of even thinking this could be attempted. There was no way a polished production was going to be achieved, but that’s wonky thinking anyway because you can’t watch early Doctor Who expecting it to look and sound like modern drama. This was basically an era that was a halfway house between what we have nowadays, and making a stage play with a camera pointed at the actors. So for example when we see obviously painted backgrounds in the scenes set in Arbitan’s pyramid, yes it’s ok to feel a bit put off by that, but no it’s not really fair to blame the production for that, because we are watching something from 1964. Television in Britain was only 35 years old at that point (and even that figure gives a false impression due to the war years) but we are looking back on it with 21st Century computer-age eyes, and nearly nine decades of television broadcasting history. You have to check those kind of expectations of television standards at the door.
The idea of the quest theme here is that it allowed for the story to be made up as it goes along. Yes, this was one of Doctor Who’s many rush jobs. That doesn’t always turn out to be a bad thing. Necessity is the mother of invention. The Mind Robber was a rush job. The format is not a problem in itself because it actually makes for a very lively and exciting story, but it would have been useful if a bit more internal logic had been sketched out before pen was put to paper to write the actual lines of the script. We have Arbitan sending the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan off on a quest, but failing to arm them with the information they need. So they arrive in the various locations with no idea where to look for the keys, and then face problems that they could have been pre-warned about, including a trap set by Arbitan himself! It’s all a bit odd, as is the Voord logic in killing the one person who has knowledge of the keys.
Frustratingly, the story raises some themes that could have been explored in an interesting manner, but doesn’t have time to explore them. For example, the whole premise is about restoring a machine that controls the population and keeps them under control. We are told that it makes moral decisions for them. But there is really no discussion of the ethics of this, which are pretty rotten. Then we have a whole big courtroom drama because, well, that’s what Terry Nation wants to do this week. But we know that the morally questionable mind control machine has made that kind of thing unnecessary on Marinus, and it doesn’t make much sense for an elaborate legal system to have sprung up in the relatively short time that the machine has been switched off. However, it is important to remember that this was watched one episode per week, and viewers wouldn’t necessarily have joined the dots like this. Whether you consider that a fair reason for a breakdown of internal logic is a matter of opinion.
But I really can’t bring myself to pick any more holes, because frankly The Keys of Marinus is an amazing, crazy rollercoaster of a story and I love it. Thanks to a bit of ret-conning in World Enough and Time, it is also now our Cybermen debut story! That actually fits quite well, mainly because Terry Nation didn’t bother to think about the origins of the Ice Soldiers. We are left guessing as to what they actually are: one might at first assume them to be robots, but then one screams as he plummets to his death. Quite a neat fit, for an early version of the Cybermen with emotions not fully removed.
Very occasionally I feel the need to go into bullet points to avoid a review going on forever, and this is one of those occasions, because there is so much to say about The Keys of Marinus:
- Like in The Daleks, there is some very impressive model work. There is also good attention to detail throughout, with an attempt to make locations seem alien (pens write differently; books are not rectangular).
- The eyes behind the statue in The Velvet Web are a cliché, but very creepy nonetheless. There is also some inspired direction in this episode, with the Barbara’s-point-of-view shots particularly effective.
- There are some very funny moments in this story, some intentional (the Doctor admiring a tin mug as if it is a complex piece of scientific equipment) and some less so (one of the Voords tripping over his feet).
- There are also several scary moments that one might question in a children’s programme: Morpho screaming as Barbara smashes up his people; domestic violence between Aydan and Kala, and then her grief at his death.
- Much of the final episode makes little sense. Kala turning out to be a baddy is a big surprise but is illogical, and how do Barbara and co. get into her house? And does Yartek really think he is going to fool anyone by pretending to be Arbitan? His head is rather too big to pull off that trick! There is no chance whatsoever of the location of the key being a surprise, due to the incessant zooming in on the club.
- The hilariously short rope bridge spans a chasm that is ‘too wide to jump’, yet it is nothing like as wide as the one in The Daleks.
Before I end this review, here’s the amazing concept artwork above by Katie, in a larger version:
I can’t end this review without mentioning one of my favourite aspect of Hartnell-era Doctor Who: “Billy-fluffs”. There are a couple of prime examples here: ‘If you’d have had your shoes on, my boy, you could have lent her hers.’ and ‘I can’t improve at this very moment” … which is a shame, but then again Hartnell didn’t need to improve much, because he was already our magnificent, original Doctor Who. RP
Have a look at Babelcolour’s tribute to William Hartnell below if you haven’t seen it before, because it includes some of the best “Billy-fluffs”, and then scroll down for another review, “from across the pond”.
The view from across the pond:
When I was a kid, I had this cool mix-n-match art set; basically plastic images of monsters divided into three sections (head/torso/legs) that, with the use of a crayon, could be rubbed onto paper. You could change the head to go with a different body and still different legs, so creating a cybernetic creature with the body of a werewolf and legs of a merman was easy and fun. The plastic pieces were held together in a framework that kept the disparate parts together for easy rubbing, but the end result was enjoyable. I often wonder what happened to it. (Mom??)
The Keys of Marinus is not unlike those mix-n-match sets. There’s the framework: a supercomputer built to eliminate fear has 4 keys scattered around the planet Marinus that need to be recovered. Then, there’s the mix-n-match pieces: each episode is different, ranging from adventure serial to science fiction to court-room drama. The companions are not immune to it either; they get mixed and matched too as fellow travelers join them. It’s a fun story in the vein of many serials of yesteryear. The TARDIS crew find themselves in an idyllic Roman-like setting where they find themselves in the thrall of brain creatures with eyes; in screaming jungles which reduce Susan to a gibbering wreck; in frozen wastelands which teach us all about how to deal with frostbite; and in a courtroom where Ian is on trial for his life. It’s an extraordinarily fun story and, if the 12th Doctor is to be believed, may have been a precursor to Cyber-technology. More on that in a moment…
One take away from this story is the unintentional comedy that is present especially in the first part. Ok, let’s flash forward to Colin Baker’s Trial of a Time Lord (1986). There’s a scene where he interrupts his trial. The inquisitor, annoyed, asks “What now?” The Doctor says, “yes, now!” to which she replies, “No, I mean, what do you want now?” So let’s face it: flubs happen. People misunderstand one another, they get tongue-tied, they stumble… Yet, somehow these things are shunned by writers and film makers, and retakes are necessary to hide these foibles! But in the early days of Doctor Who, such luxuries were not an option. This means that what was caught on camera is what stayed on camera. But so what? In real life, this happens! Why not enjoy it and have fun with it? In The Keys of Marinus the flubs are wonderful. My own personal favorite is when the Doctor is talking about the lake they find themselves looking at; asked if it’s frozen he says “No, impossible in this temperature. Besides, it’s too warm!” (Is warmth not a measurement of temperature?) Later he chastises Ian, “Yes, and if you’d had your shoes on, my boy, you could have lent her hers. You mustn’t get sloppy in your habits, you know. Good gracious.” Lent her hers? Then, if we talk about comedy, watching a man fall into a pit of acid has never been funnier, since the man in question is clearly Flat Stanley (a cardboard cutout of a person made by any 2nd grader)! And how threatening are the Voord, in their wetsuits and flippers, when walking through a door trips one rather severely?
All that still does nothing to take away from a truly fun adventure. The cast is, as usual, nearly perfect. Ian, Barbara and the Doctor are great together. The Doctor is brilliant during Ian’s trial. Depressingly, Susan never rises above a “screaming child”, but does get reduced to “gibbering mass”. The setting on Marinus is clearly a model but the music adds to the atmosphere enough, as does the black and white of the era, that it is closer to instant-classic than low-budget filler.
Now, on the subject of retroactive continuity: I find it interesting that the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi) mentions Marinus when fighting the Cybermen in The Doctor Falls. The idea that the machine was doing what the Cybermen eventually do by removing emotions might shed light on why he said it, but I have issue accepting Marinus as anything more than vague memory for the Doctor. And that may be enough; it doesn’t have to be more – like flubs, mistakes in memory happen! Consider this: the very story that the Doctor says “Marinus” when fighting Cybermen is the same story he claims not to remember the gender of his first incarnation! I would imagine that would stand out more than a few days on Marinus!
The Keys of Marinus is a good adventure and a fun mix-n-match. Maybe that’s what the Doctor’s memory does too: mixes and matches. It seems apparent that his command of language is doing that throughout this story. And that’s ok: we can still have fun with it! (And thank our lucky stars that we had such a good cast for those early days!) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Aztecs