February 10, 2014

Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus

“The Keys of Marinus!” Finally! Bear with me- this post is a long one because I like this story so much. I know I shouldn’t play favorites, but this episode is outstanding. The TARDIS materializes on an island. Earth? Nope. This island has glass for sand and is surrounded by a sea of acid. How do we know it’s acid? Susan wants to go swimming and drops her shoe in the liquid. Oops! No more shoe. On the beach, the crew discovers one-person submersibles designed to traverse the acid sea. Susan wanders off because she is Susan, and they have to find her. (Do they?) They figure she must have gone to the giant pyramid-shaped building nearby. What does Susan contribute aside from hijinks? She always gets lost or ends up in distress. Then she screams and freaks out. Does she ever enhance a situation with her presence? We all know the answer to this question.

Barbara, the Doctor, Arbitan, Ian, and Susan (l to r) in front of the machine

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan end up inside the building and meet the sole occupant, Arbitan. He is the guardian of the Conscience of Marinus. This machine’s original purpose was to mete out impartial justice, but it became powerful to the point that it could eradicate evil from the minds of the populace. Eventually, a man named Yartek broke free from its control. He and his followers, the Voord, started stealing and committing nefarious deeds previously unheard of in a society without evil. (Let’s put aside the fact that it’s creepy that this culture had a giant machine controlling their minds so they’d behave, okay? And that I don’t blame him for wanting to break free?) Anyway, the Conscience of Marinus has five keys, or microprocessors, that it needs to function. Arbitan kept one key and hid the other four around Marinus so that Yartek could not capture the machine and use it to take control of the people. Now that Arbitan has fixed the machine so that it can bring Yartek and the Voord under its power again (see, creepy), he needs the keys. He has sent a bunch of people to get them, and they never come back. Guess who gets to go now? Arbitan put a force field around the TARDIS. He will release it once the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan leave on their journey. They are each given a travel dial to wear on their wrists. A twist of the dial sends them to the general location of the next key. The Voord are already infiltrating the island, so they need to hurry.

Barbara turns the dial before the others and is whisked off to the first location. When the others catch up, she is living the life of luxury. Ian is suspicious. Not everything is as it seems here. Excitingly, it’s Barbara who saves them this time! Ian often gets to play the hero, but Barbara kicks butt here. To be specific, she kicks the butt of the brains in jars that are the baddies. Brains in jars. I love Doctor Who. The travelers meet a man named Altos and Arbitan’s daughter Sabetha, who continue on the quest with them. Altos and Sabetha were both previously sent by Arbitan to find the keys, and Sabetha had already found the first key when she was ensnared in the brains’ trap.

Brains in jars! This truly needs no explanation.

Here the party decides to split up. The Doctor is going to jump to the fourth key’s location, where a friend of Altos is supposed to be working on getting that key. The Doctor leaves them and isn’t seen again until episode five. That’s right- the Doctor is missing for two entire episodes of this serial. At first I was thinking that the Doctor seemed mellower in this story, but maybe it’s just that he wasn’t around to be his outrageously grumpy self. Nah, I do think he isn’t as angry anymore, but have no doubt, he is still the crotchety old man that the first Doctor will always be. Barbara quickly finds the key but gets trapped. Sabetha, Altos, and Susan go on to the next location, while Ian helps Barbara. It’s a good thing they didn’t leave right away- the key Barbara found is a fake, and Ian and Barbara need to find the real one. Needless to say, they do, and it’s off to meet the others.

They twist their dials and appear in a frozen wasteland. Sabetha, Altos, and Susan are nowhere to be found. A sinister man saves them and proceeds to be really disturbing. When Ian leaves to look for the others, this man basically tries to assault Barbara! He chases her around the cabin saying things like, “I'll wait no longer.” I don’t think I’m misinterpreting this. It’s unsettling.

Ian and Barbara seem to be getting closer. They were good friends when they started traveling with the Doctor, but they are holding hands an awful lot in this serial. Well, twice. I am on the record as thinking they have a thing for each other. Ian is definitely interested in Barbara at this point, anyway. Awww.

The group finds the key frozen in a block of ice in a cave, guarded by frozen medieval knights. Medieval knights? What are medieval knights doing on Marinus? For that matter, why was everyone dressed as ancient Romans or Greeks in the location with the brains in the jars?

Have they stumbled into a Monty Python movie?

They get away, and no one feels bad about what happens to that sinister guy. Nor should they. I don’t know why they don’t arrive at the final key location together when they all left together, but thus goes the story. Ian immediately gets knocked unconscious and framed for murder. Oh, and the real murderer steals the last key.

Why does your hat look like a crown roast? I grab my lapels at you!

The Doctor shows up and plays Perry Mason. Not only must he prove Ian is innocent, but he must also find the real killer. Of course, the Doctor figures it out right away and does his Doctor thing.

The travelers almost act like a family now- Ian is the father, the Doctor is the grandfather, Barbara is the mother, and Susan is the daughter. Barbara comments to Susan on how Ian is overprotective after he tells them in the jungle to wait there until he gets back. Barbara resists this. Susan repeatedly runs to Barbara for comfort and protection. Barbara is always hugging her and soothing her. Susan calls out for her grandfather when she is in trouble, but she runs to Barbara all the time. It’s interesting. In fact, the Doctor is often dismissive of Susan, calling her, “the child.” “Is ‘the child’ okay?” The actors all seem comfortable in their roles now, and the characterizations are stronger. I think they are all more likeable as a result. Even Susan. 

I digress. With the final key in their possession, they return to the island. Again, things aren’t as they seem. Ian really shines at the end here. I’m starting to adore Ian. 

Susan thinks that's Arbitan. Of course she does.

I was thinking about what makes this episode remarkable among those of the first Doctor era. There isn’t any filler in this serial. Sometimes Classic Who stories can drag. This one never does. They are always moving to a new location, looking for the next key, meeting new people. They face different adversaries and challenges in each locale. They split up and have separate adventures. It’s a quest narrative, and it works. The search drives the story and keeps it moving at a nice pace. 

Vartek holding a key.

What strikes me most about this episode is how much it stands as a precursor to the Key to Time. Whovians may be familiar with the Key to Time story arc during the fourth Doctor’s years. The Doctor and Romana I are sent on a quest by the White Guardian to collect the five segments of the Key to Time, which had been hidden to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Black Guardian. It even has a similar twist at the end. I have to wonder if the writers in the late ‘70s looked back to this serial for inspiration.

“The Keys of Marinus” is a great story. It’s entertaining. It’s an adventure. It’s fun to watch!


Doctor: First
Companions: Ian, Barbara, Susan
Episode: #5, "The Keys of Marinus," six parts- 'The Sea of Death,' 'The Velvet Web,' 'The Screaming Jungle,' 'The Snows of Terror,' 'Sentence of Death,' 'The Keys of Marinus'
Adversary: Vartek and the Voord
Classic Lines: the Doctor, to a detective: "You should read Pyrrho, my boy. He founded skepticism- a great asset to your business." Ian: "Thank heaven you remembered reading Pyrrho, Doctor." the Doctor: "Reading? What are you talking about? I met the man."
Tuck This Away to Impress Your Friends: "The Keys of Marinus" was written by Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks.
Next Up: "The Aztecs"


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