Sigh – Terry F*****g Nation again. After the exceptional Marco Polo, the next story was always going to have to try really hard to impress. The Keys of Marinus sadly fails to deliver. It is entertaining, silly nonsense, and the concept is brilliant – indeed, it’s one that will be returned to, far more successfully, during Tom Baker’s tenure. Sadly, though, this doesn’t work for precisely the reason that the Key to Time season does. As a series of linked stories, an overall arc with a final goal, the concept works, but due to time constraints, and that great enemy of Doctor Who, budget restraints, this serial sadly flounders. Don’t get me wrong – there are a number of excellent ideas in there; the episode set in Morphoton is based upon a brilliantly effective idea. Indeed, it features the first hypnosis in Doctor Who, something which will be relied upon as a plot device time and time again. But without time for some of the stories to develop, it all seemed a little brief and loosely handled.
There are things to get excited about by this serial, or course – the first ever materialisation, some wonderful models, and the beautiful Altos are all amongst them. Hartnell also has some corkers in this script, which are laudable – his point about shoes in the first episode never fails to make me chuckle. It is just that, after such a natural, strong moral adventure as Marco Polo, Nation’s script all feels a little too flat and staid. Conversations of educational import are thrown in, crowbarred into discussion where they simply do not sound natural. Whilst Lucarotti uses education almost subliminally, Nation tacks random points on here and there. Take, for example, the discussion of the ancient pyramids of Egypt and South America whilst they inspect Arbitan’s monumental home. Despite the fact that Susan has disappeared, and they really should be looking for her, they are, instead, admiring the architecture. It all feels so... well, glib, for want of a better word. What is nice about this particular exchange is that it foreshadows the next serial, another Lucarotti gem The Aztecs, where Barbara’s fascination for the South American culture is the driving force behind the entire narrative.
Arbitan’s home is, in and of itself, a preposterous joke. As Voord and crew alike are swallowed up by the walls, we are told that Arbitan has tried devoutly to keep the Conscience safe. Perhaps if it weren’t so ridiculously easy to enter the building, it would have remained safer? For one thing, he certainly wouldn’t have been murdered in the closing minutes of the story. And after all of the lengthy and detailed discussion in the previous story, the suggestion that a machine could force every one on Marinus to have a conscience against their own free will is rather disturbing. Whilst the Doctor and crew at first refuse to help, it is simply because they feel like they’re being put out by the whole thing, not on the grounds that it is morally reprehensible. In fact, it isn’t until the closing monologue of the entire story, 5 and a half episodes later, that the Doctor admits that he thinks that such a machine should never have been allowed to exist, whereby making those preceding episodes irrelevant anyway.
The Voord are quite an interesting idea – as is typical with the ‘monsters’ of the first few series’, costumes always led to rather unbelievable creations. Here, though, they simply look like men in wetsuits. Which is shit. But, and this is the interesting thing, it is as though the production team realise that it is shit, and so instead make a point of saying that they wear wetsuits. The dreadful costume is actually intentional, and serves almost as a private joke at the viewers’ expense. The Voord are humanoid, at least, and don this protective clothing because of the acid sea surrounding the island. Sadly, less convincing is the poor Voord who plummets to his/her/its death – clearly a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out.
Once the story gets off properly, we reach the city of Morphoton, a land of luxury and grandeur, which is actually disgusting and rundown, but everyone has been drugged into believing it. And this is where the entire serial begins to fall apart. Last week, we were on a glass beach, looking out over a sea of acid – “The Sea of Death”, in fact! – and inside an enormous temple dominated by a gigantic machine which controls the will of all of the inhabitants of Marinus. This week, we’re in a dilapidated city ruled by brains in jars, where the citizens see splendour abound. Next week we’re in “The Screaming Jungle”, the week after the cast are buried in “The Snows of Terror”, and the last two weeks are within the city of Millenius, before hopping back to Arbitan’s temple. The issue, of course, is that for each of these various locations, unique sets need building. Within the budget constraints of the time, they did their very best – Raymond Cusick’s design work is again very respectable considering what he had to work with. In fact, an issue they had to overcome is that Cusick spent much of his budget on the Conscience machine, leaving him to scrounge and salvage much of the sets from other locations and TV shows.
The biggest victim of these financial restraints, though, is “The Velvet Web”, where through clever editing we are able to see the two perspectives in tandem – through Barbara’s eyes, the filth and grime is disgusting, yet from the perspective of the others, the place is paradise. I love the scene where Susan proffers her new dress, and Barbara mutters “dirty!” like she were scolding a young boy for looking at pornography. The difficulty faced by John Gorrie and the crew, however, is insurmountable; neither is the grandeur manageable, or the filth disgusting enough. There are only marginal differences between the two sets. Particularly considering it was filmed ‘as live’, it is respectable, as the two camera angles only allowed brief pauses to reset where editing was almost impossible. But Nation’s script, despite being so basic, is far too brave to manage it all convincingly enough.
As they eventually escape from Morphoton into “The Screaming Jungle”, Susan heads off first, despite that not having worked too well for Barbara earlier on. She arrives in the jungle, and proceeds to flagellate herself, tearing at her hair and moaning and screaming constantly. Once the others arrive, she comes across as a needy only child, refusing to grow up – she is desperate to go with the Doctor, despite him evidently needing a break from her whining. The management of Hartnell’s holiday – the first of many – is well controlled, as he makes the decision to head off for the fourth key, leaving the rest of the crew in charge for the next two episodes. Again, the sets are the biggest downfall for this serial – not only did the script demand a jungle and a house which will be invaded by the plant life, but it also needed a complex series of boobytraps which were believable. And again, Cusick has done his best, but they are simply rubbish – wobbly sets are excusable, but compared with how magical and wonderfully realised Marco Polo was, this just looks inexcusably bad.
Edmund Warwick’s appearance as Darius is wonderful, though. His suspicion of Barbara and Ian is great – even though seconds after trapping them both he calls for help as a vine attaches itself to his neck. Warwick would later appear twice as the Doctor himself, doubling for Hartnell and appearing as a robot version of him in a later Nation story. Here, moments before dying, he trusts the two companions, and whispers a scientific formula to them. Again, my issue with this is twofold – first, Ian, as a chemistry teacher, should surely have figured this out quicker? Secondly, considering the danger they are in, why did he not simply say “In the jar”? It is convoluted, but allowing a certain degree of ‘education’ to slip in, I guess.
Once the second key is acquired, the crew are off to “The Snows of Terror”, buried in jabolite and freezing to the bones. This episode works, to some extent, based purely on the appearance of Vasor, the trapper. Francis de Woolff is brilliant, playing the villain like a bad guy from a DW Griffiths film in the 1920s – all that he is really missing is a lengthy enough moustache to twiddle as he raises his arms, tiptoeing around the room after Barbara. And this is where it becomes mildly disturbing. Doctor Who is principally a children’s’ television show. Whilst adults do, of course watch it, it was conceived as an educational adventure series. Here, though, the threat of sexual violence and danger is unnerving. He wants to rape Barbara. We know this. We can tell. It isn’t subtle, and as such even children must have picked up on it?
Education worms its way in here, again, as we are told about frostbite and the correct way to prevents you from losing a finger. Likewise, inside the scenes, a comment is shoehorned in about hot springs and the release of hot water from deep within the Earth. The scenes in the caves are relatively tense, but again are let down by the set clearly simply being wrapped in cellophane. The sequences on the bridge are acceptably scary – and yet this is the only time that Carole Ann Ford doesn’t scream. Once the crew have returned to Vasor’s cabin, ice soldiers in tow, to retrieve their wristbands, they leave the rapist to be skewered by a sword and head off to Millenius, where Ian is promptly knocked out and framed for murder.
The episodes in Millenius are by far the strongest, as the budget for the sets was twice that of the other locations. As a show, Doctor Who was still finding its feet, establishing exactly what sort of show it was. As such, the courtroom drama model works well here, with Hartnell back from a break and on top form. I can imagine few people better suited to represent you than Hartnell’s Doctor, who is all bluster and rage when arguing his case. Again, for a children’s TV show, it is surprisingly glib about wife beating, as we hear a full-force slap across the face from the other side of a locked door. When the wifebeater is murdered in the courtroom, shot by an unknown assailant, the cast give a respectable gravitas to the situation, as silence descends, and they all look around, shocked.
Of course, it is quickly unwound, Ian is saved from execution, and the bad guys are caught from their own stupidity, and our intrepid explorers, along with Sabetha and the irresistible Altos, return to Arbitan’s home, only to discover that Yartek is impersonating Arbitan – very badly. What frustrates me here is that if the wetsuits are only protective clothing, why are they still wearing them inside the temple? And if they aren’t just clothing, then the scene in the first episode with the empty wetsuit makes no sense whatsoever, unless the acid can boil the insides of a Voord, but not the flesh. But then there was a tear in the suit, which is how the acid got in... Oh, never mind. But the point remains that if Yartek were so desperate to appear like Arbitan, then surely a more appropriate vocal, as well as a cloak which didn’t make his face-mask look so blatant, would have done a better job. However, Ian sees through the charade (if he hadn’t, we would not have been impressed) and gives him the wrong key, leading the temple, and the Conscience, to explode.
The serial ends with that good old Terry Nation staple, a soliloquy on right and wrong, as the Doctor surmises that maybe it is all for the best, as such a machine should never be allowed to exist. The forcefield is removed from around the TARDIS – although goodness knows how since Arbitan dies moments after the crew left him – and the cast are free to continue their wandering through time and space. And next time, we’re back with John Lucarotti in Southern America. Seriously, Nation never stood a chance, bookended as he was by two of Lucarotti’s finest scripts. Oh well, on with The Aztecs...