Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus DVD Review

Review 31 Aug 2009 - 13:00
The Keys of Marinus

Dalek creator Terry Nation brings us a classic Hartnell Who story in this new release of the Doctor's adventures...

I’m often asked by new Who fans to recommend ‘classic’ stories and it’s the usual roll-call of The Caves of Androzani, The Aztecs, Genesis of the Daleks etc. But sometimes I come in from left field and suggest 1964’s The Keys of Marinus, from the pen of Dalek scribe Terry Nation, only the fifth serial made and part of the first season.

The first Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions arrive on the planet Marinus and soon get embroiled in a search to find five microcircuit keys that need reinstalling into the thought-suppressing Conscience Machine to overthrow the Voord, evil, alien invaders.

Episode 1: The Sea of Death

In which the Doctor, Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) enter a building near the glass shores of a sea of acid and Arbitan (George Coulouris) blackmails our heroes into searching for Marinus’ keys.

We’re all used to modern story-telling on television, of course, and sometimes it’s hard to go back and watch six episodes that could easily be contracted today into one or two But with these very early stories, one can’t help but be pulled in to the build-up, to the setting of the scenes. It also allows the main cast to really emphasise that they have become part of a team. People often bang on about the fourth Doctor and Romana or the seventh and Ace. But for me, one of the greatest ship-shape TARDIS teams is this one: the first Doctor, his grand-daughter Susan and her teachers Ian and Barbara.

Episode 2: The Velvet Web

In which the companions find an idyllic room of luxury and decadence in the city of Morphoton. But the luxury isn’t all it seems and Barbara is the only one to see the truth. We meet denizen Altos (Robin Phillips) and the brain creatures that control the city-dwellers and see that the first key is with the slave Sabetha (Katharine Schofield).

It’s clear from the first instalment that this story is a quest. No surprises there. As a result, we know that we’re in for an ‘episodic serial’ (as in three or four different adventures in one serial, according to David Whitaker and writer Terry Nation). Interestingly, a lot of this is filmed and expressed from the point of view of Barbara. So we have the Doctor and co talking to camera which certainly forces the point that only Barbara can see Morphoton for what it really is – a complicated execution because of the duplicate sets requiring different dressings.

Strangely, Carole Ann Ford plays Susan more child-like than in the previous couple of stories, and it leaves us to wonder if this was a directorial choice or simply an oversight in character development.

Episode 3: The Screaming Jungle

In which Susan arrives first in a telepathic jungle on the edge of a stone edifice, Barbara thinks she finds the second microcircuit and disappears, and Ian follows the her into a series of traps and the realm of wise sage Darrius (Edmund Warwick).

In the main, this is a two-hander for Jacqueline Hill and William Russell (Hartnell having a two-week holiday). While I did mention earlier that this team of four is one of my favourites, there’s also the danger of too many dangers for too many heroes (certainly something that Peter Davison’s era suffered from at one time). Focusing on Ian and Barbara, it allows them to step to the front, to carry the story and show that Russell is a very fine actor.

And further, this is the very first Doctor Who episode ever broadcast on BBC1. I’ll leave that apparent misnomer with you…

Episode 4: The Snows of Terror

In which Ian and Barbara begin to freeze to death in an arctic wilderness, Barbara fends off some unwanted attention by the gruff hermit Vasor (Francis de Wolff) and Ian finds Altos nearby and wolves on the hunt. There’s also a trip into some caves, a microcircuit in a solid block of ice and four defrosting crusaders.

Ian and Barbara’s characters continue to drive the story. It’s the undercurrents of Vasor (“who most men fear”) as some sort of predatory letch that take the story in a slightly different direction. It’s something that today’s tea-time family entertainment probably wouldn’t touch.

And I can’t help but always chuckle at the very last scene. All it needs is an ordinary house brick and it’s Sellers’ and Milligan’s The Case of the Mukkinese Battlehorn!

Episode 5: Sentence of Death

In which Ian is framed for murder, a microcircuit is stolen from a museum vault, the Doctor does a turn as Perry Mason, Susan is kidnapped and there’s another murder to boot.

Donald Pickering (of The Pallisers as well as two later Doctor Whos) joins the supporting cast and once again the tale takes a different route. In essence, the ‘action’ (for want of a better word) becomes court-room drama and even though we’ve not seen the city of Millenius before, we’re familiar enough with the world of Marinus to readily accept this latest society. Hartnell returns to the set, relaxed and recharged. Carole Ann Ford certainly seems happy to see him and he himself appears to relish being back.

Episode 6: The Keys of Marinus

In which Ian is sentenced for execution, the Doctor has to find new evidence to reopen the case, the Voord have infiltrated the room of the Conscience Machine and the Doctor gets tooled up.

This is the only episode of this serial to retain same sets and plot from the previous instalment (until we return to Arbitan’s lair as seen in episode 1). It wraps up the whole Ian-framed-for-murder plot line and reminds us too of the quest for the keys of Marinus and the Voords’ machinations. There’s also another contentious issue for today’s family audience, this time regarding domestic violence. The Doctor moralises at the end, which is a typical finale for a Terry Nation script.

The Keys of Marinus is occasionally accused of being a weak story, certainly as it immediately follows the highly-regarded Marco Polo. The constant jumping from place to place as the story unfolds perhaps? But actually, for me it works incredibly well. It keeps the six episodes fresh, from the sets to the supporting characters, when the whole thing could have easily become a plodder - and Ian and Barbara’s relationship has to be one of the greatest unspoken love-affairs on TV. Nation, infamously renowned for rehashing his own work, is able to keep the momentum going and establish the one simple fact that the constant in this story is the main cast itself.

And that, for me, is one of the most important things, particularly for this era of the series. For modern Who, it’s a given that the companions will sometimes take the lead over the Doctor and, looking back now at these early episodes, we can see that the current production crew have not detracted or changed the series in any way nearly 50 years on.

And surely that’s an amazing testament to the quality of Hartnell’s performance and that of his co-stars, and the passion and dedication that Verity Lambert’s production team had for the show?

Outstanding stuff.

Extras:
Amazingly sparse on this particular Who release…

The Sets of Marinus
Raymond Cusick couldn’t be more bored if he’d tried. Either that or he was fed up to the back teeth talking about this particular story. He’s very deprecatory of the work entailed into bringing the story to the screen, using the old excuse of not enough money and not enough time.

John Nathan Turner once said that, when taking over the producership for the 80s, he didn’t want a ‘make do’ attitude when it came to creating each episode. Sadly, this is exactly the attitude that Cusick seems to bring to this mercifully short behind-the-scenes extra. It’s a shame because, had he been less critical of everything, we would have garnered a good insight into designing a serial for a 405-line TV transmission. His negativity jars even further when watching the episodes with the info text feature switched on: one realises just how much good work Cusick contributed.

Photo Gallery
The usual montage of studio stills and audio atmospheres from the serial they represent but accompanied by some pieces of design art. There’s also a tiny sequence of portraits of Carole Ann Ford which I’m convinced haven’t been seen before. However, it’s the colour photos that always fascinate me. Such records from the earliest era of Doctor Who give an intriguing glimpse into an otherwise monochrome world: a blend of blues, greys, reds and browns, the set design and costumes for The Keys of Marinus show lovely subtle touches to a tale that demanded a diverse range of scenarios.

PDF Material
Always great to see clippings from the Radio Times of the day and reminds me of when I myself used to ‘cut out and keep’ the listings from the 80s (I wonder what ever happened to them all?). In addition, reproduced is the complete set of cards from Cadet Sweets’ Doctor Who and the Daleks, featuring the Voord.

Coming Soon
A rather exciting trailer for the forthcoming DVD set ‘The Dalek War’, comprising of Pertwee’s Frontier In Space and Planet of the Daleks.

Main feature: 5 starsExtras: 1 starsDoctor Who - The Keys Of Marinus is released on the 21st of September.

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