Now, now! Twist the dials!
The First Doctor and his companions, having left China behind, find themselves once more at the mercy of the wonky time mechanism in the TARDIS, arriving on a glass sand beach surrounded by acid seas. Over those seas and far away are the titular Keys of Marinus, four of which this fab foursome will be coerced into finding.
Much like the preceeding “Marco Polo,” Terry Nation’s “The Keys of Marinus” (Story Production Code E) is a sweeping epic of a story, stretching a simple “fetch and carry” plot over six episodes. Four Keys must be found, each in a different location on the planet Marinus and each accompanied by a different type of story. Finding the first Key involves psychological suspense, with a struggle to separate reality from illusion. And there are brains in jars.
The second Key is in an overgrown laboratory with violent plant life, and in finding it, Ian and Barbara undergo a horror-type encounter with eerie whispering from creeping vines. To find the third Key, Ian, Susan, Barbara, and two new helpers run around a frozen waste in an action episode, fending off wolves, a burly trapper, and ice warriors who come to life when heated up. And the acquisition of the fourth Key requires solving a murder mystery that is nowhere near as puzzling as the very awkward jump between episodes four and five, when we go from Ian escaping the trapper’s hut to Ian being knocked out in a vault with no explanation.
The companions are, once more, referred to as such in the script, when Arbitan, the keeper of the Conscience of Marinus (long story . . .) says to Ian, “Let us release your companions!” Arbitan locked them up because he thought they were agents of the evil Voords, even though the Voords all wear wetsuits and trip over their flipper feet on the set.
Ian and Barbara in particular begin to embody the role of companions as later seen in the series: excited by new adventures after an initial period of disorientation and homesickness. No knock intended on Carole Ann Ford, but Susan just screams a lot in this story.
When our travellers arrive on Marinus, Ian and Barbara seem not only unconcerned about being on yet another planet in yet another time, they’re actually quite excited by the prospect, a signal change from the earlier stories. At one point, Barbara insists that they cannot judge an alien culture by earth standards (though, of course, they would have saved themselves an episode worth of trouble if they had), and she muses aloud that it would be wonderful if the TARDIS had a color television screen to let them see where they had landed this time. The Doctor rebuffs her, insisting that the TARDIS is of course so equipped. It’s just, um, broken, like the time mechanism that would ordinarily allow the Doctor to actually steer the TARDIS.
This running trope in the early series—the broken TARDIS—leads to the Doctor’s willingness later to accept the offer of a fully stocked laboratory. Indeed, he is so excited about the prospect of using those wonderful tools to fix the TARDIS that he doesn’t even wonder about why he’s being given it for free. It turns out that he’s experiencing the laboratory as an illusion perpetrated by four brains-in-jars, suggesting that the Doctor’s mental powers have not yet been established as more powerful than those of a human being. Only Barbara shrugs off the illusion, albeit by virtue of a misplaced mesmerizing bean on her head, and she begins to come into her own as an independent figure during this story, striking out solo to recover a (false) Key from a statue with curiously human arms and later to rescue a yet-again-kidnapped Susan without the Doctor’s knowledge.
This iteration of the Doctor remains blissfully curious about his surroundings, even when danger is afoot, delighting in finding a force field around the TARDIS (placed there to coerce them into finding the Keys of Marinus) and enjoying, perhaps too much, the chance to play barrister and detective when Ian’s life hangs in the balance in a courtroom in the city of Millennius. Even the “travel dials” that Arbitan gives the Doctor and his companions to flit from Key to Key are a source of pleasure for the Doctor, despite the fact that he’s being forced to use them to go on a dangerous search he wants no part of. He finds them quite well made, compact, and ingenious, just so.
“The Keys of Marinus” still pays heed to the original conception of the show as having an educational component, Ian and Barbara being, after all, school teachers. Upon finding Arbitan’s fortress on the island in the middle of the acid sea, Barbara and Ian comment on how similar the construction is to ancient Egyptian and Central American construction, with no mortar and exceptionally tight-fitting joints, tighter even than the short-pants worn by yet another male guest star (Robin Phillips as Altos) in the next several episodes. (Such costume design decisions become a trope in their own right in the series.) Later, reference is made to Icelandic hot springs and to the Doctor having met a founder of Scepticism, Pyrrho.
The most significant element of this story would have to be the Doctor’s complete absence from the middle two of the six episodes, episodes in which Ian and Barbara occupy the majority of the screen time. At this point, the show, while certainly centered on the character of the Doctor, was not necessarily considered as revolving around him. Howe and Walker’s ever-insightful Doctor Who: The Television Companion reveals that the absence was designed to afford William Hartnell a several-week vacation. The Tenth Doctor’s reign will feature several episodes with minimal Doctor presence as well, for reasons of actor vacations. So far in the show’s existence, though, the notion of a rotating cast of companions and even Doctors had not yet been developed; putting two adult leads front and center probably didn’t seem like much of a stretch, for the producers or the audience.
In a nod to continuity, the Doctor wields the cane given him by Kublai Khan in the prior story, and Ian spends the entire story wearing an embroidered smock intended to evoke Chinese design—well, almost the entire story. He wears wolf furs at one point as well. Short shorts and barbarian furs—essential go-tos in the show’s wardrobe. The Doctor is given one of the Keys of Marinus at the end of the story, though I don’t know if his possession of it is ever referenced again in the series.
Unlike earlier stories, the TARDIS does not materialize in the scene of the next story at the end of the final episode, instead just fading to black with the title of the next episode, “The Temple of Evil,” set in the time of “The Aztecs.” Don’t miss this one—Barbara becomes a reincarnated Aztec High Priestess!
(Screengrabs courtesy of Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.)
(Previous Episode: Marco Polo)
(Next Episode: The Aztecs)
Post 5 of the Doctor Who Project