One of the best things about Doctor Who across all the decades it has been on the air and particularly so for the First Doctor, is that it is free to do virtually anything. If the Doctor can travel anywhere in the universe then the only limitation on this show is the imagination. And when he never knows where he is going next, then the viewer is on edge. When this is done right then the show is wonderfully disorientating as you never know what's around the corner. And in Doctor Who's first season, the surprises included cannibalistic cavemen, genocidal alien mutants and Kublai Khan, ruler of China in the thirteenth century.
The Keys of Marinus takes that idea to the extreme, putting the TARDIS crew made up of the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan on a quest across the planet Marinus, seeing them struggle more than usual with the harsh environments they find themselves in. Acid seas, eye-stalked brains that rule through mind control, a jungle that not only screams but kills. There is almost as much diversity spread out across the six episodes that make this story up as the first season in its entirety. It feels like the show was growing more and more confident throughout the debut season and was showing off what it could do. Its audacious, bold and it is hard not to love it for that.
On a practical level however, it wouldn't have been easy to pull a story like this off on a sixties budget. Indeed watching it back in 2018, you can see its rickety sets and script even more clearly as issues. At the time though, it would have been wonderful.
At the end of the day, The Keys of Marinus can be used as an example of when more isn't better. A mad flurry of ideas put together can sometimes be worse than just a couple of them and the constant change stops things from really getting the chance to develop.
Susan, (Carole Ann Ford), finds herself menaced by a Voord in The Keys of Marinus.
This story is written by Terry Nation, the man behind the Daleks, it was hastily created to replace a couple of stories that had fallen through and the structure behind this episode was designed to help the production through the mad rush it was created in. It also displays Nation's usual trick of splitting the characters up and sending them off on missions or separate storylines. But the episodic nature of this story is a bit of a problem, and its problems become even more apparent when you look at the story that is next, The Aztecs, one of the strongest stories to ever have come out of the First Doctor era, because it focuses on one problem and thinks it through.
Nation manages to split the story into five different stories, all of which are riddled with plot holes because of the haste they were written in. The story opens with the TARDIS landing on a beach on the planet Marinus. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan soon meet the mysterious Arbitan, a lonely old man who keeps watch over something called the Conscious Machine. He says that the device once brought peace and prosperity to Marinus for over 700 years by eliminating all evil on the planet. Arbitan says that the machine decided for people what was evil or not, what was right or wrong. And that sounds decidedly creepy, creating a society that are more like pacified zombies than people. And the queasy morality of that doesn't get brought up until the final episode but the story never deals with that problem. Anyone who wasn't affected by that machine was free to do what they liked, but those others didn't know how to defend themselves. Enter the Voord, whose rise to power forces Arbitan to remove the control keys of the machine and scatter them across Marinus. Over the course of their rule, Arbitan has had the chance to fix the machine so it can once more control the Voord but he can't get the keys again because he's under siege by the Voord who want the machine for themselves.
The story doesn't really explain how the machine was disabled in the first place is unexplained. Arbitan explains he did it himself years ago but that implies he did it at least twenty-years ago. The entire courtroom storyline in the final two episode implies that the city of Millenius has a justice system of its own, which could have only been accomplished when the Machine was shut down, its whole purpose was to determine justice when humans wouldn't.
Arbitan reveals that he has sent all his friends out to find the keys but none have returned, he presumes they are all dead, but he has no way to know for sure. He is forced to turn to the Doctor and his companions and choices a brutal way of getting them to comply, especially as he claims to be a man of peace. He threatens them with imprisonment and starvation unless they retrieve the keys for him, exactly the sort of thing he wouldn't be able to do if the machine was on.
A creepy temple statue gets a little bit handsy with Barbara, (Jaqueline Hill).
But his plan works otherwise there wouldn't be anything happening between episodes 2-5. First stop is Morphoton, a city that appears to be paradise but is actually a deadly trap. Beginning with Barbara, the crew is bedazzled by offers of their hearts desire - luxurious clothing, fine food, even a fully stocked laboratory for the Doctor is given to the travellers. Of course all this is a hallucination caused by hypnosis and everything they have been given is actually trash and rubbish. In reality, the city is under the control of Morphos, who has enslaved the population via his mental abilities. It is lucky then that Barbara manages to resist long enough to smash them all up and the once the population wake up, they realise what has happened, riot and burn everything to the ground. And that dark and depressing ending is the end of it and the gang travel onto the next location. It is an abrupt ending to a story that really needed some development and leaves a lot of questions needed to be answered. And it is worth noting that Morphos used the same method of pacification as the Conscience Machine. Wouldn't there have been a similar reaction across the entirety of Marinus after Arbitan shut down the machine.
Speaking of Arbitan, he is killed minutes after sending the crew on their first mission. That act was really bad planning on the part of the Voord as he is the only person who knows exactly where the keys are. But then, thinking about that, it wasn't as if he gave the Doctor and the gang the exact directions either, other than giving them a travel dial that takes them to the general area of the key, he told nothing of what they should be expecting. This problem is highlighted brilliantly in the third episode when Barbara and Ian are talking. They have been told that only those warned by Arbitan can avoid all the traps he laid out and they are unable to avoid them because Arbitan never told them. But that is less Arbitan's fault and more Terry Nations because of the hasty writing. But this story was such a rush-job that one wonders if Nation or David Whitaker ever realised it was there in the first place. They would have been more focused on coming up with the action and visual sequences rather than a solid adventure that would stand the test of time more than fifty-years later.
The elements of The Keys of Marinus that really work are the more eerie and creepy moments, the jungle smashing into a house, the frozen soldiers waking up and Vasar's attempt to sexually assault Barbara are easily some of the most shocking moments in this story. But the parts that are supposed to connect this story together are vague and illogical in a way that is hard to ignore.
It sounds like it didn't enjoy this story but I did and another strength of this adventure is the continuing evolution of the relationship between the main cast. Following the mutual distrust between the Doctor and his companions at the beginning of the series, their growing friendship and respect is evident. The Doctor is clearly upset when he believes he has failed to save Ian and it is a scene which William Hartnell nails perfectly. Ian and Barbara carry a large chunk of the story by themselves in the middle given that the Doctor had to be written out because Hartnell went on holiday but Susan has little to do but panic and scream. And she then gets kidnapped in episode 5.
Actress, Carole Ann-Ford's range doesn't really help but it is small wonder she did one series and few episode in the next before becoming the first companion to leave the series. However, her freak-out when she arrives in the Screaming Jungle make sense for her character. It is established in The Sensorites that she is a telepath, even if at this point, she doesn't realise it. And since the jungle is alive and murderous, apparently given a conscience by a mad scientist, it is little wonder she picks up on this. But she also has a good reason to be scared of jungles as she had a particularly terrifying experience in one earlier in the series in The Daleks...