Doctor Who From The Beginning: 5 – The Keys Of Marinus

The Keys Of Marinus
Writer: Terry Nation
Director: John Gorrie
DVD availability: single-disc DVD Buy from Amazon

This one’s taken a *long* time to get around to writing about, hasn’t it? Partly that’s because my DVD player broke, but also it’s because of the nature of this story. While it might have worked well as a serial, particularly for the eight-year-old demographic at which it’s clearly aimed, watching it all in one go (which is how I’ve been doing these) is like trying to eat ten dry cream crackers. When you start you think “this will be easy!”, but after a few minutes you’re thinking “Why on earth did I think this was even possible? I want to die!”

The Keys Of Marinus is the first bad Doctor Who story. Why on earth this was saved when Marco Polo wasn’t is something we shall never know. The performances – at least those of the main cast – are as good as ever and the production design is *astonishing*, but there’s a gigantic hole in the middle of the script.

All the previous stories have been *about* something, or several somethings – An Unearthly Child was about future shock and the generation gap, The Daleks was about fascism, Edge Of Destruction was meant to show us more about the characters and bring their relationship forward, and Marco Polo was, by children’s TV standards, a pretty decent stab at showing how life was lived in another continent and another century.

But The Keys Of Marinus isn’t about anything at all except filling up six twenty-five minute TV slots between the Telegoons and Juke Box Jury. It’s the first example of someone trying to write ‘a Doctor Who story’ – it’s the first of many, many attempts to recapture the Daleks’ success, but even though it’s written by Terry Nation it comprehensively misses everything that made them a success. While the Daleks were hideous inhuman tank-robot-monster-aliens with zap guns, Yartek, leader of the alien Voord, is a bloke in a wetsuit.

It also has a rather… confused… morality. An ancient scientist kidnaps the TARDIS crew and holds them to ransom until they retrieve the pieces of his giant mind-control machine that, until someone found a way round it, was controlling the minds of every person on the planet. He’s the goodie.

But that doesn’t matter, because this isn’t really a story at all. It’s a ‘quest’, where Our Heroes have to find all the pieces of the MacGuffin, splitting up into groups and adventuring in several different ‘exciting’ locations, against various ‘scary’ foes of the psychic-brain-in-jar variety, before finally getting together to defeat the big baddie. In other words it’s the sort of plotting that had previously been a staple of Republic serials and bad superhero team-up comics, but is these days better known as video-game plotting.

In other words, this is the first example of Doctor Who being written by a lazy hack. And just how much of a lazy hack Nation is being here can be seen by the place names – Marinus (a watery planet) and Morphoton (where you’re dreaming while you’re there) must have taken whole *seconds* to think up. We also have those Terry Nation staples “plants.. that are more like animals!” (unless you’ve watched a lot of Nation’s work you’ve no idea how tedious ‘scary’ jungles can get), casual sexism (both Barbara and Susan want nothing more in the universe than a nice dress, while the Doctor wants a well-equipped lab), and a heroic character with a name like Terry Nation who saves the day. (In this case the character is called Tarran, but in future we have magical substances callled Tarranium, heroes called Tarrant and, most blatantly of all, a sexy super-spy called Sara Kingdom).

Terry Nation could, when he wanted, be a very good writer. Unfortunately, he only wanted to three times in his many years on Doctor Who – the first two Dalek stories and Genesis Of The Daleks (and it’s very debatable how much of that story he actually wrote). The rest of the time he was the absolute definition of a hack.

While reviewing the previous stories, I’ve found myself straining against my self-imposed 1000-word limit – they all have many points of interest, good lines, well-composed shots or *something*. In this case you have a bunch of good actors and an excellent set designer doing their best with terrible material, and there are only so many synonyms for ‘not very good’ you can come up with.

Doctor Who has always been a children’s programme, but the stories before this one all pretty consistently refused to use that as an excuse to be bad TV. But this is just unbelievably lazy writing, and the story is only redeemed at all because the cast haven’t yet realised that it’s OK to give a sub-par performance when handed a sub-par script. But even there, one of the chief joys of early Who is watching William Hartnell’s extraordinary performance, and he’s off on holiday for two weeks here, when the team split up.

This wouldn’t seem so bad in another context – to be honest, the script isn’t *MUCH* worse than the standard of, say, series three, much of the Troughton era, mid-period Pertwee or whatever. Whenever the programme makers get lazy and think ‘will this do?’, The Keys Of Marinus seems to be the standard to which they sink. But here it’s placed during an otherwise impeccable run of classic stories. This is the only unarguably *bad* story in the show’s first year (one can argue about The Sensorites, and we will in a couple of weeks, no doubt), and while it’s easy to see what they were trying to do, it’s amazing that this story didn’t kill off the ‘rubber-suited monster’ genre of Doctor Who for good.

Luckily, next up came one of the best stories the show’s ever produced…

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6 Responses to Doctor Who From The Beginning: 5 – The Keys Of Marinus

  1. Bill Reed says:

    I never noticed the Terry Nation/Sara Kingdom thing before. Hah.

    I really like Keys of Marinus, though, more than Genesis of the Daleks (I’d take Android Invasion over Genesis, too, hell, I’ll take the band Genesis over Genesis). Mostly, I like it because it has such a quicker pace than other old-timey Who stories, with a varied plot, taking the necessity of having to give Hartnell some time off by breaking them up and putting everybody in a different setting or genre. In one chapter it even turns into an episode of Perry Mason! Fab.

    But then, I see mid-period Pertwee as the high point of the original series.

    • Don Alsafi says:

      Count me in as another defender of Marinus. Since I started with “An Unearthly Child”, it was therefore the fifth story that I saw … and I found it incredibly enjoyable! Yeah, the “quest” plot is barely serviceable, it falls down in some spectacular ways (like the moving arms on the statue), and the Justice Machine brings up a question of freedom vs imposed will that’s seemingly addressed only in passing (if at all).

      But I found “adventure serial” nature of it a refreshing novelty. While you could argue that one half-hour episode is not enough time to really explore a new setting or situation, a common (and valid) complaint of Doctor Who is how overly long many of the stories were. Even by this point, I’d already seen evidence of padding in the “10,000 BC” story, and then again in “The Daleks” – and would see such a flaw a countless number of times in the history of Who after that. Having one story that goes to the opposite extreme is at the very least interesting for contrast alone.

      (It’s notable that the only time this “quest” structure was reattempted was with the season-long “Key to Time”, in which the individual stories went on too long and mostly bored me.)

      I should also point out that I’ve been re-watching these classic Who stories about one a week (as you’ve been blogging them); sometimes I’ll watch a serial all at once, and sometimes I’ll split them up over a number of days. This one in particular I thought might benefit from viewing one episode a day, and they did – significantly more than the average Who.

      As to your other complaints, I can’t really disagree with them … except to say (like some others here) “Well yeah, that’s a good point – but I l like it anyway!” :)

  2. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I remember it does have its good moments, such as the Doctor claiming he has a colour TV in the TARDIS (it just doesn’t work right now), and while Barbara may love a good dress, she does get to be the hero of the Morphoton episode.

  3. Gavin Burrows says:

    And just how much of a lazy hack Nation is being here can be seen by the place names – Marinus (a watery planet) and Morphoton (where you’re dreaming while you’re there) must have taken whole *seconds* to think up.

    If I were to defend ‘Keys Of Marinus’

    …the allegorical place names do kind of fit the symbolic ‘quest’ nature of the story, and of the show in general of this era. ‘Skaro’ is after all half a click away from ‘scarred’, which is a kind of allegorical name.

    But remember, I said “if!”

  4. darquehex says:

    Hi, Andrew. Have you done any more of these? I’m working my way backwards through the archive and these appear to stop at 5 but I may have used the wrong tag. Thanks!

    • No, I’m afraid this was the last of them. I might get round to doing the rest one day, but I got distracted around that time by releasing my second book, and never continued.

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