'Doctor Who' Rewind: The Keys of Marinus

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Keys of Marinus cover photo

Note: This review will contain some spoilers of both this serial and the previous serials reviewed. If you have not seen the episodes, the serial is available on Amazon. Previous Rewind Reviews are not necessary to understand this one, but are recommended. 

At long last, we’re come back from our hiatus to bring the next installment of Doctor Who Rewind, where a NuWhovian and a Classic Whovian review the entire back catalogue of Doctor Who stories, starting at the very beginning. We entered an unfortunate Time Eddy following “Marco Polo” and it recently spat us out months later and ready to approach an episode that actually exists in a fully-watchable form. That brings us to the shores of a planet called Marinus where someone is currently going through an experience we can all empathize with: he’s lost his keys.

In this story our TARDIS Travelers land on a planet where a man named Arbitan has lost the keys to his giant conscience-machine, a horrifying brain-controlling machine that nobody seems to even question the morality of until the final minutes of the serial. The travelers, happy to just get back into the TARDIS and leave Arbitan to turn over the couch cushions and check behind the milk by himself, are roped into traveling via smart-watch across the planet to recover the final circuits to allow the operation of a horrifying mind-control machine.

At the core, this serial is a series of one-off stories, connected by the meta-narrative of the keys. This is a formula that will be returned to several times during Classic Who, most notably in the “Trial of a Timelord” and the “Key to Time” serials. So, without further ado, Mark and Jamie watch the Doctor help an old man find his keys.

Mark (Classic Whovian Review) – @MarkVorenkamp

For me, this episode was one of those that I remember being much better than it actually was. Each episode’s reason was different, but my eye-rolling muscles got one heck of a workout this serial. It all starts with the setup. The crew lands on this strange planet and, from the moment they leave the TARDIS, they seem to be continually being surprised by the “sudden appearance” of things they should have noticed much earlier. Perhaps the writer intended there to be more distance and transition between these discoveries, but the effect was a group of travelers who spend so much time shoe gazing (at one point, literally) that they don’t notice what’s in front of them until it’s narratively convenient.

This then devolves into a skit I swear I saw in Scooby Doo where people start disappearing into secret passageways and can’t find one another, eventually culminating in another badly choreographed “Ian fights someone off” scene and the introduction of the plot in the form of Arbitan. This, for me, is when the whole narrative starts falling apart.

At this point he introduces that this giant machine hanging behind him, which was created with the goal of being an impartial judge and jury, had been turned into a machine that disallows “wrong thinking” in those around it. To prevent its misuse the keys were hidden around the world and now it’s needed again. The reason? A bunch of people who used to be his peers, who suddenly turned evil for no apparent reason (the Voord), were trying to take over the pyramid and gain control of the device. So, instead of leaving the keys safely hidden across the world, he wanted them to take weeks to track them down and compile them into one location, with the belief that the Voord couldn’t possibly overpower a single old man in the meantime and then get their hands on the all-powerful mind-control machine.

So, of course, the Doctor refuses. What’s important here is the reason. He doesn’t refuse because he’s concerned about the morality of a mind-control machine, but because he simply can’t be bothered. So they return to the TARDIS to find that Arbitan, a man who couldn’t adequately defend his pyramid from a ragtag band of men in black wetsuits, had the power to create a forcefield around the TARDIS. So, forced into helping, they return and are given time-traveling smart watches. Ten seconds after they leave, in what I consider the most predictable “twist” in Classic Who, Arbitan is killed by one of the Voord.

What follows is a string of loosely-connected one-off stories, held together solely by the meta-narrative of the keys. Some of these could have made successful one-off episodes of their own (like the creepy mountain man rapist/murderer) while others simply felt rushed being squeezed into a single episode (like the brain-things and their word of illusion). In each episode the travelers start looking for the key, stumble upon the plot, resolve the plot, and then the key falls nicely into their laps, until it’s finally time to return the keys to Arbitan.

The leader of the Voord, a group supposedly smart enough to have found their way past Arbitan’s defenses to assassinate him, dons the worst disguise in Doctor Who by wearing Arbitan’s robe (never mind that they’re magically blood-free despite being stabbed) and pulling the hood over his oversized head/mask. Miraculously, nobody seems to notice that Arbitan’s voice has changed and either he’s wearing a funny hat under his hood or he grew a massive head tumor in the time they’ve been gone. It’s only Ian’s fast thinking, giving him the decoy key that narratively could only have been introduced to serve this very purpose, that saves the day. If by saving the day you mean blowing up a massive scientific complex.

With their meddling of mass destruction finished, the group wanders back to the TARDIS to say their final goodbyes to the episode’s local companions. It’s here, for the first time in six episodes, that someone finally addresses the elephant in the room, the entire reason they were on the misadventure in the first place. Better late than never, I guess?

I don’t believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that.

~The Doctor

In whole, I found the episode to be entertaining a times, but so full of contradictory moments where unnecessary complications end up causing too-convenient solutions, overall causing a six-part episode where the pacing made no sense at all. I have fond memories of the next serial as well, I’m just hoping it doesn’t leave me as disappointed as this one.

Jamie (NuWhovian Review) – @theroarbots

I was warned about this one in advance.

Is it bad that I had to go online to read a recap of this story immediately after the last episode in the serial ended? As soon as it was over, I had forgotten pretty much everything about it. Needless to say, I’m not even going to attempt a plot (such as it is) synopsis. Mark does an admirable job with them anyway.

I hate to be such a Negative Nancy in all these reviews. But the first season of the First Doctor is pretty rough going. Coming off the relative high of “Marco Polo,” we’re rewarded with this mess. This one’s all over the place… literally.

Over the course of its six episodes, the story takes our characters through at least five major set pieces–each of which might have been sufficient for a self-contained story. We begin on a glass beach beside a sea of acid, move to the interior of a mysterious tower, take a side trip to a screaming jungle with mutant man-eating plant life, then zip on over to a desolate snowscape before escaping to a series of ice tunnels. Finally, we end up in the middle of a courtroom drama.

Whew!

Theoretically, all this jumping around is because the gang has to round-up the five keys of Marinus. In reality? It makes almost zero sense and is frustratingly difficult to follow. By the time Ian is put on trial in the last episode, it feels inconceivable that everything that preceded it was actually part of the same story.

Still, there are elements of this story that I like a lot. I know; I’m just as surprised as you. The alien designs are unique and memorable. While the gang is on the glass beach, they’re attacked by a bunch of guys in full-body rubber wetsuits. They remind me a lot of the lizard men in the first episode of Jonny Quest. (That’s just how my mind works.) And anything that makes me think of Jonny Quest is A-OK in my book.

Voord

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The Brains of Morphoton are the first alien designs that don’t look human. They’re basically two antennae eyes sticking out of a brain in a jar. Not very menacing, but still a cool idea, so I’ve got to give the creative team props for that. And the Big Bad of this story, Yartek, along with his Voord warriors wear a way cool helmet/mask that looks totally out-of-place and ahead of its time here.

I also like that Ian wears his Chinese robe from “Marco Polo” throughout the serial. It’s a nice little bit of continuity that I appreciated.

Barbara and Susan continue to be mostly useless, especially when faced with the slightest hint of peril. However, when Susan is taken captive by the trapper is the first time I’ve actually felt like she could be in serious danger. Yes, yes, I know the Daleks and, well… all those other bad guys she faced were dangerous, too.

But I actually shuddered when the hulking giant of a man locked the door, touched Barbara on the shoulder, and said, “We’re alone now.” That guy is bad news.

What’s not to like here? Awful acting for one; everyone panics at the drop of a hat–even Ian, who’s normally rather stoic. He literally breaks iron bars to escape from a jail but then freaks out when a weed wraps itself around Barbara’s leg.

The convoluted story is what really dooms this one for me, though. They just try to cover too much ground without a strong enough story to hold it all together. Plus, we’re beginning to see the “Professor X Dilemma” at play. The writers need come up with plausible reasons for why the gang doesn’t just go back to the TARDIS and leave as soon as trouble pops up. Just as Professor X must be put out of commission (because he’s too powerful), the Doctor’s gang must be cut off from the TARDIS. Even if it’s artificial and forced.

Unfortunately, the ways this is accomplished in these early stories is just far too implausible.

Ah well, fingers crossed our road takes an upward turn as we head toward “The Aztecs.”

Conclusion

I guess there really isn’t much more to say about this one. Thumbs down all around on this one. There’s no dispute that these first years of Doctor Who are rough to the modern fan, whether you’re a fan of Classic Who or not. The next episode, “The Aztecs” is considered one of the best of the surviving Hartnell serials, but the bad news is that we’re rapidly running out of Hartnell-era episodes that are not reconstructions.

We shall attempt to steer around any temporal eddies and bring you another installment of Doctor Who Rewind quite soon.

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