“The Keys of Marinus” presents us with a classic story that almost matches the new series format all by itself. By which I mean that you have a number of individually titled, self-contained episodes that are part of a larger story, and the episodes barely have time to scratch the surface of the characters and background presented to us before they are over and rush us along to the next situation.
Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit admittedly, but it is true that what we are presented with on Marinus is a series of brief vignettes of life on this planet that we never get to see in great detail. A number of reviewers have remarked on the fact that it’s rare to get a sci-fi planet that isn’t one monolithic culture, and that it’s refreshing to see a departure from that with Marinus, which features different climates and different cultures. I agree, it is a nice change, though nothing we see on Marinus seems terribly alien, apart from some weirdness with the plants, and of course the brain creatures. Almost any of the locales could be on Earth rather than an alien planet, with the exception of the acid sea, but the variety is still appreciated.
If I were putting the eight stories that make up Doctor Who’s first season in order of first to last place, “The Keys of Marinus” would be second from last, just ahead of “The Sensorites” and just barely behind “The Edge of Destruction”. I say that because the other stories are quite good rather than because Marinus is deficient. True, it has some clichés and plot issues, but on the whole it’s a good solid, entertaining story of the quest variety. Every one of the regulars gets something to do, though Ian and Barbara are most prominently featured of course.
The framing sequence that sets up the quest and introduces us to the conscience machine that pacifies the population ought to be more interesting than it ultimately is. The idea of thought control and loss of free will versus peace and a lack of violence should raise questions about trading freedom for safety, but the idea is never really explored. Arbitan, who is willing to curtail free will in order to pacify Marinus, is perfectly in character to deny the Doctor and companions the choice to exercise their free will in refusing to help him recover the keys. He comes across as desperate and rather sympathetic though, despite his actions. Incidentally, the scene where the Doctor is angry about being blackmailed into searching for the keys, then suddenly cheers up and becomes complimentary when he examines the travel dial is pretty amusing, and indicative of what make the Doctor happy – cool high tech toys! So off they go to retrieve said keys, while Arbitan is murdered by one of the Voord.
The Voord are people in wetsuits, with weird headpieces. At least the fact that they look like wetsuits is because they actually are, though it seems as though the Voord would abandon them once they reached dry land. The one-man submarine looks good, and the idea of acid seeping in and dissolving the one Voord who is killed crossing the sea is pretty horrible if you think about it. Most acid just burns, which would be bad enough. This stuff destroys Susan’s shoe and dissolves people to nothing… nasty.
The various locales are all nicely presented, and we don’t stay long enough for them to become boring, with the possible exception of the trial in Millenius. The brain creatures are creepy things, being brains with eyestalks and weird voices. Barbara’s point of view where she can see the true state of the city is a nice idea, though as always it’s easy to tell when one of the regulars is thought-controlled, because they just don’t respond as they normally would.
Altos and Sabitha are picked up at this point in the story. It’s enjoyable that once again the TARDIS crew make friends and allies on their trip across Marinus, so they’re not so alone in their quest. Altos is pretty creepy while under mind-control, but becomes quite dependable company when freed. The same is true of Sabitha, whom Susan befriends.
The jungle setting reminds me in retrospect of the Krynoid and its control of plant life, although there is of course an entirely different explanation for the hostile plants. The spikes that descend on Barbara wobble alarmingly, but grin and suspend your disbelief and just enjoy it. The snowy plains are genuinely chilling in their sense of isolation and danger. That episode is well portrayed by all involved, and it’s only let down by the narrow (and probably very shallow) crevasse in the ice caves. A good jump would clear it! Vasor’s unstated intentions towards Barbara are certainly disturbing. I did get a laugh out of the title “The Snows of Terror”. : Ooooh, scary snow!
Up to this point the story has moved along at a brisk pace, but things slow down with the murder mystery in the city of Millenius, where the Doctor finally comes back into the picture. It’s a compliment to the other regulars that the Doctor isn’t missed much during the middle episodes of the story, so good are Ian, Barbara and Susan. But the Doctor’s return is welcome, as is his relatively new sense of loyalty to his companions, and his attempts to defend Ian. The trial scenes are typical courtroom drama, but the nodding judges who never speak are pretty funny. The situation is solved with an old cliché (the murderer is tricked into a slip of the tongue), which is a shame, but we move on from here back to the pyramid and the confrontation with the Voord.
One thing that “The Keys of Marinus” does well is convey a sense of a time and distance having been covered. Like Marco Polo, you get the feeling that the characters have spent days or weeks in their journey all over Marinus, though in story terms it’s probably less than a week. In the end, though I’ve enjoyed the story I’m ready for it to end and ready to move on to the next adventure. The story contains some unexplored ideas and clichés, but is saved in many ways by the ever-likeable regular cast, and is carried along by the sense of adventure.