The Keys of Marinus

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VHS Video
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(Doctor Who Story No. 5, starring William Hartnell)
  • written by Terry Nation
  • directed by John Gorrie
  • produced by Verity Lambert
  • music by Norman Kay
  • 6 episodes @ 25 minutes each:
    1. The Sea of Death
    2. The Velvet Web
    3. The Screaming Jungle
    4. The Snows of Terror
    5. Sentence of Death
    6. The Keys of Marinus
Story: Materializing on a mysterious island, the Doctor and friends are persuaded to embark on a quest to recover five unique code keys from their secret locations on the various continents of the planet Marinus. But who is the dark lord Yartek? Why do he and his Voord underlings also seek the keys? And what secrets lay behind the planet's laws that the keys might help unlock?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), director John Gorrie, designer Raymond Cusick,
    and moderator Clayton Hickman.
  • "The Sets of Marinus" interview with designer Raymond Cusick and behind-the-scenes studio footage. (9 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note subtitles, providing behind-the-scenes info as you watch.
  • Photo Gallery sound effects montage (7 min.)
  • DVD ROM .pdf scans of an entire set of collectible cards featuring a story involving the Voord.

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


After having crafted the very successful and attention-grabbing "The Daleks" (story no. 2), Terry Nation is back in the writer's chair, working his magic once more. Immediately our four main characters become curious and eager to explore, and Nation's created plenty of new places, characters and sci-fi ideas for them to sink their teeth into. It isn't long before "The Keys of Marinus" has established itself as one of the better and more exciting stories of Doctor Who's first season.


Episode One - The Sea of Death

Though this is a story that gets better and ropes the viewer in more and more as it progresses, episode one is unfortunately one of the most bungled collections of attempted special effects in the whole of the first season. First of all, it is famous for containing the first example of the TARDIS materializing (as opposed to dematerializing). Even that simple, staple BBC effect is not up to snuff. Oh, the model work is all right, even though it's obviously a model. But why has the beloved sound effect been completely replaced by a tired-sounding musical track from Norman Kay? His work on the four episodes of "An Unearthly Child" (story no. 1) was very good and atmospheric, but this time around, although many of the same instruments and basic ideas are used, the music is far too friendly for the events which unfold, sounding like holiday muzak. The high-pitched trills on the woodwinds everytime a Voord appears seem condescending, as though saying "Look at me, kids!" instead of helping to foster a true sense of menace. Minus the right sound, the first materialization is disappointing.

Other attention-grabbing bungles include the obvious tug of invisible strings pulling the model submarines along through the acid sea, the action-figure Voord hamming up a scream as it plunges fifty millimeters into the kitchen sink, and the poor cutting between shots all through this sequence which eventually reveals someone or two scuttling through the set behind Ian, who with his keen senses and stealthy gait fails to notice them. The outer pyramid walls have been lengthened with optical illusion backdrop photos (leftover from "The Daleks" no doubt), an effect which can work well IF the right camera angles are used. John Gorrie has the camera moving all over the place, even parallaxing across the line of the pyramid wall - what more could you ask for to make the backdrop obviously look like a backdrop?

However, when all is said and done, the gaffes are minor and forgivable, and there are plenty of enjoyable design elements here that do work extremely well. The island itself is quite impressive with its imposing main building in the background, and nicely realized crystalline rock beach, all giving a nice assist to the sci-fi ideas that are expertly explored this episode. And apart from the missing sound effect, the TARDIS has been very well demonstrated during the story's opening. Additional picture and sound clarity from the restored DVD version does help to bring out appreciation of this show's finer qualities.

George Coulouris makes a pretty disappointing Arbitan, both when he is meant to be menacing and doesn't manage it, and also when he's meant to be the friendly, mentor type. His speech is delivered with poor timing of pauses, and a general lack of emotion and enthusiasm - this is very dangerous as his explanations are vital to understanding the quest that will occupy our main characters for the rest of the story.

This episode is saved by good writing, and a generally good performance by all four regular characters. Sure, William Hartnell achieves a puzzling pronoun dyslexia, but even this is delivered totally within character as an extra added charm. And I've never seen anyone else get captured by a revolving door with more grace and style.

Once again, Ian plays the chief character and heroic rescuer throughout the action in the middle of the episode, although Terry Nation will spread that role around to the others as the story progresses. The travellers are reluctant to stay and get involved, a problem most early stories have, and Arbitan forces them to remain just as Za and Marco Polo have previously. But five minutes and one argument later this is forgotten, and the four time travellers are keen to apply themselves to the quest for the remaining four Keys of Marinus. Shades of "The Ribos Operation!" They now have goals in this time-space location. Other writers - take note! This makes for a much more engaging story.

The travel dials' visual effect is used very sparingly, only appearing in this episode and the last, and it also is pretty cheap with one half of the screen being black all the time, (signaling an imminent disappearing act to the audience each time), but at least this effect works. It is done even better at the very end of the episode, as the travellers appear against a more normal background. The cliffhanger also works, not so much because of any implied threat, but more because the audience knows that there is a whole new section of the planet Marinus to explore next episode......


Episode Two - The Velvet Web

This episode is solidly centered around the hypnotic dystopia (or utopia that really isn't) in the city of Morphoton. Shades of "Time-Flight!" Although Ian is the only one to sense something isn't right at first, the tables quickly turn, and Barbara solidly becomes the central heroic figure for the rest of this mini-adventure. She alone can see the truth that is hidden from the others, and she alone confronts the Brains of Morphoton at the episode's climax. Ian can take a back seat for once; unfortunately so must the Doctor. William Hartnell at least has a few good scenes to play out, most memorably in his new lab.

This episode begs for colour (as I've said for years before the DVD commentary made the same observation), especially in the juxtaposed shots between the luxurious Morphoton guest room and its tattered counterpart. In black and white, with Ian wearing his fancy Chinese robe, the difference is not anywhere near as noticeable as it was meant to be. A drastic change of lighting might also have helped. As it stands, the best part is Susan holding up a dirty pile of holey rags and calling it a beautiful dress - it's up front in the shot, and stands out clearly with a major character drawing attention to it. As far as getting this complicated sequence shot during a practically live recording goes, it is done with well chosen camera angles and editing.

Altos and Sabetha make very lacklustre entrances. Sure they're meant to be empty-eyed zombies, but all drama nearly comes to a dead-stop during Barbara's one-on-one chat with Sabetha in the derelict area of the city.

Generally, this episode is a big improvement over the previous one, and is an excellent sci-fi mini-adventure all on its own. The cliffhanger is a bit dodgy, as Susan gets another chance to ham up her portrayal of fear.


Episode Three - The Screaming Jungle

This episode marks the first rotation in holidays for the main cast, as William Hartnell took a break and disappeared for two weeks. Although I don't mind much when a companion misses an episode or two, I have a strong dislike for episodes that do not feature the Doctor. This is one of the few that still manages to work for me, as Ian and Barbara team up to make a good hero/assistant duo and carry the story strongly together. The addition of Altos and Sabetha to the quest also helps to make up for the missing Doctor, and round out the questing cast-members.

Apart from a few hammy effects, like the vine sneaking over Susan's legs, and the shaky, wobbly, bed of foam rubber utensils threatening to crush Barbara, the sets and level of apparent danger in this episode are pretty good. The "Tempo of Destruction" theory is well set out, reading like an ancient myth from the old science notes as the foliage begins to threaten to crumble the building with greater and greater force. Excellent stuff! Shades of "The Seeds of Doom!"

There are also quite a few intriguing plot twists and reversals. If only the Doctor had been there!

The cliffhanger is okay. You want to see the next episode, and find out what the snow mini-adventure will be like, but Ian and Barbara's characters are not done much credit when they immediately shiver down to the ground unconscious. In reality, that takes time.


Episode Four - The Snows of Terror

Another well-done mini-adventure with plenty of things happening to keep interest running high. We quickly encounter a big bearded mountain hermit, who proceeds to help and hinder our friends as it suits him. Terry Nation keeps us guessing as to whether or not he will ultimately be a good guy or a nasty, and Nation's writing has the perfect track record for it. There is plenty of danger and beastliness in and out of the cold. Shades of "The Abominable Snowmen!"

Susan also seems to get a holiday of sorts, being missing from the last half of the previous episode, and the first half of this one, although this would not result in any time-off for Carole Ann Ford in terms of rehearsals and recording schedules. Even Altos and Sabetha manage a bit more screen time.

Action proceeds into the frigid cave system in the mountains which are full of more "Indiana Jones" style traps and dangers. Although these have never been the BBC's strength, they are done fairly well here. You'd think Susan was about to traverse a huge chasm on a rickety rope bridge, until the camera moves a tiny smidgeon to the left and the other side appears nearly within jumping distance. The joys of working in tiny old Limegrove Studio "B". Or "D", whichever it was.

Then we get an interesting puzzle to solve to obtain the next key, guarded by some barely adequate, but still well done frozen Knights. Shades of "The Ice Warriors" and "Indiana Jones' Last Crusade!"

Ian takes charge of this mini-adventure, and is fairly strong in his main character / hero role. Barbara and Altos work well as major supporting characters in this one. There is so much focused plot and action going on, that one hardly notices William Hartnell's absence.

Finally, we flip via the travel dials over to the location that the Doctor went to, just in time to see our main character and hero - Ian - get knocked unconscious and made the prime suspect in the theft of the last key. Excellent cliffhanger - promising much intrigue in the next episode, as well as hope for answers and the identity of the mysterious figure attacking Ian.


Episode Five - Sentence of Death

Back from his holiday, William Hartnell is able to allow the Doctor to return to lead this mini-adventure, which turns out basically to be a good, riveting conspiracy murder mystery. Nation's usual choice for main character, Ian, is taken into custody and has far less to do. Shades of "Blake's 7: The Way Back!" Since this is the Doctor's show after all, the change is a welcome one!

The BBC are generally pretty good at murder-mystery dramas, and "Sentence of Death" is no exception. The writing is excellent, and the acting and directing are "on". Donald Pickering, perhaps better known for playing the sinister Captain Blade in "The Faceless Ones" (story no. 35), is particularly enjoyable here. The setting is one better than your London police precinct as well, as new methods of collecting evidence replace finger-prints for the sci-fi arena, and being judged guilty until proven innocent emphasizes the fact that they are in a different culture altogether as well - The city of Millenius on the planet Marinus. The unusual clocks are a nice touch also, and this time, thankfully, they don't make Barbara scream and cry!

Just as the arrival of a solution appears most promising, the rug of supporting evidence gets pulled from under our main characters, and they seem no better off than when they started. However time is running out. Susan is once more threatened, and we're at another cliffhanger already - a good one, but not as effective as some of the previous ones. The most promising part, for those of us who know the uncredited title of the entire six-part story, is seeing that same title being used for the next, concluding episode, as it implies that the next half-hour will be a big, dramatic conclusion to this quest-like story.


Episode Six - The Keys of Marinus

The first half of this episode is devoted to tying up the loose ends of the previous episode's conspiracy murder-mystery. Barbara takes charge of much of the action around the previous episode's cliffhanger and its reprise here, until inspiration lights up the Doctor and pulls him out of the lethargy of his defeat in the previous episode. The Doctor is the main character hero in this mini-adventure, putting everything together at last and being instrumental in the villains' capture. The acting is still "on" throughout, although Fiona Walker appears to lose her charisma as her character loses her composure - not a riveting portrayal, but an accurate one (and although accuracy is the goal of "method" acting, actors are often judged by their charisma instead - which is what the public REALLY wants).

The second half of the episode occurs after the final twist of the travel dials, as the travellers return to the island in the acid sea. Arbitan has been replaced by his arch-enemy, Yartek - an improvement in dramatics and acting, even with the new mask! Sadly, the heroics shift back to Ian, as the Doctor passes the torch and the final Key over to him. If only the Doctor had been in episode three, this would not be so necessary to Terry Nation's concluding twist! Ian gets to command the final confrontation with Yartek, whom the Doctor sadly never meets. The Doctor didn't get to confront the Brains of Morphoton either. This is all becoming very sad. Perhaps the program should be renamed "Ian Who"!

Anyway, Ian does a good job of the final climactic, heroic act, which turns out to be a good piece of writing on Terry Nation's part. The quest is solved, its purpose questioned, and the adventure goes out with several twists and a bang! Shades of "The Armageddon Factor!"

Someone in marketing had hoped that the Voord might catch on with the public as much as Nation's Daleks had - not a chance! After their clumsy hamminess in episode one, they return briefly for the climax, just to get a few more of themselves knifed (TV thrills can't get much worse), and to trip over the carpet while delivering prisoners. (More shades of "The Armageddon Factor" and its shadow-mutants). They're only meant to be simple Marinus folk of the henchman type dressed in whacky acid-proof scuba gear anyway!

After some well done good-byes to Altos and Sabetha, who get a slight expansion of character depth in this episode, the travellers enter the TARDIS. The film of the opening shot is reversed, and the TARDIS makes an equally disappointing exit, as once more the required sound effect is absent, replaced by Norman Kay's music. Director John Gorrie seemed to have learned a lot and improved his skill considerably as production progressed, but he still hadn't figured this bit out yet!


Well, another good Doctor Who adventure wraps itself up, and this one in particular would inspire many more, as elements of each of the mini-adventures would eventually crop up again in full blown adventures in later years. The series was already set well in motion after "The Daleks" (story no. 2), and this story did much to accelerate the pace. It also showed that any of the regular characters could become the main character for an episode or two, a formula that would really work well for modern Star Trek. Susan is the only regular who did not get to command her own mini-adventure (being much more of a habitual damsel in distress here), but considering that Nation gave her the most important action/heroine role in episodes two and three of "The Daleks", plus an important accomplishment in episode four of this story, he hasn't been completely unfair to her.

This story has long been in competition with "The Edge of Destruction" (story no. 3) for its ranking within season one, but after its beautiful restoration on DVD, I think it's safe to say that "The Keys of Marinus" has definitely beaten its closest rival. This is a very enjoyable adventure! Good job.



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