The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 June 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘The Keys of Marinus’ is, in my opinion, the first disappointment in Doctor Who. This is largely because it has enormous promise, which it almost completely fails to live up to. Essentially, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ is a quest. It’s been described in The Discontinuity Guide as a B-movie plot and it is, but the thing it most reminds of is those Fighting Fantasy Adventure gamebooks that Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone made popular. ‘The Keys of Marinus’ has a quest for lost keys, during which our heroes must overcome monsters (the Morphos), traps (in Darrius’s ruined fortress), wolves and icy tunnels, and even (after a fashion) the undead. Consequently, there is little time for plot development, as the TARDIS crew is whisked from place to place on an episodic basis. And therein lies the real shame, because Marinus is actually one of the most interesting alien planets featured in Doctor Who. The reason I say this is simple – Marinus has different races of men, different cities, different environments, and different types of flora and fauna. How many planets in science fiction series end up being represented by one city and a stock set? How many, like Earth, are actually shown to be complex societies with different power blocks, races and religions? The answer I think is very few, even in Doctor Who and especially in, for example, Star Trek. This is usually because of time and budgetary constraints, but occasionally, it really grates. Marinus avoids this, but fails to exploit this advantage. We see the city of Morphoton, and its ghastly ruling brains, but we learn almost nothing about how they managed to take over in the first place. We see men frozen in ice reanimated to protect one of the keys, but get no explanation as to how this is achieved – they act like zombies for the most part, but one of them screams horribly when he falls down a crevasse. And then there are the Voords.

We learn almost nothing of the Voords. They are often referred to as “the alien Voord” presumably because of the blurb on the back cover of the Target Novelisation, but as far as I can tell, they are actually another race of the humanoid population of Marinus. All we know about them is that Yartek is well over one thousand years old, but then in episode six it is suggested that Arbitan invented the Conscience, so he’s two thousand years old, which doesn’t support Yartek being a different species. Also in episode six, Stephen Dartnell’s very human eyes and mouth can be seen through Yartek’s mask, which is probably unintentional, but doesn’t lend credence to the alien Voords theory. In fact, the only tenuous evidence is that Yartek at one point refers to the other Voords as his creatures, but that could mean several things. 

The other main issue I take with ‘The Keys of Marinus’ is to do with the Conscience, which is basically a brain washing machine. With his increasing moral stance following the events of the first three Doctor Who stories, much could have been made of this, especially since he only agrees to collect the keys under duress, when he and his companions are denied access to the TARDIS. Instead, we get a warm and fuzzy feeling towards Arbitan as soon as the travelers are ready to return to his island, and a throwaway line from the Doctor about man not being meant to be controlled by machines. 

We also have the first big plot-hole in Doctor Who, in episode two – Barbara, arriving in the City of Morphoton seconds before the others, somehow has time to have a dress made, get to know Altos, and learn about the city. This is a pretty gaping flaw. 

Despite all of this, I can’t totally condemn ‘The Keys of Marinus’ – it has redeeming features. Firstly, the regulars really give it their all, resulting in convincing acting throughout (and thus making up for Arbitan’s gurning in episode one). Susan, who I have always loathed, is actually fairing better during my Who marathon than I would have expected from memory – here she still has bouts of irritating hysteria, but is brave enough to struggle across the ice bridge to save herself and her friends, although she is admittedly galvanized into doing so by the threat of the ice soldiers. Later, when she is held prisoner in Millennius, she looks terrified, but manages not to turn into a complete gibbering wreck. The Doctor comes over very well in ‘The Keys of Marinus’ – we saw the TARDIS crew acting like a team in ‘Marco Polo’, but here he really shows how much he has come to like Ian and Barbara, entrusting Susan to their care without hesitation, and showing real concern when he is trying to overturn the charges against Ian. The scenes in Millennius are generally pretty good, with sound acting from all concerned and a reasonable plot, although the unmasking of the real criminals does depend on stupidity on their behalf, falling for bluffs and giving themselves away through verbal slips – something of a cliché. Ian and Barbara also get yet another chance to shine, due to Hartnell’s absence during episodes three and four – Ian is at his most resourceful, and Barbara also demonstrates courage, especially in light of the rather disturbing hint that Vasor intends to rape her. Interestingly, she notes at one point that Ian treats her like Dresden China and she finds it annoying, but notice how she smiles gently after him as she says this, and contrast it with her genuine annoyance in ‘The Daleks’ when Ganatus asks her if she always does what Ian tells her to. This is a clear sign that they are getting closer. 

Overall, the part of me that used to like Fighting Fantasy books does still quite like ‘The Keys of Marinus’, and I can’t totally condemn it. Sadly, I can’t totally recommend it either, but it passes quite quickly and is, for the most part, an enjoyable if lightweight romp. But the lost potential really frustrates me, and if any authors out there fancy writing a sequel, which revisits Marinus, I for one would buy it.