The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 June 2003 - Reviewed by Daniel Spotswood

Speaking in terms of production, The Keys of Marinus is quite a weak effort compared with those stories around it. In terms of ideas it is interesting, claustrophobic in parts and thought provoking in others. This is a story with potential, but as sporting commentators tell us potential can sometimes be an excuse for poor performance - and this is the case with The Keys of Marinus.

The story itself is broken into five parts - each part a story within a story. The first part (Episode 1), concerning how the Doctor and friends end up on the quest for the Keys of Marinus, is the worst episode I have viewed so far (sequentially speaking). However, the pace picks up as the travellers head to Morphoton to recover the first key. Interesting concept here - a device (the mesmeron) is used by the cities elders to subjugate their population by showing them their world, and their lives, as it really isn't. These elders have themselves been reduced to brains living in tanks and are sustained by a complex life support system. On television, this sequence almost works and is, in certain aspects, frighteningly convincing - until Barbara kills the elders and destroys the mesmeron with a few weak swings of a wooden rod.

The next two sequences are well structured and, in spite of the absence of the Doctor, hang together well on television. The Screaming Jungle concept is good science fiction, despite some over-acting from Jacqueline Hill. The 'lost on the mountain' sequence still makes strong, claustrophobic television, particularly the latent sexuality of Vasor the trapper's heel turn and stalking of Barbara.

The City of Millenius (called Millenium in the novelisation) episodes again provoke some thought - a legal system in complete opposition to those used by Western Nations today. The onus of proof is on the defendant, rather than the prosecutor - in other words, guilty until proven innocent. Another almost convincing idea - let down by a basic 'murder-mystery' plot a child could solve before its obvious conclusion is played out.

The acting of William Russell is, once again, a pleasure to watch in this story. He tries as best as he can to make the cringeful unconvincing look as convincing as it can in these early stories.

In terms of history, this was only the second story to be set on an alien planet - and the second to introduce alien races. Terry Nation tries valiantly to make Marinus very alien - seas of acid, beaches of glass - and give his world a history in the same way he did for Skaro. The 'Conscience Machine' idea is also great science fiction. But the visual delivery does little justice to these ideas - it suffers from a symptom of its time, there was only so much that could be done in a technological sense in 1963-64 - some of the sets look great - other not so great.

That said, I expected this story would provide an excellent opportunity for the novelist to give Terry Nation's script some new life and vision with its wealth of ideas, concepts and aspects to explore and expand. I was sadly disappointed. Philip Hinchliffe passes over the opportunity to write a classic novel (which Nation's ideas present him with) and instead delivers Terrance Dicks style play-by-play account of the television story - and I think even Dicks would have done a better job of novelisation this story. Hinchliffe himself has admitted he did not really want to write this story nor did he enjoy the experience and I think it shows. I have not read a positive review of the novelisation of The Keys of Marinus and I'm not going to be a trendsetter. There is little character development, particularly of the Voord - are they natives to Marinus or aliens? Is there something inside the suit or is that their skin? Ambiguities like this aren't even addressed let alone mentioned. Description is minimal - and the narrative is copied almost word for word from the script. There are a few cringe moments too thrown in for good measure.

This story had definite potential, however I think it is an 'honourable loss' in both visual and print media (to coin another sporting phrase). Perhaps one day new novelisations of the television stories will be produced in the fashion of the EDA/PDA's we know today. If that happens, The Keys of Marinus may finally reach its full potential.