We all know how successful the Daleks are and how interesting they can be storywise under the pen of their creator Terry Nation, but in 'The Keys of Marinus' we are presented with an interesting six-part sci-fi yarn that doesn't feature the Daleks at all. The question is, does it succeed?
The answer to that is really up to the personal opinions of those that watch it. It is noted that people are of a divided opinion about this story, some love it, others don't. I happen to be one of those people that love this adventure. Although there are sufficient reasons why it can be viewed as a failure or a disappointment, I disagree. I'll admit that there are some flaws, but it is still enjoyable nonetheless. There are some reviews from critics that complain and nitpick this adventure till the cows come home, sometimes to the point of ad nauseum. That is not my intention.
The premise of the story reminds me of the quest/adventure type adventures found in most fantasy novels and are even used in scenarios for most role-playing games like 'Dungeons and Dragons'. Our heroes are forced to travel to various parts of the planet to retrieve four micro-key circuits from elaborate traps and obstacles (some physical some mental), meet some interesting characters & creatures along the way, in order to return the keys to a master computer that is essentially a brainwashing machine.
The story is interesting in that it would stand as a prototype to the more expanded and flesh out quest story 'The Key to Time'.
Terry Nation (God rest his soul) must be commended for his creativity. He creates intriguing concepts for each location and that in itself is a marvelous thing to behold. The fact is, in science fiction you rarely see alien worlds with a diversified population, actually going to different locations, each with a different culture and a society all existing on the same planet.
All of the ideas, concepts and situations our heroes are thrust into I feel are some of the finest examples of speculative fiction to be used on television. It is the sort of thing that most people weren't prepared for in the 60's. I like that in some of the places that are visited not all of the answers are given, because it actually gives the viewers the chance to maek their own conclusions or develop their own theories about things.
There are many examples throughout each part. Take the Voord, who are they precisely? Are they a race of men who've banded together as a terrorist/rebel group? Why do they wear skintight scuba suits on dryland? Are they a separate race that also developed on the planet? Or are they in fact the original inhabitants of the planet, trying to take back control from the race of men they see as their oppressors? Are the Voord sea-dwelling creatures originally, and wear the suits to survive on land the way we would wear scuba gear to survive underwater? And the city of Morphoton, how exactly did the individuals controlling everything evolve into such a state to which they survive as beings of pure thought? Was it through genetic manipulation or a mutation caused by radiation? And why is the new culture of the city modelled after the Roman civilization? Could the super brains have once been men from Earth, who were transformed through cosmic radiation? Since their mental abilities gave them power, perhaps they became 'Gods' to the city of Morphoton, and they wished to model the society to reflect their new status, with the the technology of the mesmeron perhaps allowing for greater control over a vast populace. And the soldiers encased in ice? How did they get that way, were the chosen to be key guardians did they volunteer? Were they followers of Arbitan? What process of cryogenics was used to preserve them? Why are they wearing suits of armor that make them look like medieval knights?
Some people complain that what Arbitan does is essentially blackmail/entrap our heroes and force them to help him retrieve the micro-keys. I don't see it that way. When Arbitan places the forcefield around the TARDIS, it is more out of desperation than from any malicious intent. You can clearly see that he is someone that did not take any pleasure in forcing the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan to help him. My take on the reasons Arbitan didn't simple use the travel dial himself to get the keys and return with reinforcements to fight off the Voord are simple. Arbitan could've been too old to survive the journey, he could've been reluctant to leave his pyramidal fortress/home because of the Voord, but the main reason is simply this: if Arbitan did use the travel dials to get the micro-keys himself, then there wouldn't be much of a story now would there?
What is also intriguing are the trademark Nation touches that make a planet truly alien, the little things that differentiate the planet from what we Earthlings are used to: the beach of glass crystals instead of sand, a sea of acid instead of regular water, is the acid natural or is it indeed a deliberate defense barrier?
Still, the creative ambition of Terry Nation's script is a bit bogged down by the production values. Some of the effects work and some of them don't. The sets are impressive and do adequately showcase a different area of the planet Marinus, from a sandy beach, to a Romanesque city of Morphoton, to a jungle, to snow covered plains and mountains, to a 'somewhat' highly civilized city in Millenius.
'The Velvet Web' is an impressive episode even though a bit cliched considering the overly content atmosphere that is given off. It is a sure sign that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Still, this episode clearly belongs to Barbara once she inadvertently breaks free of the effects of the mesmeron and sees that Morphoton is not as beautiful as she once thought. Jacqueline Hill beautifully portrays a sense of knowing a truth her friends cannot see. Her disgust, confusion and outrage over the deception and lies she and her friends are subjected to is well conveyed. There is a nice bit of camera work in which we see things as Barbara sees them that is most effective in conveying that something is terribly, terribly wrong. She proves very adept at being the heroine as she eludes capture and even finds Arbitan's daughter Sabetha, with the missing micro-key, and proves vital in helping Sabetha to break free of the hypnotic conditioning and to remember her initial purpose in travelling to Morphoton, as is indicated by the micro-key she wears around her neck. She also proves vital in ending the reign of the super brain trio by destroying the machinery that acts as both their life support and power amplifier for their mental abilities. The resulting revolution that comes about after their death indicates a sign of hope. The episode is a great parable and allegory when thinking about the price of pure pleasurable indulgences result in a decayed and corrupt culture, being run by equally corrupt individuals.
In the two episodes that follow with the Doctor's absence (a plot device used to provide William Hartnell some time off), Ian and Barbara are given more of the spotlight. This is especially true of Ian when Barbara goes missing and his realization of Varos' malicious nature, his concern for Barbara is evident and very well displayed as he is willing to do just about anything to ensure her safety. This includes facing the various booby traps put in place, trudging through an icy blizzard, or dealing with jungle plantlife run amok.
Therein lies another unanswered question, what caused the jungle plants to reach a state that a collective screaming could be emanated and that the plants would achieve a form of sentience that would permit them to attack all humanoid life? Was it an experiment gone wrong? Perhaps, something involving a vegetation growth formula, something that would be beneficial to the reclamation of lands ravaged by deforestation? Who knows?
I remember Darrius' dying words to Ian and Barbara was a series of letters and numbers that would help them locate the micro-key, it was actually my girlfriend that pointed out that it might stand for a chemical compound.
'Snows of Terror' is a pretty good episode for several reasons; chief among them is Vasor, the large loner of the mountains that helps out the others, only to serve his own purposes. The attempted rape scene between him and Barbara is very well played (along with daring for its time) and his behavior/attitude is so despicable that you are glad that he gets what he deserves by episode's end. Another reason would have to be the 'ice warriors' (no not the Martian ones you fool) that guard the micro-key encased in ice.
In 'Sentence of Death', Ian shows great courage and determination in the face of adversity and his justifiable outrage at the legal system of Millenius can also be something attributed to the unfairness of our legal procedures. It is a delight to see the twists and turns in the story unfold.
One point of fact that I must make is in regards to the outfits worn by the judicial tribunal, although impressive they still looked like three Jewish Rabbis.
William Hartnell's Doctor continues to excel as he has completed the transformation of a cantankerous & grumpy old man, to a lovable and doddering grandfather. He also continues to show his keen interest and curiosity of the alien wonders of the universe. Even when the Doctor is absent for two episodes, his reappearance in 'Sentence of Death' to help defend Ian and investigate his frame up in the city of Millenius is very much appreciated, not just by the companions but the viewers as well. To see him use his experience and intelligence in gathering facts and information is truly a delight as we can see the pleasure he gets from solving a mystery as well as demonstrating his skills in the courtroom, long before Leo McKern would similarly do so as 'Rumpole of the Bailey'. He is quite at home using his mental capacities to manipulate circumstances to uncover the truth. It is also entertaining to see the Doctor re-enact the crime scene in true forensic fashion long before 'Crossing Jordan' or even 'CSI'.
Altos & Sabetha, the young couple are not as well-defined as individuals, but they go have some good moments as they are both eager and willing to assist the Doctor and his friends in the quest to retrieve the micro-keys. Altos proves himself to be an enthusiastic adventurer and protector, not just of Sabetha but of Susan as well.
It all reaches a satisfying conclusion as the phony micro-key is put to good use in destroying the Conscience Computer. Despite some flaws in the execution of effects and some rushed plotting, it is an overall enjoyable story. Terry Nation proves adept at creating obstacles and scenarios for our heroes to solve as well as providing imaginatively creative ideas and concepts. It definitely proves that he is adept at spinning a satisfying sci-fi yarn of Doctor Who without using the Daleks.