The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 19 July 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

OK, so he created the Daleks, but let’s face it – Terry Nation was never a particularly sophisticated writer. The scientific concepts he presents are often extremely tenuous, his writing often lacks sparkle, and barely a scene goes by without someone tripping over. The Daleks were a fantastic idea but, thinking about it, not one that came particularly out of left field; there would have been a reaction to men-in-suit monsters sooner or later. Point of fact: how does Nation follow up his hit Daleks? With monsters that go against everything the Daleks stand for. Monsters that not only look like men in suits, they are men in suits. With a more advanced writer I’d call this postmodernism, but in Nations case I have to wonder what was going on to make him back down on his principals so.

That’s not to say that The Keys Of Marinus is particularly bad, simply that it’s uninspired. In terms of visuals though the first impressions are extremely positive as some excellent model and design work is on display from the ever-dependable Raymond P. Cusick. It’s when the characters open their mouths that Nation’s incredibly dated attempts to be modern and cutting edge (this is the man who proudly brought us magnetic tape recorders in the year 4000), in this case the TARDIS having colour television, now just seem funny.

I know it’s irrelevant, but I couldn’t help but notice in the first episode that William Hartnell’s wig is absolutely rock-solid in this episode, like it’s been moulded to his head. I refused to believe for a long time that he ever wore a wig at all; I should have watched this episode when I was younger. Barbara knocking Susan’s shoe into the acid pool is a very stagy moment, an obvious and somewhat lazy attempt to reveal this particular plot point, but it does lead to a truly amazing fluff from Hartnell (“you could have lent her hers”) that is delivered with such confidence that initially I didn’t realise he’d made a mistake and spent ages trying to work out the logic of what he had said. The further revelation of the acid sea is another example of Nation’s haphazard grasp of science.

While the sets are very well designed it does show the limitations of the time that we are expected to believe that the characters have not noticed the giant pyramid that dominates the island. The picture quality of my VHS is extremely good and while it does show up the painted backdrops designed to lend a sense of perspective and distance for what they are, it’s not a particularly big problem and the improved quality more than justifies it. Less forgivable though is the stagehand clearly visible when a Voord falls through the revolving wall. I should mention now that, from the neck down, the Voords look ridiculous. Although the cardboard cut-out that falls into the acid pit is more amusing than anything else, it is quite painful to watch them galumphing about tripping over their flippers (and in the final episode Stephen Dartnell’s features are clearly visible underneath his mask). I do wonder how anyone thought they would match the Daleks in terms of popularity; as one of only three major monsters present in season one, it has to be said that the programme’s debut season does not score highly in terms of monsters. They are not helped by some poor direction from John Gorrie that sees one hiding in plain sight waiting for Susan.

Maybe it’s the politically correct time we live in, but casually referring to foreign natives as Indians does seem a little tasteless to me. Such concerns are blown away by the presence of George Colouris, as mighty as he had been in Citizen Kane two decades previously, although here he has to fight against some dialogue that, while not terrible, can best be described as staid. Orson Wells – Terry Nation. You decide. It is very interesting that, like in The Daleks, Nation refuses to commit to a moral standpoint and the ethical questions raised by the existence of the Conscience machine are left unanswered until a single token line from the Doctor right at the end. The split-screen effect for the dematerialisation of the travellers is smooth if a little obvious, but the on screen death of Arbitan is an immensely foolish piece of storytelling as it removes all purpose to the quest to find the keys, as well as eliminating any suspense as to what will be found when the characters return.

Nation’s stories are always very clearly divided up into episodic chunks, rather than having the episode breaks not particularly disrupt the narrative as was (and always has been) the norm. Hence, this episode begins in the new location of Morphoton. While it is a nice idea to present a varied and complex planet it is always a bit uncertain how the different areas of Marinus relate to each other, and the total absence of the Voords raises the question of exactly how much of a threat they pose thereby undermining the urgency of the quest. All the locations share a common feature though in that while they all present some interesting ideas they are explained in unconvincing terms (perhaps because Nation has allowed himself so little time to introduce each one). For example, while I am prepared to accept a city where the population are being hypnotised, Morpho, when revealed, is absurd beyond my wildest imagination.

Altos is a drip (and is a bit posh to be an adventurer really), but Katharine Schofield’s looks compensate adequately enough. It is interesting to hear sound effects that would eventually be used in The Moonbase (a story I’m much more familiar with), and the cuts between the hypnotised characters’ and Barbara’s point of view is excellently done and more than makes up for the directorial lapses in the first episode. However, not letting us see the Doctor’s P.O.V. when in his laboratory is a cheap (but effective) cost cutting measure, a clever way of getting round the expense of having to kit out an expensive set. Oh, and the smashing of Morpho is a cringe-inducing scene sure to put any newbie off the series for life.

Episode three could have benefited from a reprise, as it would have helped the atmospheric cliffhanger tally up with the rest of this part. This and the fourth episode are the best parts of the story, perhaps because the natural world is much better than the thinly-sketched pictures of civilisation. The terrified Darrius warning about the “tempo of destruction” is genuinely creepy, but Susan is truly useless and it’s well that she is written out of the episode as quick as possible. Nation tends to write Susan badly, although Barbara comes off well. 

The booby-traps in the forest are the first signs of the Voord threat for some time, but the sight of Darrius being strangled is a bit silly. The plant attack on the building is well realised, but I wonder why Ian and Barbara didn’t look in the jars sooner. They really carry this episode: most of it consists of them avoiding traps and looking for the key, and while there is little of substance it is still an atmospheric and enjoyable episode.

The fourth episode is set on a wintry mountain, and the incidental music immediately buckles under the weight of convention so we get to hear an enigmatic woman going “oooooeeeeoeoooeee” in the background (see also: The Ice Warriors). It is very daring of the series (a tribute to the confidence of Verity Lambert) to have a character like Vasor who wants to rape Barbara, and this is generally an excellent episode and is visually impressive, like the rest.

The chance meeting with Altos is a contrivance repeated throughout this story, but this particular episode gets by like the last one on its atmosphere. The rope-bridge scene is good, as Gorrie shoots it on a horizontal plane and so by not letting us see down below he maintains a sense of genuine depth (it’s just a shame that can’t be said about the script). The Ice Soldiers are poorly explained although nicely enigmatic – which more or less sums up the entire episode. I’m not sure how realistic it is to think that the key would ever be found, and we also get the typically Nationesque touch of one of the girls gratuitously tripping over.

With episode five the sense of high adventure grinds to a halt in favour of a murder mystery, and it has to be said that the guilty-until-proven-innocent idea is a gimmick that doesn’t make much sense really, not really standing up to much scrutiny. This episode is buoyed up though by the superb performance of William Hartnell, who reappears after an absence of two episodes. The plotty dialogue is intelligently written here, although it is sometimes difficult to follow who is who. There are some lapses in tone here as the futuristic city of Millennius houses a fusty old library, and the décor of the living quarters is very mid-’60s. The wife beating is again a daring moment, even though it is only heard. Episode six initially carries on along the same lines: it is compelling to listen to, but is still to an extent a one trick pony. Kala though is a good villain, and the revelation of the murderer is a genuine surprise. 

The Voords turn up again – hardly an omnipresent threat, although Stephen Dartnell as Yartek does his best behind his mask, although it is very unconvincing how he manages to pass himself off as Arbitan (or does he…). The explosion is small and simple; the limitations of studio-bound practical effects of this period are forgivable, but there is no need for such a build up to it if it is going to be so small. And then, with only the requisite goodbye, it’s all over.

I don’t hate The Keys Of Marinus and in kinder circumstances I might have been more forgiving – but there’s a lot to criticise and you come to expect something from a man who invented a monster like the Daleks. Sandwiched between two sublime stories from John Lucarotti, this one doesn't stand a chance.

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