The Keys of Marinus: The Velvet Web

Arbitan gives the time travelers wristwatch-like “travel dials” that will send them instantly to the various parts of Marinus where the keys are hidden.  Barbara activates hers, and vanishes from sight.  The Doctor, Ian, and Susan follow her moments later, but when they arrive at their first destination, they immediately discover Barbara’s travel dial discarded on the ground—and it’s covered in blood…

The story goes that Terry Nation wrote all seven episodes of The Daleks in a week, which apparently earned him the reputation of being able to produce, ahem, “quality work” in a short period of time.  Which, of course, made him the obvious choice to pen an eleventh hour replacement when Malcolm Hulke’s The Hidden Planet fell through.  Again, the haste in which Nation threw this story together shows, but for different reasons this time.  If The Daleks is a rambling, overly long serial, then The Keys of Marinus suffers for the opposite reason: six episodes is too few to effectively tell the (multiple) stories in the time travelers’ quest for the missing microcircuit keys.

One of the MorphoThe Velvet Web—why is it even called this, by-the-way?—could have easily been an exciting, four-part serial in and of itself.  Instead, it’s very rushed: Barbara arrives in Morphoton, the first destination programed into the travel dials.  There doesn’t seem to be any indication that time passes differently here, yet she apparently meets the people who live here, changes clothes, and starts feasting on fruit and wine in under two minutes, about the time it takes for the Doctor, Ian, and Susan to follow on from Arbitan’s island.  And by the next afternoon, she’s managed to destroy Morphoton’s evil overlords and caused the enslaved people to rise up and burn the city.

That’s all well and good for the Eleventh Doctor, whose name means “warrior” in the language of the Gamma Forest.  It wouldn’t even be out of character for the Ka Faraq Gatri, the so-called “bringer of darkness.”  But for Barbara Wright, mild-mannered history teacher from Coal Hill School?  It seems more than a little improbable, but I’m willing to concede that she was having a lucky day.

Morpho's control roomAt the same time, The Velvet Web manages to raise some interesting philosophical questions, some of which are strangely relevant right now in 2011: what is the price of having all your dreams made real?  What is real and what is illusion?  What are we conditioned to believe, and what happens if we see the truth?  Furthermore, as Ian wonders, “how rich and powerful do you have to be to give things away free?” (Ironically, Barbara’s changed her tune, chiding him that he “can’t apply Earth standards” to the residents of Morphoton.) But it also raises the question of who is watching us, who is controlling us?  Big BrotherThe World State?

The answer here is a little bit of both, in the form of Dalek mutants disembodied brains that rule the city through the power of illusion.  Susan believes they’ve given her a beautiful dress, but it’s really just an old, dirty sackcloth.  The Doctor asks for a laboratory “with every conceivable instrument,” which, in reality, is nothing more than an empty room.  Seeing through the illusion, as Barbara does, means that one is beyond control—and must be destroyed.  “Kill her-kill her-kill her-kill her,” the brains intone, as a hypnotized Ian grabs Barbara by the throat intent on choking the life out of her.

Morpho commands Ian to kill BarbaraAt this point, we expect the scene to fade to black, the credits role, and the theme tune to play, leaving us to wonder whether Barbara will make it out alive, or if Ian will throttle her to death.  Instead, Barbara manages to slip out of Ian’s hold easily, and destroys the brain creatures’ life support apparatus with…a rather small, brittle-looking amphora that one of the serving girls left behind.  Again, it seems very improbable, but with better planning and two or three more episodes, this could have been a true classic early Doctor Who story.

The Doctor will go ahead to MillenniusThe Velvet Web ends with Altos, whom Arbitan previously sent in search of the keys, and Sabetha, Arbitan’s daughter, joining the time travelers in their quest.  The Doctor will skip ahead a stop or two on his travel dial to the city of Millennius (ostensibly to give William Hartnell a vacation during the next episodes), while Susan, Ian, and Barbara, along with Altos and Sabetha, agree to continue on to the next destination.

Susan activates her travel dial ahead of the others, and finds herself in the middle of a jungle at night.  There are strange sounds and noises that seems to come from every direction at once, advancing attacking.  Clutching her head in terror and anguish, Susan falls to the ground…

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Daniel Lestarjette

Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He’s been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he’s way behind.)

What do you think? Please join the discussion!

  • Kevin

    I think you’re being too hard on “The Daleks,” but I agree that this one is very rushed. They did pretty much the same thing for Key to Time, and that lasted all of season sixteen.

    • Daniel

      I don’t know—The Daleks is sooooo boring at times. But I was actually thinking the exact same thing about the Key to TIme season. That’s how The Keys of Marinus should have been, but I don’t think anyone knew at this point whether Doctor Who would be renewed for a second season. I’m not even sure they would have thought in terms of planning a season long arc. What do you think?

  • Kevin

    I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Sometimes, I think people don’t give those guys back then enough credit, but I do see what you mean about them probably not knowing whether or not there would be another season. It might not have made sense back then to come up with story arcs like there are today. Even “The Dalek Masterplan” didn’t last a whole season.

    • Daniel

      Good point, Kevin.