As Ian’s trial plays out in the courtroom, Barbara receives a phone call at the guardian’s desk outside. It’s Susan: she’s been kidnapped by the conspirators. If they reveal the location of the microcircuit key, Susan will be killed…
The final installment of The Keys of Marinus is strange to say the least. Roughly the first two-thirds of the episode resolves the cliffhanger and reveals who the real culprit is, while the last third resolves the entire quest for the microcircuit keys in under ten minutes. It’s very rushed, and a little disappointing, frankly. This wouldn’t fly in modern Doctor Who, and I’m surprised Verity Lambert and David Whitaker let it fly in 1964.
I’ve been trying to write this post for, well, a few days now—the problem is, there’s not too much to say about this one. Spoilers! The prosecutor handling the case against Ian is revealed to be behind the conspiracy, and is working with Kala (who is holding Susan hostage) to obtain the microcircuit key. It’s never made explicitly clear why they want the key, other than some vague explanation that it’s only one of five “in the entire universe.” The Doctor ultimately explains that he’s known all along that the key is hidden inside the business end of the mace used by Aydan to kill Eprin, but he had to wait for exactly the right moment to reveal what he knows and save the day—before they all go back to Arbitan’s island, defeat the Voord, say farewell to Altos and Sebetha, and depart in the TARDIS. As I said, it’s not very satisfying.
I certainly didn’t dislike this serial for the most part—the usual Terry Nation themes, many of which will resurface in Blake’s Seven, are interesting and worthy of discussion and exploration—but the whole thing suffers from pacing problems that prevents any of these questions from being explored in any great detail. Furthermore, it’s no wonder the Voord failed to live up as the next great thing after the Daleks: they were hardly in it. This is unfortunate, because the Voord, like the Daleks, suggest some compelling lines of thought. Are they truly villains, for example, or can they in fact be seen as heroes for working to prevent the Conscience of Marinus from removing free will and free thought from the people. These are very relevant questions, especially today.
Of course, at this stage, it was probably unclear whether Doctor Who would continue past its first season, and the production team, including writer Terry Nation, were working tirelessly to create a show that would appeal broadly to children, and, by extension, to families—and I think it’s safe to say they did a remarkably brilliant job and I’m grateful to them, because I truly love this era of Doctor Who.
That said, and the fact it was a last-minute replacement for another story notwithstanding, there are at least two things that could have made the The Keys of Marinus (the serial, not this episode) truly an epic quest that gave Terry Nation the opportunity to more fully explore the broad philosophical ideas that run through his body of work. First, it should have been twice as long. An episode each for The Sea of Death and The Keys of Marinus, three episodes each for The Velvet Web and Sentence of Death, and two episodes each for The Screaming Jungle and The Snows of Terror, though Snows is nearly perfect as it is. Twelve episodes—properly plotted and script edited—would have allowed each storyline to be fully realized narratively.
The second change, of course, would be to include the Voord throughout the entire serial as true adversaries, following the time travelers from zone to zone searching for the microcircuit keys themselves. In fact, making the Voord active participants in the story would have done far more to improve the overall serial than giving it more episodes. But I would have also like to have seen the Doctor questioning whether Arbitan is right to act as he does, or whether the Voord are, in fact, working for the greater good of Marinus.
That’s really the Doctor Who fan talking, though—the one who loves the show and wants it to be perfect, to live up to every bit of its potential, but I think it’s probably a very good thing that most of us don’t get to run the show. It takes a special kind of fan of the Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffatt variety to make Doctor Who properly, and I’m fine with that.
The Doctor, Barbara, Susan, and Ian say their goodbyes to Sebetha and Altos, who have fallen in love during the course of their travails, intending to return to Millennius to make a life for themselves there. For a few moments, the Ship stands incongruously among the rocks and tidal pools of acid, and then, under the burning hot sun of Marinus, vanishes silently as it resumes its voyage through space and time…
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.)