The Quest is the Quest – The Keys of Marinus

I need to begin this by acknowledging a special bond with Arbitan. I am always losing my keys and I know full well the stomach lurch when you realise they are ‘’gone’’. This usually happens at around 7.30 am in the morning as I charge round the house tipping bags upside down, flinging open drawers and screaming all manner of unpleasantness until finding my keys in my coat pocket, or more likely on the key rack where I left them the night before.

So I can well empathise with Arbitan who has managed to lose not just one but a stack of keys. And they’re not just in one place but scattered all over a planet. And not just an ordinary set of keys – but these keys open the very Conscience of Marinus which is vital because it  …

Controls something which we don’t understand but is to do with law and order. Even though it doesn’t really do what it’s supposed to do and it all ends in a giant shower of sparks without ever being used.

And so we have the problem with every quest in Doctor Who where the journey is more interesting and believeable than the destination.

From the Key to Time sequence where we spend six serials finding segments to an all powerful key only to have the Doctor promptly disperse them again, to the Planet of the Spiders which revolves around keeping the last perfect crystal away from the Great One, to see the Doctor deliver it in person at the cost of his life so she can flare into a shrieking mess as soon as it arrives.

One is tempted to wonder why the Doctor doesn’t just say. ‘’Looking for your missing crystal/key/segment? Fine, here it is. Have it. Just remember I told you it would end in tears’’.

Approaching the Keys of Marinus in this spirit what we are left with is a pretty good yarn where the quest bits in the middle are far more interesting that the reveal or the reason that we started.

A way to enjoy this piece is to imagine how special and different it must have been to your wide eyed nine year old in 1964. Not one adventure but a whole string of them.

And some of these are brimming with unforgettable ideas. For instance the Brains of Morphoton – if we can erase for a moment the image of those brains in the glass jars – has a brilliant dramatic premise as we grasp that only Barbara is immune to the hypnosis that causes her travelling companions to see rags as silk and dirty cups as pieces of bone china.

The Screaming Jungle is a favourite episode of the serial. There is a sense of menace here and it is a real shock to see the crew separated from each other. While this may have become a staple in later serials it was a new idea in 1964. The tension is heightened by the way that Barbara refuses to believe.

Billy is clearly having a whale of a time in this one as he saunters though his ‘laboratory’ declaring tin mugs to be electron microscopes. Likewise in episode five where the Doctor plays the lawyer we see some great acting from William Hartnell, never more so than the scene where he thinks he has lost the court case and doomed Ian to the presumption of guilt

Moments of greatness (and silliness)

• Susan seems to have lost her space legs in this serial – less knowing alien girl and more a guileless teenager. Indeed one wonders how has she survived up till now if she paddles in a pool without knowing if it’s full of water, bleach, cyanide or acid.
• By contrast this serial has some strong moments for Barbara – the scene where Barbara wakes up and we see the paradise of Morphoton through her eyes and her vulnerability alone in the hut with Vasor in episode 4 are both memorable scenes for her.
• The Voord are a strange monster – mainly because we know so little about them. What is their motivation and why are they on Marinus? Why do they stay in body suits? What do they really look like? Are they all able to speak or just Yartek? Why do they have keys bulging out of their heads? Many questions – few answers.
• The Voord costumes aren’t that bad but it all falls apart when they begin to move, especially the scenes where they flip-flop through Arbitans trap doors
• Arbitan seems to be a bigger hazard to those around him than the Voord. “I have sent all my family and friends in search of the keys and none of them has returned” he opines. Perhaps another early Doctor Who educational lesson – some friends are just toxic and should be avoided. Social media addicts take note.
• The most dangerous place the travellers visit is the place that most resembles our own but with different rules – the city of Millennius is the place where one of our regular characters – Ian is in the most danger. Intended or not the episode provides a nice counterpoint on legal execution, a current issue for Britons in 1964 (the death penalty was abolished as a punishment for murder in the UK in 1965 and the last hangings took place in 1964).
• Fiona Walker puts in a fine turn as Kala the villainess of the last two episodes. Her sudden change from grieving widow to scheming kidnapper is genuinely chilling and unexpected and it’s all achieved with a single smirk. We genuinely believe Kala is about to kill Susan.
• Altos is very well spoken and seems rather taken with fine robes and minimalist attire, especially in the snow. His sudden romance with Sabetha has all the believability of Elton John’s Sydney nuptials to Renate Blauel.
• Aside from the quest, Keys unleashes a fathom of ideas that will become Who mainstays:
o Zombie defence system slowly coming to life: The relentless Ice Soldiers that slowly come to life in The Snows of Terror find echoes in the Yeti, the City antibodies in Death to the Daleks and the Knights in Warriors Gate
o Overactive vegetables: Refer Seeds of Doom
o Losing the Tardis and getting wristbands that can zap you to a set destination: the travel dials foreshadow the Time Rings in 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks.
o Going on a quest through a series of traps: Death to the Daleks, The Five Doctors
o Switching a fake: At the end of episode 6 Ian gives Yartek the fake key from the Screaming jungle. For fake key substitute – fake segment of the key to time, fake dematerialisation circuit and fake Tarranium Core … sensing a trend here?

Tenuous Aussie connection?:

• Francis De Wolff who played the lecherous Vasor had a part in Under Capricorn – a 1949 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock set in convict Australia. De Wolff also had a part in the Errol Flynn theatre an anthology series hosted by Tasmanian born matinee idol and all round lothario Errol Flynn. In addition he starred in a TV series The Adventure of Robin Hood – a role widely associated with Flynn. I said it was tenuous.

Craig Wallace

Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.

What do you think? Please join the discussion!