Blurb: On a remote island of glass surrounded by a sea of acid, there is a machine that can remove evil from the minds of an entire population - the Conscience of Marinus. Fearful of its immense power falling into the wrong hands, its sole guardian has scattered the machine's operating keys across the planet.
The TARDIS crew arrives to find the island under attack by the evil Voord. Marinus' last line of defense - and its only hope - is the Conscience machine. The Doctor and his companions must undertake a deadly quest to recover the Keys of Marinus.
Format: Television drama transmitted from April 11, 1964 - May 16, 1964. Released on DVD on January 5, 2010.
Setting: The planet Marinus, time unknown. Some have postulated that this could be a failed colony world that has rebuilt its technology, perhaps explaining why some parts of the planet are very technically advanced and others seem primitive. However, the presence even of Earth wildlife such as wolves is not conclusive. If Skaro can independently produce life-forms indistinguishable from humans then why not Marinus produce life-forms indistinguishable from humans and others indistinguishable from terran wolves? One thing of note, although by no means cannonical the comics established that Marinus was an early name for Mondas and that the Voord are the progenitors of the Cybermen (see The Tenth Planet).
Continuity: Ian is wearing the outfit that he received in the court of Kublai Khan (see Marco Polo). Barbara compares the pyramid that they see to those of Central America, showing a familiarity with the period (see The Aztecs). The Doctor thinks that a well stocked laboratory might allow him to fix the timing mechanism of the TARDIS, seemingly a contradiction from earlier stories where he told Ian and Barbara that the only thing keeping them from bringing them home is not knowing the precise time and place of their departure (see An Unearthly Child and The Daleks).
DVD: The extras are minimal. A "making of" featurette is common on these but lacking on this story. Instead we just get an interview with the set designer, Raymond Cusick.
Discussion: I used the term ambitious to describe Marco Polo, and the term applies equally to The Keys of Marinus. Marco Polo didn't lack for new locations and the need to design new sets every week. However, it was a historical story and therefore could reuse costumes, props, and set elements that already existed in the amply stocked BBC warehouses. Science fiction stories were always more difficult for Doctor Who and Keys of Marinus is a "quest" story, requiring the travelers to go to 4 different locations and find a component of the Conscience machine and then return with them all to the starting point. This meant new locations every week. The fact that the script was commissioned at the last minute when another story fell through didn't help matters. The sets had to be created at short notice. Although many other commentators have derided this story for that reason, I'm actually amazed at how good it all looks. Certainly the original island location, with its glass sands, acid sea, and pyramid headquarters are well realized. The model work is really good and gives you a sense of the scale. The main thing that lets you down is the scene where the Voord falls through the trap door and a very obvious toy is shown falling into the acid pool below. The City of Morphoton is also really well realized with a very large, classical appearance and the mirror sets to show the veneer taken away are similarly well done. Where it really all falls apart is episode 3. The requirement for the vines and creepers to move was just to much for that period in time. They just couldn't do it convincingly. Similarly the various traps look incredibly flimsy and the ones that could have been scary - the statue that comes to life to try and decapitate Ian - are given these loud mechanical sounds so instead Ian looks like a fool for not noticing that something is up. The snowy mountains are also done well, although the rope bridge clearly only spans a crevasse of only 2-3 feet and the sound effect of the wind belies the visual on the screen of the snow gently falling. Finally you have the city of Millennius, which has a very impressive court set as well as the general appearance, which sets up a city of high technology. In the end, I don't really think that the appearance of the story is all that bad and while it certainly can't hold up to modern standards, it looks very good.
Two visual elements deserve special mention though. The first are the villains of the story, The Voords. They are one of the strangest looking villains in Doctor Who. They're definitely said to be wearing suits of some kind, but one wonders why they don't take off the strange rubber scuba gear once they're on the island. Also, they have weird wedge-shaped helmets on. All but their leader, Yartek, have an antenna on top of the helmet. In a way, this part makes sense. We're told that Yartek had some means of resisting the power of the conscience and was able to get "followers". It's possible that Yartek's immunity is biological whereas he had to create some form of technology for others to keep their minds similarly protected. But the whole effect of web-suited figures with ridiculous helmets make the Voord very comical, unfortunately, and belies any sense of threat that they are supposed to engender in the audience. On the other end of the spectrum are the brains of Morphoton. If you want creepy brain creatures then these are better than even similar concepts in the better budgeted Star Trek. They really do look like disembodied brains with only the eyes remaining of their original bodies and stuck to the glass of their containers. The whole thing gives the appearance of something slimy and organic and I think was very well realized.
Norman Kay's music actually struck me fairly well in this one. Some of it is just a reuse of his earlier music for An Unearthly Child but really well done here is the majestic score done for The City of Millennius. The music really works to give real weight to the scenes, especially those in the courtroom.
The plot is a traditional quest type story. Some commentators have made allusions to Lord of the Rings, but it seems to me that this story owes far more to The Odyssey. Morphoton is very obviously the island of the Lotus Eaters and many of the other elements of the story are call backs to that earlier epic. The idea of having the travelers go to a bunch of different locations means that the pace of the story doesn't flag, a typical problem with four parters. It's also a call back to the various movie serials from the 30's. It's not a bad idea really and while a lot of people give the story short shrift for not developing its locations there's a few things that they fail to mention. The typical complaint about 6-part Doctor Who stories is that they're dull and drag. By keeping the story moving and introducing new locations you prevent that from happening. This is one of the very few times where a Doctor Who world isn't represented entirely by one location either near or in which the TARDIS has landed. Marinus is a whole world with different people and cultures scattered around. We're usually meant to assume in Doctor Who that everywhere on a planet is like the place where the TARDIS arrives but Marinus doesn't make that supposition, which makes it one of the most interesting planets that we've ever been given to explore in Doctor Who.
There are of course weird elements to the plot. Darrius tells the travelers that anyone sent by Arbitan would know how to avoid the traps that he placed, but Arbitan neglected to say anything to them about this nor did Sabetha or Altos seem to know anything about the keeper of this key and any traps he'd place. Has Arbitan just forgotten such important details or is Darrius insane? The force field around the TARDIS lowers sometime between when the TARDIS crew leave and when they come back. Yet Arbitan dies within seconds of their leaving so who released the force field? There's a lot of weirdness on the travel dials. The first time they're used, the Doctor, Ian, and Susan leave within moments of Barbara but when they arrive she's had time to have a hysterical fit, heal a cut, change her clothes, talk about fashion, and order a meal. The only way that I can figure this is if the travel dials work through some form of satellite system. The higher bandwidth of sending three people instead of one may have been felt by a longer delay between their transmission and arrival. Then, Susan and Altos leave the jungle at the same time and Sabetha follows about a minute later. Yet we're told by Vasor that Altos was alone looking for the women as if Sabetha and Susan had left together and he had followed later. Although every time we see people travel together they arrive in the same place, is there a rough area that the dials dump them in? The same thing happens again when they leave for Millennius and Ian arrives inside the vault. It appears that none of the others did nor did the Doctor when he arrived in the city. Yet, it doesn't make much sense why Arbitan would hide the one key within deep caves in the mountain but deposit anyone searching for it so far away. (Maybe there was an associated map that he also forgot to tell the TARDIS crew about).
One of the things that's really apparent to me in this story is that the characters are starting to move beyond the phase of just wanting to leave every location once they've assessed that it isn't Earth. Once the Doctor sees the pyramid he wants to see it and Ian doesn't question him this time. He seems to be enjoying the adventure of it all, which is a nice change of pace from those early stories. I also like how the quest format allows each of the three adults to sine. Barbara saves the day in the city of Morphoton but then it's Ian who saves everyone on the mountain. Ian is put in danger in Millennius and it's the Doctor who has to save the day by playing amateur detective as well as the defense lawyer to Ian. Part of the joy in this story is seeing the Doctor's delight at working out exactly what happened as well as staging the theatricality of the courtroom proceedings to cause the effect that he's looking for. It's true that Yartek's subterfuge at the end is kind of lame, but Ian's quick thinking is also part of the resolution to the main action.
The rest of the characters don't fare particularly well. Susan is reduced to a blubbering wreck pretty much throughout the entire story. It seems very out of character for the Doctor to leave her with the main party while he goes off alone to Millennius but this was just done to allow him 2 weeks of vacation so if Susan had left with him she'd have needed the vacation too. Bereft of her grandfather Susan is basically either completely sidelined or ends up being the damsel in distress in both the jungle and Millennius installments. It is true that the script gives her a little bit more to do the in the mountain segment where its her light weight and bravery that allows her to get across a narrow ravine on an improvised bridge so that she can bring the actual rope across and repair the rope bridge so that they can all escape. Sabetha seems to be in another show entirely. Her haughty airs would help to convince us that she is a person of some prominence except it seems like she's phoning them in from home. Altos seems to be completely unphased by everything that happens around him and speaks in a flat monotone most of the time. The fact in the end that they're said to have fallen in love seems just like a way to write them out with a happy ending. There's been no indication of this affection in the earlier installments and one can't imagine a more uncharismatic couple lacking anything in chemistry.
It's interesting here that we never examine the Conscience machine in great detail. At the end the Doctor says that it's dangerous to allow machines to administer Justice. Other Doctor Who stories show us examples of why this is the case (see The Stones of Blood for one example). Yet the Quest to fix the Conscience machine itself is regarded as a "good" act. We're told that Arbitan wants it to maintain peace on Marinus. Yet, we're never told enough about the Voords to know why they rebelled against the Consciousness. Its rather suspicious that the Doctor only feels like questioning the merits of the device once its destroyed and I suspect that even if Arbitan still had been in charge when they returned that he'd have found some way to put the whole thing out of action. After all, we've seen the brains of Morphoton, which appear to be using a derivation of the technology used for the Conscience and their misuse of that power is definitely flagged as a very bad thing. Star Trek would talk about machines ruling civilizations in a few years and it becomes a standard trope of science fiction but its neat to see its early vestiges in this story.
The other interesting concept in this story is the city of Millennius, which has a justice system where someone is considered guilty until proven innocent. While this idea would later also be used in a lot of science fiction, including Star Trek it does make for some interesting proceedings. Ian is suspiciously placed in a crime scene and is therefore considered guilty unless the Doctor can prove him innocent. The reversal of our normal ideas of justice makes for some interesting action as we see what you have to give up to live in a society where murder is almost unheard of.
Final Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: If you're a fan of the serials of the 1930's then this is the adventure for you. It moves along at a good pace and there's plenty of changes in scenery and characters to hold your interest. There's also a lot of interesting concepts but they're not really given time to flourish. That combined with the fact that the ultimate menace - the Voords - are more laughable then scary means that this one is often relegated to the riff track pile. I feel that it deserves some credit for the sheer audacity of what it's trying to do as well as for creating one of the only fully fleshed out worlds we ever see in televised Who. Either way, this one is skipable.