The Keys of Marinus

DVDWhen I heard Gary Gillatt was giving up reviewing DVDs, I sent Tom Splisbury a text to offer my services. Hey, that’s how this kind of thing works. And, probably by dint of the fact I was available, keen and good with deadlines, I got the job. Here’s the first one I completed, and this is an early even longer version, which I then edited down before submission. It’s a piece that’s trying awfully hard. From DWM #414…

DWM #414“Planet Marinus invaded by the Voord: evil men of rubber! The only person who can thwart their onslaught, Dr Who Peter Cushing in his most thrillsome adventure! He must travel o’er acid seas, killer jungles and arctic wastes to find the four keys to an ancient and powerful justice machine! But he can’t do it alone! James Robertson Justice is Arbitan, the man who built the machine but lost his daughter! Jim Dale is Altos, the brave slave who says no! Valerie Leon is Sabetha, the woman he loves! And Roberta Tovey is Susan, the schoolgirl with the brains of 20 men!”

And so it could have continued, if, in 1966, Amicus had exercised its right to adapt Terry Nation’s The Keys of Marinus for the big screen, rather than The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

As a TV story – one rushed into production when script editor David Whitaker became (appropriately, given the subject matter) besieged with doubt about Nation’s proposed retelling of the 1857 Indian Mutiny of Delhi – this ambitious six-parter is more movie pitch than a complete TV serial. It’s a story gleefully over reaching anything that could be delivered by the one-episode-a-day-and-all-in-the-confines-of-Lime-Grove’s-Studio-D regimen employed on the fledgling Doctor Who. But, it’s both the production’s vaulting, and at times halting, ambition that makes it quietly wonderful.

As a Dinky TARDIS materialises on the glass shores of Marinus, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan, emerge, eyes roving in awe: “It’s the sea! It’s beautiful!” The camera holds tight on the quartet. “Absolutely calm,” teases Ian, “not even a ripple.” And still, just the four of them, gazing beyond us. It’s like having your back to the action in a café as a dining companion spots someone wearing a glorious toupee. Don’t turn around, he’ll see you looking! There’s a lot of this teasing going on. The script lays in what would come to be recognised as epic, Nation-esque conceits – the ocean of acid, packs of wolves stalking icy tundra, revolution on Morphoton – all of which are reported back to us picture postcard-style.

However, there’s a sense of ingenuity in that, even wit. Because, we do eventually see the sea. Sort of. It’s via Susan’s aborted near-dip in a rock pool. We may be denied the broad brush of the vistas, but these details are fun. That said, shrinking away in terror simply when her shoe dissolves in the caustic waters? Please, a little Dolcis et decorum.

However, all of this footwear business is great. “Give you lovely corns, those will” ad libs Ian as he hands his boots over to his young friend, while the Doctor, in the series’ most-loved fluff, wags a finger at Chesterton: “If you’d had your shoes on, my boy, you could have lent her hers!” After that, it’s a huge testament to Hartnell (counting how many sleeps till his holiday from episodes three and four) that he’s got the gall to deliver the follow-up. “You mustn’t get sloppy in your habits, you know!” Be fair, Doctor. The school teacher’s no loafer.

Nearing the business end of the first episode, it becomes obvious Susan’s hysteria is only just building. Having tumbled through the revolving brickwork into Arbitan’s tower (and, incidentally, it’s fascinating how Marinus’ social architect is interested in allowing entry only to those with a penchant for leaning insouciantly), she grossly over-eggs the situation. “The wall swallowed me up!” she wails. Just five stories in, and with her character devolving into a bit of a shrill, you can see that for Carole Ann Ford the writing’s already on the… well, you get the idea. Certainly, on the commentary track, she’s keen to ask director John Gorrie if there’d been an edict to make her more overtly juvenile.

But never mind all that, there’s a quest to be had. As Arbitan, George Coulouris – former stalwart of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre company – is dignified, but oddly stilted in his body language. Citizen strain, if you will, a different gesture haphazardly grafted onto each nuance of dialogue. Brilliantly, the Doctor and co refuse his request “you must find the keys for me”, the action fading to black and then up again on the crew returning to the TARDIS to make a swifty. It’s clear that at this early point in the programme’s history, the Doctor still has to be strong-armed into heroics, and it’s only when Arbitan blocks their exit with a force barrier the old fella consents to actually take part in the story. But he’s grumpy… at least until he’s given his wristband travel dial. “Very compact and very neat, sir, if I may say! Yes!”

And with that, we’re off. Arbitan is dispatched by a knife-wielding Voord (there’s a lot of stabbing and throttling across the tale) while the travellers arrive at a Grecian-themed play pen for episode two’s conceptual tour de force. While it’s the small details that continue to delight the Doctor – “Sensuous and decadent,” he opines over a platter of fruit, “but rather pleasant. I say, is that a pomegranate?” – we’re beginning to get a sense of the story’s scope. Almost a portmanteau, The Keys of Marinus is offering up a self-contained tale every 25 minutes, each boldly situated in a contrasting environment. This is the series’ go-anywhere remit writ large… or small, as designer Raymond Cusick frantically builds, and then strikes, sets to keep up with changing locations. His City of Morphoton is particularly neat, a large anteroom for the travellers to enjoy, a corridor, and then black drapes for everything else.

As we come to discover, the luxuries herein – the silks, the roast chicken, the bottomless glasses of orange juice – are all an illusion. When the scales fall from Barbara’s eyes, or rather the hypno-disc from her forehead, we’re presented with an astonishingly great scene, the sets switching between squalor and opulence; her viewpoint versus the others. And for one moment, as the camera jumps inside her head, Doctor Who becomes Peep Show… sans the accompanying thought-track (“I must say, Ian’s kimono is very metrosexual”). It’s truly disturbing seeing the three friends rounding on Barbara in disbelief. To them, she’s recalcitrant and a bit barmy, smashing a crystal goblet (in reality an old cup). “This is going to test our host’s patience,” tuts the Doctor. “It’s one of a set!”

The duality of perception also affords the show a brilliant, self-reflexive joke when our hero is confronted with his heart’s desire: “a well equipped laboratory with every conceivable instrument”. Riffing off episode one’s necessity to tell, rather than show, here we have Ian and the Doctor’s awestruck exclamations – “Isn’t that a cyclotron?!” – countermanded by reality: A tiny room with a desultory table and mug barely inching into shot.

The episode’s final joy is those aforementioned hosts who’ve been pulling off the swizz – four bell jar-encased brain creatures from the top table of pulp sci-fi. Pulsing, twitching, their design is great, and augmented by the sibilant voice work of Heron Carvic (a Doctor Who baddy name that never was). When Barbara turns ornamental and sets about the glass cases with a handily placed urn, Carvic’s incessant screaming is truly unnerving.

Cue one off-screen revolution – the series’ first of many – and William Hartnell slips in his holiday request at the 11th hour, telling his friends he’s going to go on ahead to meet them at episode five. The third instalment, then, places Ian in charge as the team arrive in ‘The Screaming Jungle’. “I do wish [he] wouldn’t treat us like Dresden china,” confesses Barbara, prompting younger viewers to google their back issues of Look and Learn. You can’t blame him, though, as Susan again turns hysterical when a gossamer thin jungle vine twines itself around her legs – talk about a “seize her” salad. Barbara employs distraction techniques to buoy her out of her funk. “Help me at the archway,” she suggests, and all vegetable vexation is forgotten.

Ian, though, has had enough and sends Susan – plus recently acquired friends be-thonged Altos (Robin Phillips) and willowy Sabetha (Katherine Schofield) – on to next week’s episode to think about what she’s done, while he and Barbara pick up the next key. Despite evocative talk of “nature’s tempo of destruction”, there’s barely any story here. We have another solitary stentorian old duffer (Edmund Warwick), this time guarding an outpost from a near-sentient jungle. But he’s quickly dispatched (a throttling this time), leaving the duo to snatch the goods and travel dial-it out of there. Not even a decent runaround, this is more of a walk-through.

Thankfully, things pick up when we arrive at a Jablite tundra – the sub-zero yin to the jungle’s yang. And yins don’t get much bigger than beetle-browed Francis de Wolff, playing the lonesome Vasor.

He likes Barbara. Tactile (“Your hand is slightly frosted, put it in mine”), fumblingly forward (“Let’s fatten you up, eh?”) and just plain old romantic (“Last year I broke the back of a wolf with my bare hands”) his attempts to force himself upon her are played with unlikely seriousness. What could be been a Benny Hill chase sequence around the table in his (honey) trapping hut has a brutally stark quality, which survives even a cross-cut with Ian rubbing Altos’ thighs in the snow.

There’s also a pleasing sense of time passing. At the point Ian, Barbara and Altos catch up with Susan and Sabetha, it’s clear they’ve been stuck in Marinus’ ice caves for a good while. Here is where the next key is to be found, cased inside a giant ice cube, guarded by Ice Soldiers… Terry Nation really working that theme. Once more, Cusick’s design proves equal to the brief as rocks glisten with a convincing slickness denied 1987’s Dragonfire. Well, almost equal. Checking out the extant pipe-work, Barbara declares there’s “a sort of valve or something”. More accurately, it’s a tap. Plumbing depths aside, things rattle on nicely as Vasor is killed (back to stabbing now) and, as Ian says, it’s time to “keep our date with the Doctor!”

Hartnell’s return is perfectly timed. He’s full of pep and ready to reclaim his show after a two week lay-by. For goodness sake, he’s even spot on with his dialogue – that fudged, “I can’t improve at this very moment… prove at this very moment” is scripted according to the DVD’s info text, and gloriously appropriate. Stepping up as Ian’s defence counsel – the teacher has been accused of murder and theft – he re-enacts the crime scene with naughty aplomb, flinging Barbara to the floor roughly, squawking with delight throughout. We may have just swapped jungle and ice worlds for sideboards and decanters, but it feels more vivid than ever.

It’s such a shame, then, that Nation’s script never truly engages with the tenets of courtroom drama. Plot turns come all too often via the same mechanic – conspirators inadvertently blurting out self-incriminating, privileged knowledge. When nicely evil Kala (future Cyberman foil Fiona Walker) purrs, “You must have been sick with worry, since you spoke to Susan”, the italics are present in her voice.

The final reel sees us back on Marinus, for the ultimate battle between script and realisation. A Voord guard flopping over his flippers while rough-housing Sabetha is bad enough, but it’s pure sci-fi that Ian and Susan would ever mistake Yartek, leader of the alien Voord, for Arbitan… even with the hood up on his dressing gown. “I think there was something funny going on back there,” opines the teacher. This is Yartek’s episode, though, as he clasps his elbows and ineffectually interrogates Altos – “Why are you so stubborn? I’m going to find out in the end” – before match-making his prisoner with Sabetha – “He is in love with you!” – like some galvanised Cupid.

That the final conjoining of keys with machine never happens undercuts the whole story in a way its near namesake – The Key to Time season – would 14 years later. Weeks of questing are undone, but it doesn’t matter. At this late stage the Doctor confesses he doesn’t believe man was meant to be controlled by machines anyway.

DVD Extras

In the disc’s only bespoke feature, The Sets of Marinus, the story’s central hero – Raymond Cusick – shares memories of the production. There’s no dewy-eye nostalgia here, more tears of frustration. Tartly exclaiming a script conference would have nixed the whole project, should the show have been afforded such a luxury back in the 1960s, he describes the  sheer scramble to get anything on screen. “My first big show,” he ruefully reflects, remembering coming into studio at 4am every day just to get the damn thing made. “I didn’t want to funk it”. “Am I proud of anything in The Keys of Marinus?” he ponders in the now de rigour post-credits reprisal. “I can really say… no”.

Things are a little jollier in the commentary, chaired with some charm by Clayton Hickman. Carole Anne Ford reveals her mum knitted Susan’s tank-top, and groans whenever her 45-year junior self is on screen – “I’m so pathetic in this one!” Director John Gorrie, however, rather admires her performance, and is relieved to discover no-one thinks the production is quite as dreadful as he does. In fact, he ends up rather enjoying it because of that. It’s also interesting to hear him lament that limitations of the set meant he had to start shots with people stepping into a location, rather than following the actors in. Plus he really nails the joy of Hartnell, chuckling, “It’s eccentric, it’s wonderful and it’s Bill” over the shoe-fluff. Cusick is pretty quiet throughout, although Hickman does tease him into revealing what his middle initial stands for (buy the disc), and William Russell – stoic as ever – recalls the show’s first producer, the late Verity Lambert. “Once you were picked [by her] you could never get away!”

The info text by Richard Molesworth is solid stuff, and through the early episodes presents an almost an alternate take on the story – revealing reams of dialogue that was chopped or bastardised during the production. There are also a couple of neat facts: This story boasts the first time the we see the TARDIS actually arriving in a location, and the third episode was the first to be broadcast on BBC1… Go on, work it out.

Rounding out the release, a photo gallery, plus PDFs of Radio Times billings and Cadet Sweet Cigarettes cards detailing a clash twixt Voord, Daleks and an impressively butch ‘Dr Who’… who ends up enjoying a banquet with the Skaro-based baddies, held in his honour. Pomegranate, anyone?


1 thought on “The Keys of Marinus

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus | Exploring Our Matrix

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