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1x5. The Keys of Marinus
Writer: Terry Nation
Director: John Gorrie
Script Editor: David Whitaker
Producers: Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Synopsis: Arbitan, the last of a group of elders on the planet Marinus, traps the TARDIS crew
and forces them to search the planet for the four missing microkeys to a machine which once controlled the planet's population but which is now sought by the hostile Voords. The Doctor and his companions successfully retrieve the keys, but the Voords have taken over Arbitan's facility and the TARDIS crew end up destroying the machine, as the Doctor reflects that humanity should not be ruled by machines.

Review: "The Keys of Marinus" is an episode perhaps most remarkable for its structure. Rather than telling a single story divided into several episodes, the script by Terry Nation (making one of only two non-Dalek contributions to Doctor Who) instead sends the characters off on four different adventures linked only by the idea of searching for the missing keys to the Conscience of Marinus. Unfortunately, it doesn't really work: with the exception of the murder mystery introduced at the beginning of Episode 5, these stories aren't involving enough to leave much of an impression, offering neither the imagination and subtext of "The Daleks" nor the sharp characterizations of "100,000 B.C." and "Inside the Spaceship."

Part of the problem, I think, is that "The Keys of Marinus" is easily the most action-driven of the first season serials thus far. I say this not because I'm opposed to action-driven stories per se (though I do think action is generally best in small doses, especially in a science fiction show), but because the production team understandably has trouble pulling off convincing action scenes with their limited resources. This serial is full of corridor ambushes, chases through caverns and cities, attacks by murderous vegetation, annoying screaming from Susan, and the like, but it's all so obviously staged that it's hard to feel any real suspense, even when two possibly expendable guest characters accompany the Doctor and his companions on their searches. I am perhaps stating the obvious here, but a chase scene, for example, requires an effective sense of space. We need to know where the characters are, how far they are from their pursuers, and where one location is in relation to another. When all we see is actors entering and exiting a series of sets that do not even give the illusion of being anywhere near each other (as happens in Episode 4), we lose any sense that a real chase is taking place, and the whole thing just becomes tedious.

Episodes 3 and 4 are probably the low points of the serial, offering little other than a series of shallow, one-dimensional threats that serve only to make the characters jump through arbitrary hoops. The trapper in Episode 4 is kind of creepy, yes, but we learn nothing about who he is or why he behaves this way, and the Ice Soldiers and the attacking vegetation carry no interest except as obstacles. The city of Morphoton in Episode 2 sort of works as a microcosm of what Marinus might have been like when the Conscience was functioning, showing us a society devoid of strife but completely under the domination of three intelligent but unfeeling disembodied brains. Unfortunately, too much time is wasted on the illusory idyll that the time travelers first encounter upon arriving there, leaving us waiting impatiently for the inevitable revelation that Things Are Not What They Seem. For that matter, why have it be an illusion at all? The conflict between material prosperity and free will would have been even stronger if the rulers had actually provided for all the needs of their people and still been unable to offer them anything other than a sterile and lifeless existence.

"The Keys of Marinus" does start to display a little more energy when we reach the city of Millenius and Ian finds himself falsely accused of murder. While this segment doesn't really possess much more depth than anything else in this serial, the cast and crew are clearly having fun with the murder mystery clichés, such as an incriminating slip of the tongue and a courtroom ruse to draw out the real culprit. Easily the best scene in the entire serial is the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes-style reconstruction of the crime, which William Hartnell delivers with so much zest that I half-expected him to announce, "The game is afoot!" The script doesn't really do anything with the idea of Millenius' justice system operating on the principle of "guilty until proven innocent," but this segment (which comprises all of Episode 5 and part of Episode 6) is entertaining enough to get high marks from me.

Nation's script achieves mixed results in its conception of Marinus and the crisis posed by the Voord attack. I appreciate the notion that human free will, even with all its imperfections and cruelties (which are on promiment display in each of the situations encountered by the TARDIS crew), is still preferable to externally imposed artificial "happiness." This has been done with more depth and complexity elsewhere (for a recent example, consider the fourth season of Angel), but to the extent that it's addressed here, it works. And, as has been observed elsewhere, the script takes a welcome deviation from sci-fi conventions by portraying the planet Marinus as a heterogeneous mix of locations and cultures, rather than a single unified society. In a way, however, the different locations almost seem too disconnected: you would think that the more technologically advanced societies, at least, would be monitoring the situation with the Conscience and the Voords, but none of them seem to have been paying much attention. For that matter, where did the Voords come from and why do they want to take over Marinus? Like so many of the "bad guys" in this story, they're evil simply because the script requires it, and no one seems to have put any thought into their origins and motivations.

"The Keys of Marinus" is not a total loss: there are some interesting (if underdeveloped) ideas, and we also see the TARDIS crew becoming a closer-knit and less contentious group of individuals, but too much of it is just a bland walkthrough of fantasy-adventure formula. An hour or so of this might be okay as an episode of The Lost World. As two hours and fifteen minutes of Doctor Who, it's not up to par.

Other notes:

- It's getting problematic to reconcile Susan's behavior with the later mythos surrounding the Doctor and Gallifrey. Between her claim to have invented the term TARDIS, her calling the Doctor "Grandfather," and her general ineptitude and tendency towards whining and screaming, it's difficult to see her as someone who grew up in a society dominated by the Time Lords.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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