Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Serial 5: The Keys of Marinus

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companion: Susan, Barbara, Ian

Written by: Terry Nation
Directed by: John Gorrie

Background & Significance: Terry Nation is crazy. No, really. He is. We have a sort of pet name for him over here at Classical Gallifrey, and, much like Robert "The Goddamn" Holmes, "Madman" Terry Nation is not unearned. But we'll be talking about that more in the weeks ahead.

In the early days of Who, though, that wasn't readily apparent. I mean, I suppose you have to be a little crazy to invent something like the Daleks, but other than that... nah. Just a regular bloke. But his ideas are quite excellent, when he wants them to be. A watch-through of "The Keys of Marinus" (and hopefully this blog entry) will show you what I mean.

Still in the midst of the freshman season of Doctor Who, "The Keys of Marinus" provides something of a reprieve for the cast; the way the serial is formatted, not everyone needs to be present for the mini-adventures that are relatively self-contained and episodic, yet serialized in the fact that they're all to one end: locate the Keys of Marinus. It's a pretty straightforward quest adventure, and though not everyone is present for a few of the episodes (Hartnell actually is absent from two of them, which is kinda lame, but the others totally bring it), it's still tons of fun with lots of energy and shenanigans and some really excellent sci-fi concepts.

Which, despite his flaws, is why I love Terry Nation; because he is crazy enough to come up with this stuff.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

One of the things I come away with immediately from part one is that Terry Nation has a lot of great ideas.

No, seriously. A sea of acid? Cool temples with hidden revolving doorways? Evil lurking rubber-suited bad guys? A planet with a machine that can take out the aggression and all the perceived negatives from the inhabitants? Great, interesting concepts that draw me in.

One of the failings I’m observing as we go, however, is the lack of… finesse with which he presents these ideas to the audience. The dialogue (especially Hartnell’s, whom I’m convinced is way overly cranky in this than he usually is) is kinda clunky, and overall it feels to me like some of the actors (like the guy they got to play Arbitan, whom I’ll talk about in a bit) just weren’t really bringing it to the table with their performances. I know that last bit’s not really Terry Nation’s fault, and hopefully it picks up as we go, but overall it’s a decent start. Lots of potential.

I also feel like Terry Nation doesn’t really have a good handle on the characters he’s writing. The Doctor is super cranky (I enjoy that word), Barbara and Ian are all right, and while the introduction of Arbitan (who is supposed to be our heroes’ ally and the reason for the intrepid quest for the Keys of Marinus) starts out good as he explains what the deal is and what the machine does and why the Voords (the evil bad guys) are trying to infiltrate the cool looking temple, and why the Doctor and his companions should risk their lives to find the five Keys to make the machine work properly again, he quickly turns into a massive and creepy jerk once the Doctor declines. I mean, guy asks for help, the Doctor backs out of it (with good reason: he’s supposed to risk the lives of his granddaughter and his friends looking for these Keys when everyone sent after them has never returned? I call shenanigans.), and then because he’s desperate, he puts a forcefield around the TARDIS, preventing our intrepid crew from leaving. We’re supposed to sympathize with this guy, not resent him. And while we do sympathize with him initially (the bit about his missing daughter is a nice touch), by the end of it when he’s BRUTALLY STABBED by a Voord, his death fails to resonate with me.

The one exception thus far to the character rule is Susan, who is not overly annoying or whiny in this, which I appreciate. I’m definitely an ardent admirer for the strong female character, and while Susan is still a pretty far cry from that, I thought it was kinda cool how she just wanders off by herself to do some exploring over by the temple. Yay self-sufficiency and curiosity!

Random bits worth mentioning:

There's this great part where Arbitan is fighting off a Voord and then Ian shows up like a badass and throws the guy through a door that is totally not made of styrofoam before the Voord falls to his death in a pool of acid with a scream. And it is totally not fake at all. 100% hilarious.

Even though this serial is totally an adventure quest for some scattered objects on a foreign planet (awesome), they still manage to sneak some education on us. Good old Barbara and her encyclopedic knowledge of history... especially that pertaining to ancient pyramids. Hmm. I want the spin-off show where Barbara is actually an archeologist and meets up with Indiana Jones and they have a grand adventure.

Speaking of Barbara, she’s gone missing by the time our intrepid time travelers reach her and their first destination, and the travel dial given to her by Arbitan (a kind of teleportation device) is covered with blood. Oh no! Cliffhanger! Onward!

Part 2

So our team of time travelers finds itself Barbara-less (Ian is so dashing when he’s worried). But they fix that problem soon enough.

The most interesting thing about this serial is that each episode is essentially like one self-contained mini-adventure, but with the overarching theme that they are looking for the Keys of Marinus. I both like and dislike this format. It keeps the pacing of the story fresh and interesting, introducing new concepts and characters and not languishing in its padded six-part serialness. But at the same time, twenty minutes is not enough time to satisfactorily set-up, explore, and pay off a brand new adventure. Maybe I’ve been watching too many long serials lately, but it’s not. Especially with all the crazy interesting concepts Nation has to offer us.

Seriously, he just keeps the sci-fi coming, and it is fantastic. I really, really love these ideas. When he’s not doing Daleks, this man is great. The dialogue is still troublesome and awkward in places, but the ideas are just… so overwhelmingly interesting that I find myself getting sucked into this adventure and having a great time with it.

But the pacing is funky, especially in this part. He spends a lot of time introducing the characters and the audience to the new (seemingly) paradise world that we will be romping around in for the next twenty minutes. I really love the set design and all the pretty props and costuming in this first bit, before we realize that something fishy is going on here and everyone’s been hypnotized into believing that they are surrounded by opulent wonderfulness. I like this moment between the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara at the beginning after they’ve found her again, lounging back in splendor. It’s some interesting downtime that makes for good tension later on.

The thing about the pacing is that I have no idea who these crazy brain creatures in jars with creepy eyestalks are, or why they’re controlling this city and its inhabitants. Are they bored? They need the mind power of the people and the labor force for something, but it’s never fully explained to me why. And I realize that the main objective of the episode is to locate the first Key which is brought to us in the form of Sabetha, one of the pretty serving girls that is responsible for hypnotizing the Doctor and his friends (and who totally screws up when it comes to doing the same to Barbara. Seriously, all she had to do was stick something to Barbara’s forehead while she slept and make sure it stayed on, it’s not that big a deal), but he sets all this up and it then it just ends very quickly when Barbara smashes up the place. I want mooooooore.

Oh, and did I mention that she’s Arbitan’s daughter? I have no idea how Barbara guesses that, but it’s a huge stretch. But whatever, it’s Terry Nation, GO WITH IT.

Oh, and we’re also joined by Altos, who was working as a liaison between Morpho (the brain creature? I guess?) and the Doctor and company, but when Barbara smashes everything to hell, his hypnosis is broken and we learn that he was also sent by Arbitan with a friend to find the parts of the Key. Seriously, how inept are these people. WTF.

Anyway, so the Doctor and Altos are gonna jump ahead to the place where the fourth part is hidden to try to find Altos’ friend while the rest of the group looks for the other two. Cuz that makes sense.

Susan goes first and the jungle starts screaming at her so she starts screaming too. No big deal. Cliffhanger!

Part 3

So remember what I said about pacing being strange for these mini-adventures? Ignore that for this part. But that’s probably because the concept is really simple and our cast of characters shrinks from five to three to two by the end, which is nice. Not as crowded and frantic.

So for some reason Altos didn’t go with the Doctor, even though I swear he was supposed to. Why the heck does the Doctor go on alone? He has no idea what Altos’ friend looks like, or the first thing about this new city. But whatever, plot hole? Nahhhhh it’s Terry Nation, mofos. DEAL WITH IT.

Anyway. I really liked the pacing for this part. Especially when Susan and Altos and Sabetha leave to go find the next Key and it just becomes an Ian-rescuing-Barbara adventure. Because Barbara is in need of rescuing from a creeper idol when she tries to get the Key strapped to its head, but it is all in vain because it turns out to be a fake anyway. Oh noes!

Seriously though, I love Barbara and Ian. I love their dynamic, I love their relationship, I love the actors, I love them. I could watch them for hours (or at least for a while). So yay, fun adventure!

Remember how I mentioned Barbara teaming up with Indiana Jones and how much I wanted that? I suppose this is the next best thing, because there are booby traps EVERYWHERE. Barbara gets stolen by an idol. Ian almost gets sliced by an axe. Barbara gets netted and almost shishkabob’d. Ian gets trapped in a cage and has to force his way out unconvincingly. It’s all good fun.

Oh, so the concept behind this episode is that the jungle around the place is growing way insanely fast, which accounts for the strange noises Susan was tripping on when she first got here, and assorted strangulations and grabbing from various vines of nearby plants. Damn, kids. This jungle’s out for blood.

Also there’s this random paranoid guy in a monk’s habit (he’s the one who set all the booby traps) chilling out and guarding the Key and doing some science experiments, which probably accounts for why the jungle ends up growing so fast. This is what happens when you mess with nature, guy. You get strangled by a plant and then rescued but die for no reason anyway, leaving Barbara and Ian to try to figure out where the Key is for the rest of the episode.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m kind of annoyed with the plot holes in this part, even though the pacing saw an improvement. But I suppose we can’t have everything, now can we.

Successfully finding the Key in its hiding place, Barbara and Ian use their travel dials to get to their next destination and are quickly thwarted by the elements. NATURE, suckas. IT IS EVERYWHERE. #thingsIlearnedfromTerryNation

Part 4

So now the new place we get to tramp around through for the next twenty minutes is a snow-filled wonderland of awesome. Right?

Wrong. But we’ll get to that in a little bit.

The thing that seems to be lacking this time is a decent budget. The past three episodes have been pretty fantastic, production wise. But now that we’re hitting part four, some sacrifices need to be made.

So there’s this part where they’re running around some crazy ice caves that are totally not made of plastic wrap and cardboard. It’s pretty funny. You’ll see in a bit because I’ve decided to youtube some shenanigans from this episode.

The premise of this episode is again pretty simple. Ian and Barbara, rescued from the snow by this trapper named Vasor (WHO IS A TOTAL CREEPER. SERIOUSLY. WHAT THE HELL.) have to go and find the other members of their group who are out missing and might be dead. Fantastic, no? Also very cheery. Terry Nation deserves an award for cheeriness.

He also deserves an award for writing creepers because OH MY GOD. This guy is SO creepy on so many levels. And I can’t believe Ian just leaves Barbara there with him to go tramping out into the snow looking for Altos. What the heck, man. Just because the trapper man rescued you doesn’t mean he’s not up to his own nefarious purposes. I mean, LOOK at him. He radiates creeper vibes! And he tied up Altos and left him in the snow! And he stole the Keys and the travel dials! And he tries to rape Barbara! This guy is bad news!

Of course, I need to give Ian some slack because he couldn’t have known all this when he wanders off to be intrepid adventurer guy in the snow.

Luckily by the time the episode is over, our group is restored, the Keys reclaimed, third Key found, and all is well, at least until they use their travel dials to get the hell outta there. As of yet we haven’t had any overlap between the separate places, which is interesting. Mini-adventure and all that. But I kinda miss the good ol’ serial format, you know? This is fun and fast-paced and I enjoy it, but at the same time there’s nothing so good as a well-done four parter with time to develop and build tension and reach an awesome climax and conclusion with the Doctor and companions swanning off again in the TARDIS.

Speaking of the Doctor, he’s been absent for two whole episodes now, and it’s super lame. Much as I love Barbara and Ian having adventures in nature and whatever, the show is called Doctor Who for a reason, and if your lead actor can’t make the schedule because of health reasons, you have a problem.

Anyway, because you guys have been so good and have stuck with me so far, here is a fun youtube for you, complete with cardboard and plastic ice caves, ice knights, fighting, sexay legs, and a giant creeper. Enjoy.

Next up: Who Framed Ian Chesterton?

Part 5

The thing I enjoy most about this serial is that all the episodes so far have been vastly and interestingly different. It just shows off the versatility and uniqueness of the show, and I love it.
This episode is, again, different from all the rest so far. For one thing, it’s not all neatly and nicely wrapped up at the end, as I’ll talk about in a bit. For another, it’s totally a courtroom drama and that is fantastic.

Seriously, this became Law and Order: Marinus and I am totally okay with that. My one qualm is that Terry Nation is writing it.

Now, let me set some things straight; I think Terry Nation is a genius when he gives a sh*t about what he’s working on. I mean, he invented the Daleks and everything, and boy howdy do I love Daleks. So I owe him that much. But as we’ve talked about before and will definitely talk about again, Terry Nation is…. Kind of a nutter. And unfortunately as the years went on and he wrote more and more Dalek stories, you can tell he doesn’t really care about what he’s writing and cashing in on the fact that there’s Daleks.

But this… this serial is different. No Daleks. Awesome quest adventure. Cool sci-fi ideas. Granted, the second episode is probably my favorite as far as the concepts are concerned, but who doesn’t love courtroom drama and intrigue? Ian’s been accused of murder, but we know that he didn’t do it. We know he didn’t steal the last Key, so who did? I love whodunit stories like this. I love that the Doctor gets to be all Atticus Finch up in here. I love that Susan gets taken hostage and we finally have a decent cliffhanger in this serial because not everything has been nicely wrapped up by the end of the episode. I am a sucker for the Terry Nation.

A lot of what takes me out of it is the dialogue again. That and the random plot devices and holes he just throws in there to be coincidental. Seriously, Altos’ friend is the guard who was murdered? How did he even become a guard, anyway? Couldn’t he have just snuck into the vault ages ago when he first arrived and taken the Key? It’s not like they have any cameras in there, or they would have known that Ian wasn’t the one who killed the guard.

And you randomly introduce another guard (they all totally look similar by the way, it’s kind of difficult to keep track of them) and his wife-beating tendencies (seriously, there is wife-beating in this. Children’s program indeed.) only to reveal that he was in league with the people who stole the Key and framed Ian. Oh, but when he confesses in front of the entire courtroom (AFTER THE DOCTOR TOTALLY DOES AN ILLEGAL THING AND FAKES EVIDENCE TO HOPEFULLY ELLICIT A CONFESSION FROM THIS GUY), you kill him off? And seriously, it’s a courtroom full of people, what would have happened if they missed? Who killed him, anyway? And what weapon was that, because it just looked like a spotlight to me.

Well, anyway, one more part. Susan’s been taken hostage by an unknown and hostile party, and they’re threatening to kill her. Badass. Let’s see how they get out of this one.

Part 6

This part differs from all the rest so far in that it’s half wrap up of the last adventure and… half wrap up of the serial. Two parts wrap-up. Here we go.

So I rather like how they rescue Susan and it turns out the wife of the guard who was murdered was in league with the chief prosecutor. Nice unexpected twist. Good on you, Terry Nation.

Everything seems to be going well, so the Doctor’s sent Sabetha and Altos ahead to take the Keys they’ve found to Arbitan…. Only he’s totally dead, remember? Got murdered in the first episode and I wasn’t really fond of him so I didn’t really care too much about it? Yeah, that guy. But I care now, because Altos and Sabetha are all cute and stuff. Oh noes! What will happen?
Turns out they get taken hostage by one of the Voords who calls himself Yartek. Obviously he wants the machine for his nefarious purposes, but we’re not really even told what those are. Vague does not score points with me.

Also, I know Altos and Sabetha are cute and everything, but since when have they been in love? I mean, it makes for a nice and happy ending but way to just throw that out there for us. At least they have good chemistry and it’s not unbelievable or anything like that.

And why does Ian give the disguised Yartek the final Key if he obviously sees there’s something fishy going on? Come on, man. Ian’s not retarded. He knows something’s up. Oh, but he gives the imposter the fake Key, you say? But how did he get it in the first place? I guess it’s lucky that they even brought it along with them instead of leaving it in the creeper trapper’s hut back in episode three, or you’d be out of luck with your resolution. And what’s that? When Yartek puts the fake Key into the machine it’ll blow up? Hahahahaha. Awesome.

So that happens, and all is well and resolved and there are hugs and biddings goodbye and smooches on the cheek and it’s all quite grand. I just wish there was time for a *little* more pay off. This is again one of the problems with this that I’ve talked about already. I like the format and the quick, entertaining and episodic nature of it, but it makes for quick resolution that doesn’t really feel earned. There are exceptions of course (episode three, and the first half of episode six), but as a rule I still stand by the good old four-parter.
I’ve been watching too much Classic Who, haven’t I.

Final Thoughts?:
I had a lot of fun with this.

Now, I know I say that a lot (except when they suck, but whatever, not important!), but it's totally true. The first time I approached this serial I was extremely worried it was gonna fail and fail hardcore. Six part Hartnell? Terry Nation not doing Daleks? Oh no, what horrors await me here.

Luckily, though, I ended up being presently surprised and delighted by the ultimate outcome. And I love when Doctor Who surprises me like that. It's the best sort of surprise. Because this serial is totally watchable, and it's just... a lot of fun. Who doesn't love adventure quests and fun little romps? If you don't, I'm pretty sure you hate fun. No offense.

What strikes me most about this serial, though, are the concepts and ideas. I mean, the dialogue is not stellar, and people are fluffing their lines all over the place. Plus there's an ice cave wrapped in plastic wrap. Silly, right. But you could totally tell they were trying for most of this, trying to convey the best they possibly can these wonderfully mad ideas and concepts. And that's what draws me into it. My one qualm, again, is that he doesn't have much time to explore some of the higher brow ideas, like the city in episode two that seemingly grants you your every wish. That is *so* fascinating to me. And, much as I love Daleks, it makes me kinda sad that he got obsessed with them and copped out and didn't really do anymore serials like this in Doctor Who. (But I suppose that's what Blake's 7 is for... which I will be watching eventually, I assure you.)

All in all, great great fun. Totally recommended.

Next Time!: Fourth Doctor! Romana II! Paris! DaVinci! Humor! And crazy time travel! Matt's back next Tuesday reviewing "City of Death!"


  1. Keys of Marinus is a really fun story, though the episodic format is a little weird.

    I do feel the bit with the trapper in the mountains is just too dark for this story.

  2. The plastic wrap caves are amazing. Sure, it's just off enough so you can tell that it's not frozen stone, but the idea is so damn creative. It's like one of those times where you play an old video game and realize the clouds and bushes are the same sprite.