Saturday 16 November 2019


First broadcast: April/May 1964
Written by Terry Nation (allegedly)
Plot spoilers? Honestly, I wouldn't worry much

“[It] feels like it should have several options at the end of each scene. 'To go to the city of Millennium, go to episode 3, part 1. To turn left, press play.'”
Gnaeus (see comments section)

The Plot The Scriptwriters Forgot

Put two typical 'Who' fans together, and pretty soon they'll be discussing which of the lost episodes they would like to be found. Yet with the folk I'm more likely to hang around with, they're more likely making the case for which survivor they'd like to see wiped.

At which point ’Keys of Marinus’ often crops up. It exists intact, which only raises the question – should it? It even won this poll for worst First Doctor outing! The general consensus is that, after the triumph of ’The Daleks’, lightning did not strike twice for writer Terry Nation and provide him with another living, walking Creature. Blame is mostly placed on the episodic ‘quest’ nature of the storyline, leading to something resembling 'The Crystal Maze' without the budget. Or for that matter the drama.

It is indeed one of the clunkier episodes of the first series, with some commentators gleefully listing each wooden set, wobbly piece of acting or (that ’Who’ perennial) inadequate act of hiding. (Helpful hint! Try somewhere where the other person can’t see you.) It’s especially odd the way central incidents frequently go unfilmed for no readily apparent reason.

Now, on a good day I can find that sort of thing endearing. This is of course because my brain plays a trick on me concerning ’Doctor Who’. I look beyond the people and objects on the screen because I imagine they’re merely external markers of some core concept that has been perfectly worked out. Like the way chess played with stones on squares drawn in the dirt is still chess, still employs its elegant rules.

Yet when we try to dream human voices wake us and we drown. In reality the same forces which demanded rushed recording also led to rushed scripting. ’Marinus’ was cobbled together hurriedly when other storylines fell through. Shannon Sullivan suggests that the episodic structure was consciously adopted as a time-saver (allowing a bunch of incidents to be stitched together and called a story), and that Script Editor David Whitaker may have co-written much of it. (Further weakening any chance of a through-line.) Have we ended up with ’Crystal Maze’ without the budget, the drama or even the script?

A classic outcome of this formlessness is the nature of the villainous Voord. Men in rubber suits masquerading as monsters are not exactly unknown in this show. But here they seem unsure whether they are masquerading as monsters, or just men wearing rubber suits for the sheer hell of it.

This does perhaps exemplify a necessity in watching old ’Who’, or perhaps all shows from this era. Yartek’s attempts to disguise himself are not...ahem!... entirely convincing. But TV of this era took up stage conventions out of sheer necessity. The audience needs to see it’s Yartek at the same time as see he’s disguised as someone else. This is no different to the rules of Shakespearean drama, where a woman can pass herself off as a man simply by changing her hat. The transforming logic of the stage is transferred to the screen. Your choices are to go with that or else give up on the whole thing. Personally, I favour the first. But the fact that we never know whether Yartek’s a native of Marinus, an alien invader or what... that’s just plain crap!

However, overall I shall not be attempting to list the plot-holes or logic-lapses in this story. I once had some old jeans which a friend refused to refer to as such, on the grounds they were “more hole than jean”. I hope my point here is made.

An Ascetic Pilgrimage

But for all that I did find a through-line in at least the first half, or enough of one to mount a partial defence. Moreover, like the (otherwise far superior) ’Aztecs’ which followed it, it provides themes refreshingly unique to this early era which did not subsequently become foraged for the ’Doctor Who’ formula.

Providing you can look beyond the objects on display to the imagery, the opening episode is actually quite vivid - a lone white-clad Monk defends a pyramid against an onslaught of creeping, black-clad devils. It has a mystical, almost archetypal sense to it, enhanced by the fact that neither side seems to speak. When the Monk finally does open his mouth (once he realises the Tardis crew are not allied to the villainous Voord), we learn his name is Arbitan. This is but the first of a series of allegorical names, among them Morphoton and Millennius. (Even the Voord’s name would seem to suggest ‘horde’.)

It’s possible then to see ’Marinus’ not as ’The Crystal Maze’ but as a parable, a science-fictionised version of ’The Pilgrim’s Progress’, perhaps akin to Lindsay’s ’A Voyage to Arcturus’. Arbitan explains that the Conscience Machine once kept everyone on the straight and narrow. But Yartek, one of the Voord, found a way to beat the machine and misbehave. For various reasons, more hole than jean, Arbitan then had to shut down the machine and hide the five keys. But now, for equally hole-related reasons, if he now gets them back again everything will be okay.

Yartek is of course Lucifer, the angel who rebelled against Heaven and unleashed sin. He’s to be defeated not so much by being fought as by restoring cosmic order. The story so frequently called a ‘quest’ is actually a pilgrimage.

And allegories would seem to make a lot of sense for a show on this sort of a back-envelope budget. There’s no way that cardboard set is going to convince you it’s an actual alien planet. So it needs to be made into a marker, it needs to stand for something else.

Moreover, like the parables above, the guiding light in this story is asceticism. Marinus looks calm and even inviting from the outset but turns out to have beaches of glass and seas of acid. (Or, as we find in the third episode, screaming jungles.) It represents a vision of the reality we inhabit as a vale of tears. The dematerialising Tardis represents the route to heaven. (Unusually, in the opening the Tardis materialises first and only then do we cut to the crew inside.)

But you can only escape by taking the trials and following the pilgrimage. At first the crew refuse to collect the keys, so Marinus throws a force field around the Tardis. (Making for one of the strangest flight vs. flight dilemmas of the first season – the crew are essentially blackmailed into action by the good guys!)

However, as said, this storyline is highly episodic. Can this theme really carry through? In the second episode, ‘The Velvet Web’, they arrive in Morphoton. While they believe they're in some abundant paradise where every desire may be sated, they've in fact fallen under the hypnotic spell of some brains in jars. 

It's Barbara who breaks the spell, and with her we suddenly see their world as it is – their silks really rags, their fine food actually bought from Subway. While the jarred brains are about as convincing as anything else (clue - not), there’s some nice distorted shots through the jars' curving glass which serves to underline their dominance.

Fortunately for Barbara the spendthrifts have scrimped on guards so she can save the day just by smashing those jars. Somewhat reminiscent of ’The Simpsons’ aliens - “our massive intellects are no match for their puny weapons.”

Jack Graham who frequently takes a class struggle approach to the show from the perspective of the Gallifreyan proletariat (no, really) makes an anti-capitalist analysis out of this:

“It's extremely tempting to connect Morphoton to Western capitalism, given that, when this story was made, the long post-war boom was just starting to decline, the struggles of what would come to be called 'the 60s' were just beginning.”

My general reaction to his posts is “I wish I'd said that”. But on this occasion I think he's looking in the wrong direction. For 'Doctor Who' doesn’t start to map those changin' times until much later. Throughout their tenure, Ian and Barbara lock the format to an honorary family unit and an RP worldview. And Morphoton most resembles the Lady of the Green Kirtle from CS Lewis’ 1953 Narnia novel 'The Silver Chair'. 

Barbara takes over Puddleglum’s role of choosing dour reality over enchanting illusions. (As he puts it “suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things… Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.") Its parable of the falsity of all earthly things chimes well with the asceticism of the first episode.

Asceticism might seem a strange fit for science fiction, which tends to utopian fantasies of productivist abundance. If we were inclined to Marxist terminology (which we are) we might say it conceives of an imagined future where capitalism has overcome its contradictions. And even in 'Who' we already had, in 'The Daleks', the key signifier of this – the replicator. (In the future we won't even need production, stuff will just appear.) So we might well ask what asceticism is doing here.

In fact it was a common tendency among the post-war generation to regard hedonism as vulgar and deprivation as somehow virtuous. (The Wicked Witch in the afore-mentioned Lewis books lures children with Turkish Delight. While Miss Beeton's 'Book of Household Management' advised its readers “frugality and economy are virtues.”) The Roman-style feast which kicks off ‘Velvet Web’ definitely feels like the work of someone who grew up during rationing - the pornography of abundance, fantasy laced with phobia.

Let's remember, the Tardis may house a replicator but its not the indestructible home base of later. It's virtually home-made. (It is home-made in the spin-off matinee movies.) Parts (at least ostensibly) need replacing in 'The Daleks', or even break dangerously in 'Edge of Destruction'. This is a finite universe with definite physical limits, which demands of its inhabitants lives of sensible moderation and personal responsibility.

In this way, even though it's a below-par story, 'Marinus' does to some degree epitomise the paradox of early Hartnell. Its universe is a place of wonder, its alien planets exotically foreign and fantastical. They don't concern themselves with explicability, let alone scientific credibility. At yet at the same time its universe is like the back garden to the semi of post-war Britain, not just parochial, not just limited but in many ways self-limiting. Its images are innately strange, but at the same time its symbols are entirely explicable. Villains are petty, heroism largely based around sacrifice and most likely to go unrewarded.

(Whether things stayed like that even to the end of the Hartnell era... well stay tuned.)

Yet for all that there's something that sticks with Graham’s slant. It’s notable how in later stories Nation would emphasise the Daleks’ insistence on enslaving everyone. Of course the Daleks are little else than brains in jars, just stuck on castors. Is there something almost classically Workerist about this opposition of bad mental to good manual labour?

But ultimately, “tempting” is too much the right word. The 'brain-in-jar' image is a frequent SF trope and it usually stands for a frequent SF concern - the liberal capitalist phobia of too rigid a division emerging between mental and manual labour, the violation of the body politic, the natural harmoniousness of society rent asunder and the various parts falling into war with each other. (Think of the 1927 SF classic 'Metropolis' and its tagline “there can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator”. The trope goes back at least as far as Wells' 1895 novel 'The Time Machine'.)

Another Press On the Travel Dials

Perhaps the theme even ends here, for (despite my earlier claims) it soon starts to peter out from hereon in. It is then replaced by what is sometimes referred to as ‘nothing very much at all.’ Those only interested in posts about interesting subjects (or for that matter interesting posts) may want to stop reading now....

...okay, that’s just me and you then.

When it veers away from the opening schema, you’re reminded just how arbitrary and stitched-together all this is. But at the same time, when it sticks with that schema (such as in the third episode) it just comes over as second helpings. Overall, the former dominates. The ‘travel dials’ (teleporters) they wear come to define events - pressing them, they disappear from one place and reappear in another without much in the way of connection.

Take for example the fourth episode, ‘The Snows of Terror’, which introduces a decently malevolent villain in the trapper Vasor. But while everything up to now has been set in a world of allegory, the menace now rests upon quite real and tangible fears – the cold, the wolves, Vasor's ignoble lust over Barbara… all things which could have appeared in a historical episode. (Which then switches again when we reach the Ice Knights. The only advantage to which is reaching rock bottom, so things from them on have to get better.

Worst of all, things don’t even get back into gear when we return to the Conscience Machine. Vartek has killed Arbitan, who he then impersonates to get the key from Ian. (Needless to say, it isn’t explained why he didn’t just overpower Ian as he already did with the others.) Ian slips him a dud key which causes the Machine to blow him and itself up, while the crew escape.

Though this has left me afeared I might one day inadvertently put the wrong key in my front door and explode my flat, it does have a symbolic value. The Conscience Machine won’t work for Yartek, it’s not a user-neutral mechanism like a gun but a Grail, a cosmological object - inherently a force for good. Similarly Yartek is undone by his own lies. (He bullies Altos into admitting his hots for Sabetha then drops the info to give his disguise some credibility – but inadvertently gets the details wrong.)

But alas, even this vies with something else! As soon as we hear the term ‘Conscience Machine’ we’re waiting for someone (Doctor or Ian) to insist it should be turned off, that we must have free will whatever the consequences and all the rest of it. (The Doctor and doctrine don’t get on, after all.) You also can’t help but associate the Conscience Machine with the Mesmeron of Morphoton, even if it is more limited in application. As it is the Machine gets destroyed anyway and the Doctor merely says in passing “maybe that’s for the best” as he leaves. It’s a bit like a World War Two film ending with someone saying “you know, I never did like those Nazis much. I’m actually quitely pleased they decided to poison themselves in that bunker of theirs.”

But worst of all this fails the most basic tenet of ’Pilgrim’s Progress’ stories - the pilgrim has to… um… progress! The outer journey is just an allegory for the inner one, as the act of pilgrimage brings the traveller to enlightenment. Without this element a pilgrimage is just a meander. It’s cool that Barbara gets to save the day twice here (and even poor Susan once), while complaining that Ian treats her like “Dresden china”. But no-one from the crew, and certainly neither of the tedious extras who accompany them, changes in any way as a result of their endeavors. In this way the disappearing Tardis in the final scene isn’t a stairway to heaven but merely the biggest travel dial of all.

When fans defend this story it’s usually on the grounds that it shows us different aspects of life on one planet. Let’s not tar all fans with the brush of their most myopic members. But this does display fan’s tendency to find connections worthy of any conspiracy theorist. You could, if you wanted, sew enough patches to link ’Keys of Marinus’ into one garment, inventing a back-story for Vasor being exiled and the like. These long Winter evenings have to be got through somehow. But you'd be joining the patches, not the cloth. The parts don’t click together in one picture like a jigsaw. We’re looking at a bunch of stock sets thrown up in a hurry, that’s all.

All in all, this is ultimately a story which loses it’s key. The first two episodes (on a generous day, three) create some intriguing themes and strong images, which then get progressively forgotten the more things go on. The opening becomes like one of those splash panels in mystery comics, which enticed you in but only to come up with the most perfunctory story.

So, beyond provocations and wind-ups, should ’Marinus’ really be wiped? It would be a challenge to list the ways in which it’s no good at all. But it also brings up the question of what we want from ’Who’.

There’s the fans for who it’s an article of faith to suspend critical judgement of the show. Unsurprisingly, it’s often the same people who entertain their own fannish recollections. The temptation becomes to reject the second with the first. But that’s mistaken. True, such stuff can be nostalgist and self-indulgent. But arguably those are just the rocks you need to navigate past if you want to truly access those recollections, to get back to being that child sitting before a TV set. Michael Grasso’s, for example, hit on something important:

“As a kid, I never had an immediate fight-or-flight response to the chills of Doctor Who; instead, these stories had a much more cumulative effect, their uniquely weird atmosphere building up in the visual centers of my brain, resulting in imagery that lingered half-remembered for months and years afterward. These scares reside in my mind in a series of near-surrealist images, seemingly utterly disconnected from plot.”

And me too. The essence of ‘Who’ lies neither in its plots, whose failings and lapses are rivalled only by British public transport, nor its sub-'Scooby Doo’ scares. It was more a kind of weird fiction, which brought other-worldly sights into our family living room. Rather than reduce to incidents within a plotline, their very appeal lay in their unparseability.

It may be true that, as a kid, I was more prone to react in this moment-to-moment fashion, watching a TV show like flipping through an art book. And even when older, there were so many episodes I knew only from stills that I retained this perception of a slideshow of strangeness.

But, now initiated, I still respond to the show in this way. Seen in terms of its silly non-plot ‘Keys of Marinus’ is a shoddy drama, hurriedly made and as soon to be discarded. But memory remembers the memorable, and wipes the rest. So the required task is already in progress. Long after I’ve forgotten all the chaff I will remember images, such as a lone monk silently defending a holy place against a deluge of devils.

Coming Soon! Something a bit more interesting. (Honest.)


  1. I haven't been checking into your site (or anybody else's) recently. Thrilled that you're posting on Hartnell's Who! I'll be catching up on them as soon as I have time.

    1. As I'd already done 'The Daleks' and "Unearthly Child', you haven't missed much. They're roughly going up bi-weekly, as I believe it's called over your way.

  2. On this particular story, I can't give it a fair rendering. Of course all your criticisms are entirely just; one can't seriously argue with them.

    My older brother a few friends were fans of Doctor Who, but I only watched bits and pieces before CPTV (Connecticut Public Television) announced they were "going back to the beginning" and finally playing the '60s episodes. The first Doctor Who episode I watched all the way through was "An Unearthly Child," which cast some sort of hypnotic spell over me. Keys of Marinus was, therefore, the fourth Doctor Who story I ever saw and the spell was still powerfully in effect. The spell really only started to wear off near the end of the Hartnell era.

    So I must admit that I probably can't see this era of the show fairly. I've seen Keys of Marinus probably half a dozen times and the haze of nostalgia still affects me every time. Of course, it's objectively bad for all the reasons you list, but I still think it's fun.

    1. I'm quite different, as I have no youthful memories of anything before Pertwee. And I only really remember later Pertwee.

      I think the thing to do is try to re-access what grabbed you at the time. While too many fans say effectively "I liked it then so it must be good".

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  4. Mostly I just wanted to note how much I agree that what remained with my from my childhood experience of Doctor Who was very much not the stories — I would struggle to explain the plot of even classic serials like Genesis of the Daleks — but specific scenes and images, and most of all the accumulated atmosphere of otherness.

  5. I sometimes wonder whether in 30 years, kids who grew up on New Who will be blogging about how resonant the kid-in-a-gas-mask image was, and how it stayed with them long after they'd forgotten the actual plot of The Empty Child.

    I'm pretty sure that in 40 years we won't be getting blog-posts about how resonant Tim Shaw was.

  6. I think that's the way you tend to see everything as a child. And so a show more suited to that response are more likely to resonate with you.

    The young daughter of friends got into Dr. Who when they had a female Doctor. I've showed her some of the earlier New Who stories, which were first transmitted before she was born. It's easy to forget that really.