It’s taken me a while to figure out what I wanted to write about this story. It’s the fifth Doctor Who story, and takes place right after the lost “Marco Polo” story. In fact, Ian is still wearing an Asian shirt although none of the other characters carry any trace of their previous adventure.
This story is another first Doctor story, featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor, and his companions are Susan, Ian, and Barbara. The premise is fairly straightforward. The TARDIS lands on a mysterious beach (this episode also features the first shot of the TARDIS actually materializing). As the Doctor and his companions investigate, they discover that they are on an island surrounded not by water, but by acid. They also discover that they are not the only visitors to the island when they find small glass submarines. Their inhabitants, it is discovered, wear rubber suits.
Susan, who has lost a shoe to the acid, returns to the TARDIS to get another pair and sees mysterious footprints, which she follows to a tower. She appears to be in peril of being harmed by one of the rubber suited strangers when the wall spins around, taking the creature with it. The others notice that Susan is missing and find the tower. Eventually, they are all brought into the tower (by the mysteriously rotating walls). They discover a monk-like man fighting off the rubber suited intruders, and Ian runs to his aid.
The man is Arbitan and he is the Keeper of the Conscience of Marinus, a giant machine that kept everyone in Marinus peaceful and law-abiding. It worked for centuries until a Voord (the creatures in the rubber suits) learned how to resist it. The Voords have since been corrupting Marinus, but now Arbitan has upgraded the machine to control the Voords once again. However, the five keys that control the machine are scattered all over Marinus, to protect the machine from being used by the Voords. Arbitan has sent several people out after the keys, including his own daughter, but none have returned. He needs the Doctor and his companions to retrieve the keys for him. The Doctor refuses at first (he still has very little compassion for others), but Arbitan places a force field around the TARDIS and will only release it after the Doctor has found the keys. Arbitan provides the travelers with travel dials that allow them to move in space when they turn the dial. The locations of the keys are programmed in, so all they have to do is turn their dials to appear at the next location. The first episode ends with the group arriving at the first location.
Each episode sees the group in a different location, with a different challenge to face: mind control, a savage jungle, extreme cold… One interesting fact about this story is that the Doctor chooses to go ahead of his companions, so he is not seen for episodes 3 and 4. It is also one of the few stories written by Terry Nation that does not feature the Daleks. Apparently, there was some hope that the Voords would catch on as an adversary, just like the Daleks, but clearly this did not happen. I can’t say that I’m surprised, since the Voords basically look like men in scuba diving suits with strange helmets.
I was also surprised that the Doctor would seem to agree with a machine that controls people’s minds, even if it is to eliminate evil from the world, however, and this is a bit of a spoiler….at the end the Doctor makes a statement to the effect that it is better for the people Arbitan’s daughter Sabetha (who they found in their quest for the keys) and the man who she’s in love with, Altos, to help the people find their own path, since man was not meant to be controlled by a machine.
This story was my favorite Hartnell story so far, except for the jump between episode 4, “The Snows of Terror,” and episode 5, “Sentence of Death.” The travelers all leave the icy region together (fleeing the thawed out ice soldiers), but instead of appearing all together, suddenly Ian is alone in a room with a dead body and the final key locked in a case. I couldn’t figure out how he got there and where the others were during the events that follow, in which Ian is framed for murder. Still, I found this story to be a fun one that was very creative, so I guess I can overlook the lack of logic there. Or maybe someone can give me a plausible explanation for it?
I also liked that the series was relying less on Ian to accomplish everything. In the second episode, it is Barbara who saves the group. Susan was also given opportunities to help the group, which was nice after she was so hysterical and helpless in some of the early episodes.
“The Keys of Marinus” was broader in scope than the other stories (excluding “Marco Polo,” which, of course, can’t be viewed to compare), and was the first to include so many locations. I felt that they did a good job, even with their limited budget at creating a distinct location for each episode. “The Screaming Jungle” episode reminded me a bit of the Tom Baker story “Seeds of Doom” in the plants “attacking” Ian and Barbara. I was talking about the early Doctor Who episodes with a friend, and we both agreed that the black and white helps to hide some of the flaws in the costumes and sets. For instance, the brain creatures in “The Velvet Web” might have looked a bit too fake if they were in color, but I thought they worked in black and white. Overall, I enjoyed this story.