Aired 11 April – 16 May 1964
Doctor Who continues to experiment with its format and showcase the wide diversity of storytelling styles possible, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ setting the TARDIS travelers on a quest to recover a set of keys that will restore justice. Written by Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ introduces the Voord, a somewhat less successful enemy race that wisely only features at key moments.
Each different threat is for the most part self-contained in one episode under the collecting and questing arc set to them by the Keeper of the Consciousness of Marinus, giving a bit of a superficial and disjointed feel to proceedings. One of the recurring themes of early Doctor Who adventures is the disillusion of perception, and that highlights arguably the strongest questing segment involving the Morphotron in which Barbara sees the decaying reality for what it really is while the others experience quite lavish surroundings. It’s quite disconcerting to see the Doctor so easily affected by this ploy as well, further showcasing that he is just as flawed as anyone and not some all-powerful intelligent being. ‘The Keys of Marinus’ also has the distinction of working in leading cast members holidays, and so the Doctor is noticeably absent for two episodes as Hartnell is on holiday, the character jumping ahead to Millennius early.
Unfortunately, the somewhat rushed introduction and resolution of each separate story aspect means that the menaces aren’t always fleshed out in great detail. So while living vegetation and icy warriors are intrinsically intriguing, there simply isn’t enough time to substantially build up the threat. There are some genuinely violent moments that are rather surprising for a 1960 family programme and, while the cliché of discovering of a false key does rear its head, all of the events dovetail into a courtroom drama, again the first of many for Doctor Who. Courtroom scenes are always a tricky prospect for science fiction shows to successfully integrate and pull off, often slowing down events and taking away the sense of physical drama, and that is sadly the case here. The saving grace here is Hartnell himself, refreshed after his time away and offering a genuinely vivacious and engaging performance in a script where it is agonizingly clear to the audience who is truly to blame for events. Donald Pickering as Eyesen and Fiona Walker as Kala at least do lend some credibility to the evil plot, but whole affair on Millennius is hardly the most engaging and can’t quite reach the end of its running time with any lasting sense of momentum. Fortunately, Ian is cunning enough not to fall for an obvious attempt at deception, satisfactorily using the fake key to grand effect. The resolution in the final few minutes is easily the most engaging aspect of the final episode but, because of the length of the courtroom proceedings, it also comes off as quite rushed as well.
In the end, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ seems like an experiment, taking on an anthology feel and showcasing just how wildly unpredictable Doctor Who has the ability to be. With so many storylines condensed to a single episode each, though, each romp is only a superficial example of what is truly possible. This may not necessarily be a highlight of the first series, and the Voord aren’t the most memorable of foes, but there are certainly some entertaining and important moments to be had.