Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Old Who Reviews - Serial 005: "The Keys of Marinus"

"I don't believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that."
~The First Doctor

As I'm sure anyone knows, the first thing related to Doctor Who that captured the attention of audiences was the advent of the Daleks. Terry Nation's creations were an unexpected hit, and so it's no surprise that when the series was given more episodes beyond its initial 13 that they would bring Nation back to write another serial with a NEW alien race that they hoped would be the next Daleks. I'm told that they try to do this a lot and it almost never works. In this failed attempt, they give us the Voord.

Let me just say that I rather like the work I've seen of Terry Nation. He has a tendency to speak on the nature of morality, social justice, the mind, and humanity in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. While I wouldn't say he's a genius or anything, I'd certainly say that his serials are the most competent of the ones I've seen, and so far, "The Keys of Marinus" is my favorite.

The Doctor and his companions wind up on an island on an alien planet completely surrounded by acid with a single building designed to repel intruders. They find that the building houses a man known as the Arbiter, who safeguards a device known as the Conscience of Marinus (Marinus being the name of the planet they're on). Basically, the device manipulated the minds of the planet's inhabitants by giving them an objective sense of morality as defined by this machine, which supposedly was always fair and never wrong. Essentially, the people of the planet no longer decided for themselves what was right and wrong, instead letting the machine decide for them.

However, there were a people known as the Voord who were able to resist the Conscience's sway and attempted to take it for themselves in order to dominate the planet. In an effort to prevent this, the Arbiter took out four of the five all-important keys from the machine and scattered them across the planet until he could fix the machine so that the Voord could no longer resist it. Once he finished repairing the machine, he sent his daughter and other associates to find the keys again, but none of them returned. Once he meets the Doctor and his companions, he ropes them into finding the keys for him and gives them devices to transport them to the locations of the keys.

This serial is basically a season of Dragonball.

Each episode in the serial (with the exception of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth) all take place on a different region of the planet with it's own self-contained plot. As such, I'll be breaking this review down into smaller chunks, reviewing each episode on its own.

The fetch quest begins after the jump!


Before I begin, I would like to point out that this is the first title that uses "of Death" in it. I assure you, there will be others. In fact, there's another one in this same serial. My guess is that the writers think it sounds dramatic or something.

Anyway, this first episode basically covers most of what I've already told you. The Doctor and his companions come across the building that stores the Conscience and they are attacked by a Voord. Fortunately, Ian manages to overpower him and push him into a trapdoor leading to the sea of acid below.

Yeah, apparently the Voord reflexively turn into gingerbread when they are punched in the stomach.

I would like to remind everyone that these things were expected to be as popular as Daleks.

Anyway, they meet the Arbiter who explains the situation and gives them wrist-watches called "travel dials" that will instantly teleport them to where they need to go.

As soon as they leave, the Arbiter is attacked by a Voord and killed.

This episode falls short in one major regard, and I'll discuss it more later at the end of my review, but it really doesn't analyze the existence of the Conscience or question its value at all. In fact, all of the characters seem to think a machine that forces a universal moral code on an entire population is a GOOD thing. This is by far the most interesting thing about this serial and it's largely left unexplored. I found that relatively disappointing, but I'll get more into that later. Next episode!


Their first stop in their fetch-quest is the city of Morphoton, which greets them with gracious hospitality, offering them everything they wish for. This place basically SCREAMS too good to be true, so of course it is. Their perception of reality is being warped by -- I shit you not -- talking brains in jars.

...What do those remind me of?


At night, a young slave girl places a small disc on each of their foreheads while they sleep that allows the Brains of Morphoton to control them and keep them all content in blissful ignorance. However, this foolproof scheme is no match for Barbara Wright, who foils the plot by...

...turning on her side.

The Brains of Morphoton apparently haven't invented spirit gum.

Barbara spends most of the rest of the episode trying to convince the others that they are being deceived, but they cannot be convinced. They assume that she is ill and the servants of the Brains take her away.

This raises interesting questions about the nature of humanity, the influence of the ruling class, and the perception of sanity, and we'll get into that later, but for now let's skip to the part where Ian tries to strangle Barbara.

Once again cementing herself as my favorite Classic Who companion (for now anyway), she overpowers Ian and then KILLS THE BRAINS LIKE A BOSS.

I love Barbara.

With the brains no longer holding their sway over the populace of Morphoton, it is revealed that two of the servants are in fact the missing colleagues of the Arbiter, one of which is actually his daughter and she happens to have the key they're looking for.

Then, in a move that stupefied me, the Doctor decides that they should split up, leaving the companions on their own for the next two episodes with the two Marinusians (or whatever people of Marinus are called). Unsurprisingly, the next two episodes kind of suck.

But before we move on, let's examine the themes of this episode a bit closer.

In the first episode, Terry Nation establishes Marinus as a planet that was once without crime thanks to a universal moral code that was enforced telepathically by a machine. The idea is that crime comes from a deviation of morality within individuals. For example, a thief may steal because he believes that it's OK to steal from people who have more than he does. People commit crimes often by justifying their actions as moral from their perspective. The Conscience of Marinus takes a person's subjective morality out of the equation, thus preventing anyone from justifying their own criminal behavior. However, once the machine had been resisted by the Voord, it was taken offline.

While it's never explicitly stated, I think that some of the parts of Marinus that we explore in this serial show what happens when a people who are dependent on an external force for their morality suddenly lose it. They are used to order, but when they lose the key that allows the order to exist, they desperately grasp at ways to bring it back.

In the case of Morphoton, we have a collective of sentient creatures with a vast intellect who presumably took it upon themselves to re-establish order by extending their influence throughout their entire domain, substituting themselves for the absent Conscience.

Terry Nation was no stranger to examining themes of totalitarianism in his work, particularly "Blake's 7". Dystopias had started to become popular after the 50's and they've never really stopped. I could go on about this for a while, but I'm sure we've all heard plenty about dystopias.

Nevertheless, while the first episode presented the Conscience as a good thing that was simply corrupted, this episode subtextually asks us, "How is a living creature's dominance all that different from the dominance of a machine?"


I actually found this episode to be pretty awful, particularly when compared to the rest of the serial. Basically, this part of the planet has been dominated by plant-life so that they could protect the key from the Voord. I honestly don't really want to dwell on this one because it's not even laughably stupid. It's just plain stupid stupid. It's a whole lot of screaming and people getting "attacked" by plants.

OK, maybe it's a LITTLE bit laughable.

As to how this fits in with the overall theme, I'm not entirely sure that it was intended to, but if I were to guess, the idea is that the plants were created as a way of defending the key, but they end up going out of control. The idea of science or technology going beyond its intended purpose and becoming a new menace, much like how the Conscience could be corrupted to enslave an entire planet.


This one is interesting in that it is incredibly basic. They end up in a snow-covered wasteland with only one guy hanging around, a trapper named Vasor. For no adequately explained reason, Vasor tries to lead the others to their deaths because... I dunno, I think they implied that he's a cannibal? Let's just say he does it because he's evil.

They find the key hidden in a block of ice, but getting it out awakens a bunch of Ice Soldiers, who come after them and end up killing Vasor, but not before Ian gets to send one of them falling to their deaths!

For those keeping score, that's the second time he's murdered a sentient creature in this serial. But don't worry, I'm pretty sure Barbara still has twice his body count from killing those brains.

This episode isn't particularly good either, mostly because Vasor exists as a purely evil creature with no motivation or reason for his behavior. It's just plain uninteresting.

Like the previous episode, it's difficult to see how it feeds into the overall theme, but my guess is that it represents the problem of anarchy. In a world without the Conscience and in a land without the laws of a society, a land where only one man lives, there is nothing to halt the evil of his heart. Without the Conscience, what will stop men like this? Well, other than convenient Ice Soldiers.


Please note the "of Death" part of the title.

So Ian arrives later than the rest of the group, but he happens to show up right where the key is... before getting knocked out. When he awakens, the key has been stolen and as the only person at the crime scene, he is accused of stealing it and killing a guard.

He is forced to stand trial, and because the justice system in this city is bizarre, he is presumed guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around.

So basically it's like "Phoenix Wright".

Over the course of the episode (and at the beginning of the following episode), they attempt to uncover enough evidence to exonerate Ian from his charge of murder.

Anyway, this part of the serial is classic crime drama with a twist. The twist being that the defense has the burden of proving their case beyond a reasonable doubt. We also see the return of the Doctor who acts as Ian's lawyer. It is quite amusing.

Now the subtext is a little more clear. Imagine a society that had no crime whatsoever and then suddenly, when the Conscience went offline, crime existed again. In that light, it's not so surprising that the justice system they move to presumes the guilt of all who stand trial. They're more interested in establishing order than preserving justice.

Of course, in the end, it is clear that this system is easily corrupted by people of authority.


This episode concludes the previous mini-arc. It is revealed that the theft of the key was an inside job and Ian is cleared of all charges mere minutes before his execution.

They all return to the Conscience to find that the Voord have taken over and await their return. Having already seized the three keys from the Marinusians, they trick Ian into giving them the final key.

However, Ian suspected that something was up and gave the Voord a fake key they picked up in the third episode. Now before we give Ian more credit than he deserves, take a look at the guy pretending to be the Arbiter.

No joke, the Voord ACTUALLY uses that excuse to keep them from getting too close. The classic "I've got a deadly disease" trick.

Honestly, if Ian HADN'T seen through that, I'd have wished that he had gotten killed earlier on in the episode.

Once the Voord put in the fake key, the Conscience explodes (great design, by the way) and takes the Voord with it.

The Arbiter's daughter is upset about her father's death, but also upset that his work has been destroyed. The Doctor then consoles her by saying, "I don't believe that man was made to be controlled by machines. Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice. Only human beings can do that."

This seems to come out of nowhere. At no other point in the episode do any of the characters openly question the nature of the Conscience. Even so, the Doctor's assessment makes sense considering what they've been through.

In the absence of the Conscience, the Marinusians have lost all sense of justice, prioritizing their own selfish need for control instead. This is something we see in every single location during this serial. So perhaps the fault of the Conscience wasn't simply that it could be corrupted, but rather that it caused the collective moral fiber of society to atrophy. Therefore, justice must be preserved by man, and the only way to do that is to have men be put in control of their own sense of morality and justice.

I believe that Terry Nation is trying to say that while each individual having their own subjective morality is the source of a great deal of strife and crime in the world, removing the subjective morality does not only stop evil, but also good. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but I'd like to think Terry Nation knew what he was doing.

All in all, this serial is definitely worth a watch and is probably my favorite thus far, if only for the interesting subtext that carries through until the end. Many writers aren't that subtle. Episodes 3 and 4 can be skipped without missing much, but they aren't that horrible to sit through. Even "The Screaming Jungle" isn't THAT bad. It's certainly not as bad as most of "100,000 BC".

Yes, "100,000 BC" is more boring than watching plants grow.

But "The Velvet Web" is excellent and holds up pretty well and "Sentence of Death" is good fun if you like crime drama.

Anyway, I give "The Keys of Marinus" 7/10.