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Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus

"I'm going to blackmail you into risking
your lives for an ethically dubious task...
and did I mention I'm the good guy?"
A bravely existentialist nihilist adventure where the Doctor and crew confront the pointlessness of existence, forced to scurry around a planet risking life and limb looking for meaning, or 'keys,' combating various enemies who have no clear purpose, all for an objective that is morally dubious and ultimately meaningless.

Or, a six-episode runaround.

Season 1, Serial E

Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by Terry Nation
Directed by John Gorrie
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  • 1. The Sea of Death – 11 Apr 1964
  • 2. The Velvet Web – 18 Apr 1964
  • 3. The Screaming Jungle – 25 Apr 1964
  • 4. The Snows of Terror – 2 May 1964
  • 5. Sentence of Death – 9 May 1964
  • 6. The Keys of Marinus – 16 May 1964

Plot Summary

The TARDIS lands on an island on planet Marinus, surrounded by an acid sea. Our heroes meet Arbitan, the keeper of the Conscience, a powerful computer that uses mental projection to enforce law and order on its people. The peace in Marinus is currently threatened by the Voord, a race who have grown immune to the influence of the Conscience. Arbitan needs five microcircuit ‘keys;’ one of which he has, but the other four are scattered in secret locations across Marinus, to upgrade the Conscience and defeat the Voord. He implores – and eventually blackmails – the Doctor and crew into obtaining the keys, and provides them with travel dials to transport them around the planet to the keys’ locations. Shortly after they leave, however, a Voord murders Arbitan.

They encounter numerous challenges; nasty alien brain creatures in jars, ice soldiers, psychic jungles, etc, and Ian is framed for murder in the city of Millennius. Eventually they return to the island of the Conscience with the four keys. The Voord leader Yartek disguises himself as Arbitan, but our heroes spot the deception and provide him with a fake key, destroying the Voord and the Conscience in the process. The Doctor concludes that the people of Marinus are better off with free will anyway.

Analysis and Notes and Stuff

Regardless of my opinions of Terry Nation as a writer, I have to give him credit for being pretty much the only classic-era Who writer who fully embraced the serial nature of the program. In this serial, along with "The Chase" and "The Daleks' Master Plan," he treats each individual episode as having its own story arc. So when one watches, say, "The Velvet Web," one watches it not so much as Episode Two Of A Six Part Story, but as a single adventure that happens to be part of a longer story arc. There were four keys to find over the middle four episodes. There could’ve been three, and serial could’ve been one episode shorter. If there were ten keys, then it would’ve been twelve parts.

Note how because they couldn’t depend on the TARDIS to travel around Marinus to the locations of the various keys, they had to rely on personal teleportation devices (or, “travel dials”) provided by Arbitan.

And in each episode, there’s a breadth of imagination, in concept if not in execution. A computer that neutralizes criminal impulses, on an island surrounded by an acid sea. Brain creatures in glass jars that influence peoples’ minds. A psychic jungle. A snowy wasteland with zombie soldiers encased in ice. And a really boring police procedural whodunnit. That’s pretty darn epic.

And Marinus has such a variety of sentient life; humans, Voord, brains-in-a-jar, zombie ice soldiers, etc… are they all indigenous?

The problem is that none of it stands up to scrutiny. Did Nation intend, in only his second serial, to start repeating himself? The TARDIS crew explores a mysterious and seemingly abandoned city, just like they did three and half months earlier in the first episode of his first script. And a perilous journey through a cave? Done that.

And when you devote some thought to the central plot element, it all falls apart. The Conscience of Marinus is supposed to remove criminal impulses from the mind. Does that mean petty theft, or anti-state activities? If the latter, then, well, I might be inclined to side with the Voord. Especially given that the Voord have grown immune to the influence of the Consciousness, and Arbitan has to resort to blackmail to convince the TARDIS crew to assist him. Who are we supposed to side with here? Sabetha and Altos, having previously been sent by Arbitan, are also presumably agents of the state. And the Morphotons, having mind altering influence themselves, could either be yet another mind altering entity, or maybe they’re trying to overcome the influence of the Consciousness. What do the Voord want anyway? To gain control of the Consciousness, or destroy it? And then the Doctor goes ahead and destroys both the machine and the Voord at the end, he decides that Marinus was better off without it anyway. Did he just come up with this, or was it his plan all along?

All he wanted was to Netflix and Chill with Barbara.

The first episode suffers greatly from the fact that everything in those days was done virtually live to tape. No re-shoots, no re-takes, nothing. Unless something went disastrously wrong, everything was broadcast as it was taped, with mangled or forgotten lines, effects not going according to plan, actors tripping over scenery, visible production crew or boom mics or cameras occasionally being caught in shot, etc. The first episodes of "An Unearthly Child" and "The Daleks" had to be re-shot due to technical glitches, but by now the BBC was giving no more second chances. And oh man, did "Sea of Death" need to be re-shot for pretty much all the reasons listed above. Which is a shame, because "Velvet Web" is shot very cleverly, as the shots of the Doctor, Ian and Susan’s perspective is cut with the point-of-view shots of Barbara seeing the truth of their surroundings. "The Screaming Jungle" is silly, "Snows of Terror" is pretty gruesome, the trial sequence is dull (though it’s interesting to see human villains on an alien world), and Yartek in a hoodie looks as much like Arbitan as I do.


It’s not considered 'canon,' but the comic strip "The World Shapers" in the August thru October 1987 issues of Doctor Who Magazine would reveal the Voord were early prototypes of Cybermen, and that Marinus would later be known as Mondas.

Haven't I Seen You Somewhere in the Future?
  • Fiona Walker (Kala) played Agrippina in the epic miniseries I, Claudius.
  • Steven Dartnell (Yartek) would return a few weeks later, minus the rubber bondage gear, as John in "The Sensorites."
  • George Coulouris (Arbitan) is best known for playing Mr. Thatcher, banker and legal guardian to the young Charles Foster Kane in the iconic 1941 film Citizen Kane.
  • Edmund Warrick (Darrius) would later be William Hartnell’s body double in "Dalek Invasion of Earth," and the Daleks’ not-quite-as-convincing-as-they-had-hoped robot double in "The Chase."

Rating: one and a half travel dials out of four.
John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.


  1. Rather a belated comment, but the scene where Barbara smashes the brains in glass jars reminded me (once again) of what an awesome companion she was. She was definitely never the cliched screaming Classic Who Damsel in Distress!

  2. I totally agree. For those first 16 stories you could easily argue that The Doctor was Barbara's companion, not the other way around.

    Also, I am a total sucker for anything involving evil brains in jars.

  3. I like this one a bit as it has a very 'Twilight Zone' feel to it. It's far from perfect of course, but I found it a decent watch. Vasor and how he threatened Barbara in the Snows of Terror definitely gave me some creepy vibes that feel a bit much for what was largely considered a kid's show.

    Not a classic by any means, but quite watchable. Making every episode both part of an overarching whole, but also separate like this made it feel faster paced than classic Who, and especially the 1st Doctor's time, usually was.


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