|Susan is understandably upset at being
grabbed by a man in a skintight rubber suit.
It is April 11, 1964. The Beatles have the number one single with “Can’t Buy Me Love.” In the next six weeks, we will discover why the Beatles are unable to buy love – namely that, as Peter & Gordon observe, this is “A World Without Love,” making the Searchers’ admonition “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” sound practice.
While Marco Polo was airing we seem to have drifted away from the news. It is perhaps worth going back and noting that, since late February, Jimmy Hoffa has been convicted, Muhammed Ali has become heavyweight champion of the world, Kitty Genovese was murdered, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor married, Jeopardy debuted, and Britain continued to lose control of Yemen as its empire continued to collapse. In the next six weeks, the Rolling Stones will release their first album and the first BASIC program will be compiled and run.
This last fact is perhaps the most interesting, occurring as it does at the midpoint of “The Keys of Marinus,” a serial with what can, in hindsight, be identified as video game plotting. The Keys of Marinus went into production in part because a smattering of other serials. Three separate serials imploded – one about a miniaturized TARDIS crew, one entitled The Masters of Luxor by 100,000 BC writer Anthony Coburn, and one entitled The Hidden Planet by Malcolm Hulke, who would go on to write several genuinely classic episodes of the series. As a result, Terry Nation, who had just written The Daleks, was drafted to bang out a script in a hurry.
Due to the compressed time-frame, he opted for an extremely episodic structure in which the serial would go through, essentially, a different adventure each week. The extremely bare plot structure – the Doctor and his companions must rescue the five microkeys that will power up a machine that can subdue the evil monsters, the Voord. The keys are scattered across the planet Marinus, and the TARDIS crew is given teleporters so they can get from key to key.
The result is a Doctor Who plot that feels like a video game – collect the MacGuffin from each level and move on to the next one before finally confronting the Voord. Except, of course, that Spacewar! had only been developed three years prior, and there was nothing resembling a video game industry yet. It was, in fact, the development of BASIC would be integral in the nascent hacking movement of the 1970s that would eventually translate into the video game industry and, in 1975, would finally provide Adventure, which would begin to codify the video game plot.
There are several things to conclude here. First is that video game plotting is not integral to video games, but in fact stems from the highly serialized form of old-time radio and early film. But The Keys of Marinus, quite honestly, feels more like a video game than radio or film serials do. It seems, not for the first time, about a decade ahead of itself. Much of this comes from its combination of serialization with infinite flexibility. Ironically, this infinite flexibility is realized in The Keys of Marinus not through the mechanism that will provide it through most of the series, the TARDIS, but through a bunch of transporter bracelets that bop the TARDIS crew around an improbably strange planet.
All the same, The Keys of Marinus is fantastic for the sheer amount of weird stuff it introduces to the show. None of it is major canon or ever returns, but you get a planet with a glass beach and acid sea, monsters in fantastic rubber gimp suits called the Voord, mind controlling brains with eyestalks, killer vegetables that psychically scream, snow wolves, robotic knights with plastic capes, and a courtroom drama that out-hams Phoenix Wright. All in just under two and a half hours. It is with this episode, in other words, that Doctor Who becomes completely barmy. This culminates in the final episode, where the audience is treated to the spectacle of a man in awkwardly tight rubber shouting “My power is absolute!”
It’s telling, then, that it is this story that first sets in place the idea that the TARDIS crew actually enjoy their adventures. Sure, Ian’s grudging trust for the Doctor is still, well, grudging, and Barbara is perhaps a bit tired of all the endless kidnapping, but they enjoy themselves, leading to the first time an episode has started with the crew just milling about the TARDIS and landing – a category of scene that will eventually become not only standard, but arguably the bread and butter of the series.
(Certainly there are some stories in the Tom Baker era that are fine right up until the Doctor and Romana leave the TARDIS, at which point the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket, due only half to the fact that the plot is crappy and it has a giant furry bull monster, and half to the fact that, frankly, when you have Tom Baker and Lala Ward available for light banter, it’s very difficult to come up with a compelling reason for them not to do so at great length.)
This, much more than the aberration of Marco Polo, feels like the first episode of Doctor Who we’ve seen – the first time all the parts of the show are there and firing, if not on all cylinders. The somewhat insane relationship of the show to science is clear here, with a tedious explanation of geothermal energy and Iceland juxtaposing with insane technobabble. Furthermore, the production schedule is just lethal. The first season of Doctor Who has 42 episodes in it, which necessitated giving actors a break. As a result, the Doctor is completely absent from two episodes. Furthermore, Susan is in captivity for most of these epiosdes, at times leaving Ian and Barbara, or, in one case, just Ian to carry the weight of the episode. This required making the companions tougher and more competent – Ian and Barbara have to be able to carry the story for fifty minutes – a move that will pay huge dividends in late 2005.
But the constant shuffling of characters is, somehow, handled terribly. Despite the preposterous number of odd ideas in the story, it drags. Part of this probably is the shuffling of characters – repeatedly reducing your cast to a handful for long stretches means you have little to work with and have to extend scenes – a habit the actors clearly got into. There’s a fantastic bit in the final episode where an actor goes on with his exposition about how they’re all going to explode a bit too long, and William Russell basically shoves him down a corridor to begin some intense running. Well, walking. We still have Hartnell, after all. I’m also fairly sure the last three minutes of the episode consist solely of every guest character saying goodbye to every main character in a sort of horrifying ode to The Waltons 8 years too early. “Goodbye, Susan. Goodnight, John-Boy.”
But even in the slow bits, there’s a sort of manic energy to this story that Doctor Who has not seen before. As though the sheer pluck of vintage 60s sci-fi has found its ultimate expression and final form – a show where mad ideas can be stacked next to each other and swapped about at high speed. Doctor Who is a show that can go from evil snail brains to psychic vegetables in a matter of minutes before sticking all its characters on a deadly snowy mountain.
Why would you ever watch something else?