Saturday, September 19, 2009


DVD Taster: The Keys of Marinus

A sea of acid; faltering speeches; bizarre rules; glassy-eyed pretty young things; aggressive men in rubber; realising that designing utopia may not be such a good idea after all… But if you’re not going to Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth (or if you need to get away from it in your hotel room), Monday sees Doctor Who: The Keys of Marinus released on DVD. An early black and white tale starring top Doctor William Hartnell and the alien Voord, it’s the only Who story with an actor from Citizen Kane. Just don’t expect Citizen Kane (more very cheap Flash Gordon).

That Golden Moment
“They’re treating me well enough. Have you found the Doctor yet?”
“No – there isn’t a sight or sound of him anywhere.”
“We must find him, Barbara, we must. The laws in this country are a mockery.”
“I quite agree with you, my boy!”
With each of the six episodes of this 1964 story very different to each other, easily the best sequence for me comes about eight minutes into easily the best episode – part two, The Velvet Web – with an unusual amount of video editing and Kafkaesque psychological horror for the time… But Barbara’s waking nightmare has already been chosen as this story’s “Golden Moment” by Jonathan Morris in DWM, so I thought I’d pick something completely different. Fortunately, one sprung instantly to mind that never fails to make me smile. Sentence of Death, part five of the story, opens in a different nightmare – being accused of something you didn’t do, with no way to prove your innocence and all the rules changed. Accused of murder, even unflappable Ian blurts out that “this business is beginning to run away from me!” When Barbara, Susan and two friends arrive to see him – threatened with a year in the desert glass factories if they disturb the court – he’s visibly depressed, shaking his head from side to side as if punch-drunk. Who can save him now?

Then, six minutes into the episode, and after a fortnight away, the Doctor unexpectedly reappears.

There’s instantly a babble of happy voices and smiles as the friends mob him (“I’m just glad we’re together again,” gushes his granddaughter), and I always feel that reactions in living rooms around the land must have been the same. Certainly, mine’s always like that. For the first time in the series, the lead has taken a fortnight off – necessary, not just with ailing health but with making over forty episodes a year at the time – and, though I love the team of Ian and Barbara, the middle episodes sag noticeably without William Hartnell to spice them up. The relief for the viewer at the star coming back is given beautiful mutual reinforcement among the characters, as just as they reach the darkest point of the story, the man with the brilliant brain is back, and instantly striking a pose, hands on lapels, to take charge of Ian’s defence.

Despite hanging on a locked room mystery with such an obvious alternative solution that Susan almost hangs a lamp on it without anyone ever quite mentioning it (see if you can spot what I mean), much of the following courtroom drama is fun, from the non-speaking judge who nods so enthusiastically you fear his fabulous hat will fall off, to the Doctor’s first arranging a stay of execution while he divides his friends into library forces and detectives, to his bluffing flourish that flushes out one of the conspirators – hollow-cheeked, shifty young Martin Cort* – into an ill-fated confession at the side of his wife, the magnificently slinky and dubious Fiona Walker. Our elephant ought to be very keen on the city in which this takes place, except that the scripts suggest they can’t spell “Millenium”… But, above all, this is a golden moment because the Doctor’s back, and everyone – on both sides of the TV screen – suddenly knows things are going to be all right.

DVD Tasting

There was nothing remotely fetishistic about the Voord costumes…
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Something Else To Look Out For

Doctor Who started with a run of superb stories. An Unearthly Child, The Daleks and The Edge of Destruction are all extraordinary television – all available in The Beginning DVD boxed set – with Marco Polo something of an epic to follow. The show’s sixth story, The Aztecs, is one of the best in the programme’s forty-six years, a stunning historical tragedy. But the fifth Doctor Who story, The Keys of Marinus, is the first that feels merely ordinary (if you can call an attempt to produce a series of alien globe-trotting spectacles on 2 and 6 ‘ordinary’). As if the money and the energy have run out, and the early pressure to strive for greatness has worn off. It’s not actually bad, but whereas every previous story had had high ambitions, whether or not you agreed with them or thought them fulfilled, the ambition here is… To churn out six weeks of telly.

After a smash success writing The Daleks, Terry Nation here settles into a comfortable formula of plot devices he’ll use for ever after, a Flash Gordon serial-inspired travelogue ‘narrative’ that substitutes movement for twists or characterisation, and suspiciously familiar names (“Marinus” for a planet of seas, “Arbitan” for an ultimate judge, and, of course, “Just a minute – what’s your name – Tarron?” the first of many characters named after himself). Yet despite all that, this is a hugely important story, introducing many ideas to Doctor Who that will become mainstays of the series (and be done much better) later: the superior second episode has the series’ first signs of the Gothic; it also introduces mind control and possession, like a cheesy prototype of The Macra Terror’s delusional utopia; and the series’ first out-and-out ‘quest’, to find the eponymous Keys, is also the first to suggest that, like The Key to Time, you may not be all that keen on the object of your quest and that, like The Keeper of Traken, taking away people’s free will ‘for their own good’ may not have the best of consequences, though that moral’s rather shoehorned in at the end.

William Hartnell as the Doctor, teamed with granddaughter Susan and teachers Ian and Barbara, may well be my favourite of all the TARDIS crews, but they’re not seen entirely at their best here. Babs and Susan take it in turns to be typecast as ‘hysterical females’ (Barbara, in particular, is usually far stronger than this – though, in an otherwise insipid episode, she’s subjected to a deeply disturbing threat), while the writing out of the Doctor for two weeks is done in an especially clumsy way, his skipping ahead to find the final Key logically splitting their forces into equal teams of, er, five and one, as well as volunteering to be separated from Susan, usually the one thing he would never do. Still, Billy’s visibly refreshed on his return, having been so fagged out in the first episode that he fluffs his lines in several entertaining ways, most famously
“If you were wearing your shoes, you could have given her hers. Hmm!”
The direction is more listless than the script, but the sets at least try gamely. The one substantial extra – that is, on top of the usual full commentary and text notes – is on the sets, with the highly talented (if famously grumpy) designer explaining why writing a script with an entirely new country in every episode on no money may not have been Terry Nation’s most practical idea. He still did wonders on occasion, ranging from an amusingly cost-cutting idol through some rather intriguingly expressionist crags to the Key machine “the Conscience of Marinus” itself, which looks stunning. And, as I’ve suggested, the whole thing might be better off without its two shoddy middle episodes, the look included: The Screaming Jungle in particular is Doctor Who’s first unmistakably dumb and disappointing episode, where plot, incident and design all falter, without even the Doctor to distract us.

Many people know this story for its monsters, the Voord (immortalised in the phrase “Yartek, Leader of the alien Voord,” part of what passes for the Nicene Creed of fans of a certain age), yet we know surprisingly little about them. In theory after the same eponymous Keys as our questing heroes, they only appear in the first and last episodes, and we never find out so much as whether a Voord is a “man” “wearing a suit” (in early dialogue) or alien “creatures” (later), or even whether their name should or shouldn’t have an “s” on the end in plural. You’d think, though, if their fearsome appearance – remarkably similar to that of 2000AD’s Nemesis the Warlock, making me wonder if Kevin O’Neill was terrified at the age of 10 or 11 by a dark, horned creature with a curving bit of ‘spine’ – really was just a form of wetsuit that the one that hilariously ‘disguises’ itself would take its helmet off… Despite being promoted as ‘the next Daleks’, though (with the B-Movie disembodied brains in one episode actually much closer in concept), they never really took off. You can, at least, find them in The Fishmen of Kandalinga, an infamous story in The Dr Who Annual 1966 – sadly, unlike his splendid recording of The Lair of Zarbi Supremo on The Web Planet DVD, there’s no reading of this one by William Russell (Ian). As to why not, I suspect budget cutbacks, but you might also try reading the title out loud. In other exciting comic-related goodness, one of the legendary Grant Morrison’s early works was Colin Baker Doctor Who strip The World Shapers, now available as a graphic novel. It saw the return of the Voord in one of the barmiest Who stories ever drawn.

The Keys of Marinus is released on DVD on Monday 21st September. YouTube has the official BBC DVD trailer, and an unofficial one in the style of the Twenty-first Century “Next Time…” teasers, both rather jolly. A friend has just reminded me that a few seconds of the story were missing from the VHS release but have now been restored for DVD, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing those for the first time. If I can spot them.

*Martin Cort in fact plays three different roles in The Keys of Marinus, but this one’s the most memorable – acting, rather than just menacing from inside a mask.

Martin is currently directing The Unimportant History of Britain at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, Kentish Town, London, without being dressed as a Voord. It runs there until October 11th.

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