Originally airing from 1963 to 1989 and relaunched in 2005, Doctor Who has become the Bonanza or The Simpsons of science fiction television. If you need some detailed backstory before diving into this review, I suggest you consult wikipedia, but, in brief, it concerns a renegade time-traveling alien known only as The Doctor, who vaults through time and space in his vehicle the TARDIS, getting into all sort of trouble along with various companions. The Keys of Marinus is a tale from the travels of the first Doctor
The Doctor (William Hartnell) and companions, granddaughter Susan (Carol Ann Ford), and teachers Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) arrive on the planet Marinus, specifically on a desolate island with a beach of glass surrounded by an acid sea. They find their way into a structure where they are attacked. Aided by the building protector, Arbitan, he explains that their attackers are a race called the Voord. The Voord want to take control of The Conscience of Marinus, a machine that through its ability to influence men's minds has enabled Marinus to live in peace for centuries. The Voord have gradually developed a resistance and Arbitan needs to reactivate the machine with upgraded circuits, or keys, in order to quell the Voord.
Since he cannot leave the fortress and the Conscience unguarded, Arbitan seizes the Doctor's TARDIS and forces the Doctor to seek out the scattered keys. In the first city, Morphoton, they come under the spell of its eerily peaceful inhabitants. All but Susan that is, who uncovers the cities secret of being under control of... well, there's no other way to say it, slug brains. After splitting up to cover more ground, in the second world, Ian and Barabara must travel inside a bobby-trapped temple surrounded by an encroaching living jungle. On the third world, Ian, Barbara, and Susan must deal with the freezing elements, a duplicitous trapper, and frozen guardian knights within a mountain maze. Reuniting with the Doctor, to obtain the final key, they must deal with a militaristic society and Ian being framed for murder of a guard and theft of the key which is considered a relic. The Doctor finds himself defending Ian in court while trying to uncover the real thief and murderer who has the final key.
Keys of Marinus was the fifth Doctor Who adventure and already the Doctor's character was softening a bit. One of the things I love about the first trio of episodes ("Marco Polo", the lost fourth, I haven't delved into via novelization or audio reconstruction) is the Doctor's annoyance and downright disdain for his human companions. In the first adventure, he even considers abandoning Ian and Barbara in prehistoric times. But by the time Marinus was made, he was not quite as prickly and had warmed to his tag-alongs. While I always preferred that earliest incarnation of the first Doctor, still just having him around is pretty essential- its Doctor Who, after all. That brings me to the first point of Marinus weakness as a classic Who adventure: the Doctor is absent for two of the six episodes due to actor William Harntell taking a two week vacation. Four out of six isn't bad, but then consider that two of those episodes (5 & 6) are the weakest of the lot, and one cannot help but grimace a little.
Marinus hook of having the the Doc and companions questing, episodes with their own contained story linked to the whole, is a solid one in theory but a bit ramshackle in execution by the normally great and eventually prolific Who writer Terry Nation. For one, the storyline lacks a sustained villain. The key bad guys, the Voord, are only seen in the first and heavily rushed last episode and dont have much opportunity to establish a threatening personality before their quick defeat. The world of Marinus, likewise, is a tad lacking and disparate. In one story its a Grecian world taken over by brain slugs, in another an evolved, totalitarian society, and in another an ice-swept medieval land.
While, it was a pulpy sci fi show for children, even the concept of Marinus is really suspect. For one, its about a society built around a machine that forces them to have a moral conscience rather than naturally develop one. And, the machine doesn't seem to work because not only are the Voord immune but most of the other Marinus citizens they meet have murderous intent (Heck, its even implied that isolated mountain trapper Vasor is going to sexually assault Barbara). So, Marinus, in total, does come across like a bunch of weaker stand alone ideas, barely threaded together, without an adventure-worthy antagonistic link. Later, the key & quest idea would be better utilized during the Tom Baker era, lasting a full season so each world got its own multi-episode story.
The DVD: BBC America
The standard fullscreen picture is as good as one can expect. There is really only so much you can improve a very low budget show from the mid 60's, and, as usual, the restoration team have done a nice job smoothing out the ravages of time. Due to the little artifacts that come with transferring older tv program, technical problems are the norm and forgivable. Black and white. Grainy. The sets and cameras are prone to some wobble and no amount of digital cleaning can remedy that. But, you have to love it in order to embrace the show.
Once again, you have the limits of the time period. A such, the show is presented in Mono with optional English subtitles. Not to beat a dead horse, but again all the defects are the usual sort, all the little nick and pops are ones that couldn't be cleaned up during the restoration.
Seriously, if you ever read an unkind word about classic Doctor Who DVD's lacking quality, just remind yourself that its a show so uncared for, the BBC actually destroyed episodes just a few years after they were made. Imagine, say, the X-files seasons one through four getting trashed in 2001 and the only copies of certain episodes being someones fourth generation vhs.
A worthwhile round of extras includes: Photo Gallery, PDF file info, Information Text subtitles, "Sets of Marinus" featurette (9:25), and finally a stacked commentary with writer/fan Clayton Hickman, Marinus designer Raymond Cusick, Marinus director John Gorrie, and actors Carol Ann Ford and William Russell.
The featurette is okay, a nice glimpse at how craftsmen like Cusick had to deal with little in terms of budget or time and make due with lots of persistence and material scrabbling. The commentary is a light affair with enough people in the booth to assure there are few silent spots. Dragging up the past is always the first hurdle with these older shows, but they seem to enjoy themselves, especially in terms of apologies for the low budget, quickly filmed quirks and gaffs.
I've never been too keen on Keys of Marinus. As a pretty big Who fan, I only rented it on VHS once prior to this DVD review and never felt the need for another viewing. Obviously, for established fans and completists, this is a must purchase and the DVD presentation lives up to what one expects: solid restoration and a nice assemblage of bonus material. For someone who has just discovered the show, particularly those who didn't grow up with it and just started watching the succesful relaunch, I'd say this one is best reserved as a rental.