Traveling back in time to 1963 by watching the first season of Doctor Who can be quite an unexpected adventure. Wobbly sets. The main actor of the show repeatedly forgetting his lines. Extremely slow pacing. Bad special effects. Much has been written about this over the time, a lot of it in the internet. And yes, if you watch 60s Doctor Who you should be prepared for all of that. It is – let’s be honest here – an acquired taste. But if we take time traveling seriously and try our best to get into these early Doctor Who stories, we may find many wonderful things there.
Of the eight serials of the first season six survived in their entirety: “An Unearthly Child”, “The Daleks”, “The Edge of Destruction”, “The Keys of Marinus”, “The Aztecs” and “The Sensorites”. One is completely missing: “Marco Polo”. And one is partly missing, but the missing episodes were nicely animated (to the original soundtrack, which survived) to make the serial watchable again: “The Reign of Terror”.
In this review I want to take a closer look especially on “The Keys of Marinus” to express my thoughts about the whole first season an its many values. As always on this blog, negative aspects will stay in the shadows where they belong. So no more talk about the wobbly sets here – we get it!
“The Keys of Marinus” is neither loved by the fans nor the critics. If you ask about the best serial from season 1 you’ll get “The Aztecs” for an answer, or maybe “The Daleks”. Though I agree that these two are great serials, I like “The Keys of Marinus” even more. To me, “The Keys of Marinus” showcases many of early Doctor Who’s strengths in the course of its six episodes.
Exploring new and foreign concepts
For a TV show Doctor Who concerns itself a lot with encountering the other. This can even be called the principle of the show’s concept: Discovering the other, both in the past in on other worlds. The first serial takes us to cave people with totally different sets of morals, obviously. The second serial confronts us with Nazi cyborg creatures. In later serials we will meet the Aztecs and think about human sacrifice. And we will meet the Sensorites, beings who can communicate telepathically. In “The Keys of Marinus” we are invited to think about justice and its relationship to free will.
The TARDIS team discovers the Conscience of Marinus, a machine that was invented as a perfect judge and was enhanced to become, well, a perfect conscience. So the beings on Marinus no longer had to rely on themselves to tell right from wrong. This removed all evil from the planet of Marinus.
“Marinus was unique in the universe. Robbery, fear, hate, violence were unknown among us.”
That was until some beings – the Voord – became immune against the machine’s effects and started exploiting the people of Marinus who were unable to use violence against the Voord. Thus, the machine had to be switched off so that the people of Marinus could defend themselves against the threat. The story then developes as the TARDIS team has to find four keys to reactivate and improve the Conscience to also control the Voord again. The keys, of course, are scattered across the whole planet.
Come on, isn’t that a great idea for a SciFi-story? If we think about the Conscience, we can speculate about so many things concerning morality and justice. Is Marinus a utopia or a dystopia? Is being good really only possible if everyone is good? Can’t good people use violence to defend themselves? And can a machine compute what is good and what is evil?
The Doctor, of course, is skeptical: “But 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.”
Another concept is introduced in “The Velvet Web”, one that may sound familiar to readers of “The Wizard of Oz”: A few brain like beings control the minds of the inhabitants of a city to make them believe they have everything they wish for.
These concepts are a strength of Doctor Who. Yes, we can find this and much more in hard SciFi novels. But this isn’t a hard SciFi novel, it’s a children’s TV show. So it never explores these ideas and concepts deeply and thoroughly, but it sparks our imagination and intrigues us with these strange and ambivalent concepts.
Visiting strange worlds
Tightly connected to the concepts are the worlds in which these concepts are developed and lived by. During the six episodes of “The Keys of Marinus” we visit five different settings: a beach near an acid sea, a city of illusions, a too-alive jungle, an isolated snow land and a highly developed city.
Although the set designer Raymond Cusick stated that he is not at all content with his work on “The Keys of Marinus” I would like to contradict him. I think the sets a beautiful. They are simple, yes, they look fake, indeed, but still, they do what they are supposed to: creating the world the stories are set in. I fell in love especially with the sets in the episode “The Snows of Terror”, which create a chillingly isolated atmosphere.
But more than the sets it is the writing that creates the worlds and it is truly amazing how writer Terry Nation did this with just a few strokes. Especially great and suspenseful, of course, is the last story “Sentence of Death”, which develops into a murder mystery and a court room drama (with the Doctor as a lawyer).
Again, yes, we can read about more detailed stories in books, with extensive world building a la Tolkien. And again, it is a TV show in the 60s and it sparks our imagination with all of these worlds that may be out there to visit.
Let’s talk about the TARDIS crew consisting of the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara. I love how different all of these characters are and how quickly they become fleshed out characters. This goes not so much for Susan as for the others, but Susan still makes an engaging character.
Barbara and Ian especially stand out. In “The Keys of Marinus” they pretty much carry two episodes by themselves. Their dynamic is wonderful: They are not a couple, but they kind of are. They are colleagues, who quickly become friends through their shared adventures. I love Ian in this action hero role that he fulfills, because he doesn’t come across as patronizing or as the man who always saves the day. He makes mistakes, he is caring and soft and kind. I like that for a male companion.
But Barbara I adore the most. She undoubtedly has her great moments in “The Aztecs”, when she argues with the Doctor about changing history. She acts on her firm beliefs in human dignity and that makes her a very inspiring character. I am really glad that she isn’t just there for the screams.
With such a cast of regular characters, it is no problem when the scripts are mediocre, because they make the viewing still a fun experience.
But I have to say that from the very beginning The Doctor is the most intriguing aspect of the show. Coming from the revived series, the First Doctor breaks with every expectation I might have had. Moody, grumpy, manipulative and arrogant – really not someone you can like instantly.
But over the course of series he grew on me. And I think that in general the Doctor didn’t change during his regenerations. He is ambivalent. He is kind and supportive, but he is also overbearing and dangerous. And he is a mystery. Much more so in this first season than in the new series.
I liked the Doctor in “The Keys of Marinus”, especially as a lawyer in the last two episodes. It brings to light a very central aspect about him: He fights for what is right. Or for what he is convinced to be right. And as will be examined in the new series, this is inherently problematic. But I also think it is inherently admirable.
But above all I admire Doctor who for its audacity, its daredevilry. And “The Keys of Marinus” is the perfect example for that: A story with a huge scope, with five settings in six episodes, with many small stories within a bigger story, with strong characters and with mind blowing concepts – of course the realization falls short.
But Doctor Who doesn’t concern itself with its shortcomings – the wobbly sets and such. The show gives us its great ideas, whether they are all thought through or not, whether they are practicable or not. They dare what today at least no one dares any more: to be imperfect. This is the aspect that I can see in the revived series and I see it in the first classic season as well. Reaching for the stars and being confident enough to stand above petty criticisms.
And this is why I love Doctor Who. And I am glad that I have found it in this very first season, too. Doctor Who taught me and teaches me still that there are more important things than consistency, accuracy, great effects or any kind of perfection. Art doesn’t always have to be great. It can also be approachable and daring.