Dr. Who: The Keys of Marinus (DVD)

But who has the keys to marinated steaks?

Barbara: “Pity you don’t have color television.”
The Doctor: “Oh, but I have.”
Barbara: “Where is it, then?”
The Doctor: “Well, at the moment, it’s temporarily hors de combat.”

Let’s travel back in time, way, way back to 1964, for the fifth episode of Doctor Who. It’s the good old days of the first Doctor, as played by William Hartnell. So how does the original compare to the ten and counting Doctors who have followed? Set the coordinates and let’s find out.

The Doctor (Hartnell) is a time traveler, journeying throughout time and space, with his companions Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), and granddaughter (?) Susan (Carole Ann Ford). As this adventure begins, our heroes find themselves on the planet Marinus, home of an advanced supercomputer known as the Conscience of Marinus. This device is so powerful that it can remove the thoughts of evil from the entire populace. Fearful of such power being misused, the creators spread keys to operate it all over the planet. A force called the Voord is attacking the planet, and the Conscience is the only thing powerful enough to stop it, so its creators send the Doctor and company across the planet to collect the keys.

The stats: As noted above, this was the fifth episode of the series, which originally aired in 30-minute weekly installments running from April 11 to May 16, 1964, and was later reedited into a two-hour form for repeats. It’s in black and white and was written by longtime favorite writer Terry Nation.

The story I had always heard about these early Who episodes is that the show was originally pitched as an educational children’s show, using time travel as a gimmick to teach kids about both history (the past) and science (the future). Therefore, I was surprised to see how much of what we associate with the show is present in this one. We get a visit to a faraway planet with opportunities for danger and wonder. The Doctor approaches the plot with equal parts intellectualism and wisecracking. There are outlandish concepts seemingly taken straight from the imagination. There’s even the back to basics but still awesome theme song. Not only is the plot par for the course Who, but so is the setting. It’s obviously low budget, yes, but the same can be said for the entirety of the series. It’s a great example of filmmaker doing a lot with very little. The lab containing the supercomputer, the jungle temple, and others are all eye-popping, even if they might barely be standing.

Divided cleanly into chapters, each 30-minute segment puts the characters in a different environment, each one hiding one of the titular keys. There’s a magical paradise where every need is instantly met, a jungle world filled with Indiana Jones-ish booby traps, a frozen snowscape, and more. It has an old-timey matinee serial feel, with the characters running from one danger to the next. Even the talky conclusion still has lives on the line and a sinister conspiracy at hand.

Fans curious about the work Hartnell did in establishing the character might be disappointed, though, as the Doctor leaves for most of the middle of the story, leaving Ian and Barbara to do the “hero” thing for a couple of chapters in a row. Russell and Hill do an admirable job with what they’re given, but there’s not a lot of character development for them in this one. Fortunately, the Doctor returns near the end of the story, just in time for an odd courtroom sequence, and Hartnell drops the “grumpy old man” routine he’s famous for and brings some of the Doctor’s famous cleverness to his performance. Susan establishes a lot of what would later be standards for the Doctor’s companions, such as screaming a lot and wandering off alone to get in trouble.

As usual, the folks working hard on restoring these old Whos deserve a medal for all they’ve accomplished with these DVDs. The original black and white picture is very soft, with a lot of haze over everything, but other more glaring defects such as scratches or grain, aren’t present at all. The mono sound, similarly, isn’t quite booming, but is clear enough to hear the dialogue and the great theme song.

The highlight of the bonus features is easily the audio commentary, reuniting Russell and Ford with director John Gorrie and designer Raymond Cusick. The group has a million great stories to tell about their time and the show, and I think we get them all on this commentary. The many anecdotes about life behind the scenes are a real delight. These continue with the text commentary, which adds even more facts, including a lot of interesting background about writer Terry Nation. Then there’s an interview with Cusik about the many sets he created for this episode. Another surprise treat can be found on DVD-ROM, with reproductions of a set of trading cards originally packaged with Cadet Sweets candy. These tell a mini Doctor Who story featuring both the Daleks and the Vrood from this episode. The extras are rounded out with a photo gallery and the episodes original Radio Times listing.

I prepared myself for the worst, but it turns out that one of Doctor Who‘s first adventures has a lot of what fans enjoy about Doctor Who. Take it for a spin.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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