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Dr Who in an exciting(ish) adventure with the Voord
on 23 September 2009
Back in its very first year, DOCTOR WHO was billed as "an adventure in time and space" and alongside the principal characters the audience really didn't know what to expect next whenever the TARDIS landed and this was part of its early charm. In these early days, the narrative used to pretty much alternate between "historical" and "futuristic" tales and for a brief time scriptwriter Terry Nation, whose second DOCTOR WHO this is, had cornered the market in the "futuristic" ones having changed forever the public profile of the show with his creation of the Daleks a mere three stories previously.
By this time, William Hartnell is mellowing beautifully into the role of the Doctor and is rather loveable despite what you might have heard, but he is noticeably absent for two whole episodes of this story (parts three and four), but luckily the supporting companion roles are strong enough to carry the story for a while without his presence. Ian Chesterton (William Russell) has always been to my eyes an all-out hero. Plucked out of his relatively dull life as a schoolteacher in 1960s London he throws himself into his adventures with a gusto and brio. Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) is equally impressive and the quiet dignity, strength and bravery her character shows over the course of her adventures is something to be admired, and as a role model Barbara would hold up today as someone to look up to and emulate. The Doctor's Grand-daughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) has a tougher time of it generally as her character was rather inconsistently written and she seems younger and rather more "wet" in these episodes than in some of her other stories.
THE KEYS OF MARINUS is the fifth ever broadcast story of DOCTOR WHO and the series seldom played around more with the expectations of its audience than in this six part tale, which has a different setting nearly every week. In episode one, the TARDIS arrives on the strange world of Marinus, a fairly effectively realized world of glass sand and acid seas where they are coerced into a quest to find the eponymous keys by the mysterious Arbitan played by the very same George Coulouris who was once in "Citizen Kane" and introduces the rather sinister rubber-suited Voord.
Subsequent episodes transport us to other parts of Marinus and these various visits give an overview of a complete world seldom shown in the series. They are all created to variable effect, but all-in-all a real "Saturday morning adventure serial" air is created. Mind games are played in the city of Morphotron (where all is not quite what it seems) and are quite cerebral for teatime telly, and the Jungle sequence proves suitably menacing in a slightly wobbly pre-Indiana Jones kind of a way. A visit to some Ice Caves is slightly less effective, but does give Barbara a very disturbing confrontation. Then the city of Millennius, with its rather brutal legal system, provides a chance for a returning William Hartnell to shine before we are returned to the island first seen in the opening episode for the slightly bonkers climax when the evil Voord plan is finally revealed.
Yes, it's now well over forty years old and can seem a little slow or cheap or mistake-riddled to an audience used to more modern sophisticated fare, but there is a magic and charm to these old stories that is hard to quantify, and if you settle down to enjoy what is obviously an experience that is very different, you will find a great deal to like. The sets range from the almost brilliant to the most basic as do some of the props. Some of the effects are pretty simplistic but they do manage to help to tell the story. The image quality is pretty good too, considering, as there's been a pretty impressive restoration job done on these episodes.
This story follows on directly from MARCO POLO, a serial seemingly now sadly lost forever as it was one that was misguidedly wiped back in the day. You can listen to MARCO POLO as a rather fine Audio CD version however. THE KEYS OF MARINUS then leads directly on into THE AZTECS which was the first William Hartnell DVD release and if you also take into account DOCTOR WHO - THE BEGINNING DVD box set, a fairly hefty chunk of that amazing first year of the Doctor's adventures is now available to you, and given the tape wiping policy of the past, to we fans of archive television, that's something of a small miracle in itself.
Given the age of the material, there isn't much left in terms of available extras, but a fairly significant set have still been assembled for this release. A ten minute interview with designer Raymond Cusick gives a frank insight into the difficulties of early television production and stretching a wafer thin budget to create a mind-boggling number of locales in a tiny studio. The commentary bounces along and is quite fun with William Russell and Carole Ann Ford representing the actors and Director John Gorrie alongside Raymond Cusick from the Production side in a fairly upbeat vein all held in check by Clayton Hickman to keep them "on-topic". The text commentary is up to the usual standard and there are also the usual photo gallery and Radio Times billings.