Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Keys of Marinus - "Machines can make laws, but they cannot preserve justice."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Keys of Marinus - Details

Season 1, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #5) | Previous - Next | Index

Compare this excerpt from a post about this story:
All the same, The Keys of Marinus is fantastic for the sheer amount of weird stuff it introduces to the show. None of it is major canon or ever returns, but you get a planet with a glass beach and acid sea, monsters in fantastic rubber gimp suits called the Voord, mind controlling brains with eyestalks, killer vegetables that psychically scream, snow wolves, robotic knights with plastic capes, and a courtroom drama that out-hams Phoenix Wright. All in just under two and a half hours. It is with this episode, in other words, that Doctor Who becomes completely barmy. This culminates in the final episode, where the audience is treated to the spectacle of a man in awkwardly tight rubber shouting "My power is absolute!" ...
 ... This, much more than the aberration of Marco Polo, feels like the first episode of Doctor Who we've seen - the first time all the parts of the show are there and firing, if not on all cylinders. 
To this capsule review:
The Keys of Marinus: Unwatchable - everything that’s wrong with a Terry Nation script at one time. 1/10
"Now, here we have," you might think, "two reviewers with rather different opinions about this story." The odd thing is, these are both by the same guy. And it's Philip Sandifer, who is one of the most accomplished and erudite writers about Doctor Who out there.

So how's a schlub like yours truly going to be coherent about this thing? Toss a coin. Heads means focus on the positive and try to be a more successful defense attorney than the Doctor was; tails and we'll pile on whatever its faults are.

Tails it is. But I won't be mean-spirited. After all, it's not entirely unwatchable. I watched it all. My wife was like, "Why are you doing this to yourself?" But I did it and I can tell you it's not the worst story in Doctor Who's Hall of Shame. I just want to criticize one thing, because I think on its own it shows what train wreck this story was. The Doctor name drops Pyrrho in this story while suggesting to his adversary, the prosecutor, in Ian's murder trial (you're guilty 'til proved innocent on Marinus) that he might want to try doing some philosophy and applying a little skepticism to his worldview. Which, OK, great. Except that in this part of the story what was needed was some guidance in jurisprudence, about which the Doctor was mum. (Given the state of the Gallifreyan legal code and criminal justice system, maybe that was for the best though.) But the bigger problem is when the Doctor needed to be asking challenging questions, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and trying to get someone to open their mind to other possibilities, he was completely negligent.

Here's what I'm on about: the whole of this story is about a quest to assemble the five keys needed to activate the mind control computer operated by Arbitan. The phrase "mind control computer" should be throwing some red flags, right? Because maybe solving your society's problems by simply brainwashing everyone into acting in proscribed manner is ... umm ... problematic? Nope, not to the Doctor, at least not yet. So here's what the Doctor does when he finds this guy holding down the fort on his mind control computer about to be overrun by hostile gimp-suited, knife-wielding killers: he says, "See y'all later, we're outta here." (Paraphrasing a bit there.) But the TARDIS crew is prevented from leaving by a force field and accept Arbitan's terms, they'll go collect his keys from all over the planet and let him do his thing. The Doctor, who has met Pyrrho and must have some interest in philosophy, has nothing to say about this state of affairs except to huff that he doesn't appreciate being blackmailed. He's not exactly a man of ideas, this Doctor.

So they do the job. It's a miracle they survive, because they're nearly killed every step of the way and only avoid becoming slaves of brains with eye-stalks in episode 2 because Barbara's mind control device slips off her head. If the baddies had invented glue, the Doctor's adventures would have ended on Marinus. It goes on like this with only dumb luck and occasionally Barbara's cleverness or Ian's dogged determination getting them through it all. Also, Hartnell had a couple weeks of vacation during filming, so the Doctor doesn't appear in two of the episodes to screw things up.

And screw up, be a fool, and get nothing right is all he does when he's in the story. The Doctor here is not someone I'd want to travel through time and space with. Ian and Barbara, OK, they seem to have their wits about them, but the Doctor and Susan are a pair of null nodes in this story. The Doctor's an amoral bungler; Susan's a screamer who's chief talent seems to be getting kidnapped. (It doesn't help that they must've been out of time and couldn't reshoot when Hartnell flubbed his lines. It's sometimes quite sad to see how they really didn't do the elderly gentleman any favors when it came to letting him demonstrate some competence.)

Did I mention how uncomfortable the scene where Ian leaves Barbara in the cabin of a clearly untrustworthy lone trapper is? It's uncomfortable before the villain actually tries to rape Barbara, it's jaw-dropping bad once he locks the cabin door and tells her no one is going to come to rescue her. But I said I'd focus on the one thing, the Doctor's utter worthlessness, so let's not dwell on how disturbing this scene is in a family show.

Now, at the very end, the Doctor does mention during his farewells that it's probably for the best the whole planetary mind control scheme didn't come to fruition: " ... 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." Not sure why he felt like he needed to include the bit about machines being perfectly fine at making laws? What machines? Maybe that's how Gallifrey ended up letting "Trial of a Time Lord" happen? Anyways, at least someone recognized there should probably be some acknowledgment of what a rubbish idea Arbitan's plan was in the first place.

Stray Thoughts:

If it weren't for "The Genesis of the Daleks" down the line, I might be lamenting the fact Terry Nation ever wrote anything after "The Daleks" for Doctor Who. But, you take the bad with the good. The idea of going to planet and bouncing from continent to continent having adventures is a fine one -- sci-fi in general, and Doctor Who in particular, does a pretty poor job making planets into anything more than monocultures. The execution is where this story is lacking.

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