Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Keys of Marinus

Writer Terry Nation cleverly structures Keys as six individual mini-adventures, each with its own unique setting and challenges.  It's a saavy move that proves he really does understand Doctor Who - particularly its ability to tell absolutely any story in any setting..  And then he goes an totally misses the point he just got by not making the TARDIS crew travel by TARDIS.

But it's probably best to just take each episode individually and judge them on their own merits:

The Sea of Death

Terry Nation more than anybody loved making his first episode a slow-burn exploration of an empty world, so much so that he was still doing it in Destiny of the Daleks, more than a decade after every other Who writer had abandoned it.  Honestly, it's a part of the show I really miss.  Nation, aided immeasurably by the great designer Raymond Cusick, creates a richly detailed world, making the sense of tension and menace palpable.

Nation's concepts and Cusick's realization of them -- the spiked rocks and mountains, the glass beach, the acid sea, and particularly the Voord suit that's empty because a small tear in the material caused the acid to literally eat the creature to nothing -- are so strong that it's easy to get swept up in the low-budget miniatures and obvious mattes.  The miniatures may be obvious, but the effort bleeds through, making the beauty of the effect override the lack of realism.

After a good fifteen minutes of exploration, danger, and unnamed alien extras dying, Nation finally sets up the plot of the serial through a conversation with Basil Exposition Arbitan: the crew must quest throughout the planet of Marinus to recover the Four Keys that will enable the people of Marinus to reactivate a computer that forces minds to be peaceful, thus defeating the invading Voords.

However, this being the first season, they actually refuse, the Doctor quite adamantly, eager to get on to the next world.  Arbitan has to use a force field to take the TARDIS hostage to get them to help him.  It's still a while before the Doctor is Doctorish enough to stick around voluntarily.

The Velvet Web

First, Nation drops us in a city where everyone is happy and gets everything they want.

So, obviously, things are really, really bad.

It's a great opening, not only allowing the characters to relax and let us enjoy their interaction, but building terrific tension because we know something is terribly, terribly wrong but have no idea what.  And even after Barbara suddenly begins seeing everything differently, it still leaves us completely in the dark until about halfway.

And when it does finally reveal what's happening, it shows us this:

Talking brains with eyestalks.  Who control people psychically.  And thus, Nation adds one of the most important elements of the show: complete and utter insanity.

Part of the fun of The Velvet Web is its unusually fast pace.  '60s Doctor Who, dearly as I love it, does have a tendency to take its time getting to the point.  Which is fine when you have something like The Dead Planet packed with atmosphere and adventure, but is a problem with something like The Sensorites, which has many good qualities, but stretches two or at most three episodes' worth of plot into an almost interminable six.  It's easy to imagine The Velvet Web dragging its story out to four parts, and it's even possible to imagine a four-part version that's really good, but it's a simple idea at its core, and 25 minutes really is all it requires.

It also gives Barbara a chance to shine.  It's her pluck, cleverness, and bravery that save her from death and the others from slavery.  And this sort of thing is absolutely crucial to the show: the companions have to be strong enough to carry the story themselves.  It's not true of all companions, but it is of the best ones.  And the best companions tend to make for better Doctor Who in general.  That's the sort of thing that can make even total rubbish highly entertaining.

The Screaming Jungle

... while a companion who screams constantly starts to suck the fun out of things after a while.  Susan has a particularly high-pitched scream anyway, but the way she shuts down so completely and becomes so utterly useless as soon as she starts screaming until the danger has past and she's been thoroughly comforted becomes infuriating.  And when she does it constantly, you're glad they get rid of her halfway into the episode.

That aside, Nation continues his menagerie of delightfully loony ideas, this time highlighting a jungle where scientific experiments have caused the plants to grow at ludicrous rates.  And also, the plants sorta scream as they attack.  Which is enough to make the story fun as it is, but this is just the backdrop for an adventure inspired by the same sorts of deathtrap-avoiding serials that inspired Indiana Jones.

Granted, this doesn't have the daily catering budget Raiders of the Lost Ark had, and director John Gorrie not only isn't Spielberg, he isn't even Christopher Barry or Richard Martin.  His approach to the cardboard sets and simple forestry is to aim for adequacy, and barely achieve it.  It's still cool enough to be exciting, but the seams are showing, and at the end of this, we're just halfway through.

The Snows of Terror 

And when the bottom does fall out on the production, it just highlights the weaknesses of the script.  Nation's characterizations, plotting, and dialogue are fairly straightforward most of the time; the real quality of his scripts is his ability to put so many good elements in the same scene at the same time.  In essence, he's great at putting set-pieces together, meaning the quality of his stories tends to depend almost entirely on his director.  Here, Gorrie obviously runs completely out of money, and just doesn't try to do more than the bare minimum.

Compare, for example, the bridge scene here with the scene in The Dead Planet episodes 6 & 7 where Ian, Barbara, and the Thals cross between two cliffs with old rope.  In both cases, this is done on a tiny set in a cramped studio, and in both cases Nation extends the length of the story by going into great detail about exactly how they get across.  But in The Dead Planet, Richard Martin sets up careful camera angles with tight framing, has it lit with deep shadows, and shoots and edits the scene as cinematically as possible, aided in the later moments by quiet percussion on the soundtrack.  The results is a long suspense-filled set-piece that crackles with tension; each jump is like a punch to the gut to watch.  Martin's film making lets you lose yourself in the story and makes Nation's simple but extended writing an asset.

In Keys of Marinus, Gorrie does try to frame his own tiny chasm from enough angles to hide how small it is, but without the tight framing, vivid shadows, and careful editing Martin brings, it's too obvious that it's a jump of a couple of feet.  The overall effect is less an involving suspense scene than a reminder of the bridge fight from Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

I don't mean to criticize Gorrie to severely.  Nation's story is pretty empty and gets old long before the end; only an overachiever like Martin could have made Marinus sing.  Gorrie's approach would have been perfectly acceptable married to a character- and dialogue-driven story, like The Aztecs.  Nation gives Ian and Barbara moments of strength, but no personality, and fails to give any characters any meaningful or interesting relationships.  And sometimes his loony ideas are less imagination than laziness, such as the opening scene where Ian and Barbara react to being drop in a freezing snowstorm by falling asleep for no reason.  After a while, our investment in the story wanes.

The Snows of Terror does have a great performance from Francis de Wolff as Vasor, a rugged mountain man who starts out helpful and turns increasingly rapey.  The character makes the setting all the more chilling, along with the haunting music.  Ian gets a nice moment telling Vasor off angrily.  And the ice caves are a neat idea.  But this is sound and fury, signifying nothing, already stretched out too far, and still with two episodes to go.  Gorrie's merely adequate stylistics aren't the problem; they just fail to save a what turns out to be a weak story.

Sentence of Death

Thankfully, Nation at least changes things up for the second-to-last episode, as Ian is accused of murder in a city where the burden of proof is on the defense.  The only thing he has going for him is that his defense lawyer is the Doctor.  The wildly melodramatic courtroom scene gives Hartnell a chance to show just how magnificently charismatic he is when given the chance, and you see a flash of the Doctor we'll come to know.  Sentence of Death is definitely a goofily-written episode, but it's a lot more enjoyable than Snows of Terror, at least.

The Keys of Marinus

The conclusion of the courtroom plot takes up the first half of the final episode.  On the bright side, this gives Hartnell yet another chance to act briefly Doctorish in his marvelous resolution to the story, as well as his revelation that he knew exactly where the key was the whole time and just failed to tell anyone.  Again, as goofy as the trial of Ian plot is, it's entertaining enough.

Then, the story has to wrap up the entire six-episode arc in about 12 minutes. It's pretty rushed.  Suddenly, Nation introduces Yartek, leader of the Voord.  He's typically ranty, but he's also intelligent.  Nation stages a nicely written scene where Yartek tries to convince Ian that he's Arbitan by acting sympathetic and even asking if Altos is a good man to be with his (Arbitan's) daughter.  Ian plays it well, too; he gives him a fake key (which he and Barbara found conveniently and completely inexplicably) because he suspects something is up, but doesn't have much more than suspicions.  Then, it turns out that a false key will blow the whole place up, and they run for it.  Then the Doctor gets a speech about how you shouldn't control people with machines.

Those last 12 minutes are frustratingly unsatisfying because all the elements of a really good wrap-up are there.  Yartek's manipulations are a foreshadowing of the stunning sequence in Nation's Genesis where Nyder pretends to betray Davros.  But the story is essentially resolved by accident, and the Doctor's speech more an afterthought than an actual resolution.  The problem, really, is that Nation makes Ian stumble into being the hero rather than the Doctor do it by intention.

Clearly, the correct solution is that the Doctor knows the wrong key will destroy the Consciousness Machine, and he's the one who tricks Yartek into using the wrong key.  Then, his speech about control is an explanation for his actions rather than pretension after the fact.  It's not long before Hartnell shows that he really is at his best when he gets to face down a villain, and it's really too bad it doesn't happen here.  It's also worth noting that Gorrie completely fails to make running out of an exploding pyramid exciting, which even with no budget, is something of an anti-accomplishment.

For all I complained about how un-Doctor Whoish Marco Polo was, at least it was goodKeys of Marinus is just a mess.  It's frustrating in an entirely different way from Marco: Terry Nation understands exactly what sorts of fantastic adventures the show can create.  He also gets that ultimately the TARDIS crew has to get along and have fun with their adventures.  This really is the first time Barbara and Ian seem to enjoy themselves on their travels, and even the Doctor seems to be having a lot more fun than usual.  And he gets that giving Hartnell awesomely theatrical monologues is a great idea.  He also gives the Doctor a nice moment where he knocks a Voord out with his cane.

Nation just doesn't care to make all these elements consistently good, and he doesn't have a Douglas Camfield or David Maloney or even a Richard Martin directing to compensate.

Which isn't to say there's nothing worthwhile in Keys. It is moderately entertaining, but it's also an empty story where the writer and director are just going through the motions.  And the rest of the production crew may be putting its heart and soul into the thing, but with only adequate storytelling and uninteresting relationships, it's really not much of a show.  If the next story weren't so strong, it would really disenheartening to see the show going in the right direction and fail so completely to get there.

On the other hand, talking brains with eyestalks!


* * ½

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