Welcome to The Doctor Who Classics Guide! This is a special series that aims to take an objective look at each Classic Doctor Who story. If you’re new, please read the introduction first.
The Keys of Marinus
Through the years all my friends, all my followers, have gone. Last year I sent my daughter; she has not come back. But now your coming’s brought new hope. Oh yes, you must find the keys for me.
Also known as: The Seas of Death
Number of episodes: 6
Setting type: Futuristic alien planet
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 193rd of 241 (bottom 20%)
The TARDIS arrives on the planet Marinus on an island of glass surrounded by a sea of acid. The travellers are forced by the elderly Arbitan to retrieve four keys for a powerful justice machine hidden in different locations around the planet, before they fall into the wrong hands.
Sandwiched between Marco Polo and The Aztecs comes the forgotten gem in the form of The Keys of Marinus. Put simply it’s a quest story, with the Doctor and his companions forced on mission to recover five keys to a mysterious machine. Now, I’m going to be upfront here: I like this serial, and a lot of others don’t. Just keep that in mind.
I suppose I can see where the hate for this story lies, but I personally believe The Keys of Marinus is a fantastic, well-paced adventure that was well ahead of it’s time. It’s ambitious – with a tiny budget the production team managed to create entirely different sets for each episode, which was a big change from stories that tried to reuse their sets as many times as possible. On top of that, William Hartnell took a two week holiday in the middle of filming, so writer Terry Nation had to find an excuse to create two Doctor-lite episodes; the explanation for the Doctor’s absence is completely plausible, and it sort of gets to the point where you forget about it and just enjoy watching Ian and Barbara (and later Susan and her newfound friends) getting themselves in and out of trouble. Along with the four main cast members the team enjoys some temporary teenage additions, to the point where it feels like the “Doctor Who Brady Bunch“ – but giving our heroes new allies to interact with really adds to the charm of the story. The whole thing is a refreshingly welcome change to the normal format, and is a lot of fun to watch.
Is its worth your time? I’ll be fair and admit that at six episodes this story is on the lengthy side, but it really feels more like five separate ‘adventures’ with an underlying arc as opposed to a full on story. On top of that, The Keys of Marinus sort of has an exciting “quest movie” feel, so all the episodes easily be viewed in one or two sittings without boredom setting in. While it doesn’t do a huge amount from a legacy standpoint, it’s interesting to observe writing styles and story formats as they evolved over the years. Of the eight stories in this series, I believe this is one that really should be watched.
You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!
— The Doctor
Number of episodes: 4
Setting type: Purely historical Earth
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 61st of 241 (top 26%)
The TARDIS arrives in Mexico during the Aztec empire, where Barbara is mistaken for the goddess Yetaxa. She accepts the identity in hope of persuading the Aztecs to give up their practice human sacrifice, however the Doctor becomes angered at her attempt to change established history.
Until this point, every story had been focused on the travelers making it back to the TARDIS alive and leaving as soon as possible. The Aztecs still has this element, but it also brings something else that’s a lot closer to the Doctor Who we know and love today – the idea that the society or situation that they land in needs ‘fixing’. It’s fascinating that this concept had never really been explored before in the series, and yet it seems central to Doctor Who in the 21st century. It shows that even way back when it was considered a children’s show, it wasn’t afraid to explore big issues – and that’s what makes this story so brilliant.
Playing along as an Aztec goddess, Barbara gets caught up in a battle of morality; she has the power to end their practice of human sacrifice, but in doing so she’ll risk the lives of her and her friends, and furthermore change a fixed point in history. The setup is perfect, really – Barbara is given a fancy headdress and placed on a throne with Susan as her handmaiden, Ian becomes a warrior and must fight to become commander of the Aztec army, and the Doctor is escorted to the over 52s garden where he…err…accidentally gets engaged. The character development is good, especially in the case of Barbara; she really steps out of Ian’s shadow and becomes a courageous figure who isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in.
Is its worth your time? Quite often The Aztecs is chosen to represent the William Hartnell era in “one story per Doctor” countdowns, and with good reason. It takes full advantage of the historical setting, has a well-paced story line, and brings out the best in the TARDIS crew. Additionally, of the 10 “pure historials” that were made in the 1960s, this story is one of only three that exist completely in the BBC archive – that in itself is enough reason to make this story a must-watch.
Somehow, they have some control over our brains. They are hostile, these Sensorites, but in the strangest possible way; they won’t let us leave this area of space, yet they don’t attempt to kill us.
— Captain Maitland
Also known as: Mind Control
Number of episodes: 6
Setting type: Human spaceship orbiting an alien planet
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 225th of 241 (bottom 7%)
The TARDIS arrives on board a spaceship in orbit around a planet called the Sense-Sphere. The alien Sensorites have trapped the ship’s human crew – Captain Maitland, Carol, and John – in a state of semi-permanent paralysis. When the Doctor attempts to investigate the aliens steal the lock mechanism from the TARDIS, trapping him and his companions.
Of all the stories in the William Hartnell era, The Sensorites is one that tends to get a bit lost. The problem is that it’s just not memorable – it contains yet another alien race with a totally messed up political system that the team naturally becomes tangled up in. Although containing some exciting moments, the story really feels like a big boring political statement as opposed to an action-filled adventure. If this story had have been positioned a bit further from the likes of 100 000 BC, The Daleks and even The Keys of Marinus it would probably be given the recognition it deserves, but unfortunately where it stands it just feels unoriginal.
That being said, it’s still a well thought out story with a nice naturally-flowing plotline. New adversities come from all angles, and it does a great job of keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat. And where characterization is concerned, Susan finally has a chance to shine in this story; her apparent “telepathic abilities” are brought to the fore, and she’s – for once – placed in a position of power.
Is its worth your time? I kind of want to say yes here, because the structure of the story really quite good. But at the same time, the entire premise is a bit dry, and six episodes is a bit long. It’s definitely one to consider, but at the same time if it doesn’t sound like your forte then skipping is also a viable option.
The Reign of Terror
Susan: We might not get back to the ship if Grandfather hears we’re in the Reign of Terror.
Ian: Why not?
Susan: It’s his favourite period in the history of Earth.
Also known as: The French Revolution
Number of episodes: 6 (2 missing)
Setting type: Purely historical Earth with significant historical figures (in the grand scheme of things they really only appear as minor supporting characters)
DWM “The First 50 Years” poll ranking: 170th of 241 (bottom 30%)
The TARDIS materialises not far from Paris in 1794 – one of the bloodiest years following the French Revolution of 1789. The travellers become involved with an escape chain rescuing prisoners from the guillotine, but must avoid becoming victims of it themselves.
Oddly (but perhaps logically), Doctor Who is no stranger when it comes to France. Few can forget the Fourth Doctor and Romana’s infamous Parisian adventure, and more recently the Tenth and Eleventh Doctor’s respective brushes with Madame de Pompadour and Vincent Van Gogh. But, many may not realise it was the First Doctor who was actually given the privilege of the show’s first French adventure.
As the title suggests, The Reign of Terror tackles a meaty (and perhaps unexpected) part of history. Like most historicals of the time, the story relies on significant real-life events – in this particular case lifted from the aftermath of The French Revolution – for plot points. It’s not afraid to get down and dirty and take sides against the evil of the history books, and as always the beautiful sets and costumes in this story really help this to be realised. Unfortunately, the storyline itself is a bit wishy-washy, and it has more of that repetition I so often complain about. We’ve escaped – and now we’re back again. We tried to rescue Susan but gotten caught, so we’re back again. On top of that, episode six has some events that feel totally unnecessary and really make the serial feel more ‘dragged out’ then it needs to be. It’s still a good story though, and addresses some interesting morality issues which really bring out the best in Ian and Barbara especially.
How can I ‘watch’ this story? Animations! The BBC have treated us to an animation of episodes four and five, available on The Reign of Terror DVD.
Is its worth your time? Obviously, if you love history and/or The French Revolution then this is absoutely the story for you. But even if you don’t, consider this: when I first watched The Reign of Terror, all we had for episodes four and five was a choice between a narrated soundtrack or a recon with terrible audio (nothing against Loose Cannon, it’s just the nature of the recording). And with no telesnaps, a ‘recon’ was basically a few production photos and screencaps put to the dialogue in attempt to create some context. But now…I mean, animations? That’s just cheating. What I’m essentially saying is that this episode should be watched purely on the grounds that the animators did such a good job recreating the episodes and they really need to be appreciated. Not only that, but there are so few pure historicals out there that it’s a shame to skip one.
Doctor: Our lives are important, at least to us. But as we see, so we learn.
Ian: And what are we going to see and learn next, Doctor?
Doctor: Well, unlike the old adage, my boy, our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.