Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Call to Adventure

Librarian in the TARDIS, Review 1.01

Title: The Keys of Marinus
Written by: Terry Nation
Team TARDIS: First Doctor, Susan, Ian, Barbara
Adversaries: Yartek, the Voords
Originally Aired: April 11-May 16, 1964
Number of Episodes: 6

Terry ****ing Nation!

(Thanks to Sue Perryman, I will never again see Terry Nation's name without getting a severe case of the giggles. That’s not a bad thing - it keeps life interesting).

For Mr. Nation's first jab at a non-Dalek Doctor Who story, this isn't too bad. The first time I watched this was during my incredibly naïve attempt to watch all of Classic Who from the very beginning after watching all of New Who (what can I say? I was young and stupid and thought this was the natural thing to do. It's not like I had an expert guiding my actions. Considering how I bumbled through it, it's lucky I love Classic Who as much as I do). This is "Team TARDIS Goes A-Questing," which my inner mythology and fantasy geek gobbled right up. It's straight out of Joseph Campbell (who I hear is some guy who plagiarized George Lucas).

The set-up is straightforward enough - the TARDIS lands on an alien planet, Our Intrepid Heroes go out for a looksie, Susan tries to go wading in a pool full of acid (as you do) and gets the bejeebus scared out of her. It's when the inevitable meeting of/imprisoning by the local alien race happens that you figure out that this is not going to be your typical Hartnell-era visit to a new planet.

I think what appeals to me the most about this story is how unlike Classic Who it is. I don’t mean this as a dig against Classic Who, by any means (come on - think of who you’re talking to!) I mean that it can be fun to change things up every once in a while - do something new and innovative and see where it takes you. Each episode of “Keys” is a self-contained piece of the larger story arc with its own settings and characters. Because of this, the story moves fast in a way that Doctor Who really hadn't done to that point. I know next to nothing about British television outside of Who, but I wonder if this was revolutionary for its time or if this was just a normal Saturday night on the telly for the average viewer. For me, I was excited to get something that had to be open and shut in 25 minutes or less because the next episode was going to be completely different and there wasn't time to dink around with last week's unresolved problems.

If I did have a complaint about this, it's that the plot of Ian being framed for murder is sort of a strange one to use in the middle of this story (could this be considered The Abyss of the Hero's Journey? It spans one-and-a-half episodes, so it could very well be).  Up to that point, we've had wandering around an alien wasteland, exploring a sadistic jungle, and freezing to death in a blizzard. After all that, "Law and Order: Marinus" seems a little weak sauce. However, I cannot complain about the reappearance of the Doctor, after giving William Hartnell a well-deserved two-episode holiday after filming almost nonstop since the series began. This absence of the Doctor gave me several reasons to be giddy - (A) More Ian and Barbara being awesome (and awesomely cute - more on that next time) and (B) It's the first instance of Doctor-lite (before there was actually a name for it. Great Moments in Doctor Who History, indeed!) and (C) When Hartnell comes back from holiday, it is with an infectious energy and enthusiasm that allows me to forgive the "Who Framed Ian Chesterton?" murder mystery. Everything is going to be just fine because the Doctor is on the case!

Something in this story that I love about this particular Team TARDIS (that isn’t shipping - I told you, that’s for next time!) is how great of a character Barbara is. I always enjoy her interactions and her big-sister-mentor type relationship with Susan (and later, Vicki). I think this appeals to me in particular because I do have younger sisters myself and I’d like to think I’d take care of them in a similar situation (oh, who am I kidding - they’d probably annoy me the whole time and I’d lock them in the Zero Room when the Doctor wasn’t looking). When Barbara gets the phone call that Susan has been kidnapped and the kidnapper demands that the Doctor stops investigating the murders, Barbara has enough presence of mind not to give in and simply takes matters into her own hands and rescues Susan before Kala (the kidnapper who also committed the murders that Ian’s taking the fall for - it’s a long story, just watch the thing) can do anything about it. It’s a really cool bit of writing, especially since the Doctor has been handling pretty much everything in this situation to this point and Barbara’s heroics come almost out of nowhere, but it works wonderfully for her character.

In the end, it doesn't much matter that ol'-What's-His-Face that sent Team TARDIS out to retrieve the Keys snuffs it because the Voord showed up almost as soon as Arbitan (that's the guy's name!) is left alone with his thoughts. For some fans, this is an unacceptable waste of plot and characters, but for me the story was never really about Arbitan. He was there to give the Doctor and his companions a mission in this story and they accomplished it in true Hero's Journey fashion.  They all still get to be heroic and magnificent and that's all I care about.

Also - "The Keys of Marinus" provides a template for the Season 16 "The Key to Time" story arc (and, by extension, "The Key 2 Time" trilogy produced by Big Finish. It stars the Fifth Doctor. Of COURSE I would point that one out), which is a great classic in its own right. While "An Unearthly Child" and "The Daleks" certainly broke the mold of television for their time and the rest of Doctor Who owes much to those early stories, it's evident that the rest of the first season was already proving to be something later showrunners and writers could look back on and mine for brilliant ideas to make their own.

Besides, who doesn't enjoy a good questing tale once in a while?

Next Time on Librarian in the TARDIS-
Review 1.02 - I Think It's Gonna Be a Long, Long Time

Previously -
Review 1.X - The Project Begins

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