Doctor Who and the Keys of Marinus audiobook

Audio: BBC: Doctor Who

Written by: Philip Hinchcliffe

Read by: Jamie Glover

Having scored a series-saving hit on his first try with the BBC’s new experimental time-travel ‘children’s show’ in 1963, writer Terry Nation (creator of the Daleks) decided to give the original Tardis crew – not to mention the set designers, costume designers, and accountants on fledgling Doctor Who – a significantly bigger challenge for his second outing.

His first story (variously known as The Daleks and The Dead Planet) had come in at seven episodes long, and involved the headache of creating the iconic Dalek bodies. But all the action was largely contained in two or three environments – the Dalek city, the petrified jungle outside the city, and some caves in which people could plummet to unlikely deaths.

Nation’s second story was The Keys of Marinus – a six-episode story, with five episodes that each set a completely different challenge to the team in an entirely different environment, with an entirely different guest cast. There’s always a danger, when you try something like that, that you’ll end up with something which feels like six 1-episode stories, rather than a single 6-part epic. If you’re not very careful, you can unbalance the equation of audience immersion in each new setting and their buy-in to the overall arc (as arguably happened to Chris Chibnall in the recent Flux series of Doctor Who, starring Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor).

Anything Goes

In the simpler televisual landscape of 1964, and still riding high on his Dalek triumph, Nation succeeded in The Keys of Marinus. The premise of the story is intriguing, and – like his Dalek story – fairly rooted in contemporary philosophical and political questions of the day. While The Daleks explored the roots of Fascism and the terror of nuclear weapons, The Keys of Marinus explored the nature of state-enforced morality versus uncontrolled anarchy, where individual nations, cities or states were allowed to choose their own destiny. On Marinus, there has previously been a machine (unsubtly known as the Conscience), which created order across the surface of the planet.

That machine has long been threated by a species known as the Voord (more about them in a moment), so Arbitan, (creator and keeper of the Conscience) has sent off several key components of the machine – the “keys” of Marinus – to various cities and environments around the planet, ostensibly for safekeeping. He persuades the Tardis crew, through the not entirely friendly expediency of hiding the Tardis from them, to go in search of the five keys and bring them back to him, so he can once more establish order on the planet.

Set-up, five episodes of different environments, conclusion – straightforward plotting for a six-part story. Nation elevates the drama though, by having Arbitan stabbed to death almost as soon as the Tardis crew have teleported off to their first adventure, by a Voord named Yartek, who has surreptitiously come ashore on Arbitan’s island with the express purpose of using the Conscience to establish his own rule over Marinus.

The rest of the story throws the crew – occasionally split up into multiple threads – into a range of environments, from a city of decay and deceit, through a jungle wilderness with tribal temples, to a set of ice caves, to a sophisticated city for a high-stakes episode of courtroom conspiracy drama – before bringing them back to Arbitan’s island and forcing a confrontation between the crew, along with Arbitan’s daughter, picked up along the way, and the villainous megalomaniac Yartek, including a conclusion that shows what Nation thought about a state-enforced peace.

The Power of Pace

On screen, it succeeds by belting along at a terrific pace, while establishing the individual peril of each environment to our curious crew. It’s more or less the first definitive example of “anything can happen” in Doctor Who, with several somethings compressed into a single overarching story. The whole thing positively thrums with ambition, and a sense of neither knowing nor caring quite how impossible it should be – which was the fundamental sense with which early Doctor Who tackled almost everything.  

But the more you understand about quite how brave and daring and forward-looking and downright bonkers The Keys of Marinus was on-screen, the more the challenge of adapting it into a traditional Target-sized novelization begins to dawn on you. Maintaining that balance of investment in the mini-quests and focus on the overall adventure is crucial, and it’s by no means an easy task – even for someone who produced the show a decade later, like Philip Hinchcliffe.

Hinchcliffe is, let’s be clear, no literary slouch. He understands both the challenges and the pitfalls of novelizing a story like The Keys of Marinus, and he does not hang about when it comes to throwing our crew, and us, into adventure, peril, and the complications that make the story sing on-screen.

And he succeeds, too, in giving each environment’s peril its own breathing space. Despite the fact that there are a handful of threats to deal with along the way, Hinchcliffe’s novelization lets each of them land with the right weight, though some, like Morphoton, the deceitful city of post-nuclear decay that projects images of lush exuberance to lure potential slave-workers into its clutches, and the courtroom drama episode, where Earth teacher Ian Chesterton is put on trial for his life for the apparent murder of a native, are explored in greater detail than others.

The Joy of Jamie

Largely, it feels like this is because they were the most philosophically interesting episodes for Nation, but there’s also a degree to which Hinchcliffe’s own sense of narrative development are best served in those juicier episodes.

Bringing in Jamie Glover to read this story is a stroke of genius. Glover played William Russell, who played Ian Chesterton originally, in the docudrama An Adventure In Space and Time, which covered this period, and has gone on to voice an ‘alternative’ Ian Chesterton in audio dramas for Big Finish in recent years.

Having him tackle the voices of the crew – and the other heroes, villains, and victims – in this story therefore not only has a natural feel to followers of the show’s extended universe, but also anchors it in a calm and authoritative voice, which it needs, to keep the story straight in spite of its regular changes of setting and challenge. Glover takes us into the world of Marinus with assured conviction, and judges the changing tone of the piece skilfully throughout.  

A Single Flaw

If there’s a flaw left in the audiobook of The Keys of Marinus, it’s more one that rests with Hinchcliffe’s original novelization than with Glover’s reading. Where in 1964, there was certainly realistic peril (Terry Nation was responsible for the Daleks, of course – he was no stranger to delivering short-tempered murderous cruelty on-screen), there was never anything that felt particularly prurient or sexually threatening. There had been glimmers of romance on-screen, certainly, even in The Daleks, but it was all hand-holding and the occasional glance.

In one section of The Keys of Marinus audiobook, that’s a line that feels, on modern listening, well and truly crossed. Barbara Wright, the other Earth schoolteacher picked up by the Doctor and Susan in the first episode, is captured by a deceitful trapper named Vasor (played on-screen by Francis de Wolff). And in the novelization, there’s far more naked sexual threat than ever appeared on-screen. Vasor makes his expectations clear to Barbara if she’s to be fed and kept alive in his ice cave, and there are threats involving both a knife and a throttling before the end of that story-thread.

Hinchcliffe’s time as producer of the show was far more viscerally gory and scary than the era he novelizes here – he fairly regularly drew letters from moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, and his personal creed for the show included the notion of scaring the young audience rigid, an ambition he frequently achieved, while still delivering some of the finest stories in the history of the show.

Here, these scenes with Barbara and Vasor feel like the wrong elements to use to scare the listener, too real and too close to the still prevalent social dynamic in which women and girls find themselves. It is, to use a glib phrase, “the wrong kind of fear” for Doctor Who, and it strikes the only sour note in what is otherwise a superb novelization.

An Inventive Peak

With that proviso firmly established, The Keys of Marinus on audiobook is largely a successful translation of what could easily have been an unwriteable novel. It keeps the pace and the threat-immersion balanced, runs its several story-strands in a clear and straightforward way, and focuses on some of the more interesting dilemmas in the original story.

The result is a rip-roaring ride into a whole handful of adventures within a single story. It’s a mostly-faithful rendering of Doctor Who at one of its most inventive early peaks.

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