The fifth Doctor Who adventure is the biggest MacGuffin story in the series so far. In case you’ve never heard the term “MacGuffin,” it’s an Alfred Hitchcock creation that refers to a thing that drives the plot and provides the motivation for the characters. The easiest and most commonly used example of a “MacGuffin movie” is The Maltese Falcon. Everyone is after a valuable object and the plot revolves around the characters trying to get it.
Such is the plot of “The Keys of Marinus”. The Doctor (William Hartnell), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell), and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) have landed on another interesting alien planet. They admire the landscape, but are intrigued by a large tower not far from them. They also discover they’re on an island surrounded by a sea of acid. They head to the tower out of curiosity, and I was glad to see that all of the companions were as curious as the Doctor usually is. It was only a matter of time before the companions became explorers instead of just wanting to return to Earth at any cost. Being exposed to such wonders would do that to you.
Once at the tower they meet an old man named Arbitan (George Coulouris) who is the “Keeper” of a magnificent computer known as the Conscience of Marinus. The device controlled everything on Marinus from energy production to even eliminating evil thoughts from the planet’s populace so it could live in peace. This sounds a bit Orwellian to me, but the Marinus people seem to enjoy it…except for the Voords. The Voords are a race of evil beings who want to seize control of the Conscience and use it for their own nefarious means. Arbitan is the last caretaker of the Conscience and knew he was getting old and feeble and wouldn’t be able to ward off constant attacks from the Voords, so he rendered the Conscience useless by sending four of the five keys that control to four different parts of the planet. Arbitan asks the Doctor and his companions to bring back the keys, but they refuse saying it’s none of their affair. Arbitan, however, puts up a force field around the TARDIS and tells them he’ll drop it when they return with the keys. They realize they have no choice and go on the quest. Arbitan gives them watch-like devices that let them teleport from place to place to make it easier. The Doctor and his companions leave, and Arbitan is killed by a Voord shortly thereafter.
Thus begins the quest for the MacGuffins, or rather the four keys. What’s neat about this adventure is that it’s the first in which the characters explore an entire world and not just one part of it. They first place they visit the city of Morphoton, where every luxury is afforded to them but with a deadly secret they may not realize. The second is a jungle full of live, predatory plants and traps. The third is an Arctic land where they meet frozen guardians of the key. The fourth is the city of Millennius where Ian is accused of murder and the Doctor and the rest of the companions must find evidence to free him. Each part of the adventure has a distinct feel to it and it’s one of the best-written adventures so far in these early tales.
The cast gets equal time to shine throughout the adventure. Susan gets to prove her worth to the group in the icy caves. Barbara figures out the horrible secret of Morphoton. Ian figures out where the key is hidden in the deadly jungle. The Doctor actually goes missing for a couple episodes. This was because William Hartnell was given a well-deserved break during filming. He came back refreshed and it shows in his performance.
The show’s writers and producers hoped the Voords would become as popular as the Daleks, but that didn’t materialize and the Voords were never seen again after this adventure.
The next adventure is another trip into Earth history and introduces a bit of the Star Trek prime directive into the program!
Have you seen “The Keys of Marinus”? What do you make of it? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!