Weighing in at an impressive 800 episodes, Doctor Who has been entertaining audiences for the past 50 years. Yet, despite this vast backlog of content, I know next to nothing about the actual series. For that reason, I’ve decided to watch this unusual show from the beginning, to discover the source of its unique appeal. Come with me as I tackle this daunting sci-fi phenomena from the very beginning in The Complete Doctor Who.
Warning: the following contains spoilers
The Complete Doctor Who: Serial 5 The Keys of Marinus, Episode 1 – The Sea of Death
After last week’s journey into lost episode land, we rejoin the crew of the TARDIS as they travel to beautiful Marinus, home of acid oceans, glass submarines and BDSM frogmen.
As the episode begins, the TARDIS blinks into view, coming to rest on the shore of some strange, “featureless” island.
After a brief scan of the instrument panel, the Doctor and his companions head out to investigate, while unbeknownst to them, a bunch of weird torpedo-shaped objects crawl up and onto the land.
The crew steps out for some brief exploration, quickly establishing this as the most boring planet of all time. Aside from the fact that much of the sand has been turned to glass, there’s a not great deal going on. There is, of course, that enormous pyramid hanging there in the background, but no one seems too terribly interested in that.
They’re also being tailed by a mysterious stranger dressed in a full wetsuit whose face is never shown.
After a few moments of tedious wandering, Susan strips off her shoes for a dip in a tidal pool, accidentally dropping one of them into the water where it burns away in seconds, revealing that the ocean is made not of water, but a highly corrosive acid. Or as, Barbara calls it, “a sea of acid.” Which I believe was a short-lived psychedelic band from the late sixties. I’ll have to check my research on that.
As Susan heads back to the ship for a new pair of shoes, the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara stumble onto the torpedo-shaped objects from earlier.
After looking them over, the Doctor realizes that they’re some kind of one-man submersible craft used to negotiate the acid sea, because apparently glass can withstand acid now. They also find a full bodysuit in one of them much like the one worn by their mysterious pursuer.
Back at the TARDIS, Susan emerges in a new pair of shoes. She stumbles on a set of footprints and does what any teenage girl should do in similar circumstances, heading off to follow them alone.
As she steps offscreen, we finally a get reveal on our mystery assailant, who’s wearing a helmet that’s equal parts knight’s helm and leather fetish mask.
The tracks lead Susan to the enormous pyramid where another one of the bizarro frogmen waits in ambush.
He tries knifing her in the back, but finds himself defeated by a Scooby Doo style secret door.
Back on the beach, the others return to the ship, find Susan missing, then follow the exact same set of footprints to the pyramid, just in time for her abduction by the very same secret door.
Inside, she finds a dark hallway containing another scuba man, plus a bonus weirdo in a long white robe. Frogman goes in for the kill once again, only to find himself defeated once again, this time by an unexplained knife in the back.
Outside, the others decide to split up in order to cover more ground. Great plan guys, I seem to recall that worked out really well last time you found a mysterious city. But surely that was just a fluke, there couldn’t be any dangerous creatures lurking around here. Not on a planet with acid lakes, glass submarines, and unusual footprints.
I’ve got to say, that secret passage is really something. Whatever the owner shelled out for that thing, it’s really paying for itself this week as it ensnares first the Doctor, then Ian, and finally Barbara.
Inside the pyramid, Ian intervenes in a fight between a frogman and the robed figure, pulling his most epic move yet when he punches froggy through another hidden passage, this one containing a trapdoor to the acid lake below.
The robed man, who is named Arbitan, takes Ian to meet the others, then proceeds to lay out his whole story.
He is the sole defender of the conscience of Marinus, a supercomputer created to be the ultimate arbiter, a “judge and jury that was never wrong [or] unfair.” It became so effective that it was able to influence the entire planet. “They no longer had to decide what was wrong or right. The machine decided for them.”
However, over time, a group of individuals known as the Voord were able to resist it and have been attacking him ever since. The Voord, of course, are our mysterious frogmen.
Also–because this story wasn’t complicated enough– the five key microcircuits were removed from the machine and hidden in places known only to Arbitan, so that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. One of the keys remains with him, but all attempts to retrieve the others have failed, as those he sent out never returned. This includes his daughter who vanished several years ago.
But hey, what luck, there just so happens to be four strangers right there in the room. Four keys! Four strangers! Wow, what an impossible coincidence.
Arbitan tries talking them into retrieving them for him, so his fascist machine can once again
enslave save the entire world.
This is the exact point where Capt. Kirk would launch into action mode, destroying the machine while delivering an impassioned speech about how, “your perfect machine is a lie!”
But, unfortunately, Star Trek is still two years away, so we must content ourselves with the Doctor’s usual response, which is to simply walk away.
The four of them hike back to the TARDIS only to discover that an invisible force field has been placed around it. Because honestly, it wouldn’t be an episode of Doctor Who if there wasn’t some problem with their ship, but to be fair, it isn’t broken this time, just sealed off.
Then Arbitan’s voice rains down from the sky, announcing that he’ll free their ship if they agree to help them.
Back in the pyramid, he outfits them with a series of “travel dials”, miniature wrist-mounted devices that enable them to teleport with a turn of the dial.
Barbara disappears trying her’s out and the others soon follow. But when they get there, they find her missing. Worse still, they find her teleporter on the ground, covered in blood, which means we’ve reached our cliffhanger for the week.
This tale comes to us courtesy of Dalek writer Terry Nation and, I’ve got to say, there’s a lot of similarities to the Dalek serial. Strange city, easily captured protagonists, a small overwhelmed force fighting off a contingent of weird menacing aliens, it plays out in many ways like a retread of his first serial, but with a healthy dose of Scooby Doo hijinks thrown in for good measure.
Another episode highlight is George Coulouris’ turn as Arbitan.
The Doctor flubs his fair share of lines this week, but he’s Laurence Olivier compared to Coulouris, whose performance is punctuated by an endless string of pauses as he strains to remember even the simplest lines, which is not great considering considering his scenes are essentially one endless monologue.
Well, I guess that’s it for now. Join us next time as we journey into The Velvet Web, which incidentally, is another great band name. Who’s down for a concert featuring The Velvet Web with special opening act Sea of Acid?