“The keys have filled my mind for so long…” – False Arbitan
This story is one that I loved as a child for the scary moments and arc-shaped story but as an adult realize is seriously deficient in its writing. Basically, it consists of a lot of interesting ideas or moments strung together into an adventure narrative with resultant shifts in tone and narrative plot holes. Yet, I can’t help but still like it for the pleasant memories it brings.
So what is the good? There are tons of great and interesting ideas. Arriving on a strange land with acid seas and commandeered by its leader, the TARDIS crew is sent off to collect a set of keys hidden across the planet. Just the idea of the group leaping into a different unknown environment each week driven by the overarching search mission is already interesting (and would be used to greater effect later in the Key to Time saga). At each stage of the journey, there are also interesting concepts.
At the first instance, the city of Morphoton seems perfection. We soon get hints that it’s not and the idea to show it by us both observing the sumptuous décor with the group from one side and then literally seeing through the illusion along with Barbara from her perspective is a great achievement, not just as an idea but—given the technical limitations of the show—in the clever camera angle switch that the director uses to accomplish it. It’s quite amazing to see our heroes totally clueless as we see through Barbara’s eyes the actual pitiful state of the room, Susan hugging dirty rag that she thinks is a a gown, or the Doctor marveling at a filthy mug. The references to drug stupor are evident—down to glassy eyes and sleepy withdrawal. That the whole system is controlled by disembodied brains in glass jars is a nice sci-fi touch. (And kudos for a very nice story title.)
In the next leg of the journey, I like to think that Susan’s special susceptibility to the screams is part of her ESP showing again. The story really picks up when the initial surprise of simplistic booby traps gives way to the more horrifying idea that the plants are “alive” and coming to get everyone. It’s even more interesting to slowly realize that it’s simply a regular process of growth so accelerated that it seems intelligent. “Nature’s tempo of destruction” really is horrific—it’s just so slow we don’t notice it. A great concept and one that really struck me on first viewing. I also like the solution of the letters and numbers being a chemical formula (though it would have been better if Ian as the science teacher had figured it out on his own).
At the next jump, we’re in bitter winter and dealing with ice caves and frozen knights which lends an air of fantasy to the adventure. It’s also interesting after having seen the character Susan become a bit of weepy mess that we get the chance to suddenly see her become the resolute and brave one, accepting without being asked the responsibility to risk getting across ravine to secure the bridge and save the others.
Finally, we’re in a modern land going through courtroom proceedings and crime drama. There’s a nice moment of the Doctor appearing and suddenly taking charge of confusion with confidence having learned the culture, law, and custom of the people. The first Doctor really seems to be the group leader here.
Even the overarching storyline of the development of the Conscience of Marinus, a machine so amazing that it forces order and goodness on the will but is then so easily corrupted, makes for a great cautionary tale.
Given all these elements, it’s too bad that the story itself just does not stand up. Indeed, I have to admit that much of it doesn’t make sense. These lingering questions show just how much of a problem it is:
- Who stabs the first Voord?
- It’s clearly stated the travel dials don’t shift time so how in the world does Barbara have a chance to get so established not to mention dressed in her first jump?
- Why doesn’t Arbitan tell the TARDIS crew exactly where the keys are hidden if he’s actually wanting them to find them?
- Why doesn’t he prepare the crew for mortal danger like letting them know things like the third jump will be in middle of bitter cold so they can be properly clothed?
- If the booby traps in the jungle are set so that only someone sent by Arbitan can avoid them then why doesn’t our group know about them?
- Nothing about the judicial system in Millenius makes sense or even seems internally consistent.
- What happened to all the other people that Arbitan sent to seek the key? Did none make it past the Morphos?
- Why could Arbitan not go himself?
- Why didn’t some of the other people from Millenius ever go to the island?
- Why is the planet, once a centuries long beacon to the universe, have no seeming unified culture or even advancement—the ceremonial robes of the island, snowy villages, strange Greek style temples, modern phones all clash horribly.
- If all the characters know Arbitan that means no generations have gone by since the Voord took over. How is life so normal for everyone?
As a child, the most unsettling moment was absolutely the moment of the howling jungle that the dying man had warned us about as the plants start to burst through the windows. (“The jungle is coming, when the whispering starts. It’s death, I tell you, death…”) It left me with a gleeful dread as a child.
As an adult, it is of course much more unsettling to see the more realistic danger that Barbara encounters left with a large leering mountain man rubbing her hand suggestively and hinting menacingly that the door will “keep anything out…or in.” Or hearing the realistic sounds of domestic abuse as Barbara and Susan listen at the door Millennius. I would question how all this could be for children but having seen it as a child I can attest that it all went over my head.
(Special mention of an unsettling moment goes to the casual find of the empty wetsuit. If you think about what that actually means it’s horrifying—the poor man’s submarine suddenly filled up with acid and through a small tear in his suit at the hip, it began to seep in an eat away at him in what must have been a slow and excruciating death!)
- Non-TARDIS materialization
The sad things is that a careful few script editing changes could have avoided many of the plot problems. For example, there could have been some danger or malfunction that forces the crew to jump ahead without waiting for instruction on the dangers. Or they could have developed a more cohesive story for the different sites they visit.