The TARDIS lands on an island with a strange tower in the middle. Stranger still the beaches are filled with glass and the ocean waters are dangerously acidic. Susan follows a set of footprints to the tower, where someone, wearing a strange wetsuit designed to allow it to swim through the acid, grabs her before dying. She, the Doctor, and Barbara are all trapped in a room by a man wearing a monk’s robes.
Meanwhile Ian comes across the same man being attacked by another person wearing a suit like the one Susan encountered. After Ian pushes the attacker into a pit that leads into the ocean, the grateful man explains that he thought Ian and his companions were invaders and that the one Ian fought is a Voord, a group of people who continuously try to take over the tower. After releasing the others, the man, named Arbitan, explains that they are on the planet Marinus, where 2,000 years ago a team of scientists built a computer called the Conscience, which was designed to serve as a judge but eventually became powerful enough to eliminate all immoral and criminal thoughts from the minds of Marinus’ inhabitants. Eventually someone named Yartek and his followers, the Voords, found a way to overcome the Conscience. To prevent Yartek from reprogramming the Conscience without destroying it, the Conscience was shut down with five keys designed to reactivate it. One was placed in Arbitan’s keeping, while the others were hidden across the planet. Recently Arbitan had completed improvements on the Conscience, making it able to overwhelm even the Voords, but all of his assistants and even his own daughter, after setting out to retrieve the keys, have failed to return. Arbitan tells the Doctor and the others that they must find the keys for him since no one else is left. The others refuse and try to leave, but find that the TARDIS is stuck behind a force field. Arbitan explains that he’ll only release the TARDIS if they search for and find the keys. At least he provides a map to the keys’ presumed locations and devices that will allow them to teleport anywhere on Marinus.
As soon as they leave, Arbitan is ambushed and killed by a Voord. Barbara, Ian, the Doctor, and Susan end up in a city where everyone seems to be living a luxurious lifestyle and eager to fulfill the travelers’ wishes. A man named Altos explains that the philosophy of the citizens of the city, which is called Morphoton, is to insure that everyone has a life of peace and plenty. After Barbara wakes up in the middle of the night and removes a disc that had been placed on her forehead, her surroundings, once beautiful, suddenly look squalid. That morning a dress given to Susan by the Morphotonians looks like rags and a cup of juice appears to Barbara as a dirty mug filled with tepid water. When Altos tries to have Barbara taken away to “the physicians”, she runs away and comes across Arbitan’s daughter, Sabetha, who has one of the keys but has become a brainwashed slave to the masters of the city, several disembodied brains. Barbara tries to convince Ian of what she’s seen, but finds it’s too late and that he’s been completely brainwashed. Ian takes Barbara to the brains, who inform Barbara that they use brainwashed people as a work force but, since she’s seen “the truth”, she has to be murdered. Barbara breaks free from Ian’s grip and smashes the brains’ life support equipment, killing them and breaking the city-wide mind control. Along with Sabetha and Altos, who turns out to be another of Arbitan’s lost assistants, they decide to split up to find the remaining keys.
Susan, Barbara, and Ian wind up in a jungle, where Susan claims to have heard loud screaming from the jungle itself. While exploring a temple in the jungle, Barbara becomes stuck behind a trap wall just after she retrieves a key, which turns out to be a fake. Unsure if Barbara escaped using the travel device, Altos, Sabetha, and Susan decide to go on ahead while Ian goes to search the temple to see if Barbara stayed behind. He finds Barbara, but the two become separated and Barbara is nearly killed in a trap. She is saved only by a suspicious old man, who admits that he set the trap. The travel device convinces him that the pair were sent by Arbitan, although the man, who is dying, warns them to beware the jungle and gives them a cryptic clue before he dies. While looking for more clues about the real key’s location, Ian finds a diary where the old man wrote about his scientific experiments, in which he accidentally accelerated the jungle’s natural erosion of the temple. Just before the jungle is about to finally claim the temple, Barbara and Ian find that the old man’s clue was a chemical formula, and discover the key hidden inside a flask in his laboratory.
When they teleport again Barbara and Ian find themselves on a mountain in the middle of a blizzard, where they are rescued from exposure by a fur trapper. Ian braves the weather to go to the nearby village, where the trapper claims to have seen Altos. Alone Barbara quickly discovers that the trapper stole the keys from Sabetha and Susan, leaving them in a cave in the mountains, and left Altos outside to be killed by the cold and wolves. Barbara defends herself against the trapper long enough for Ian and Altos to arrive and force the trapper to show them where the cave is. The three go deep in the cave to find Sabetha and Susan, who have in the meantime gotten lost trying to find an exit, despite the trapper’s frantic protests that demons live in the cave. Although they find Sabetha and Susan across a chasm, the trapper destroys the one bridge across before he flees. The party finds one of the keys inside a solid block of ice, guarded by four immobile knights, which can be melted using a valve connecting to a volcanic spring. Once the ice melts and they take the key, the knights come alive and attack. Ian blocks the knights’ progress with a boulder of ice, long enough for everyone to escape across the chasm with the help of a makeshift bridge made from logs. Stopping by the trapper’s cabin for the other keys, Ian and the others teleport away as the trapper is killed by the knights.
Ian next finds himself in a vault in the city of Millenius containing the key, where someone knocks him out with a mace. Upon awaking Ian finds himself accused by a self-described “Guardian” named Tarron of breaking into the vault, stealing the key, and killing a man withthe same weapon used to knock out Ian. Tarron warns Ian that under Millenius’ legal system the burden of proof is entirely on him. In Ian’s cell, the Doctor and all the companions are united and are horrified to find that Ian is not only accused of murder but faces execution. The Doctor volunteers to act as Ian’s defense, with a man named Vasor as the prosecutor and only two days to gather evidence.
Once the initial hearing is over, the Doctor explains that he met another assistant of Arbitan, Epram, and that they had a plan to get the key, but Epram was murdered by the same person who took the key. Using one of the other keys, the Doctor and Sabetha trick Epram’s killer, one of the vault guards, into confessing his crime before the court tribunal, but before he can talk about who he was working for he’s suddenly killed. As the tribunal concludes that the guard’s accomplice must have been Ian, the real culprit has kidnapped Susan and threatens to kill her if they reveal what they know about the key’s location. Barbara figures out that the guard’s wife, Kala, is holding Susan and she and the
However, the Doctor is able to set a trap for the real killer, Vasor, who breaks into the evidence locker to retrieve the key, which the Doctor deduced had been hidden inside the mace the entire time. Everyone leaves after the city council agrees to allow the key to be brought back to Arbitan.
Back at the tower, Yartek has taken control, subdued Altos and Sabetha, and has stolen all the keys except the last one from Millennius, which is in Ian’s possession. Yartek, disguised (poorly) as Arbitan, talks to Ian and Susan and convinces them to hand over the last key. After the Doctor frees Sabetha and Altos, Ian reveals he suspected Yartek all along and gave him the fake key from the jungle. Yartek, planning to enslave the planet using the Conscience, puts in the fake key, which causes the Conscience to explode and kill him. Before they depart on the TARDIS, the Doctor tells Sabetha to find another way to continue her father’s work, since “mankind wasn’t meant to be controlled by machines.”
Another reference to previous adventures by the Doctor: he says he met Pyrrho, the founder of Skepticism who lived in Greece in the fourth century BC. Sign of the Times Barbara points out that the Doctor doesn’t have color television in the TARDIS (well, he says he does, but just doesn’t have it available at the moment), which would have been true for most of the audience as well. Although the technology existed in the 1950s, color televisions didn’t become affordable for a majority of people until about the end of the 1960s.
My compatriot in obsessing over classic, genre-defining sci-fi shows, Zack Handlen, has pointed several times in his write-ups of “Star Trek” that there are few things Captain Kirk seems to love more than coming across utopian societies and screwing them up. The same can arguably be said of the Doctor and his companions, as they cause the total destruction of a super-computer that literally prevents crimes from occurring, pull a Neo and drag an entire city from a mass hallucination of paradise into urban squalor, and challenge (more or less) the legal foundations of an entire society where murder is a rare occurrence, all in one trip.
This serial has a bad reputation among hardcore fans, and it’s easy to tell why: the scripts were written under the knife to quickly replace an abruptly canceled production, “The Hidden Planet” (which had ideas that were cannibalized by later serials “The Tenth Planet” and “Galaxy 4”), and it shows. Poor William Hartnell has plenty of line flubs, especially in the first episode; the dialogue is shallow and often noticeably expository; and even the episode’s history lessons, where Ian and Barbara suddenly comment on how the tower has architectural similarities to building techniques used by various Earth societies in the past, are utterly out-of-the-blue. Also the series doesn’t really take full advantage of its own premise. Especially compared to “Daleks”, where the anti-fascist and anti-racist moral was subtle yet clear, the script only barely hints at its own possible critique of authoritarianism, and Yartek, who would have been much more interesting if it had turned out he and the Voords were rebelling against the very idea of the Conscience, just turns out to be yet another vaguely defined would-be world conqueror.
The most distracting flaw is probably the giant plot hole that nearly crashes the whole story toward the end; if Marinus has been a society without crime thanks to the Conscience, then how and why did Millenius develop such a Legalist justice system? If it’s because the Conscience has been out of commission for centuries, as Arbitan’s dialogue implies, then how is Yartek still alive? And if Marinan science has found a way to extend someone’s lifespan for more than a couple of centuries, then wouldn’t that mean the Voords have been trying (and failing) to take the tower in all that time? And don’t get me started on how the whole thing about the jungle really doesn’t make all that much sense either. The “Okay so I totally typed it all up at 2 a.m. running on doughnuts and coffee” feel to the whole affair aside, it actually isn’t that bad, and I’m not just claiming that to be a contrarian (well, maybe). Even if it was forced upon by the scriptwriter’s circumstances, the “each episode as its own adventure” set-up is a good change of pace, even if it does create an uneven level of quality for the serial. The murder mystery is very straightforward, largely because of the kiddie pool of possible suspects, but the Doctor as a lawyer standing up to an authoritarian court system works, as does seeing Barbara in the spotlight.
Speaking of which, even in our allegedly feminist era, it really is refreshing to see a show where a central female character does anything but go into Damsel Mode. Not only does Barbara hold her own against a man three times her size, but she also single-handedly takes out an entire evil brain-run regime with brute force. Unfortunately, Barbara is almost balanced out by Susan, who spends an awful lot of time cowering and screaming. I know Susan is supposed to be the audience identification figure, and I think the majority of people out there, let alone adolescents and teenagers, would be at least a tad distressed by being chased by zombie knights in a cavern. Yet, given how many horrific situations the Doctor just puts the people he meets and travels with through, you would think growing up with the Doctor would cause one to experience enough life-threatening situations and near-fates-worse-than-death that one would be able to face dangers that would make Navy SEALs wet themselves without losing a smile. While sort of still on the subject of Barbara and Ian, it was difficult not to notice, since most of the episodes in this serial really centered on them and their interactions, how outright asexual they are. I guess it’s just coming from the vantage point of a place where entertainment laws dictate that whenever two people of the opposite sex are thrown together there must be romantic tension between them (and yes, I admit I tried to think of various ways to “subtly” mention Rose from the 2005 series here, but this review has gone on far enough). Well, at least tie-in writers have respected that romance is not inevitable for a straight woman and a straight man who have spent a great deal of time together. Oh, wait…