Doctor Who #22: The Velvet Web

"I don't know the price yet."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 2 of The Keys of Marinus. First aired Apr.18 1964.

IN THIS ONE... Our heroes are seduced by telepathic slugs until Barbara sees through the illusion and causes all sorts of trouble.

REVIEW: Let me preface this review by saying I don't really dislike the idea of short one-off episodes like this, especially after a serial as long as Marco Polo. At 25 minutes, they're ever slighter than New Who episodes are accused of being, but placing them in the context of a longer story provides relief from that slightness. Theoretically, at least. The episode still needs to be good on its own merits. The Velvet Web has its moments, but also reveals one of writer Terry Nation's weaknesses - he's never very clear or coherent about HOW THINGS WORK. For example, there's the matter of the "travel dials" that enable the cast to move around Marinus. We're told in the previous episode that it moves people through space, not time. And yet, Barbara leaves only a few seconds before the others, and seems to arrive in Morphoton long before they do. She's changed her clothes, met the host, etc. How the Morphos' mind control works is also hazy. Sometimes people see illusions that pacify them, other times they act like amnesiac zombies (William Russell is always at his worst when playing this kind of "confusion"). Flashing lights, a device placed on the forehead, or direct orders and threats? It's all a bit of a muddle. And though the Morphos always offer your greatest wish, it's all illusion... except the key or Marinus they gave to Sabetha.

However, the actors and director mostly make it work, and the episode length probably helps cover these inconsistencies. If the garden is a little Greco-Roman, it's probably because Barbara is sustaining the original illusion. The place is taken from her mind. She also shows a hedonistic side here, one that will be further explored when she becomes an Aztec goddess and even later, in the Roman villa. Classic Who is rather plot-driven, so we need these brief glimpses into the characters' personalities. I like to think of Barbara as this school teacher who slips into a bubble bath when she gets home from work. Not a party girl - that wouldn't be proper - but a woman who likes to indulge in simple pleasures. She's quick to believe in the illusion, while Ian is more cynical, not trusting the locals' over-friendliness. So naturally, she has to be the one to see beyond that illusion, to the dirty, raggedy world beneath it. The shifting of points of view is well done, the director ultimately favoring Barbara's vision even when the characters see something else. The Doctor fawning over his new lab instruments is particularly amusing (and note how he jumps at the chance to find ways to fix the TARDIS systems).

And it's Barbara who defeats the Morphos, B-movie, snail-like, inflatable brains under glass. It's not the best of scenes because Barbara only breaks one bell jar and yet they all die. It looks like she's destroying, what, tubes feeding into the jars? It's not clear. The two speaking roles, Altos and Sabetha, turn out to be Arbitan's couriers (and the latter, his daughter), and they join the group. They're pleasant enough to look at, even if they're characters are hardly established by the zombie acting. With 6 protagonists, it's probably a good idea that they split up to get the remaining keys...

THEORIES: Thanks to Terry Nation creating the first two alien planets for Doctor Who, a pattern is starting to emerge when it comes to place names. Skaro is a planet scarred by war. When we get to Marinus, we're on the ocean. Morphoton is a place of dreams. And they won't be the last (and not just in Nation's scripts). Why are place names in the Whoniverse so on the nose, sometimes even revealing a secret property? I'll offer an explanation. Any time we're on an alien planet, the show is being translated by the TARDIS' telepathic circuits, right? Our own planet is called Earth (in English), so do Time Lords hear "Urth", or does the TARDIS translate it into their equivalent of "dirt"? (The connection to Hitchhiker's Guide feels natural.) In other words, though these worlds have names that should sound alien, the translation of the name carries meaning our English-speaking brains can interpret.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - A simple SF short story with some good ideas to get the illusory points of view across, but look at it too keenly (which REwatching always does) and the cracks start showing immediately.


Matthew Turnage said...

Ten quatloos on the history teacher.

Siskoid said...

I wish I'd thought of that for my mouseover text.

Keith Martin said...

Morphoton: I think "morphing" as a word for changing shape is more recent than 1964.

I suspect Nation was thinking of Morpheus, god of sleep and of dreams - which everyone is having here.

Siskoid said...

My bad, that's true. I'll fix the text.

Randal said...

Regarding the planet names, I imagine it's the same force at work that had the Silurians and Ice Warriors call themselves the exact same name Earthers gave them. It's also what prevents anyone from connecting the dots with the Master's aliases.

Anonymous said...

Skaro = scared by war. Never thought of that one before!


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