Our heroes find Barbara in the city of Morphoton, where things are truly not how they appear.
“You can’t apply Earth’s standards.”
The episodes of The Keys of Marinus are not unlike a short story cycle. Basically, each episode is a complete story in itself, but when taken together they form a larger narrative. The first and final parts are bookends with individual stories that take place between. Thus, The Velvet Web is a complete story that only refers back to the overall narrative at key points (no pun intended). This is somewhat unique for this era of Doctor Who. While the current series does standalone stories that are typically 45 minutes in length, Keys of Marinus tells complete stories that are 25 minutes. It is a nice change from what has come thus far on the show, but if this had been the format for Doctor Who, I suspect the show would have become stale very quickly.
The travelers have arrived in the aptly-titled City of Morphoton. The name of the city itself is a clue. This may or may not be deliberate, however, due to Terry Nation’s Naming Convention. You see, whenever Terry Nation creates a planet or city, he tends to take the primary physical description of the planet to create a name. Thus, a planet scarred by war becomes Skaro. An arid, desert planet becomes Aridius. See if you can figure out the convention for Morphoton.
The travelers discover Barbara unharmed and living in the lap of luxury. She is being served like a queen with choice fruits and has even been given beautiful clothes. Ian is suspicious, believing that nothing is free. The leader of Morphoton insists that it is their desire to cater to the needs of all who live in and visit Morphoton. Susan gets a new silk dress and The Doctor gets a laboratory with every conceivable instrument. Quite impressive indeed. On the first evening, however, while our travelers sleep a servant girl places discs on their foreheads. Barbara awakes, the disc falling off. Klaxons sound and she passes out. The next morning we see The Doctor, Ian, and Susan eating breakfast in the same room as before. But when Barbara wakes we see the room from her perspective. It is plain. Susan’s dress is rags. The elaborate table ware are in actuality dirty cups and
plates. The entire society is a mental projection from a race of brains in jars which uses a device called the Mesmeron. Or something like that. The strength of this story is in the subversion of perception. It is a story of concepts, the plot being fairly straight-forward and secondary. In the end, Barbara dispatches the evil brains in jars by destroying the jars. A bit simple, but effective. If the creatures had been more mobile, Barbara may have been in real danger.
One of my favorite moments of this episode is when The Doctor gets to see his laboratory. It is an empty room. Naturally, the production couldn’t afford to outfit the room as a real laboratory, so the perspective shifts now that we know it is an illusion. It is amusing to see Ian and The Doctor marvel over an empty room, and the best moment is when The Doctor picks up a dirty mug and say, “If I can have access to instruments like these I could overcome the fault in the time mechanism aboard the ship!” Great piece of acting by William Hartnell in this scene.
Again, what works best in this story are the concepts. The story and production give us a setting, then turn that setting on its head in an effective way. Once the twist has been revealed, the luxurious world begins to fall away as the audience sides with Barbara. The motivation of the villains is a bit vague, but again, it is the concepts and the twist that are the core of this episode, not so much the world building of Marco Polo or The Daleks. Regardless, this is a good piece of experimental storytelling that attempts to push the bounds of what can be realized on television. It may be fairly sub-standard fare to modern eyes, but at the time, this would have been well-realized.