Monday, March 21, 2011

Serial 114: The Keeper of Traken

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Adric

Written by: Johnny Byrne
Directed by: John Black

Editor's Note: Hey guys and welcome back (or for the first time: Hello!) Matt here introducing Cassandra's entry on The Keeper of Traken, the first of the trilogy that will conclude our anniversary celebration. She's got some good stuff, so I hope you guys enjoy it and I'll see you in a few days back here for my discussion of Logopolis!

Background & Significance: The end of an era.

Well... the prologue to the end, really.

When Tom Baker announced that he would be leaving Doctor Who after Season 18, the prospect made more than a few people nervous. Would people still be willing to accept a new leading man as their Doctor after 7 years of seeing the same face on their screen? Producer Jonathan Nathan-Turner, in order to ease viewers through the transition, sought to provide a familiar face to hold on to; considering the fact that the companion at the time, Adric, was relatively new, he tried to get Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) or Louise Jameson (Leela) to make a few guest appearances, to no avail. So, out of feasible options, he decided to bring back an old enemy instead: The Master.

"The Keeper of Traken" is the first in a loose trilogy of stories that deals with the return of The Master and the regeneration of Tom Baker's Doctor into Peter Davison's. This serial sets the stage for the regeneration adventure "Logopolis," but it also accomplishes the reintroduction of The Master to the show after a four year absence, ultimately in the form of Anthony Ainley, who would go on to reprise the role many times until the show's cancellation in 1989.

This serial also introduces Nyssa, played by actress Sarah Sutton, who would go on to become a Companion (JNT liked the character so much that he chose to bring her on in the next story), as well as serving to establish the dynamics of the relationship between Adric and the Doctor, since this is their first adventure together since the departure of Romana and K-9.

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1:

My first impression upon rewatching this in preparation for writing was that it was much more interesting than I was giving it credit for. This first part is nearly all set up, establishing events on Traken so that both the Doctor and the viewers know what’s going on, but it handles it in a rather interesting way.

Instead of immediately being immersed into the situation and meeting the guest cast, as so often happens right off the bat in most Doctor Who stories, instead we start off with the Doctor and Adric hanging out in the TARDIS. I like the way this choice both reminds us that we’re short a companion now (Romana decided to remain in E-Space in the previous story, “Warrior’s Gate”), as well as establishes their relationship, which is still relatively new. I’m sure I’ll talk about it more as we go, but Adric and the Fourth Doctor have such an interesting and strange way of interacting with each other, which is something I noticed more prominently this time around.

The Doctor’s relationship with Adric here stands out to me because it’s… so unique in the scope of the show. At the risk of spoiling a story we haven’t reviewed yet here, the Doctor kind of gets saddled with Adric, much like the First Doctor with Barbara and Ian; instead of inviting him along for the ride, Adric is something of a stowaway. Eventually, as he did before, the Doctor warms to his new companion, but you can still tell they are getting accustomed to one another. It helps that Adric is (supposed to be) extremely intelligent, so the Doctor connects to him a little bit easier than he probably would have if the case had been otherwise. But it’s obvious that Adric still has a lot to learn, and it’s here, at the beginning of this story, that we see the Doctor beginning, reluctantly, to take him under his wing. And this first part, especially any scene that we see them still in the TARDIS, sets up the reluctant mentor-pupil relationship rather well.

I say reluctant, because, well… both of these characters have personalities that don’t exactly mesh well. At this point in his life, the Doctor is rather arrogant, kind of grumpy (thank god they toned down the Drunk Tom Baker… more on that later), and, to be honest, I get the feeling that he’s just tired. You can tell just from looking at the poor guy. He’s still got it, and there are excellent moments, but… yeah. This incarnation’s at the end of it (and he admits as much to the Keeper during their conversation in the TARDIS). And Adric is, well… Adric. Whiny, petulant, know-it-all, and kind of a brat. But say what you will about Adric or Matthew Waterhouse’s acting, he’s actually quite good here. I think I most liked the way he would challenge the Doctor, but when the Doctor would get a little shouty and up in arms about it, he would back down gracefully with a compliment. It comes off as a little kiss-assy, but at least they’re not arguing and bickering (most Davison and Adric interactions, I’m looking at you).

Now, I mentioned the Keeper. I’m of two minds about this introduction to the people and culture of Traken; it’s very reminiscent of the way the White Guardian kind of pops in occasionally and warns the Doctor about what’s up. Obviously the Keeper has a lot of power if he can just disappear and appear in the TARDIS at will, as well as manipulating the Doctor into going to Traken without being aware of it. What I dislike about the Keeper showing up in the TARDIS is that he basically serves as a massive info dump before the Doctor and Adric land. The reason why most Doctor Who stories begin the way they do (introducing the problem and the people, and then the Doctor and his companions finding themselves in the middle of everything), is because it works. It’s a tried and true formula that we’ve seen many, many times, and it works. Not saying that this doesn’t work (it does, it’s just rather slow); but I much prefer the Doctor landing in the middle of things without much of a clue as to what’s going on or what is to come. In that, though, I do like the Keeper and his warnings and predictions, because his appearance and the presentation of all the information leading up to this point functions as a sort of prologue to this trilogy of stories, as well as foreshadowing the possible end of the Doctor. The Keeper’s warning that the evil attempting to poison the goodness of Traken might be too much for even a Time Lord to take on without consequences reminds me a lot of the way David Tennant’s Doctor is presented with a warning in “Planet of the Dead” and we follow that through to his regeneration in “The End of Time,” and I liked that. The Keeper’s warning here is ominous, but subtle, and it brings an interesting dynamic and a heaviness to the rest of this story as we watch it unfold.

Part 2:

One of the few problems I have with this story is that it’s kind of slow. But I can’t say this without a few caveats.

What I appreciate about this part is that we get such an insight into the workings of this planet and its politics. While that sounds insanely boring, and it can be if not done well, I think this is remarkably well-handled. All the exposition that the Keeper brought up in the first part we see expanded upon and fleshed out, which is awesome. While the exposition of the first part was interesting, it’s only exposition, which can only take us so far. But in this part, we become more acquainted with the characters, and thusly through them, their customs and traditions and beliefs. It’s quite elegant how it’s all balanced out, really.

I also love how incredibly realized the mythology of this utopian society of Traken is. I’m not entirely certain where writer ends and script editor begins on this point, but both Johnny Byrne and Christopher Bidmead did a remarkable job. I love how authentic their science, their politics, their mythos and beliefs all sound, and how they all come together to create this cohesive whole. It’s really an immersive experience, watching this. This sense of immersion is only furthered by the awesome set design. I love when Doctor Who can pull stuff off like this. It’s so pretty. I love it.

So, while the narrative does move rather slowly through here, I like how it gives us a greater chance to glimpse this society and its workings, as well as getting to know the characters a little better and see how they are all instrumental.

Which is not to say that things don’t happen in this part, because they certainly do. It’s so interesting because part two feels simultaneously like more set up but also pushing the narrative ahead at the same time, probably because of all the politics and techno-science-babble we get. That would be the set up. But at the same time, we get a lot going on with Kassia and the Melkur, which is interesting. While the Doctor and company are running around trying to determine the source of the strange radiation readings (and the evil), and trying to figure out where the TARDIS is, you have Kassia stirring up enmity amongst the different consuls, and then finally becoming completely subdued to the Melkur, acting as a vessel for destruction (the part where she’s able to shoot laser beams out of her eyes and kills Seron is crazy and creepy). The Doctor and Company only meet up with her and the Melkur at the end of this part, and I think that because this evil threat has been so adept at keeping the Doctor on his toes, it just serves as another reminder that this may be a foe the Doctor might not be able to fully contest with.

Another thing that I love about this is Anthony Ainley as Nyssa’s father, Consul Tremas. That sentence alone should tip you off as to what’s coming, but for now, let’s ignore that. I admire Ainley as an actor. What I hate is JNT’s interpretation of the character Ainley would come to play. Ugh. But I’ll touch on that a little bit later.
Hand in hand with that, I love Sarah Sutton’s portrayal of Nyssa in this. She’s so innocent and fairy-like, it’s really quite striking and interesting from a character standpoint. In this, on her homeworld of Traken, she’s basically the equivalent of a princess, walking around with her adorable fairy tutu skirt and crown, paying off Fosters so she and Adric can sneak into the Grove. I enjoy watching her, knowing that she ends up traveling with the Doctor and what his influence does to her character over time. The first time I watched this, I remember wishing that the Nyssa who travels with the Fifth Doctor had kept her skirt and crown instead of just walking around in that maroon catsuit, but watching this again, I realize that her rejection of her Traken clothing is a sign of her growth as she spends more and more time with the Doctor. Which really only cements his role as mentor in this particular era, as established by Adric.

Part 3

It’s funny, once you get a handle for how four-part serials generally work, that you begin to notice how little actually happens in part threes. This part is no exception to that, but it still manages to be pretty strong and at parts, rather intense. I really like this story for that.

So far up to this point, this story has mostly seen The Doctor and Adric running about, trying to figure out what exactly is going on. It’s actually quite interesting in that they seem to be mostly background players up to this point. And, while Tom Baker does get some great moments in (he’s really on his game in this one; it’s nice to see him actually caring for once, as opposed to the Graham Williams era of Drunk Tom Baker)—like the scene where he convinces Tremas to forsake his sacred oath of duty and show the Doctor the blueprints for the Source Manipulator—mostly, and in this part especially, there’s a lot of running around avoiding capture. So, that leaves a lot of the story to be carried by Consul Kassia.

It really helps that actress Sheila Ruskin’s (she totally reminds me of a red-headed Helena Bonham Carter) performance is actually quite good, along with the writing and direction. I like the way she balances the control necessary to be a proper Consul of Traken, alongside the emotion and almost zealous behavior she has when acting on behalf of the Melkur, or pleading with him to save her husband, Tremas. A lot of the story up to this part, when she becomes Keeper and is thus allowed access to the Source on the Melkur’s behalf, does revolve around her and her actions, and I think they did a good job casting her. It’s actually quite interesting how much of the story is dependent upon Kassia, which leads me into what I’ve been really wanting to talk about for the past two parts…

As I was watching through this time, I began to notice certain things; mainly, how strong the parallels were between this story, and that of the Biblical Garden of Eden. I recently binge read all of Milton’s Paradise Lost for one of my literature classes, and I suspect it’s begun to color the way I look at things. I’m definitely not the first person to come up with this idea (as I discovered); the connections between this serial and the mythical one are too strong to pass up, especially as it progresses further along. For those unfamiliar with the Biblical story, God creates this paradise for his new creations, Adam and Eve, the first humans. Satan, for whatever reason (jealousy, wanting to stick it to the man, he’s just evil, etc.), disguises himself as a snake and tricks and tempts Eve into disobeying God and eating some forbidden fruit, which she then gives to her husband because she’s nice like that. Both fallen, they’re driven out of Paradise, and because these two fucked up so badly is why we humans are the way we are today. Or so the story goes.

If we look at “The Keeper of Traken” in this context, there are a lot of obvious parallels. The Union of Traken is basically a utopia, a place devoid of evil, held together by the goodness of its citizenry, and the Keeper, who has access to the Source. The Melkur is recognized as a source of evil, but because of the goodness that is Traken, his influence is limited. In this story, the Melkur wins over Kassia who, concerned for her husband, is willing to do anything to keep him from ascending to being the next Keeper. And it is through her that the Melkur ultimately gains access to the Source; she effectively betrays them all, and thus, paradise is lost. And it in this part through a great reveal that we learn that the Melkur is The (Gooey) Master, looking once more to revitalize himself, since he’s used up all his regenerations. I love this cliffhanger too, when the Melkur sits on the Keeper’s throne in place of Kassia, and the Doctor and his friends flee because “it is far too late.” It’s an awesome, badass moment of the Doctor actually losing for once, which doesn’t happen all too often, really.

Another thing that’s coming into more and more prevalence is Bidmead’s fascination with entropy and the destruction of order into chaos. He explores this concept much more in the next story, “Logopolis,” but I think it’s interesting how he sets us up for that here, with the fall of Traken into the evil clutches of the Master, and through this, into disorder, which we get a glimpse of when the Keeper finally dies and it feels like all hell is breaking loose without the presence of his influence.

Part 4

If there’s any place that this story falls flat for me, it’s in part 4.

One of the things that I dislike about the influence of Christopher Bidmead on this is the emphasis on the weird science technobabble. Now, I’m all for technobabble, I actually quite enjoy it. But when the success of your characters in this story hinges on the crazy technology of this planet that we’ve never seen before and have little to no familiarity with… I find I get lost in trying to understand how it is supposed to work, rather than focusing on the characters and what’s happening, like we’re supposed to.

Of course, it all gets resolved in the end (which is another talking point… I’ll get to that in just a minute), but I think there’s almost *too* much emphasis on the politics and the science of Traken in order to get fully invested. Too much of a good thing, if you will.

My other major problem with this story is the resolution. The Doctor confronts the Master in his TARDIS (the Melkur), Adric and Nyssa have done something to frak up the Source Manipulator, everything goes to hell, the Doctor plugs in some numbers, and presto, resolution. I realize that it’s not the actual end of the story (the Master does, indeed, survive and get away), but… come on. Everything happens so quickly and so easily, it almost works to counterbalance the fact that the Doctor has been on his toes the whole time, trying to work against this force of evil. And then he’s foiled just like that? Come on, Doctor, you should know better. You’re getting cocky.

It’s weird, because there is such an emphasis on a descending to chaos and disorder, and then at the end, everything is happy and magical again. I guess that just underscores the tragedy of what happens to Tremas at the very very end of this, but at the same time… I dunno. It doesn’t make any sense and it feels like a cop-out ending, at the expense for the shock factor of the Master acquiring his new body. I get that you need a lead-in to the next story, as this is a trilogy, but… Really? Lame.

Which leads me to the Master himself. I talked about him a little bit in the last section, but he’s in this a lot, so he merits more discussion. I do really like the reveal of him in part three, but I find it interesting that they don’t actually name him til two-thirds of the way through part four. The Master had been absent from the show for almost four years at this point; if this is one of the first stories or seasons of Doctor Who that you had tuned in for, how would you know who he was supposed to be? There had been hints throughout the story that the Melkur had some sort of link to the TARDIS, but if you weren’t paying attention… I dunno. I get what JNT is trying to do here, bringing the Doctor’s old foe back (which is awesome, I love me some Master). But I think this is the first in a series of callbacks that we can trace through his reign as producer that is just an attempt to ingratiate the show with old fans of the series. By having the Master appear here as he does in “The Deadly Assassin,” arguably one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever, I feel like it’s more than just an attempt to stay in continuity.

However, I do like that the Master does get a new body. Talking about Anthony Ainley before… I really do like him in this. A lot, actually. He does a great job as Tremas. But the interpretation of the Master that he’s given to work with feels so shallow and cheap and trying very much to copy Delgado, when that’s not the point at all. The Doctor regenerates with a new personality and features every few seasons, and we’re accustomed to that… So why not allow the Master to do the same thing and letting the actor develop the role as his own instead of being charged with emulating someone else? Imagine if every incarnation of the Doctor just tried to be as much like the previous one as possible. I seriously doubt the show would have made it out of the 60s, nevermind to nearly 50 years.

Final Thoughts?: I really enjoy this serial quite a lot.

There's something about the feel of it, the atmosphere of the planet of Traken; it feels like a fairytale, too good to be true. I really love everything about the world, from the mythology to the crazy technology (that I only cursorily understand, I'll admit, but it is fascinating). I admire the way the writer, Johnny Byrne, fleshes everything out and makes his characters and the story relateable, more than just high-brow sci-fi concepts. I think it helps that it feeds into roots that we're familiar with, both the mythical/Biblical and the anxiety that occurs during any period of transition, be it political or personal.

I really think it's interesting that they chose to include Gooey Master. I love Gooey Master. But I almost think it would have been more effective to have the Master show up already in possession of his new body, but I don't suppose that would work, given the fact that he usurps the position of Keeper primarily to extend his life. Ah well. What can you do.

I also really enjoy the performances in this from everybody. I know I didn't really talk about him much in the actual discussion up there, but watching Tom Baker in this is... something else. It's almost tragic, really, how weary and world-worn he looks, but he's still got the drive and energy of his earlier years that I love so much. I really like that about him, how after three years of pretty much phoning in performances (with notable exceptions, of course), in his last season, he's able to show us he's still got it when it counts, and I think that's awesome.

Next Time!: Fourth Doctor! Adric! Nyssa! Tegan (boo)! The Master! Numbers and math! Entropy! Some creepy dude covered in gauze! And a regeneration! Matt's back on Thursday with "Logopolis" as the one-year blogiversary celebration continues!


  1. The Keeper of Traken is a true classic. Not one for people who think Doctor Who is all about scary monsters, but it has real class.

  2. I agree. It still really resonates, and I think it's aged quite well (probably because there *are* no "scary" monsters).

  3. I am a huge fan of Season 18. I think it is the strongest and most consistent period of the show.

    I especially like some of the mystical and philosophical ideas that Christopher Bidmead brought up in these stories.

  4. I haven't seen all of Season 18 yet (missing Meglos), and while I wouldn't agree to sharing your view of this particular season (there are others I enjoy much more), I will say that I do enjoy the concepts and ideas that Bidmead incorporates during his tenure as script editor. I think he tends to place a bit too much focus on the science of the various stories, but it does lend a certain credibility that was lacking during the general fantasy and humor of the Graham Williams/Douglas Adams era.