Doctor Doctor Who Guide

There are some reputations that don’t so much need changing as updating. For example, the companion Vicki is rarely mentioned without the word “underrated” lurking somewhere nearby; isn’t it about time she became known as “that companion who was really quite good”, as a reputation for being underrated is really stupid when you think about it. This principal of outdated reputations also applies to The Keeper Of Traken, which has had a “classic” label fall from the sky and attach itself to it. I’ve read a fair few reviews and while there are some that praise it to the last moment there are no more than for any other story and there is certainly no evidence I have found to justify such a lofty reputation. This appears to have led to the mildly amusing situation where there are loads of people who think that they’re the only ones who don’t like it; many of the reviews I’ve read are complaining that it isn’t a classic. As for me, I’ve only seen it a couple of times and not for years anyway, so I’ll try and stay as open-minded as possible.

The opening credits faded away and I was instantly bowled over by Tom Baker, who is more charismatic here than in any other episode for years. He is helped by a very witty script that makes for an excellent introductory scene on board the TARDIS. This is very rare, especially in the early 1980s (more specifically, in scenes with Matthew Waterhouse present), and shows that having a sharp, wise-cracking Doctor can be advantageous sometimes.

The title of the story is dropped into the dialogue early on (and several times through the story) but as it refers to something specific in the plot then there’s no problem: and the Keeper is a great character. His laconic manner does justice to the distinctive dialogue – I’m sometimes wary when writers feel that peaceful and sophisticated cultures have to talk in a sub-Elizabethan fashion, but in truth it works more often than not – and keeps the sustained exposition scene at the beginning of this episode interesting to listen to. The idea of evil forces calcifying into Melkurs is fascinating, and the flashbacks on the scanner allow us to see the back story of the episode happen rather than just hear about it in a massive retrospective info-dump.

This then is our first glimpse of Traken itself. The music score is appropriately lush but the sets, it has to be said, look like sets and nothing more. While they don’t convince as being genuine exteriors they are nevertheless easy on the eye and ambitious in concept, and designer Tony Burrough should be praised for making a story that can never be called bad looking. Roger Limb’s music score is appropriately lush, in particular the atmospheric ‘Nyssa’s Theme’ which I have on CD on the Earthshock compilation album. Most notable however is how good Anthony Ainley is at playing Tremas; it shows how the massive ham salad that was the 1980s Master was really not his fault and he should not be blamed for John Nathan-Turner’s poor decision to make him play the part over the top.

This all sets up a very enigmatic scenario of a mysterious evil subtly infiltrating a peaceful planet; it’s just a shame it turns out to be the Master really as this pantomime villain, although he had potential as stories like The Deadly Assassin show, doesn’t stand up too well today. That said, this is one of his better outings and probably his best of the 1980s bar Survival.

It takes a very long time for the TARDIS to actually reach Traken and in the meantime the consuls argue about a foster’s death: this scene is overlong, but diverting enough. The walking Melkur statue is impressive and well directed by John Black, but let down by the squeak of polystyrene that can clearly be heard as it moves. This all leads to a very good cliffhanger as the Keeper appears to condemn the Doctor and Adric. So far my desire to challenge and unwarranted reputation is on shaky ground, as the first episode is actually very strong indeed.

>From the beginning however, the second episode fails to capitalise on the strengths of the first. Kassia’s stage-fall is very silly, and Black shows he is really not an action director from the appalling scene where the Melkur kills as foster (“No! No! Nooo!”). Also, while John Woodnutt is good as Seron Sheila Ruskin is a bit of an all round bore as Kassia and Robin Soams as Luvic delivers his lines as if he thinks he’s playing Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. 

It’s still a good episode though, with the Melkur’s dialogue being very spooky and doom laden even if Geoffrey Beevers has far too genial a voice to really portray the sense of evil. This is followed by an exposition scene where Adric and Nyssa discuss Traken technology. I don’t hate Sarah Sutton by any means but she isn’t great here (although who is in their first story? Okay, William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton…but you get the point) and she and Waterhouse certainly can’t sustain a scene between them. The episode is amiable and always interesting and engaging, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s just treading water now.

The vanished TARDIS is dealt with in terms of technobabble which is then carried over into the next scene dealing with the mysterious readings picked up in the grove, which undermines their credibility somewhat. The Source is cool, though. 

Kassia’s stuck-on eyes are really, really silly, far worse than Thea’s in Image Of The Fendahl, and this is a shame as the death of Seron is otherwise a very good and exciting scene - although, given that Kassia is standing over his body, the fosters believe circumstantial evidence remarkably easily to take the Doctor and even Tremas away so readily.

The cliffhanger, like the last one, is dramatic, but it has to be said that this episode is a comedown from the first. It looks like I’ve taken complete opposite stands on both episodes so I’ll just pause to clarify my position: the second episode is good, it just doesn’t do or say anything of substance. However, the excellence of the first has provided a strong foundation for further exploring the intricacies of Traken while the Melkur stomps around occasionally bullying poor Kassia, which gets the episode by until the finale. While the episode is by no means bad then, it in itself can never be called above average. Thankfully with this story the overall rating is governed very much by the whole rather than individual episodes.

The third episode is more of the same really: after the set-up of part one, the story is still coasting. Like the second episode though, it’s never bad, and the revelation that Kassia is going to become Keeper on behalf of the Melkur is brilliant. Ruskin is actually better here, playing anger with more conviction than she did in the first part. How come nobody notices the massive collar that she is wearing, though?

Now we come to a scene that I find truly hard to watch: the infamous bogey scene. To show the Doctor running round with…on his face almost trashes all credibility that the character has built up over the last eighteen seasons, and makes him look like a senile old man (he was looking old in his last season, come to think of it). Did nobody notice? Why, oh WHY, did nobody cut the scene? I’m not going to dwell on it anymore, I’ll just keep telling myself that it never happened.

More technobabble follows as Nyssa carries an ion bonder instead of a gun, which is pointless. Once the Doctor escapes and returns to Tremas’s house there is the discussion about the plans to the Source; it has been remarked that the Doctor mentions a “master plan” three times. I’m not sure if there’s anything intentional going on here, but since it’s been pointed out I can’t help but notice it. 

The storm that heralds the Keeper’s death is a very cool idea, but I’d prefer it if it wasn’t used as a cheap way of getting the Doctor out of danger. The Master’s make-up is also very good (apart from those painted-on teeth) and gruesome, and the cliffhanger is another of four great episode endings this story has, with some great effects into the bargain (whew, got those points over and done with, didn’t I?)

“I have a funny feeling we’ve met somewhere before” is a good lead in to the final revelation, and is symbolic of the way the pace gets going again in the final part. In fact, I was so drawn into the beginning part of the episode that I forgot to take notes. I can’t tell you many details then, but rest assured there’s nothing bad, except for that lame head-knocking sequence.

Fans of pedantic trivia will note that the ‘servo shut-off’ device used to knacker the Source was seen in Destiny Of The Daleks. I’m going to mention the fact that Neman’s death is very dramatic here as there’s nowhere else to put it in my crudely-planned review.

The revelation that the Master is behind everything is excellent, but the technobabble resolution is a disappointment. At least there is an effort to explain it here though, which is more than can be said for a lot of other stories (better ones, too). The final scene however is quite, quite brilliant as the helpless Tremas is killed and possessed by the Master. I have to thank Richard Callaghan (the Anorak himself) for pointing this out, but the Master’s clock being set at four minutes to midnight is cooler than a very cool thing on a very cool day. It’s just a shame the 1980s Master turned out to be so naff: it was a real wasted opportunity.

This review has focussed on the differences between the episodes a lot more than my others have, but it is important. The Keeper Of Traken is superb at the beginning and at the end but, like a scaled-down version of The War Games, it’s very padded out in the middle. That said, it’s good padding: well written and always interesting, making for a every enjoyable tale that’s a lot better than I remembered it being the last time I saw it when I was 17. It may not be a classic, but it’s a good story in its own right and it doesn’t deserve the backlash it has received from a reputation that has become exaggerated and overblown.

Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 18