14 Mar 2004The Keeper of Traken, by Paul Clarke
15 Nov 2005The Keeper of Traken, by Ed Martin

Two things strike me about ‘The Keeper of Traken’. The first is that has a dark fairytale quality and the second is that it has a distinctly theatrical feel. Either of these could be seen as an advantage under the right circumstances, but the problem is, both of these qualities seem to arise out of a combination of bad writing and poor production values, the result of which is that ‘The Keeper of Traken is a story that never fails to leave me cold. 

The basic underlying concept of the Traken Union is fascinating, in that it is a society held together “by people just being terribly nice to each other”, a society so pure that it literally makes evil shrivel up and die. This simplistic polarization of the concepts of good and evil is what makes ‘The Keeper of Traken’ feel so much like a fairytale to me, but it is ultimately facile. The main problem is the definition of evil; ultimately, the definition of evil is subjective. Whilst there are things that most people believe to be evil, there is no clearly drawn line on one side of which things are “good” and on the other of which they are “evil”, which rather raises the question of what the minimum is that one needs to do to be turned into a polystyrene statue. To further compound this issue, Traken seems to a be a society bordering on fascism, with the ruling Consuls discussing summary executions based on the most spurious of evidence. Most obviously, they are quick to condemn the Doctor and Adric based (from their point of view) on the Keeper’s say so, but this does raise the question, if the Doctor and Adric were evil and evil is immobilized by the power of the Source when arriving on Traken, why don’t the Consuls query their ability to walk around quite happily? By Episode Three, Kassia is able to convince Katura and Luvic of the need to execute their prisoners remarkably easily, Katura’s only comment being a sort of vague reluctance that such things are necessary. In addition, the Fosters, with their easily bribable and corrupt superior Neman, seem to have rather more power top enforce the word of the law than ordinary policemen do. 

In addition to this flawed premise, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ suffers from feeling almost like an amateur theatre production. For one thing, the dialogue, which most certainly is not anywhere near Shakespearean, is rather stilted and fails to sound natural throughout, something which is even more obvious having just watched ‘Warrior’s Gate’, in which the dialogue of Rorvik’s crew is much more realistic. In addition, the entire story is studio bound and the sets look somewhat drab, creating a claustrophobic air that always makes Traken seem more like a collection of rooms than a planet. As I’ve stated many times, this is a common failing of both Doctor Who and television science fiction in general, but here it seems more pronounced than in any story since ‘The Armageddon Factor’. In the case of this particular story, this doesn’t actually bother me specifically, but it does add to the impression that the entire story could be very easily performed on stage. 

My main problem with the stagy feel of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ is that it extends to the acting. Anthony Ainley, on the verge of taking on a more familiar role in the series, is actually rather good here, putting in a gentle, restrained performance that in retrospect does wonders for his reputation as an actor. Tremas is a likeable character from the start, and quickly forms a strong mutual respect with the Doctor, with Baker and Ainley working well together. Considering Tremas’ fate, this is appropriate, since it adds weight to the tragedy that befalls him, which would be far less pronounced if the Master stole somebody else’s body. Denis Carey, in his first role in Doctor Who to actually be broadcast, is perfectly adequate as the wizened Keeper, as is the ever-reliable John Woodnutt as Seron. Unfortunately, the other actors are less impressive; Margot van der Burgh’s Katura and Robin Soams’ Luvic are both utterly forgettable, although in all fairness this is largely due to the way the characters are scripted. Roland Oliver’s Neman is a pantomime stooge, taking so much delight in being ordered to push people around in later episodes that I half expect him to start twirling the ends of his large moustache. Most cringe-worthy of all however is Sheila Ruskin is dreadful as Kassia, over-acting to a horrible degree, especially whenever she is required to faint. Lurid hand-gestures and flared nostrils only emphasize the fact that her performance is hammy.

Then there is Geoffrey Beevers. It must be said that his performance is just as over the top as the Master as Anthony Ainley’s would shortly become, but I find it more enjoyable because it fits the tone of the story. Given that ‘The Keeper of Traken’ attempts to separate the concepts of good and evil so simplistically, and given that characters such as Kassia so obviously blur the line, Beever’s largely vocal performance as the real villain fits perfectly; his voice drips with malicious glee, which makes the Melkur really seem like the personification of evil that it is supposed to be. So thoroughly evil does he seem, that it is easy to believe that the immobilizing web of harmony that enshrouds Traken would ensnare the Master even if not corrupt public servants and traitors. In addition, I must admit that I do rather like stories in which old enemies are revealed to be lurking “behind the curtain”. Once the Doctor enters the Melkur and confronts his old enemy, my tolerance for Beevers’ performance diminishes somewhat, as he lurches about in a way that brings to mind Scooby Doo villains and tips the balance of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ from “theatrical” to “pantomimesque”. Nevertheless, the final scene, in which the Doctor’s old archenemy is restored to his former glory promises a great deal; the rivalry between the Third Doctor and the Master, despite being occasionally wrapped in some dreadful stories, was always enjoyable. Whether or not this promise is delivered on however, is a subject for another time…

Finally, the regulars put in decent performances here, even Matthew Waterhouse. The opening TARDIS scene lends credence to the fact that the combination of the Fourth Doctor and Adric showed great promise, once more casting the Doctor in the role of teacher to Adric’s keen student. In fact the opening scene is worth watching simply because it’s the last glimpse we see of Baker’s old humour in the role (except for the “this type’s not really my forte” line at the end of Episode Four), as the Doctor demonstrates his old ego, defends his handwriting, champions the cause of talking nonsense, and cracks jokes (Doctor: “I thought so!” Adric: “Thought what?” Doctor: “I thought you might appreciate it if gave you the impression I knew what was happening”). Adric is well written here, proving resourceful if hotheaded, and seeming to appreciate meeting Nyssa, somebody of his own age. This particularly makes sense given that Adric seems to have been something of an outsider amongst his own people (Varsh treated him as a little brother more than anything else) and has since been in the company of the Doctor and Romana. Sarah Sutton seems to provoke a rather harsh response from many fans, who describe her as wooden. I don’t think this is entirely fair; Nyssa’s overwhelming characteristics here are gentleness and a rather pampered upbringing; given that she could have been portrayed as a spoilt brat, the fact that the character is realized as somebody well rounded and intelligent is most welcome. Sutton’s performance seems to me to fit perfectly Nyssa’s quiet and gentle reserve, and she nicely conveys the character’s closeness to her father. This is important; Nyssa actually gets very little to do in her debut, but the gradually erosion of her family life, which although she doesn’t know it is utterly destroyed by the end of Episode Four, thus sets the tone for Baker’s swansong…

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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