The Keeper of Traken ★★★★

The Master is resurrected and Nyssa is introduced in a fairy-tale piece that has withered over time

194

Season 18 – Story 114

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“You still do not recognise me, Doctor, but soon you will know me. Soon!” – Melkur

Storyline
The Traken Union is renowned for universal harmony but the ancient Keeper who oversees this planetary empire is nearing his time of dissolution. Sensing the threat of “all-pervading evil”, he appears in the Tardis and begs the Doctor and Adric to help his people. On Traken, they befriend Tremas, nominated as the next Keeper, and his daughter Nyssa. Kassia, Tremas’s new wife, is under the influence of Melkur, a statuesque figure reanimating in the nearby grove. It intends to seize control of the Source, the bioelectronic energy behind Traken. Melkur is in fact a Tardis belonging to the Master, who is still in emaciated form. His plan is thwarted, but he absorbs Tremas’s body to effect the regeneration he craves…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 31 January 1981
Part 2 – Saturday 7 February 1981
Part 3 – Saturday 14 February 1981
Part 4 – Saturday 21 February 1981

Production
Studio recording: November/December 1980 in TC6, November 1980 in TC8

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Adric – Matthew Waterhouse
Nyssa – Sarah Sutton
Tremas – Anthony Ainley
Kassia – Sheila Ruskin
The Keeper – Denis Carey
Seron – John Woodnutt
Katura – Margot van der Burgh
Luvic – Robin Soans
Neman – Roland Oliver
Voice of Melkur/The Master – Geoffrey Beevers
Foster – Liam Prendergast

Crew
Writer – Johnny Byrne
Designer – Tony Burrough
Incidental music – Roger Limb
Script editor – Christopher H Bidmead
Executive producer – Barry Letts
Producer – John Nathan-Turner
Director – John Black

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Rediscovering The Keeper of Traken after so many years is rather like rereading a fairy tale that bewitched you as a child – only to realise that the storytelling is quite thin and that the magic has evaporated entirely. Watching it again, I almost empathised with the Melkur, likened by the Keeper to “a fly caught in honey”, waiting out eternity to “calcify and pass harmlessly into the soil”.

Why does it fail so dismally to engage now? In 1981, I was enthralled by the mythical setting, the Golem-like Melkur in the Grove, the plot twists, the drip-feed of clues that would identity the bad guy – the blackened hand; the Tardis-like hum; the dead giveaway “Obey without question!” Of course, that tension cannot be recaptured, nor can the sense of foreboding as we approached the end of days for Tom Baker’s Doctor.

The production values remain impressive for that period – art nouveau-influenced sets, beautiful costumes (no one wears clothes in Doctor Who any more), luxuriant wigs (almost everyone on Traken sports one). The non-starry cast plays each scene with gravity and poise. The dialogue is strong, thoughtful, even poetic – Tremas: “If all the stars were silver and the sky a giant purse in my fist, I couldn’t be happier than I am tonight.”

I still enjoy the concept of the wizened, benign Keeper, who can park his throne in the Tardis, but whose omnipotence is ebbing. And it’s the first time we’ve been anywhere like Traken – “a whole empire held together by people just being terribly nice to each other”. Sounds like facebook. As the Doctor explains, “They say the atmosphere there was so full of goodness that evil just shrivelled up and died.”

So far, so fanciful. Maybe the pacing and blocking are a tad pedestrian, the action too confined, but what most bothers me now is how The Keeper of Traken unfolds like an exercise in stoicism. Its characters steadfastly avoid emotion, and in so doing sidestep the really interesting “human” drama that should form the very heart of the story – the fate of the Keepers.

The sweet old Keeper dies off-screen with a few flames blowing out. Keeper-in-waiting Tremas seems unperturbed by the prospect of sitting out millennia as a palsied codger with a distended cranium. He shows no despair at leaving Kassia and or Nyssa and, later, is unmoved when his new wife dematerialises in agony. It’s odd because elsewhere Anthony Ainley brings an avuncular warmth to Tremas.

Kassia, at least, hopes to save Tremas from his Keepership; it’s one reason she collaborates with Melkur. Otherwise her motivation is unclear. She’s such an impetuous, woolly nit, it’s a wonder Tremas ever became enamoured of her and implausible anyone ever thought she had the wherewithal or “purity of spirit” to become a Consul – one of the five most exalted Trakens.

Another underbaked character is Nyssa. She looks angelic in her maroon-purple, pixie-princess get-up, but the character is so dreary on the page and, played by graduating child actress Sarah Sutton, shows all the life signs of a landed mullet. It’s hard to see how anyone considered Nyssa “companion material”. Check out her introduction to the wonders of the Tardis by Adric, which has to be one of the most stultifying ever.

Only John Nathan-Turner could have saddled Tom Baker with Matthew Waterhouse and thought it might work. Looking as etiolated as a willow in autumn, Baker is bereft without a proper female companion to offset his unsavoury demeanour.

Think back to an earlier male pairing, the second Doctor and Jamie, and there’s none of their easy, tactile rapport. It feels like a triumph of performance over indignation when, at the end, the Doctor turns to Adric and manages a beaming smile. Maybe, for a moment, he does see some value in this dweeb in search of a pyjama party.

It was also JN-T’s decision to resurrect the Master, partly to up the endgame for the fourth Doctor. This Master – though you still wouldn’t want to share a bathroom with him – looks far healthier than he did in 1977. The final image of The Deadly Assassin showed the putrescent ghoul revitalising but, in 1980, JN-T’s team had no such notion.

More badly burned than cadaverous, their Master forgoes the previous rigid mask merely to facilitate Geoffrey Beevers’ outré performance. Thus we lose the 1977 Master’s ping-pong-ball eyes and gain “teeth” painted onto Beevers’ lips. “With my new powers, anything is possible!” So it would seem.

In the final moments, recharged with the power of the Source, the Master seizes Tremas from behind and “occupies” him. “So, a new body… at last!” (Note, the Master’s clothes change too, as in the Hartnell/Troughton transformation.) I recall that in February 1981 I gaped in awe as suddenly we were presented with a salivating glimpse of a fully renewed Master in the mould of Roger Delgado.

But again that coup de théâtre cannot be relived. Moreover the thrill has been entirely eclipsed and soured by memories of how mishandled Anthony Ainley’s Master would be throughout the remainder of the 1980s.

Keeper of Traken
[Assembling the Melkur. Photographed by Don Smith at BBC TV Centre in 1980. Copyright Radio Times Archive]

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Radio Times archive

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John Craven’s Back Page introduced the new companion Nyssa.

Keeper of Traken Nyssa feature
Keeper of Traken billings
Keeper of Traken Nyssa
[Available on BBC DVD]