Don’t listen to me. I never do.
By the time Johnny Byrne’s “The Keeper of Traken” (Story Production Code 5T) airs, recurring antagonists no longer appear on Doctor Who with distressing inevitability, unlike earlier years when the Daleks were penciled in for at least one appearance per season and the Cybermen would fill in as needed. Producers Phillip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams avoid old home week quite admirably during their tenures from Seasons Thirteen through Seventeen, bringing back only the Sontarans, the Daleks, and the Master from the Doctor’s dusty rogues’ gallery, and then only once each, the better to heighten their impact on the screen. In their stead, the Fourth Doctor faces fresh foes and new challenges aplenty, making Tom Baker’s run one of constant wonder and surprise.
Thus, at the start of the four episode story, as the Doctor and Adric confront the wizened form of the Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey), an amazingly powerful being capable of breaching the TARDIS thanks to the power of the Source, the audience expects another foray into the unknown. With the Keeper harnessing the Source, a quasi-mystical and ill-defined energy (not unlike the equally inexplicable Dodecahedron in “Meglos“), the Traken Union stands as a paragon of peace and tranquility, such that any evil being setting foot there calcifies and turns, slowly, to stone. This fate befalls the Melkur (Geoffrey Beevers), an ominous living statue that the Keeper warns the Doctor about while seeking the Time Lord’s help to prevent the Source from falling into malign hands.
Byrne, who cut his writing chops on Space: 1999, slowly and subtly introduces the real force behind the Melkur. In keeping with new producer John Nathan-Turner and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s focus on rewarding long-time viewers, Byrne and director John Black dole out just enough hints in Episodes Two and Three for audience members steeped in series lore to realize that the Melkur is in fact a TARDIS belonging to none other than the Master, well before the renegade Time Lord’s presence explicitly manifests in the last ten minutes of the final episode.
Sadly, the impact of the Master’s return fizzles out by waiting so long to reveal him. His motivations receive short shrift indeed, boiling down to the Master’s de rigeur desire for conquest, revenge, and another regeneration. Far from matching wits with the Doctor, as in the finest battles between Jon Pertwee and the late Roger Delgado, the Master here simply waits in his moss-covered TARDIS, cackling occasionally and taking action only through others by dominating them mentally, such that the most dangerous figure for much of the story is an officious guard captain with an eye for a bribe…
Despite nearly ten minutes of exposition to open the story, replete with flashbacks broadcast on the TARDIS screens, much remains unclear throughout this tale, including whether the Master actually waited in his stationary TARDIS for decades for the aging Keeper to finally reach the end of his life, so as to take his place and gain the power of the Source by manipulating the political succession process. Though we’ve certainly seen the Master plot patiently, the languorous plan seems at odds with his impatience to gain a new body to replace his decaying carcass, as established in “The Deadly Assassin.”
(On that note, “The Deadly Assassin” suggests that the Master manages to secure another round of regenerations for himself through exposure to the Eye of Harmony, having reached the allowed twelve rebirths by the time of that story, but the dialogue here between the Master and the Doctor, to say nothing of the Master’s still-decrepit form, lends credence to the theory that the Master merely absorbed enough energy from the Eye to sustain his life for some time longer. John Nathan-Turner’s remit to dive deep into series lore never quite equates to a vow to leave said lore sacrosanct when it suits his narrative needs.)
A group of five Consuls run day to day affairs in the Traken Union, summoning the Keeper only at moments of great necessity. One of these Consuls, Kassia (Sheila Ruskin), has been tending to the Melkur in a sacred grove since childhood, the Trakens believing that evil creatures deserve care and attention as they inexorably petrify. When Kassia realizes that her new husband, Tremas (Anthony Ainley), will soon be called upon to become Keeper, locked away for a thousand years in a long, lonely vigil, she succumbs to the Master’s mental suasion, agreeing, she thinks, to help the long-silent creature she has tended for years in order to prevent the loss of her beloved.
Once the Doctor and Adric arrive on Traken, she has them arrested along with Tremas, blaming them for the recent spate of murders carried out secretly by the Melkur, thus removing Tremas from the line of succession and getting our pesky time travelers out of the way. Only then does the Master reveal that Kassia will become the next Keeper, by which time his power (plus a magic choker) gives him complete control over her.
The Master would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for the efforts of Tremas’ daughter, Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). In what can only be seen as a companion audition, Nyssa overhears Kassia conniving with the Melkur, so she knocks out several guards with a jury-rigged piece of laboratory equipment and breaks the Doctor, Adric, and her father out of jail. While on the lam, she and Adric separate from the Doctor and Tremas, and together the precocious youngsters cobble together a machine that will sabotage the Source.
Still, it seems too late to stop the Master once Kassia has ascended to the throne of the Keeper, for as soon as she does, the Master materializes his Melkur TARDIS upon the throne, killing her and thereby (somehow) neutralizing the safeguard of the Source being bio-electrically compatible only with Traken physiologies. Bizarrely, the remaining Consuls, plus the police force, the Fosters, accept Melkur as the Keeper with only a moment’s trepidation and prepare to have the Doctor and Tremas, newly recaptured, executed.
Tremas and the Doctor manage to escape confinement once more, with the Doctor taking a vigorous role in knocking out several Fosters, both via stun gun (shades of a missing K-9) and the more simple expedient of bonking heads together. Aided by Tremas’ secret plans for the Source Manipulator, which provides the Keeper with the ability to harness the power of the Source, the Doctor figures out how to cut off the Keeper’s access to the Source, and he almost manages to do so before the Master gains full control of the powers of the Keeper of Traken.
Again, though, Nyssa (and Adric) to the rescue, as they plug their sabotage device into the Source Manipulator just as the Master has drawn the Doctor into his TARDIS and prepares to take over the Doctor’s body for his own. The feedback, which threatens to destroy the Source itself, overwhelms the Master, who has apparently linked himself physically to the Source. The Doctor escapes the Master’s TARDIS just as it seems to explode and quickly inputs the code to reset the Source momentarily, allowing another Consul to become Keeper and disabling Nyssa and Adric’s device in the process.
With the Source safe and Tremas reinstated as a Consul, all seems to be right again with the Traken Union, so the Doctor and Adric head off on their merry way, intending to finally reach Gallifrey in answer to the summons issued some four stories prior. Tremas, meanwhile, spots an oddity in the Consular chambers, a grandfather clock, and when he examines it, he is frozen in place; out pops the Master from his TARDIS to somehow integrate his being into that of the hapless Tremas (the name being a simple anagram of Master, of course). Though if gaining another body were always that simple, one wonders why he sat around in a garden for twenty years waiting to enact a convoluted plan instead.
Attention must be paid to the exquisite sets and costumes laid on for “The Keeper of Traken.” Not since “The Deadly Assassin” have we seen such lush and inspired design choices, made possible, perhaps, by the savings from having no location shooting at all. Never let it be said that the BBC skimps on brocade. Much narrative weight is carried by the ornate costumes and sets, particularly the main Keeper throne room/Consular chamber, suggesting an ancient, proud, and perhaps hidebound, culture that values tradition above all else.
While the story itself falters somewhat, Anthony Ainley and Sheila Ruskin elevate their roles as Tremas and Kassia, respectively. Ainley plays such an open-minded, inquisitive, and positive character that his subsequent turns as the Master will benefit from the dissonance, and his facility with technobabble while working with Tom Baker’s Doctor on the plans to override the Source Manipulator should serve him in good stead going forward. Ruskin, meanwhile, faces that difficult task of having to appear in control of her own actions while suggesting that she is possessed—always a talent in high demand on Doctor Who—but she carries it off well for the most part, with Kassia’s turn towards obedience to Melkur being as believable as the script allows.
Ainley, of course, is not the only actor to be appearing again soon, with Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa returning from the next story onwards as a regular companion, even though she doesn’t tag along at the end of “The Keeper of Traken.” On the merits of this story, the character certainly ticks all the boxes, being independent, technically-minded, good at working in groups, and resourceful. Sutton herself exudes a bright charm, one that helps soften Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, particularly given that they are fairly close in apparent age. Her ability to switch from sweetness to sternness when needed suggests a formidable character beneath all the puffy sleeves and billowing skirts.
Briefly working as the only “proper” companion (despite the term not being used in the story at all), Matthew Waterhouse finally gets some room to breathe in the script, with Adric having far more to do, and far less derision for doing it, than he has in any of his stories to date since “Full Circle.” Adric’s technical ability, and the Doctor’s confidence therein, comes to the forefront here, with the Doctor obviously having given the young maths whiz a thorough walkthrough on TARDIS operations and, on the evidence of this story, his own key to the blue box. Waterhouse takes advantage of the script and really comes into his own as Adric here.
As for Tom Baker, well, it’s another script that nearly sidelines the Fourth Doctor. Good portions of the story are focused on the political machinations of the Traken Union, or on the Master’s manipulations of Kassia, and even when the Doctor comes to the center of the plot, he’s sharing the stage. It’s hard to imagine Baker accepting this relative irrelevance even one season prior, but odds are good he is just counting down the days at this point. His acting itself doesn’t suffer, but there’s very little twinkle in his eye as he runs through a story that just doesn’t quite live up to its potential, particularly as the Fourth Doctor’s penultimate adventure.
Still, while the decision to reveal the Master’s role as late as possible hinders the overall plot and pacing of “The Keeper of Traken,” as a statement of intent from John Nathan-Turner and Christopher H. Bidmead about the direction of the series, on the cusp of changing its biggest ever star, the story succeeds in creating a moment of real surprise amongst more casual viewers and a moment of knowing validation amongst long-term viewers who spotted the Master right away. The contemporary Radio Times episode previews for the story don’t give anything away—Geoffrey Beevers being credited as Melkur, rather than the Master—nor does the nondescript title. The Melkur itself looms menacingly in the first episode cliffhanger like all proper Doctor Who monsters, setting expectations appropriately, to be blown away by the subtle hints that not all is as it seems. That little bit of mystery, that small frisson of awareness, almost makes up for the corresponding lack of a more coherent and compelling narrative, which perhaps stands as an appropriate summation of John Nathan-Turner’s oeuvre to date.
(Previous Story: Warriors’ Gate)
(Next Story: Logopolis)
Post 118 of the Doctor Who Project