Doctor Who Project: The Keeper of Traken

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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.

Adric and the Fourth Doctor conversing with the Keeper of Traken

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.

The enigmatic Melkur

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.

The view from inside the Master's Melkur TARDIS

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…
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Doctor Who Project: The Deadly Assassin

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Cash and carry, Constantinople.

From their first mention in “The War Games,” the Time Lords represent a vague, ominous, near-omniscient force in Doctor Who, operating behind the scenes, pulling cosmic strings while feigning a non-interventionist approach to time and space. Writer and script editor Robert Holmes burnishes away that infallible patina with his definitive Time Lord story, “The Deadly Assassin” (Story Production Code 4P), making wholesale changes to our understanding of these powerful beings—and, for better and for worse, to the future of the series as a whole.

Graceful Gallifreyan script

When Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor encounters the Time Lords, they sit in judgement of him for his interference in the affairs of the universe; solemnly robed, they effect a sombre, passive demeanor, one the Second Doctor rails against. They seem timeless, devoid as they are of ornamentation or emotion. Jon Pertwee’s involvement with the Time Lords takes on a more whimsical tone, with a nattily dressed member of the Tribunal that exiled him appearing out of nowhere with warnings of the Master in “Terror of the Autons.” By the time the two of them, plus William Hartnell’s First Doctor, meet the Time Lords again in “The Three Doctors,” cracks begin to show in the Gallifreyan facade, with the terrible secret of Omega’s eternal banishment revealed.

Resplendent in Prydonian orange

Robert Holmes effectively reboots the Time Lords in “The Deadly Assassin,” keeping but the barest outlines of established Time Lord history. The ornate trappings of the Time Lords start here, with chapters such as the Prydonians and Arcalians gaining their colors and high collared robes. Too, Holmes posits the Time Lords as an elite ruling class on Gallifrey, above ordinary citizens who, presumably, lack regenerative powers, given the number of Gallifreyans who wind up quite dead in this story. Far from standing as exemplars of rectitude, the Time Lord hierarchy engages in petty political power plays, concerned more with appearance than substance, to the extent that they have forgotten the truth of their own origins.

The plot of “The Deadly Assassin” centers around a significant change Holmes wreaks, that of a limit on regenerations: twelve. The Master (played in decomposed form by Peter Pratt) has reached his limit and is slowly dying in his final regeneration. Only the Sash of Rassilon and the Great Key, traditional trappings of the Time Lord Presidency, hold the solution to gaining additional regenerations, leading to the Master’s convoluted plan to obtain these items. As a plot contrivance, it’s a fine MacGuffin, conceptual in nature and neatly playing off of the series’ most unique conceit, that of regeneration. And in providing a means to escape the otherwise hard limit of regenerations, by allowing the Master to gain another one (or dozen?) at the end, Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe seek to have their narrative cake whilst eating it. That cake, alas, could have used a bit more time in the plot oven…
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Doctor Who Project: Jon Pertwee Retrospective

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In more ways than one, Jon Pertwee brought a touch of color to Doctor Who.

Jon Pertwee, the Third Doctor

Beyond the obvious switch to color broadcasting (or, perhaps more properly for the source material, colour broadcasting) in his inaugural season, Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor stands as a bright figure, sartorially resplendent in velour overcoats and equally as boisterous in manner, whether under the spotlights of Television Centre or floodlit on location in some quarry. He commands attention, always seeking (and usually claiming) the camera’s eye, earning him a well-deserved reputation as a bit of a ham.

Indeed, once we saw Pertwee wrestle with a tentacle in his very first story, we knew that more had changed than just the black and white filming. This willingness to indulge in the over-the-top, from the wardrobe to the acting to the plots themselves, announces a signal shift in the series, with a more “modern” sensibility.

The first of many gurns

Yet, unlike the rather jarring tonal change from William Hartnell’s bristly First Doctor to Patrick Troughton’s impish Second Doctor, the Third Doctor amalgamates the two prior incarnations seamlessly—he is at once given to brooding and moralizing while still quick with a Venusian karate chop and a cutting bon mot, often simultaneously. He is an old soul in a new-ish body.

As a result, long-time viewers see that the Third Doctor comes directly from this lineage; the character makes sense as a scion, so to speak, of this illustrious Gallifreyan family, even as all else seems to change around him on Doctor Who. So where the shift from Hartnell to Troughton required transitional figures (Polly and Ben) to shepherd the audience into the strange, new regeneration, the Third Doctor arrives alone.

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Doctor Who Project: Frontier in Space

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Only you could manage to have a traffic accident in space.

Just when you think it’s safe to go back into the water, Roger Delgado returns, the Master’s smile as cutting as a dorsal fin ripping through waves. Series regular Malcolm Hulke’s “Frontier in Space” (Story Production Code QQQ) starts out with verve and pace, dropping the Doctor and Jo immediately into a tangled web of interstellar intrigue. Two great empires of the 26th Century, that of Earth and that of Draconia, find themselves unwittingly lured into war by a mysterious third party employing highly advanced ultrasonic technology that disguises their mercenary Ogrons as the other side. Months of raids by the incognito Ogrons on Earth and Draconian shipping has left tensions between the two powers strained to the breaking point.

Friend or Foe?

By the middle of the third of six episodes, the viewer has been lulled into suspecting one of the characters already introduced—perhaps the warlike Earth General Williams or the honor-bound Draconian Prince—of organizing this subterfuge in order to further some hidden agenda. Two and a half episodes seems like just enough time to wrap up a political potboiler. But then, pretending to be the representative from an outlying Earth colony, swoops in the Master, and the entire story turns on a dime.

Behold, the Master

The strategy of withholding Delgado from the story for so long works brilliantly here, and one is forced to look back at hints the Doctor dropped about the fear-based disguise technology being far too advanced for the Ogrons, essentially just brute muscle, to have developed themselves. One even, perhaps, briefly moots the possibility of the Daleks being in play because of the Ogrons’ prior association with them (in “Day of the Daleks.”) And then, behold, the Master appears, putting rest to all those suppositions. It’s an electrifying moment, a real triumph of pacing and patience and plotting.

And yet, there’s immediately a sense of trepidation. For as pleasant as Roger Delgado’s appearances are, the Master’s plans don’t tend to result in gripping psychological or political drama, nor do they frankly ever make much sense. He’s more often than not a delightfully screen-stealing blowhard who falls prey to his own skulduggery. Will that be the case here?

Well, yes. But only until the real villains show up…
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Doctor Who Project: The Time Monster

Doctor Who Project: The Time Monster
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And against what, precisely, am I supposed to be warning the world?

One does not begrudge an artist returning to a favored, familiar theme. So the fact that Robert Sloman’s Season Nine finale, “The Time Monster” (Story Production Code OOO) reads almost identically to his (with Barry Letts) Season Eight finale, “The Daemons,” can be forgiven, if only because of the depth of world-building that occurs in this six part story. We learn much about the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s relationship with the Master, enough so that we can (mostly) overlook our realization that we’ve already seen this story play out.

Come, Chronos, Come!

Where, in “The Daemons,” the Master disguised himself as a vicar in order to use the occult altar beneath the vicarage to summon the Daemon Azal, here he puts on a professor’s tweeds and uses government grants to build a time manipulation device capable of summoning an extra-dimensional being of immense power: Chronos, the Chronovore, a time-eater that lives in the interstices between moments. Instead of Morris dancers and brainwashed villagers, his allies now include a graduate student, a doctoral candidate, and an Atlantean high priest accidentally brought forward almost four thousand years from the past. A step up, all things considered.

Am I getting credits for this?

The story takes a while to get moving. Two episodes are devoted to establishing the Master’s device, the TOMTIT (Transmission of Matter through Interstitial Time), and bringing UNIT, which is inadvertently funding the Master’s research, onto the scene. Many loving close-ups of a teleporting tea saucer fill the opening scenes. Several bureaucrats are given a narrative build-up, only to be dismissed by the Brigadier with no further involvement in the story, and a window washer who looks in on the teleportation events falls from his ladder in shock, his near-death state essentially ignored.

“The Time Monster” shows all the hallmarks of a story stretched from four to six episodes to fill the schedule, and yet the slowness of pacing gets turned on its head in the final two episodes, such that when the Master’s erstwhile (and innocent) assistants try to free the Brigadier and a UNIT platoon from a time bubble and accidentally turn Sergeant Benton into a baby at the end of the fourth episode, this dramatic retrogression isn’t even brought back up until the very end of the last episode. Because the Doctor, Jo, and the Master have a date in Atlantis…

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Doctor Who Project: The Sea Devils

Doctor Who Project: The Sea Devils
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Ships vanishing. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

As nice as it is to see Roger Delgado return as the Master, this renegade Time Lord’s appearance in Malcolm Hulke’s “The Sea Devils” (Story Production Code LLL) adds about as much to the story as the Daleks did for “Day of the Daleks” earlier this season—which is to say, narrative padding at best. But where the Daleks were shoehorned into an otherwise tight four episode story, here the Master occupies prime plot real estate for much of six episodes, leaving the titular aquatic Silurians with little room to hiss their sibilant demands.

The Master and Friends

Hulke’s original foray with his Silurians, in the somewhat unoriginally titled “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” provided ample dimension to the prehistoric rulers of Earth, with clearly defined personalities (and conflicts) within their ranks that drove much of the story. Here, their waterborne cousins have no names and even less nuance, seeming dimwitted and easily manipulated by the Master, as well as in need of a tailor to spruce up those blue net coveralls.

Perhaps it’s better, then, to see this as a Master story that draws upon an established series creature, like “Terror of the Autons,” rather than a story about the Sea Devils, awakened from their eons-long slumber by Royal Navy sonar tests. The incessant need to pair the Master with another monster/alien/villain, though, points out that this rightly beloved character lacks any actual depth beyond a desire to further his pet project, namely the destruction of the Doctor’s favorite planet, Earth. Only once, in “The Mind of Evil,” has the Master actually tried to carry out a plot of world domination and/or destruction without piggybacking on another attempt at the same, and even then he used an alien mental parasite to conduct most of his dirty work. The Master needs monsters like the Doctor needs companions.

Behold the Sea Devil in the Surf

What’s more disappointing, though, is that the initial Silurian story helped define the Third Doctor’s fundamental character arc: the Brigadier’s destruction of the Silurian cave complex devastated the Doctor more than any other event we had, to that point, see him live through, a trauma made all the more compelling by the development of the Silurians as a multifaceted culture. The Third Doctor trusts humans only warily as a result, seeing them as well-armed children, casting him as more alien than the prior two Doctors.

The Silurians/Sea Devils represent an important civilization in the world of Doctor Who. Coming on the heels of Brian Hayles’ volte-face with the Ice Warriors as diplomats in “The Curse of Peladon,” the Sea Devils’ downgrade to one-dimensional bit players becomes even harder to take. But, on the plus side, we do learn that Jo knows how to pilot a hovercraft…

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