18: Change and Decay
Part 6: The Keeper of Traken
By Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 319
"The Keeper of Traken" continues the upward trend in quality of Season 18 with a strong narrative which is attractively produced and well-acted. More than this, though, it is here that we see the themes introduced at the beginning of the season and continued through earlier serials rising to a peak, leading into the final story "Logopolis".
As is well known, Johnny Byrne's original submission was quite different to the final version, revolving as it did around conflict between two factions on Traken, the scientific Greys and the spiritual Blacks, led by Hellas and Zorca respectively, who later became Tremas and Kassia (Zorca was originally male and apparently very much a stereotypical megalomaniac), and the intercession of an alien villain named Mogen. This scenario, however, is disturbingly close to that in "Meglos" (where the scientific-faction-versus-religious-faction scenario was the weakest aspect of the story), and the term "Blacks" was also dropped on the grounds that it would open the programme up to accusations of racism (although it's worth noting that echoes of the Greys and Blacks live on in the grey uniforms worn by the Fosters). Bidmead was also unhappy with Mogen, an "intergalactic megalomaniac" whom the Doctor "just happened to know" from some previous unscreened adventure, and- in a rare case of an old villain being successfully brought into a serial not written for them- substituted the Master instead. The Tremas/Kassia relationship is furthermore given an extra layer of tension by virtue of the fact that they are married to each other, and that Kassia is acting as she does not out of a lust for power or blind faith, but out of a mistaken desire to protect Tremas ("it will all come to good in time," she desperately assures Nyssa). The family seen here is also a rare example of a blended or non-nuclear family in Doctor Who, consisting as it does of a father, child and stepmother/second wife rather than a mother, father and child. Byrne gave Bidmead carte blanche to make any alterations to the script he saw fit to do (Bidmead later recalled that he had delivered the script and gone off on holiday to Greece, which Bidmead suspected was deliberate), and professed himself to be quite satisfied with the final version.
The design on the story is also remarkable. The costumes are notable in that they show consistency: the Keeper wears an outfit that looks like an old-fashioned version of the Consuls' robes, and Nyssa's outfit is much like the one Kassia wore as a girl of about the same age (suggesting that teenagers/children on the whole dress differently to adults), and the Consuls' costumes are all similar, but different to those worn by ordinary people. The general style is a mix of Italian Renaissance and Art Deco: as well as the costumes and architecture being influenced by Klimt, the inspiration for Melkur's design was a 1913 bronze, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space" by futurist artist Umberto Boccioni. The sets are fantastic, and appear to be huge, with the lighting and Roger Limb's score also deserving particular commendation; the one problem is that the painted-eyes effect on Kassia, while admittedly better than the similar effect used during "Image of the Fendahl", could have been more successfully achieved by other means, for instance contact lenses.
Although there are resemblances to the Damon Knight short story "In the Country of the Kind", in which a society that has eliminated all negative emotions is exploited by an evil man, and "The Brain of Morbius", with a powerful/mystical flame tended by a dying old person (in fact, the whole serial is very reminiscent of the Hinchcliffe era, whereas the next, "Logopolis", seems to draw on the Letts era), the most visible literary antecedents for the story are in the works of Shakespeare. While the story's connection to The Tempest (in that we have an old savant with a teenage daughter in a paradisiacal garden) is often remarked on, there are also connections with King Lear (a kingdom which falls into chaos as its ruler ages and goes mad), Macbeth (the Keeper's cryptic prophecies; also the plot of a woman conniving for her husband to succeed to the throne or, in this case, not), Hamlet (a hero who slaughters two-thirds of the court in an attempt to do good by a relative; also the idea of destiny and fate); Othello (an outside force for evil which gradually, through guile, trickery and subterfuge, destroys the lives of several people), and Julius Caesar (in which Brutus is induced to join the plot to kill Caesar out of a belief that his actions will bring about a greater good, but Cassius, the man behind the plot, has only personal gain at heart). The occasional bits of Shakespearian language and phrasing, such as "hugger-mugger" and "what's in a name?" that crop up in the story reinforce this, as does the Shakespearian use of foreshadowing (Kassia's reference to "eyes" before collapsing, the Doctor talking about the "Master plans" of the source manipulator, and the Doctor's final prophetic words to Tremas, "I'm afraid your luck's just ran out!"). The fact that the Keeper's failing powers seem to physically affect the whole system, causing crop failures, natural disasters and crimes, recalls the common device in medieval and Renaissance literature of having the health of a ruler linked to the fortunes of the country, as well as that of physical phenomena being omens or portents of future events.
The failure of the Keeper's powers has more significance than just the literary. It seems to be the Keeper's weakness that allows the Melkur to move about; also, since the Keeper possesses the power of the minds of all the people of Traken, Neman's greed and the Consuls' mutual suspicion is probably stemming from here as well. This also explains why rumours are spreading among the populace that the Melkur has been redeemed; they have a need to believe in something. The Keeper's perceptions also seem to be dwindling with age: he announces Tremas as his successor on Tremas and Kassia's wedding day, meaning that Kassia will lose her husband possibly within weeks of marrying him, which would be enough to start anyone plotting and conniving, Melkur or no Melkur.
Although it is never directly stated in the story, it is implied throughout that tending Melkur is something which is done, if not by Fosters, then by children or teenagers. Both Kassia and Nyssa are ordered to do so in their teens, and the Consuls all make fun of the adult Kassia, saying that she should have given it up years ago. The Keeper thus probably thinks he is doing Kassia a favour in officially relieving her of her duties, when in fact she has a deeper attachment to it than anyone actually anticipated. Up until Melkur puts the collar on Kassia, it seems he has no direct control over her; although she knows that Tremas has concealed his findings about the energy fields from the other Consuls, she could easily have worked this out from what she knows about the Melkur combined with what she has overheard Tremas and the Doctor saying, first, while she is seemingly unconscious in the Council Chamber, and second, when she is hiding the bodies of the dead Fosters in the garden. This is confirmed by the fact that she is unaware that Seron also knows about the fields. The Melkur, furthermore, gives no evidence that he has inside knowledge of the situation, simply acting cryptic when she protests that things haven't gone according to plan. Her "Yes, Melkur?" when approaching it in the grove also does not necessarily mean she was summoned, but that they had agreed to meet at a particular time.
There are other examples of crucial aspects remaining unsaid in the story. The presence of armed Fosters in the grove, in a scene following that in which the Consuls agree to supply them with guns, is not a continuity gaffe as some have suggested, but rather can be taken as an indication of time passing between these two scenes, during which the order was carried out. Nyssa packs the Ion Bonder when going to negotiate with Neman because Kassia has already said to her that the Fosters are bought and paid for by herself, making it doubtful that bribery alone will work on their leader. Later, when Kassia tells Neman not to deploy the Fosters, and when he asks what she intends, she replies, "the death of the prisoners," meaning, as the viewer knows, that the Melkur will deal with them when they reach the Grove (and, Kassia believes, will leave Tremas alive); Nieman, however, interprets this differently and deploys the Fosters in the Grove with the intention of killing them all. There is also an unspoken aspect to Traken society in general: we never see it when its Keeper is operating at full strength, but we do know from the Master's use of the Source that the Keeper is capable of controlling the minds of the citizens of Traken. It's also worth noting that the Doctor says "that's probably why I never went there" after describing this system (seemingly meaning that it lacks evil, but perhaps also referring to its coercive aspects), and leaves shortly after Luvic takes over as Keeper, no doubt partly because it takes only a short while for a new Keeper to settle into his powers, but also because he doesn't wish to participate in the system when it is at full strength. It also has to be said that a system like this must be open to a fair bit of abuse, and the most surprising thing is that it is only now that someone has tried a power grab.
The performances are generally good in the story. Anthony Ainley is much better as Tremas than he ever will be as the Master, and Matthew Waterhouse seems to have settled into his role and to be actively enjoying working with Tom Baker. Adric is also well-served by the script, getting to play the Artful Dodger in a way that isn't contrived, silly or making him look like a criminal (mainly revolving around his difficulty in obeying orders, and his skill at picking locks with a brooch). If it weren't for Adric's activities with the source manipulator, also, the Doctor might not have won. Sarah Sutton is much better here than she is in most of her subsequent appearances: the character was originally intended to be a one-off, but John Nathan-Turner decided he would like to keep her, which unfortunately meant that, as Nyssa was structured to work only within the one story, she was undercharacterised due to lacking the Traken framework. Although Nathan-Turner was not necessarily wrong in adding a third companion to the proposed lineup, he does not seem to have given sufficient thought to character dynamics: he had intended Nyssa to be a sort of Susan-figure, providing a focus of identification for younger viewers against the mathematically-gifted Adric and the older, aggressive Tegan, who would be introduced in the final story. The problem with this is that it was not Susan's age, gender or extraterrestrial origin which made her a focus for identification, but her portrayal as a typical if unusually bright teenager: she dressed stylishly, used contemporary slang, and developed crushes on older male figures, none of which Nyssa was able to do. Susan's relationship with the Doctor was very much that of a child and its guardian, whereas the similarity in age between Sutton and Peter Davison meant this was rather out of the question. The character thus has little which a child or teenager of the 1980s could identify with, meaning that her intended role went by the wayside.
The story's other contribution to the series as a whole was the return of the Master. Although the decrepit version of the Master appears physically changed at the end of "The Deadly Assassin", it is possible that he was only able to achieve a partial rejuvenation with the aid of the Eye of Harmony, as in "The Keeper of Traken" he does look different to his earlier appearance. His possession of the Melkur-Tardis is unexplained: he refers to his "new ship" and we see what appears to be his own Tardis inside it, but this, to judge by the events of the next story, should cause a dimensional anomaly. It is possible that the Melkur is the Master's only Tardis, and the clock inside it is just a clock, or, then again, it could be that the Master is unconcerned about the consequences of placing the one inside the other. The Master we see here is in his thirteenth body and desperate, causing Geoffrey Beevers to speculate that this is what the Master is like without his good looks and charm: as he puts it, "the essence of the creature."
The announcement that Tom Baker would finally leave the series came on October 24th 1980, during the preparation of the story for filming. Accordingly, although Baker seems to be recovering from his earlier illness, "The Keeper of Traken" reflects the fact that the season was drawing to its close: the Doctor not only encounters a dying Time Lord (who, up until the story's conclusion, seems to be another case of a familiar staple of the show having fallen into decay and ruin), but winds up on a planet which has been peaceful and prosperous, but, now that its leader is growing old, is falling into chaos (drawing parallels, perhaps, with Baker's successful, but by now overlong time on the series). The return of the Master not only allows a reference to the twelve-regeneration limit mentioned in "The Deadly Assassin" (reintroducing the idea of finitude, and that the Doctor himself has only a limited lifespan), but the presence of an old villain brings in the idea that the programme is bigger than whoever happens to be playing the Doctor at the time. The Master, also, wants to take over the Doctor's body, again suggesting the idea that someone else might become the Doctor. Finally, the next and last story, "Logopolis", is foreshadowed not only in the references to entropy and the Tardis needing an overhaul, but in that the hands on the clock of the Master's Tardis stand at a significant four to midnight.
"The Keeper of Traken" thus not only leads into the final story in introducing the characters of Nyssa and the Master, but in symbolically foreshadowing the end, and providing an indication of the way in which the programme will develop in future seasons.
Effects courtesy of Fiona Moore and Maureen Marrs