Transitions, technobabble and The Keeper of Traken (1981)

keeper1

The Doctor (moody, burgundy clad Tom Baker) and boy companion Adric (nerdy, mustard clad Matthew Waterhouse) can be forgiven for not being up on current affairs on planet Traken. They have, after all, just emerged from an entirely different universe when this story stirs into life. But luckily the wizened old Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey) materialises directly in the TARDIS console room to play Xbox on the scanner screen. Well, he already has the chair.

No, he’s there to show some home movies and bring our heroes up to speed with the backstory. Traken, he says, is a world of peace and harmony. Well, that’s his first problem right there. In Doctor Who, idyllic, peaceful worlds are always one step away from total mayhem. In Traken’s case, a portentous statue called Melkur has landed in the grove and become calcified by the planet’s wholesomeness. Or it might be that he clashes with everything around him. Traken’s all very art nouveau, while Melkur’s pure futurism.

The ancient Keeper is reaching the end of his reign, as indeed the fourth Doctor is reaching his. “The passing ages have taken their toll on me,” the Keeper says and the Doctor replies, “yes, I know that feeling”. The Keeper senses trouble approaching during the transition. He urges the Doctor to come to assist, which of course the Doctor makes his number one priority. Right after he’s found some old books. Then read some old books. And wittered on to Adric for a while. Jeez, I’d hate to be waiting for him to rescue me.

Meanwhile on Traken, most of the first episode has past. But we’ve met kissing Consuls Tremas (Anthony Ainely) and Kassia (Shelia Ruskin, who from her accent is quite posh but has a name which sounds like she’s from somewhere west of Wagga Wagga) on their wedding night. Tremas is a scholarly type, who wanders around, playing with electronic gadgetry and talking technobabble. Naturally enough, he and the Doctor get on famously.

Kassia, however, has developed a far less scientific obsession with Melkur. She’s a bit like one of those folk who fall in love with inanimate objects, and end up marrying chairs and clocks and the like. To be honest, the husband/wife combination is a little old fashioned: Tremas is the scientific, rational male, Kassia the passionate, corruptible female. And like Eve, she’s seduced by evil in the Grove, a verdant garden in the middle of Traken. Gardens are interesting symbols of change and fertility and it can’t be by accident that one’s at the centre of things here. It’s the growing heart of Traken, while everything around it is as clean and sterile as an antique shop.

In story terms, the Grove’s polar opposite is the sterile but gaudy Source, a device which seems to hold Traken together, although exactly how we’re never told. The Keeper, apparently uses it to ‘organise the whole Traken Union’ and the Doctor says it has ‘limitless organising capacity refined to a single frame’. Who knows what that means? It must be more than just a nifty spreadsheet, but its significance is hard to grasp. Particularly when it looks like an oversize light fitting with fairy floss whizzing around inside it. Because we never get a decent explanation as to what it does, we never get a sense of what the consequences are of it being destroyed. ‘We can destroy Melkur,’ Adric says very seriously to Nyssa (Sarah Sutton, on debut) at one stage. ‘But only by completely destroying the Source.’ Wow, we might even care if we had the faintest idea what it did.

(Young Adric, by the way, is undergoing a change. He’s got a greater share of the plot now, since fellow TARDIS travellers Romana and K9 have left. But this means he suddenly picks up a level of scientific genius left behind by those braniacs. He’s able to deduce that there’s another TARDIS on Traken by looking at some gadget and muttering about Fourier analyses. He follows the Doctor’s brief bafflegab about nixing the Source so well that he can singlehandedly construct the device to do the job. Well, not quite singlehandedly; he has Nyssa to help. So typical of Adric. Left alone with a girl in the TARDIS and all he wants to do is play with his Meccano set.)

All the meaningless faux technical talk really puts the brakes on what’s a better than average Doctor Who story, with far better than average design work. For all the textbook Who imagery like the glowing eyed statue stalking the gloomy court, suffocating necklaces and black gloved villains watching events from the shadows, there’s an equal amount of blathery chat about fold back flow inducers, energy signatures and warp crossovers. It’s an odd mix of science manual and theatre, and I’d take the latter any day.

This collision of ideas is on display in the story’s climax, when Melkur’s grasp on the Keepership is broken, and a Shakespearean tempest is unleashed. Amidst all the sound and fury, the Doctor and Adric struggle to restore the natural order of things… by punching a number into a machine. By any measure, entering your PIN into a Trakenite ATM is no dramatic climax to a story.

Anyway, it all ends up OK, with the Doctor defeating his old enemy the Master (he was the Melkur all along!) and winning through to save the planet, the Keepership and the whole Traken Union from destruction. The successful end of an epic battle with some epic frocks. The future of Traken is assured.

Well, at least for the next three episodes, after which it will be casually destroyed by a big black stain. Well, you win some, you lose some.

*****

This story’s LINK to our last Random, Earthshock, is worth a bit of attention. Both feature the shock reveal of an old enemy. It’s a trick that comes to characterise 1980s Who, but it starts on Traken. The show had brought back old enemies in unexpected ways before – your Frontier in Space, your Deadly Assassin – but here the return of the Master feels like a showcase moment.

The Master, played with delicate menace by the silky voiced Geoffrey Beevers, lurks inside the Melkur, in fact his TARDIS. He’s in his decrepit state we witnessed in The Deadly Assassin, and that in itself says something about the series’ newfound love for continuity, heralded by producer John Nathan-Turner. He could have ignored the backstory, and simply bought the Master back in full bodily form. Yes, it would have disregarded the notion that the Master had run out of regenerations, but the series had performed more brazen u-turns than that in the past.

But the Master’s reappearance went down well with fans, and so Nathan-Turner repeated it the following year with the Cybermen in Earthshock. And found lots of excuses to bring back other old enemies, though never again with the same revelatory impact. New Who‘s not immune to that tactic. Far from it; there’s rarely been a post 2005 series without some familiar monstrous faces from the old days returning.

But as Nathan-Turner found, it’s a well you can only go back to so many times. Right now, I struggle to see which of the big, classic foes are left in the toybox for new Who to pull out. I think this opens the door for a few B graders to make come back. And if the Macra and the Zygons and the Sisterhood of flippin’ Karn can all be pushed back into service, I see no reason why the Melkur can’t one day ride again.

NEXT TIME… Dreams within dreams and sweet Papa Chrimbo. Every Christmas is Last Christmas.

 

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