On Traken there is no evil. Anything evil on the planet turns to stone. The use of that word “evil” will give regular readers of this blog a clue as to what kind of an article this is going to be, because this is another of those stories where Doctor Who refuses to be science-fiction. That happens a lot. So when Doctor Who rejects science by accepting a concept of faith such as “evil”, what does that make it instead? Usually fantasy, or a fairy tale, and The Keeper of Traken certainly leans towards the latter of those two options.
But it is a fairy tale that gets subverted and twisted by the presence of the Master. Kassia is a fairly straightforward wicked stepmother, and Nyssa is our princess. Disney-type princesses are often passive, there to be saved by a handsome prince or something, and that should be the Doctor’s role, but Nyssa is better than that and shows why she simply has to be a companion. When this gentle princess, raised in a world where there is no such thing as violence, learns that her friends and father have been imprisoned, what does she do? She builds a gun and heads off on a rescue mission, breaking them out of their cell and shooting Neman and a foster when they try to rush her. Nyssa might not have been originally intended as a companion, but she so obviously needs to be one that it is a shock when the Doctor just leaves and her story apparently ends in tragedy.
We also have the father of the princess, the heir to the throne. So here we have another standard fairy tale plot, with a pretender to the throne trying to steal power, when the rightful heir is Tremas. If this were obeying the rules of a fairy tale, it should be about the hero saving the princess, defeating the pretender, and the rightful heir ascending to the throne. The hero saving the princess has already been subverted, and then the Master breaks the rules and kills the rightful heir, having already caused such chaos that the least likely candidate has assumed the keepership. This is the defining characteristic that links the Doctor and the Master: they both break the rules. But the Master is dangerous because he is the one who goes a step further and breaks the rules of the story. The evil-turned-to-stone thing doesn’t even work on him, safe inside his TARDIS.
Luvic becoming the keeper instead is actually a lovely little poetic moment, with a message for the viewers that you can achieve greatness and be humble at the same time. All you need is for something to befall everyone else who isn’t humble. Actually, that’s not so poetic when you stop and think about it.
So The Keeper of Traken is basically a fairy tale set in the middle ages. Yes, it is actually on an alien planet, but that is only a small concession to the sci-fi. Visually, everything is modelled on our own history, and thematically everything is modelled on a fairy tale. Writer Johnny Byrne was fascinated with mythology (Celtic in particular) and this is thankfully another occasion where the script editor’s attempts to ground his series in science becomes nothing more than the barely noticeable sticking plaster of some sciency words, with the writer delivering a script that utilises his own interests, which do not include science. This happens a lot during Tom Baker’s final series. In this respect, Christopher H Bidmead was a bit like a melkur himself. You see, “melkur” is derived presumably from the German word “melken”, which means to “milk”, but is also used as metaphorically “milking” in the sense of “drawing” something from somebody without consent. So the Melkur is an evil that fails to be contained, and drains the goodness from Kassia and the stability from Traken, upsetting the balance. During Season 18, Bidmead tried to do some “milking” of his own with Doctor Who, drawing out the fun and replacing it with a tedious adherence to realistic science. Luckily, like the Melkur in this story, he was faced with everyone else fighting for an outcome in opposition to the one he wanted. Writers will be writers, and they don’t want to write science text books. They want to write fairy tales. RP
The view from across the pond:
By January of 1981, a terrible thing had happened: the mask worn by Peter Pratt in The Deadly Assassin had become so badly damaged that it could no longer be used for The Keeper of Traken. So when the Master returned, now played by Geoffrey Beevers, they had to use face paint to create the burned out effect we had seen 5 years earlier and it lacked that certain something. The mask allowed us to cross into that wonderful valley of the uncanny, while the face paint just looked like a burned man. Still visuallly uncomfortable, but to a far lesser extent. However, what the character lacked in the mask, it made up for with Beevers’ fantastically evil voice. Beevers exudes darkness in his voice in a way that recovers some of the mystery that was lost when the production crew went with paint instead of the mask. Beevers makes up for the loss of the scary visuals very well. It’s also interesting to think of how often the Master tormented the Third Doctor when the Fourth was barely plagued by his nemesis at all. The Keeper of Traken started a 3-part run of Master stories but that was still lightweight by contrast to how often he used to appear in stories.
Keeper is noteworthy for a number of things. Namely, it introduced us to Nyssa, played by the magnificent Sarah Sutton. Although Nyssa doesn’t go with the Doctor at the end of this story, she manages to track him down one story later and becomes a valuable member of the TARDIS crew. She’s brilliant and gentle and will make a perfect counterpoint to Tegan’s fussing and Adric’s whining by being a voice of reason. But she’s not there yet. First, she will lose her father and her favorite statue. Then her entire world.
This leads us to another of the victories of Keeper. The Melkur is an interesting creation. It’s very much the snake in the garden of Traken’s Eden. It is also the Master’s TARDIS; potentially one of two, considering the grandfather clock we see later is also his TARDIS. The Master is able to use lasers from the eyes of the statue, thus giving us some indication that a TARDIS can have weapons. This makes sense in the context of the Time War but it’s the first time we’re seeing it. Also, he seems to be able to make his TARDIS “walk”. Probably some well-planned de/materializations, but still an interesting idea that we never go back to!
Those noteworthy items seem to surround the Master in this story as he also takes over Tremas’ body. Is it any surprise, though? Tremas ironically has all the right letters in his name for the Master to take him over. Shame his name wasn’t Bob; he would have been safe, I’m sure. But beyond Tremas’ unfortunate name, it also gives the audience their first chance to see the Master change. It’s not a regeneration; that doesn’t happen onscreen until 2007 when Sir Derek Jacobi regenerates into John Simm. This is the Master using the power of the Source to take over another’s body. It’s disturbing in that it happens, but oddly handled on screen. Where did the other physical body go? What about the cloak? Ok, ignore it… it’s still a decent story and an awesome idea.
The Keeper of Traken was never a favorite of mine because the whole garden of Eden thing, complete with the snake, felt too old for a Doctor Who story. It wasn’t new and clever and alien enough for me as a kid. I appreciate more now as an adult, but it still pales in comparison to so many others. And Kassia’s manic behavior also struck me as unnecessary too, so even the supporting cast didn’t win me over. Those aforementioned noteworthy elements above do give it an important place in Doctor Who history, but if not for those things, it didn’t carry my imagination far enough.
Although it was nice to hear the music from Kassia’s wedding, considering it was such an uplifting piece on the Doctor Who – The Music picture disc! At least there was that! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Logopolis