The Keeper of TrakenBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Two things strike me about ‘The Keeper of Traken’. The first is that has a dark fairytale quality and the second is that it has a distinctly theatrical feel. Either of these could be seen as an advantage under the right circumstances, but the problem is, both of these qualities seem to arise out of a combination of bad writing and poor production values, the result of which is that ‘The Keeper of Traken is a story that never fails to leave me cold. 

The basic underlying concept of the Traken Union is fascinating, in that it is a society held together “by people just being terribly nice to each other”, a society so pure that it literally makes evil shrivel up and die. This simplistic polarization of the concepts of good and evil is what makes ‘The Keeper of Traken’ feel so much like a fairytale to me, but it is ultimately facile. The main problem is the definition of evil; ultimately, the definition of evil is subjective. Whilst there are things that most people believe to be evil, there is no clearly drawn line on one side of which things are “good” and on the other of which they are “evil”, which rather raises the question of what the minimum is that one needs to do to be turned into a polystyrene statue. To further compound this issue, Traken seems to a be a society bordering on fascism, with the ruling Consuls discussing summary executions based on the most spurious of evidence. Most obviously, they are quick to condemn the Doctor and Adric based (from their point of view) on the Keeper’s say so, but this does raise the question, if the Doctor and Adric were evil and evil is immobilized by the power of the Source when arriving on Traken, why don’t the Consuls query their ability to walk around quite happily? By Episode Three, Kassia is able to convince Katura and Luvic of the need to execute their prisoners remarkably easily, Katura’s only comment being a sort of vague reluctance that such things are necessary. In addition, the Fosters, with their easily bribable and corrupt superior Neman, seem to have rather more power top enforce the word of the law than ordinary policemen do. 

In addition to this flawed premise, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ suffers from feeling almost like an amateur theatre production. For one thing, the dialogue, which most certainly is not anywhere near Shakespearean, is rather stilted and fails to sound natural throughout, something which is even more obvious having just watched ‘Warrior’s Gate’, in which the dialogue of Rorvik’s crew is much more realistic. In addition, the entire story is studio bound and the sets look somewhat drab, creating a claustrophobic air that always makes Traken seem more like a collection of rooms than a planet. As I’ve stated many times, this is a common failing of both Doctor Who and television science fiction in general, but here it seems more pronounced than in any story since ‘The Armageddon Factor’. In the case of this particular story, this doesn’t actually bother me specifically, but it does add to the impression that the entire story could be very easily performed on stage. 

My main problem with the stagy feel of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ is that it extends to the acting. Anthony Ainley, on the verge of taking on a more familiar role in the series, is actually rather good here, putting in a gentle, restrained performance that in retrospect does wonders for his reputation as an actor. Tremas is a likeable character from the start, and quickly forms a strong mutual respect with the Doctor, with Baker and Ainley working well together. Considering Tremas’ fate, this is appropriate, since it adds weight to the tragedy that befalls him, which would be far less pronounced if the Master stole somebody else’s body. Denis Carey, in his first role in Doctor Who to actually be broadcast, is perfectly adequate as the wizened Keeper, as is the ever-reliable John Woodnutt as Seron. Unfortunately, the other actors are less impressive; Margot van der Burgh’s Katura and Robin Soams’ Luvic are both utterly forgettable, although in all fairness this is largely due to the way the characters are scripted. Roland Oliver’s Neman is a pantomime stooge, taking so much delight in being ordered to push people around in later episodes that I half expect him to start twirling the ends of his large moustache. Most cringe-worthy of all however is Sheila Ruskin is dreadful as Kassia, over-acting to a horrible degree, especially whenever she is required to faint. Lurid hand-gestures and flared nostrils only emphasize the fact that her performance is hammy.

Then there is Geoffrey Beevers. It must be said that his performance is just as over the top as the Master as Anthony Ainley’s would shortly become, but I find it more enjoyable because it fits the tone of the story. Given that ‘The Keeper of Traken’ attempts to separate the concepts of good and evil so simplistically, and given that characters such as Kassia so obviously blur the line, Beever’s largely vocal performance as the real villain fits perfectly; his voice drips with malicious glee, which makes the Melkur really seem like the personification of evil that it is supposed to be. So thoroughly evil does he seem, that it is easy to believe that the immobilizing web of harmony that enshrouds Traken would ensnare the Master even if not corrupt public servants and traitors. In addition, I must admit that I do rather like stories in which old enemies are revealed to be lurking “behind the curtain”. Once the Doctor enters the Melkur and confronts his old enemy, my tolerance for Beevers’ performance diminishes somewhat, as he lurches about in a way that brings to mind Scooby Doo villains and tips the balance of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ from “theatrical” to “pantomimesque”. Nevertheless, the final scene, in which the Doctor’s old archenemy is restored to his former glory promises a great deal; the rivalry between the Third Doctor and the Master, despite being occasionally wrapped in some dreadful stories, was always enjoyable. Whether or not this promise is delivered on however, is a subject for another time…

Finally, the regulars put in decent performances here, even Matthew Waterhouse. The opening TARDIS scene lends credence to the fact that the combination of the Fourth Doctor and Adric showed great promise, once more casting the Doctor in the role of teacher to Adric’s keen student. In fact the opening scene is worth watching simply because it’s the last glimpse we see of Baker’s old humour in the role (except for the “this type’s not really my forte” line at the end of Episode Four), as the Doctor demonstrates his old ego, defends his handwriting, champions the cause of talking nonsense, and cracks jokes (Doctor: “I thought so!” Adric: “Thought what?” Doctor: “I thought you might appreciate it if gave you the impression I knew what was happening”). Adric is well written here, proving resourceful if hotheaded, and seeming to appreciate meeting Nyssa, somebody of his own age. This particularly makes sense given that Adric seems to have been something of an outsider amongst his own people (Varsh treated him as a little brother more than anything else) and has since been in the company of the Doctor and Romana. Sarah Sutton seems to provoke a rather harsh response from many fans, who describe her as wooden. I don’t think this is entirely fair; Nyssa’s overwhelming characteristics here are gentleness and a rather pampered upbringing; given that she could have been portrayed as a spoilt brat, the fact that the character is realized as somebody well rounded and intelligent is most welcome. Sutton’s performance seems to me to fit perfectly Nyssa’s quiet and gentle reserve, and she nicely conveys the character’s closeness to her father. This is important; Nyssa actually gets very little to do in her debut, but the gradually erosion of her family life, which although she doesn’t know it is utterly destroyed by the end of Episode Four, thus sets the tone for Baker’s swansong…