Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Keeper of Traken

Chapter The 56th, in which a wizened grey creature is lingering too long in power, but may be ousted soon.

The Doctor and (spit!) Adric are invited to Traken by the chief wizard of that planet, the Keeper, to help deal with a crisis. Traken is a magical kingdom of peace where evil cannot flourish. Kassia, wife of Tremas and evil stepmother of Nyssa, has fallen in love with an statue called Melkur that starts talking to her, fooling her into taking over the power of the Keeper, with disastrous consequences (assuming power without a proper leadership election never turns out well, does it?). Turns out that Melkur's really the Master's TARDIS, and he's inside in his decaying Deadly Assassin form. The Master wants to use the power of the Keepership to take over a new body, but the TARDIS team, with help from Nyssa and Tremas, defeat him and it looks like he's dead or scarpered. However, after the Doctor and (spit!) Adric leave Traken, the Master turns out to have been hiding in a conspicuous Grandfather clock; he grabs Tremas, who because of a cosmic coincidence has a name that's an anagram of Master, never a good sign. The Master takes over Tremas's body, and goes off at the end of episode 4 to take his revenge on the Doctor. (Warning: actual revenge taken in the next story - which just involves his hanging round near the bins in a lay-by - may not meet expectations.)

On the night of the recent UK general election, the rest of the family had gone to bed before the exit poll, but I am a politics nerd as well as a Doctor Who nerd (see the Deeper Thoughts section of my The Tomb of The Cybermen blog post for more details) and was looking to do an all-nighter watching the coverage and drinking beer. This was mainly driven by superstition: I've been to bed early when counts have happened twice in the last year, and woke up the first morning to Brexit, and the second to Trump. I wasn't going to jinx things this time. But, having done these sorts of nights many times before, I know that early on there are some longueurs, so I planned to flip over occasionally to the DVD player and watch an episode of The Keeper of Traken to fill time. I thought I'd probably get it all watched before I got too drunk to take notes, and before the declarations started to come in thick and fast around 2am. As it was, the exit poll was knife-edge exciting, and the first few results were swinging one way then another. There was too much happening to get more than two episodes viewed, and I caught up with the others over the next couple of days.

First-time round:
This story was part of the series broadcast just before I became a fan, Tom Baker's final one. But I was seeing more and more glimpses of the show by this point, having been too scared even to watch the credits just a year earlier. I saw a clip of The Keeper of Traken, for example, on Swap Shop when Sarah Sutton was on being interviewed as the new 'Who girl'. All I remembered seeing, thinking back, was a shot of her dressed as a flower fairy looking wistful by a gate. An excerpt from the appearance was on the disc, though, and it's much longer; but, there was indeed a gate - don't know why that stuck in my mind. I finally saw the whole of the story in 1993 when the VHS was released. I was towards the end of my second year at university, when I had no VCR easily accessible, but my friend Mike, whose room I had commandeered for many a video watch in first year, was living out in a student house with a few other of my friends, and I would visit with my tapes sometimes.

The best thing going for The Keeper of Traken is the fairy-tale atmosphere it conjures up. Everything, from sets to costumes to the twinkly Radiophonic score, achieves a refreshingly original Hans Christian Andersen tone. This automatically helps one suspend one's disbelief when, for example, the grove where the TARDIS arrives within this talked-up domain of peace and harmony looks less like paradise than a particularly uninspired entry at Kew. So, why dilute this atmosphere by grafting in an attempt at a techno fiction of binary induction systems, full backflow inducers, warp crossovers, and many more dull technobabbles. The mysterious power of Traken, The Source, is very similar to The Force, but undermined as if the first Star Wars film had started in at the beginning discussing midichlorians. And the reason the Keeper's magic is supported by humdrum server farms, energy reactors and scientific instruments? Three words: Christopher Hamilton Bidmead, the script editor, who hated silliness and magic in the Doctor Who scripts he edited, so encouraged his writers to chuck in meaningless justifications for the silliness and magic in the scripts he was editing.

But the science of the script is rarely convincing, and never interesting; this may be because the two regular cast characters are a genius scientist and his precocious child genius sidekick; they team up with two guest characters, a genius scientist and his precocious child genius daughter. It's distancing for the audience when people start looking at technical plans and spouting incomprehensible bafflegab, because there's nobody to ask them to explain what they're doing, in English. There's also no human in the piece; this should maybe have occurred to someone: protagonist and villain are Time Lords, companion is an Alzarian, everyone else is a Trakenite. Where's the human angle? Barry Letts was Bidmead's executive producer; this was the man who, when he was producer, had fired the wonderful Caroline John because her character was supposedly too smart and he thought it was alienating viewers. Did he just not notice this time?

Curiously, this means that the characters we're not particularly supposed to be rooting for, are much more interesting than the ones we are, simply because they're not banging on about dismantling a source manipulator all the time. Kassia is an interesting character, although she's given two motivations, both fighting each other somewhat: is she doing what she's doing to stop her husband being taken away from her (to become the new Keeper) or is she entranced by Melkur. It's a bit of both, but the story might have been stronger if they'd picked one and stuck with it. At least she cares for her husband, though: Tremas sees his wife die in front of him in episode 3, and he only ever expresses worry about its ramifications to the political situation of Traken. He doesn't shed a tear, he doesn't even mention her again. Sure, it looks like she's been trying to kill him up to that point, but even then he talks about it like they're playing chess. Your wife is trying to kill you, and she's in love with a creepy statue: look bothered!

Another character that fascinates me Proctor Neman. He's written as a one function cipher, the henchman; but the actor Roland Oliver plays it with such a gleeful, knowing smile, and there's a couple of lines in there about how he's fond of money and can be bribed. This, in a society that provides everything its people require: so, why's he like that? It had me pleasantly projecting my own backstory for Neman, one of class jealousy against the consuls simmering away inside him for years; now he's in a position to boss Tremas around, a man he's desperate for respect from, he'll make him give respect. Yes, it's probably less interestingly just down to a script inconsistency, but never mind. There are quite a few inconsistencies in the script, and one could keep one's self amused for a while trying to rationalise them all. The Keeper brings the Doctor and Adric to Traken, warning them that it'll be a difficult task, but actually it's only difficult because he didn't tell anyone he'd sent for them, so they look like the bad guys. He's supposed to pretty much be omniscient, so why doesn't he just tell his consuls he's sending for a clever Time Lord guy who'll arrive with a kid in yellow pyjamas. That would have made things a bit easier for our heroes. But I suppose, if the Keeper has already seen that things would be difficult, he can't do anything that would make things a bit easier, or else he'll influence the future he's already witnessed, and set things on a different path. Crikey, omniscience is confusing, isn't it?

Less confusing, at least to everyone except the Doctor, is the big surprise of the piece, that the villain is not Melkur but Master, and the statue is really his TARDIS. But, even though when it arrives anywhere the (really well designed) Melkur statue DOES THE TARDIS MATERIALISATION NOISE, the Doctor still doesn't twig who the bad guy might be. When the Doctor's scratching his head and saying "I'm sure we've met before", I was shouting at the screen "IT'S THE MASTER!" Sheesh. Aside from this, though, Tom Baker's performance is great, in full 'Soho raconteur' mode, he's being off-beam and jokey all the way through, and it works. Nyssa's debut story sees her a little bit overshadowed, without the set pieces you'd expect from a new companions 'audition' show these days, but then she was never originally expected to join the crew, it was a relatively last minute change.

Another Tom Baker four-parter, with both stories doing sci-fi updates of ancient tales - here it's fairy tale / folk tale tropes, rather than Ancient Greek myths. Plus, both contain decaying ancient figures that get rejuvenated.

Deeper Thoughts:
On disappointment, hope, and surprise. In the aforementioned Tomb of the Cybermen blog post, I wrote the following about the UK general election that was then still a month away: "There isn't any probable outcome ... that isn't miserable and difficult." Later in the same post, though, I said "If we're patient, good things can happen at unexpected times, and we should never give up believing things that are lost can be brought back." I expected to have to be patient for a long time, maybe decades. But I was surprised. When I sat down last Thursday to see the election results come in, armed only with The Keeper of Traken and beer, I was braced for disappointment but couldn't quite extinguish a glimmer of hope. Curiously, that's the same emotional state I am often in when I sit down to watch a new episode of Doctor Who go out.

I'm not equating them; I don't want to put parliamentary democracy at the same level as a TV show (the TV show's too important for that!!!). I'm just being honest about my own twisted psyche. In both instances, I want it to turn out good, but I have this dread feeling that it will be terrible, and I can't not tune in. Generally, a new and better episode of Doctor Who comes along quicker than a new and better intake of MPs, but there's some other echoes. Steven Moffat, for his own sake as well as ours, is probably relinquishing power at the right time. I'm reminded of those (hubristic, as it turned out) comments made by David Cameron before the 2015 election: a Prime Minister should never go for three terms in office. The Doctor Who equivalent is a showrunner should never stay on to appoint three Doctors. And, like David Cameron, we have memories of a bad experience in the 1980s where the producer did just that, and it didn't end well.

Just as the late John Nathan-Turner would not feel good, I'm sure, about me comparing him to Thatcher, our two most recent showrunners would likely reject my next idea, but it sort of fits. Russell T Davies was the 'New Labour' showrunner, presiding over the boom, but maybe petering out a bit at the end; Steven Moffat is the 'Coalition/Conservative' showrunner (taking over in 2010, perhaps not with quite the same pomp as the previous team, but managing to keep carrying on, longer than probably anyone predicted at the outset). Of course, rather than coming close to destroying the union and trashing his own reputation at the end, Steven Moffat instead has produced the best season of Doctor Who for ages; creative people have more stamina than politicians, I guess. But could this mean that Chris Chibnall is just possibly... Jeremy Corbyn? Someone new, in earlier years a rebel who famously was critical of his own party./ show, but now a beacon of hope? Time will tell. Like The Keeper of Traken, the election has ended on a cliffhanger. A character who we thought was surely dead unexpectedly still survives, and we don't know what damage they're going to do next. Roll credits.

In Summary:
Lots of flaws, but it remains intriguing; so, overall, this one's a Keeper.

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