The Keeper of Traken

Posted in Episode by - February 16, 2017
The Keeper of Traken

Aired 31 January – 21 February 1981

Death and decay have been constant narrative streams through Tom Baker’s final series of adventures, and ‘The Keeper of Traken’ runs with those themes and utilizes the impending departure of the leading man to add a tremendous deal of weight to a satisfying tale upon the peaceful world of Traken that might otherwise have seemed a bit too excessive. Considering that the script had to undergo several late changes to accommodate a shift in the production staff’s desires, prime examples being the surprising revival of the Master and the impetus put on the character of Nyssa as Sarah Sutton was eventually asked to become a companion, due credit must be given to writer Johnny Byrne and script editor Christopher H Bidmead for managing to still craft such a coherent and enjoyable story.

The titular Keeper of Traken is quite an intriguing notion, and the fact that he is not immortal and all-powerful only makes him more so. Sensing that a powerful evil is invading his idyllic planet of purified goodness that makes evil shrivel away, he calls upon the Doctor who is still hurting from the departure of Romana and K9 for help. The Keeper, his stories about the goodness of the Traken Union, and even the chaotic storms that arise from his death are all treated as something akin to a fairy tale which works quite well within the confines of this story even though those more fanciful aspects go against the harder science that Bidmead often strove to incorporate. This script truly does highlight the range of Tom Baker’s abilities, the Doctor again more subdued but able to easily swing from amiable to deadly serious as required. At the same time, it also allows Matthew Waterhouse to step out of the dark shadow that the combined presence of Romana and K9 thrust him into during his introductory stories, and Adric comes off as rather more agreeable as a result, the teacher-pupil relationship that was so successful in the earlier years of the franchise making a triumphant and welcome return.

As far as introducing the Master, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ is arguably the most successful classic serial in that regard, showing him well before his new appearance is officially revealed and intimating that another Time Lord may be interfering in the affairs of Traken before that notion is confirmed. Indeed, the Melkur and the sound and visual effects employed to suggest that it is not what it seems are used to great effect, and the casual reveal of the scarred form of the Master is subtly used without undue attention or pomp. The story by no means relies on any previous knowledge of the Master and is wonderly self-sufficient in giving all of the necessary details without indulging in too much continuity. The Master’s continued desire to cheat death- this time through the turmoil of the Keeper’s demise- is perfectly in line with the character and also serves to once more remind the audience of Time Lords’ regenerative abilities through the broken mirror of the Doctor that the Master has become. The Master here drops all pretense of pantomime that sometimes plagued the character in the classic series, and his utter disdain of the Doctor’s ability to live on while he comes so close to death provides an incredible driving force for the character that is missing in many other stories.

Traken’s power being provided through a source manipulator is an intriguing concept, but the fact that Traken society has built several complex customs and rituals around it speaks more about it that any simple explanation ever could. Religious imagery pervades ‘The Keeper of Traken’ without ever detracting from the overall story, and there are subtle hints that some degree of political and social decay was already taking hold of Traken even before the Master’s arrival. Indeed, the entire serial uses the notion of decay to wonderful effect, each aspect mirroring the Doctor’s own oncoming demise with subtle dignity. The resolution is perhaps the most affirming example, but as the beginning of a loosely-linked trilogy to see the Fourth Doctor regenerate into the Fifth, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ is a wonderful tale in its own right while successfully carrying much deeper subtext when paired with the events to come.

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