CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO : New Beginnings / The Keeper Of Traken

The Keeper Of Traken

February 1981

'A whole empire held together... by people just being terribly nice to each other.'

‘A new body at last…’

The Doctor and Adric are invited to Traken at the request of the ailing Keeper. Something evil is flourishing on this Eden like planet and the Keeper is concerned that it will overwhelm the union and threaten the mystical Source that harmoniously holds together the planets in the system. However, the ancient evil of the Melkur creature hides an old enemy…

At this point, it really does seem as if Nathan-Turner and Bidmead know what they’re doing. Since Full Circle things have clicked into place, there’s a renewed confidence with the production and a genuine attempt to experiment with the format and use television properly as a medium. Traken looks absolutely stunning, even now, and Tony Burrough’s production design is a major element in that appreciation, fusing Art Nouveau psychedelia with angular Futurist structures, informing everything from the Source, the Keeper’s Throne room right through to the Melkur statue and the Grove. He’s more than aided and abetted by Amy Roberts lush costumes and Don Babbage’s sensitive studio lighting. And for me this is probably the best score Roger Limb contributed to the series. It's subtle and restrained whereas some of his later work is, for me, a bit harsh and atonal.

For me it’s a clever balance between a very astute sense of design and a story that is able to punctuate those visuals with a number of concepts that are informing the pattern of the narrative if you so desire to amplify them. Certainly, Johnny Byrne has commented on many of these concepts and made it clear what the background is to Traken but many of Bidmead’s own themes, developing throughout Season 18, are also present. It’s the Pythagorean notion of the ‘Music Of The Spheres’, the body politic subtext straight out of Elizabethan England and Shakespeare and the Biblical story of the garden of Eden that makes Traken such an interesting story. Plus bung in all sorts of resonances to the Pre-Raphaelites (the look of it all), the Knights Of The Round Table and the Holy Grail and a millennial angst and you are seriously cooking with gas!

There’s such a lot in the story about how an harmonious society can become infected by evil, where the Keeper is not only the ‘godhead’ for the Traken union but also a motif representing the ‘godliness’ of Traken society that is directly contrasted to the festering serpent of Melkur deep in the ‘garden’ or ‘grove’ of that world. As the Keeper weakens, so society crumbles, there is disharmony, the nature of evil runs rampant (Melkur becomes animated). Weeds flourish in the garden and the citizens suffer. The idyll is tainted. You could also draw a modern body-politic argument here too. Remember Thatcher saying there was no such thing as society anymore? Well, she came on like our very own Melkur in the 1980s, wherein acts of personal greed and cruelty are perpetrated on an entire state and society is set out of kilter. No harmonious union, just very power hungry acolytes prepared to sacrifice it all for the good of the individual. No wonder Melkur is the living embodiment of the Futurist manifesto of 1909. The beginning of the century and the close of it - how terribly millennial!

There is also great significance placed upon science within the harmony of Traken society that directly correlates to the Platonic and Pythagorean alliance of music with mathematics, where music figured prominently in cosmology, astrology, and number mysticism. The harmonious nature of the Union Of Traken plays with the theory that the planets were governed in their motions by ratios of musical acoustics. Numbers keep these worlds in harmony (oh, let’s see…that’s Bidmead prepping us for Logopolis where numbers keep the Universe running!). The Greeks apparently gave great metaphysical significance to sets of numbers from 1 to 4 being the source of all harmony. Where does this take us…straight to the use of numbers to prevent the Keeper-ship from falling into chaos, to the science/mysticism principles that keep the checks and balances of the society in place and the Pythagorean partnership between the Doctor and Tremas, Adric and Nyssa ranged against the disharmony of Kassia and The Melkur.

And you can also see that the Keeper is an Arthurian figure, surrounded by his knights (the Consuls) but where the ailing leader withers away, aching to be replaced and where the Source is basically the Holy Grail. Oh, and Wagner’s Parsifal, anyone? There’s a massive dollop of that in there too! Traken comes out of this as a giddy, psychotropic experience, surfing through a kaleidoscope of inferences, allusions and metaphors from the psychedelic Art Nouveau design, to the anti-christ Melkur creature coming on like a mobile Futurist manifesto and it’s rather pervy seduction of Kassia via Klimt and Edward Burne-Jones.

Ally all this to some pretty good performances from Denis Carey as The Keeper, Anthony Ainley as Tremas and Sheila Ruskin as Kassia, plus the sterling support of John Woodnutt and Margot Van De Burgh and there’s no stopping it! Baker is on good form again, with a fitting melancholic resignation when he realises who Melkur really is. His partnership with Waterhouse’s Adric is solid and likeable. The only decision I didn’t like about this at the time, and one which I still hold to, was to keep Nyssa on as a companion. For me, it amplifies Nathan Turner's reduction of the companion to ‘child’ status within the programme which becomes a real problem much later. This diminution rapidly increases from this point on and it’s purely a Nathan-Turner attempt to remove the maturity from the audience identification figures. After Sarah-Jane, Leela and the two Romanas this is direction determined only by his own sense of the appeal of the programme. Nyssa, as a character, and the playing of it by Sarah Sutton, is perfectly fine within the context of Traken but as a companion…? I was never convinced it was a good idea.

Best of all though is Geoffrey Beevers as the Melkur/Master, his vocalisations being all that was required to demonstrate the cloying, leering, psychotic and destructive nature of the character. And that final, fatal hi-jacking of Tremas’ body still packs a punch. As the Ainley Master disappeared from view at the end of Traken, the dynamics of the programme changed yet again and heralded further and greater change in the next story. No matter how much weed killer you put down in the Garden of Eden, there’s always one serpent that gets away!

DVD features:

  • Commentary from actors Anthony Ainley, Matthew Waterhouse and Sarah Sutton, plus writer Johnny Byrne
  • Being Nice to Each Other (30 mins) - a new documentary looking at the making of this story through the eyes of the cast and crew. Featuring actors Sarah Sutton, Sheila Ruskin, Geoffrey Beevers, director John Black, writer Johnny Byrne and script editor Christopher H. Bidmead. Narrated by George Williams
  • The Return of the Master (9mins approx') - Geoffrey Beevers, Christopher H. Bidmead and John Black talk about how they realised the return of the Doctor's arch-adversary
  • Sarah Sutton on Swap Shop - Noel Edmonds interviews Sarah Sutton, with questions phoned in from young viewers (11 mins)

NEW BEGINNINGS - 3 disc set (BBCDVD1331, Region 2, Released 22nd January 2007)

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