Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Keeper of Traken written by Johnny Byrne and directed by John Black

This story in a nutshell: An Empire being held together by people just being terribly nice to each other...

Teeth and Curls: Despite the fact that you can feel that both the series and the actor is winding down to the departure of the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker is still on fine form for his penultimate story. Witty and avuncular, intelligent and thoughtful and even surprisingly gentle in places, I don't think there is a single moment in season eighteen where the character falters. He doesn't know all the planets in N-Space, just the interesting ones. If he knew everything that was going to happen then where would the fun be? How gorgeous is his chemistry with the Keeper, especially when he sympathises with the aching passing of time on the body (very fitting in season eighteen). When the chips are down and Tremas does not want to give the Doctor the plans for the Source Manipulator the Doctor is at his most vicious and sarcastic. I certainly wouldn't want to be in his way when he gets like that. He laughs when dangerous thoughts pop into his head.

Pudding Bowl Haircut: It is bizarre how well Adric fits with Tom Baker's Doctor as he was originally envisaged, the cheeky monkey who would get a clout around the ear by the most acerbic of Doctors. It was when he was partnered with Davison's moderate Doctor where things started to go very wrong because suddenly Adric felt as though he could throw his weight around and betray the Doctor on a whim and still hop back in the TARDIS at the end of every adventure. He would try any of that shit with Tom Baker's sizeable incarnation or he would get a smack and a boot out of the TARDIS into the vortex. Yeah, it's surreal how well these two characters match because Baker and Waterhouse are two actors that probably should never have come together (it's like pairing up Laurence Olivier and Hayden Christensen). In the immense shadow cast by the fourth Doctor Adric is pensive, subtle and always trying to impress. Waterhouse rarely looks natural on screen but when he is with Baker, he is really trying and that is as good as it is going to get. Adric is being given opportunities that he never should have had and the Doctor reminds him of that fact. He spends much of the story sneaking about and behaving mischievously, something that cannot be helped given that he is cast into the role of a trouble maker at the Doctor's side. His rapport with Nyssa is very sweet, they probably be the most boring couple in the universe but I do think they would last the distance.

Alien Orphan: It is bizarre to re-visit Nyssa in her very first story because I feel as if I have written so many words about this character and her astonishing development over at Big Finish Towers. On the basis of her performance in this story, I wouldn't say that Nyssa was ideal companion material but that is mainly because for an introductory story she is on the periphery of the action for a lot of the time. Saying that I think Sutton acquits herself beautifully as ever. Like the rest of her tenure she might no always be given the spotlight but she makes sure she is always doing something in the background, quietly stealing the limelight. I like characters that surprise and whilst Nyssa is never going to be a candidate for Traken, Warrior Woman she sure comes in handy with an ion bonder when the Master's grip tightens on them in the latter episodes.

Hehehe: If you are going to complain about a spoiler that the Master features in The Keeper of Traken then tough shit, you're about 30 odd years too late to have a whinge. Now listen up because I wont say this very often about the character during the eighties...what a triumphant return for the character. It is expertly woven into the story and a genuine surprise when it is revealed and Bidmead and Byrne even go to the effort of ensuring that continuity is maintained between The Deadly Assassin and this (I'm not so fussed about continuity and canon but there are an army of Doctor Who fans out there that would happily strangle the two creative minds behind this story for messing about with either). The pullback to reveal that the statue is a TARDIS with the Master inside watching events is one of the most dramatically satisfying twists the show. Entirely unsuspected and fan pleasing but expertly built into the narrative. It's not until Utopia that the Master would make such a calculated and yet thrilling return. Episode four is the best of the lot because it takes the best of Traken society and twists the knife in, the Master perversely turning the planet to poison. Beevers matches the theatrical tone of the rest of the story and as a result he is nowhere near as terrifying as Peter Pratt was in The Deadly Assassin but he does savour the dialogue with some relish. It's a shame we never saw what else Beevers might have done with the part on screen because his elevation to the de facto Master over at Big Finish Towers (especially in stories such as Master) shows that he has perfected purring menace.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'A whole Empire being held together by people just being terribly nice to each other.'
'It's a pity about that poor chap having to sit in that chair for thousands of years but it is magnificent.'
'What can't be cured must be endured.'
'This types not really my forte.'

The Good:
* Traken itself deserves a great of discussion because it is one of the most full formed and realised worlds that Doctor Who ever presented. That's the interesting thing about the season that Chris Bidmead script edited, he wasn't really interested in dragging Doctor Who into contemporary times and plonking the TARDIS down on Earth every five minutes - he wanted to head out into the universe and see what was out there (in his own cold, calculated way). I don't think there is a single season that shies away from the Earth as much as season eighteen (and that is saying a lot coming off the back of the Williams era which populated Doctor Who with so many insanely colourful worlds), we get to see Brighton beach at the beginning of the year and London at the end but the heart of this season is beating for fairytale worlds bewitched by science. And Traken is perhaps the greatest representation of that. It is a planet with customs, politics, backstabbing, harmony, style, a class system, military, myths, has in every respect been thought through (with the design giving the details in the script an even greater boost). Despite it's fairytale leanings, I can believe in this world and there are plenty in the shows run that I don't (Aridius, Dulkis, Atlantis both times, the underworld, Galifrey (of Arc of Infinity), Karfel and Lakertya to name one from each Doctor). It has been built up to such an extent that when the flames die and the Keeper dies it feels like a palpable event that will fundamentally change the lives of everybody on this planet, despite the fact that we have only seen a handful of people.
* Roger Limb and I have a very unstable relationship. Sometimes we get along famously when a director reigns in his electronic excesses and forces him down an instrumental path (Graeme Harper mostly) but more often than not he is polluting a story with wall to wall synth that is unpleasant enough to turn make mould grow on your pubic hair, whatever sex you might be. I'm looking at Four to Doomsday, Arc of Infinity and Terminus in particular. However you can begin to understand why he was booked originally after you have taken a listen to the score for Traken, which is wistful, poetic and lustrous. Don't get me wrong it is still being produced by fondling with a computer until it bleeps with pleasure so there is no doubt that this synth city but within that remit it is remarkably atmospheric for the most part.
* I love the unusual structure to the story in episode with the entirety of the planet, its customs and populace being revealed to the Doctor (and the audience) before we even step forward on the planet. With the Keeper popping by for a cuppa we get a built in mystery and gloomy portents whilst he takes control of the ship and pilots them to the Union. 
* Isn't it melancholic to think that Anthony Ainley gives possibly his finest performance in his first Doctor Who story with countless appearances still to come. There are two times when I think he really rocks it as the Master (The Five Doctors and Survival) but I think his two memorable moments in the show are as Tremas and the Portreeve in Castrovalva. Tremas is your token nice guy and that is not an easy role to make interesting (think Kimus in The Pirate Planet or Gebek in Monster of Peladon) but Ainley makes him an engaging character, inquisitive and funny, a caring husband and father, politically savvy and confrontational. He's a great character and so likeable it almost makes me wish that he had hopped into the TARDIS at the end of the story and the Master had jumped Adric's bones (an evil Matthew Waterhouse...after what I heard in Dark Shadows that might have been worth seeing!).
* The Melkur statue is one of the most beautifully designed pieces of work to have sprung from the classic series; solid, stylish, fearsome and a little bit sexy. Watching a stature lumbering about the sets should be cumbersome and clunky (The Stones of Blood) but with the lighting down, the movements fluid and eyes aglow it is quite a visually stunning exercise. Add in the silky menace of Geoffrey Beevers voice and the disquieting effect is complete.
* The closing scene of Traken is entirely unexpected and exciting, the thought of a younger Master distilled from such a good man and corrupted, is really stimulating. At this point we had no idea that we would ever see Nyssa again so

The Bad:

* Sheila Ruskin doesn't give a bad performance, per se but it does take theatrical to a whole new level in television terms. It almost works within the confines of this story because this is the Doctor Who equivalent of 'shouting at night' (as Patrick Troughton would put it) but there is the odd occasion where her performance rockets to the stratosphere and you're left checking the door hoping that nobody walks in that isn't a fan and you blush down to your toes. 'The evil is here before you! Before your eyes!' she exclaims, hands fluttering before her face before she faints as if all this melodrama is too much for her. At least you can't say she doesn't go for it.
* I'm not sure why any director opts for the painted on eyes effect to suggest glowing orbs. It never looks convincing even with the addition of CSO.
* Science intruded on the series in a very profound way in season eighteen and took what could be some fun stories and made them a lot colder and more clinical than they perhaps needed to be. Sometimes it worked out well (Full Circle, Warriors' Gate) but sometimes it was like the elephant in the room, intruding when the series should be all about adventuring. The Leisure Hive, Logopolis and The Keeper of Traken would all be more enjoyable if the technobabble had been toned down a little. Frankly the show comes across as being a little pretentious because of it and I cannot think of another period, before or since, where I would point that particular finger at Doctor Who. When the Doctor is trying to find a way to defeat the Master and he is discussing prime numbers and computations to do so it isn't the most thrilling of methods to dispatch his arch enemy. Pertwee cut through all this nonsense by simply reversing the polarity each week.
* Tom Baker has a huge dribble of snot hanging out of his nose during one scene. How did nobody notice that?
* One point where the studio bound nature of the story is obvious is during the storm sequence as the Keeper dies. It looks exactly as it would if it were being conjured up on stage, a wind machine and some dodgy lightning lighting. It doesn't convince for a moment.

Result: 'They said the atmosphere was so full of goodness that evil just shrivelled up and died. Maybe that's why I never went there...'  Depending on what you are after in Doctor Who (cerebral or exciting, stylish or dynamic) The Keeper of Traken is either the most thrilling prospect or a theatrical snooze fest. Fortunately I like both approaches (I'm starting to wonder if I'm in love with ALL Doctor Who, whether it is good or bad) and so I can see a great deal to admire in this prosaic entry even if I wish it ditched the technobabble and the direction was tightened up. I couldn't decide whether it belonged under the good or bad column so I'm going to discuss John Black's direction here. He's cursed with the early to mid eighties static camera issue, making me wonder if they were just too heavy to budge about the studio (I jest) and leaving the actors to move around the set whilst he pops off for tea and crumpets. This is in no way a dynamic story or even a particularly imaginatively shot one. However where he scores massively is his collaboration with the design department, ensuring that the sets and costumes dazzle the eye and cheat the viewer into thinking that this has been realised far more stylishly than it in fact has. He would pull off the same trick in Four to Doomsday but the script is working against him there. With Traken he has a lustrously designed planet, rich in colours and baroque design which is tied to an intriguing narrative with some genuine surprises and drama up its sleeves. It's so visually decorative and dramatically satisfying, it's like a perfect magic trick. You've a number of towering performances from Tom Baker, Anthony Ainley, Geoffrey Beevers and John Woodnutt plus a wealth of memorable lines to savour too. With the advent of the return of the Master, Traken has possibly the best ace up its sleeve of the season, even more impressive than the Doctor's regeneration in the next story. I want this to be an absolute powerhouse but it is a little too slothenly for that but if every Doctor Who story was constructed with this much care the entire run would be elevated slightly. Theatrical, melodramatic but also detailed and surprising: 7/10


Anonymous said...

Adric as King Joffrey?!

Anonymous said...

You are wrong. Peter Capaldi and Samuel Anderson are like pairing up Laurence Olivier and Hayden Christensen. I never saw Danny Pink as a real person. Adric may be annoying but is much more companion that Danny.

Adric and Nyssa are not boring, their friendship is much more credible than Tegan and Nyssa. It's a shame that their friendship was not developed in Season 19.

Joe Ford said...

Adric and Nyssa are not boring? Really? Their chats about telebiogenesis and synthesising enzymes? It's about as tedious as television comes!

Anonymous said...

Ha! Ha! But it's the WAY they said it ... do you know what telebiogenesis and enzyme synthesis really means as subtext to a young 'un (cough, :-P )

Arcane Azmadi said...

Keeper of Traken was always one of my personal favourite stories from my youth- I did a lot of my first watching of Dr. Who when the reruns were up to the late Baker era (I think the first episode I ever watched was The Power of Kroll or something) and this one stuck in my mind (the fact that it was one of the handful of Dr Who novelisations I owned -and still own- helped). It's just so memorable, which I largely credit to the Melkur.

It's good to see Adric working as a character here- he's almost like the Baker Doctor's protege or apprentice. Real shame the character went so wrong after this point.

David Pirtle said...
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