The Keeper of Traken
Tony’s a Keeper.
The Keeper of Traken IS NOT BAD.
We feel an immediate need to say that because it’s in Season 18, and Season 18 is very hit and miss. But Keeper’s one of the three good stories from that season of seven. Along with The Leisure Hive and Full Circle, it studs the Season with reasons to still be watching Tom Baker’s last year in the Tardis.
Having said goodbye to Romana at the end of the frankly unfathomable Warriors’ Gate, the Doctor and still relative new boy Adric make it to N-Space, or ‘home’ as we call it, but, in a piece of narrative cramming, the vision of the elderly, dying Keeper of Traken (part king, part power regulator) appears in the Tardis, warning the Doctor that his successor Tremas, and Tremas’ family, his young wife Kassia and their daughter Nyssa harbour an evil that could well destroy the harmony of the Traken Union (a collection of planets ‘kept’ in balance and peace by the power of the Keeper).
What follows when they arrive on Traken is a story from Johnny Byrne which mingles Shakespearian tragedy with much more straightforward Biblical retelling. Kassia could be described as a woman who loves ‘not wisely but too well.’ Having tied her life and love to Tremas, she wants him to herself, wants not to lose him to the Keepership to which his even-handed approach to life would seem to propel him. There’s an almost palpable battle played out in their marriage between Tremas’ intellect and reason, and Kassia’s emotional passion, that wants to keep him safe, and by her side.
It’s a passion that many in Traken would see as selfish, wanting to keep her man by her side, rather than sacrificing him to the Keepership and so ensuring the benefit of all Trakenites except herself. And it’s a passion in which she’s fatally encouraged by a force of decay, of rage, and of dark passion, an almost literal whispering serpent in the Garden – in her case, a Melkur in the Grove, to whom she pours out her woes while tending its ‘frozen’ form. Just as we’re told in Eden, the serpent reasoned with Eve and tempted her to the Fall, so in Traken a whispering decayed form consumed by evil, a thing in a cowl, overcomes Kassia, and through her, connects to the Source of the Keepership, a position of enormous power. Using a certain amount of jiggery-pokery, and at a terrible cost, the Doctor, Adric and Tremas are ultimately able to defeat the cowled evil in their midst, revealed as the Master on his last ‘natural’ life, and the time travellers depart in the Tardis – but unusually, that’s not the end of this story. In fact, The Keeper of Traken is an important beginning in so many ways.
After only appearing once in the whole of Tom Baker’s tenure, the Production Team decided that the Master was going to become a force in the universe again. Because of what Robert Holmes had done to him in The Deadly Assassin, turning him from the suave urbanity of Roger Delgado into the ‘screaming skull’ barbarism of the Peter Pratt incarnation, a pathway had to be found for him to return in a format that wouldn’t frighten the horses, and would let him be everything that Delgado’s Master had been – a master of disguises in particular. You can’t be a master of disguise when you look like a burned skull in a cowl. Geoffrey Beevers, in his only on-screen outing as the Master, gives an absolutely barnstorming performance, not in terms of ranting and raving, but in his sibilant, angry, powerful, mesmerising presence. When Beevers is on screen, even Tom Baker can’t make you look away.
It’s Beevers’ Master who snatches victory from the defeat that is The Keeper of Traken – not having been able to use the Source and the Keepership to get himself a new life cycle, he shows us the desperation of the Master and steals the body of Tremas at the very end of the story, after the Doctor has departed, becoming the Anthony Ainley incarnation that would see the Master return time and time again throughout the Eighties, all the way to the end of the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who. Beevers and Ainley, between them, are the yin and yang of the story’s lifeblood, pulling Kassia in different directions as the Master and as Tremas and between them bringing her life to an early end.
And what’s more, it’s the beginning of the story of one of the Doctor’s most notably traumatised companions. Nyssa of Traken is an aristocrat of the Traken Union, accustomed to a life of privilege and command. The actions of The Keeper of Traken not only take Kassia from her, but also, although she doesn’t understand it by the end of the story, steal her beloved father away. More than that, the universe’s greatest individual evil will, after this, go through life wearing her father’s face, laughing at her, and the destruction of everything she knows, through his mouth, scowling out of her father’s eyes. When, just a little further on in her journey with the Doctor, her whole planet is destroyed and she becomes the last of her people in the universe, it’s done by the evil that wears her father’s body like a suit. Nyssa’s journey from aristocratic privilege to a fighter of good fights and a righter of wrongs in the universe begins with the Master overwhelming her family her in The Keeper of Traken. For the nimbleness of Anthony Ainley’s performance as Tremas, for Geoffrey Beevers’ ungovernable force as the Master, for Sheila Ruskin’s take on Eve as Kassia, and for Johnny Byrne’s script which deals with grand themes of love, loss, selflessness, power, desperation and the ungovernable loss of murder all within the scope of a Saturday evening family show about a time traveller with a police box that’s bigger on the inside, The Keeper of Traken is an astounding way to spend two hours of your life. Go back and spent two hours remembering the quality of which Season 18 was capable today.