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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts three and four)

Memory’s a tricky thing. Every once in a while, our son will just toss a random Doctor Who fact my way, suggesting that he thinks about some old episodes from time to time. But he doesn’t recall the Master’s last appearance, in “The Deadly Assassin”, at all. We only watched it in April. But it’s also true that he didn’t actually enjoy that story even a little bit.

So part three of “The Keeper of Traken” ends with the not-completely-surprising revelation that the Master is behind the plot, and that his TARDIS – he has two! – has been standing in place as the Melkur statue for something like a decade. Inside, he’s evidently been healing somewhat, because he doesn’t have the hideous skeleton eyes that Peter Pratt wore as the Master in “Assassin.” Geoffrey Beevers plays the Master this time out. Fanon suggests that Pratt and Beevers are each playing the thirteenth and final incarnation of the Master… which is where Anthony Ainley comes in.

Whatever you think of “Traken,” you can’t deny it has a very unique finale. The Doctor and Adric have saved the day, with the assistance of their friends Tremas, played by Ainley, and his daughter Nyssa, and make their customary hasty exit. But the story doesn’t end like we think it should. In a devilishly mean-spirited epilogue, we see that the Master had a second TARDIS parked inside the Melkur-TARDIS, and, using the power he’d somehow absorbed from the Traken Source, he takes over and steals Tremas’s body, clicks his heels and leaves to go cause some chaos dressed in black and with the customary Master mustache and beard. Nyssa’s left to wonder where her father went.

Ainley seems like he was an incredibly interesting fellow. By 1981, he was about ready to retire from acting and just play cricket at leisure, because he’d inherited what many people report was a very, very large amount of money. Who‘s producer, John Nathan-Turner, remembered Ainley from a BBC series he’d worked on in 1974 called The Pallisers and thought he’d be a perfect Master, and then, far too frequently, didn’t commission any decent scripts for him. Ainley had also co-starred in a downright odd ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web which I probably enjoy more than you do, although John at the Cult TV Blog has also celebrated its prickly strangeness, and he was in The Land That Time Forgot and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a fine character actor finally landing a role everybody would remember.

I’m reasonably certain our son won’t forget Ainley’s version of the Master. Reasonably. We’ll see him again very, very soon. But I was really surprised by how thoroughly he had forgotten the Pratt incarnation. During the closing credits of part three, I asked him whether he was surprised to see the Master again. After all, he did just freeze, give a shocked face, and tumble to the floor when Beevers turns to the camera chuckling. But at the end of the story, he told us he really liked this one, but didn’t understand “just one thing… when that showed us that it was the Master, how’d you know it was the Master?”

And I guess he had a point. Even for viewers with longer memories, it had been four years since the Master’s previous appearance…

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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts one and two)

Earlier this month, when I wrote about “The Leisure Hive”, I talked about how in this season, there’s a greater sense of real space in the environments. Every story we’ve watched has great examples, particularly the Starliner in “Full Circle,” but the planet of Traken is the best of them all. It’s not just having more sets and extras than the obvious example, Peladon, it’s having characters with lives that seem to have existed before the plot of the month came crashing down atop them. This is what a later producer, Russell T. Davies, sensibly understood about making the world of the show feel real, and what his successor, Steven Moffat, frequently forgot.

So while I don’t love “The Keeper of Traken,” I absolutely admire it. The writer, director, designer, and composer are all working in fabulous synchronicity. It’s a good story, not a great one, but it’s a truly fine production. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Johnny Byrne, and, sadly, by some measure the best of his three. Byrne came to Who by way of All Creatures Great and Small, where he had worked with Who‘s producer John Nathan-Turner and been the script editor for that show’s first three series. Before that, he had written about a quarter of Space: 1999.

In the cast, we’ve got twenty year-old Sarah Sutton playing Nyssa, a character who, like Adric, appears meant to be a young teenager. John Woodnutt makes his final Who appearance, and Anthony Ainley, about whom, more later, makes his first. Denis Carey and Sheila Ruskin are also very memorable in their parts here.

Our son might have liked this story a little less than he claimed, because he was pretty restless and seemed frustrated by the mystery. The serial is centered around an evil being called a Melkur that, like others before it, turned to stone as soon as it landed on Traken about a decade previously. The planet has a bio-electric power source that freezes and calcifies intruders with evil intent, which is a whimsical, fairy tale-like idea given a sci-fi sheen that doesn’t quite make sense but just feels right. That’s another way that the production triumphs, by taking this odd idea and making it work, against the grumbling of anybody who wants to be critical about it. But the evil being is, of course, just biding its time and literally growing moss waiting for the incredibly powerful Keeper of this planetary system to die.

I think the director does reveal a little too much too soon, but whatever Melkur is, he’s the second villain this season, after Meglos, to know that the Doctor is a Time Lord and is prepared to deal with him. Perhaps this is an early indicator of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, or perhaps we’re starting to get people behind the scenes who are much, much more interested in the program’s past and its continuity than ever before.

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