Doctor Who #554: The Keeper of Traken Part 1

"Traken Union, famous for its universal harmony. A whole empire held together by... Well, by people just being terribly nice to each other."
TECHNICAL SPECS: The story is available on DVD. First aired Jan.31 1981.

IN THIS ONE... The Keeper of Traken asks the Doctor to come to his planet, just as a statue in the garden starts moving and doing eeeevil things. Also, first appearance of Nyssa.

REVIEW: If the season is about entropy, then reducing the TARDIS crew to just the Doctor and Adric is certainly a manifestation of that theme. They're not bad together, though the relationship can be summed up as the Doctor getting all imperious on the boy and Adric disarming him by sucking up to him. Still, the two of them benefit from the emptier TARDIS, getting to build some chemistry. I applaud the move back to the simple Doctor/companion scheme, but it won't actually last. Nyssa is introduced here, but not as a companion. By the end of the next story, there'll be four people in the TARDIS again.

The Keeper of Traken plays as part fairy tale, part Shakespeare play. The world of Traken looks beautiful, with lavish frocks and wigs, idyllic gardens, and sets with beautiful art direction. But it's also a world where good and evil are tangible forces, where young girls are required to bring flowers and confessions to calcified statues of evil men and dying wizards can pop into the TARDIS on chair power. At the same time, there's heightened language and courtly intrigue, even permission to speak in asides. It's highly stylized, but I like it. "Anyone can talk sense!" as the Doctor says.

Unfortunately, the execution is a little clunky. The Keeper shows up and proceeds to go through a ton of exposition, accompanied by his home movies on the TARDIS scanner. It's an awkward bit of "tell, don't show", a shortcut to our understanding Traken. Necessary, perhaps, but not ideal. The characters we meet all seem very nice, especially the kindly Keeper-to-be Tremas (proof that Anthony Ainley doesn't HAVE to go over the top). But though these people are inherently "good", they're not perfect nor are they identical. Tremas enjoys a drink. His new wife Kassia may just be corrupted by the darker side of love, selfish in her desire not to lose her husband to the Keepership. The others are sketchier, but Seron is a dissenter, Katura an aristocratic older woman, and so on. Now if only they could not fall into the trap of distrusting the Doctor, the one person who can likely solve all their problems...

THEORIES: Obviously, Good and Evil are actual forces in the Whoniverse. So what are they exactly that they can affect entire planets, either creating harmony even in the weather and turning bad people into statues (Good), or causing natural disasters and weeds in gardens (Evil)? As Logopolis is about to show and School Reunion confirmed, the human(ish) mind has an effect on the universe. Perceiving the universe, in effect, creates it, or at least, changes it. It's some kind of Heisenberg principle on a macro scale, if you like. So if you have an area of space where everyone's cumulative good will that reaches a certain point (the Traken Union), you might just get universal order, holding back the tide of chaos (entropy). That much good in one space apparently changes the laws of the local universe. Traken seems able to absorb a small amount of evil by containing it as a Melkur, but too much Evil (by which we must mean harmful intentions or negative emotions) could disrupt the balance. It also seems the Keeper has a role to play in keeping the peace, as the end of his days are said to be a disruptive element, so perhaps it takes more than a lot of good people, it takes a mind set to work on radiating? focusing? that good will across space.

It looks quite nice and the cast is rather good, but scriptwriter Johnny Byrne wields exposition like such a blunt instrument, I can't give it a ringing endorsement.


Matthew Turnage said...

As far as the classic series goes, this is where I came in....

I grew up aware of Doctor Who and certainly saw snippets on PBS, at least enough to recognize the theme song. However, as a kid I viewed PBS programming as cheap and uninteresting (seeing Star Wars as a 3 year old may have set my sci-fi effects standards too high) so I never actually watched an episode.

I wasn't until I got into the new series watching Series 3 reruns on BBC America that I decided to go back and visit the old ones. I elected the New Beginnings box set to start because it had multiple Doctors to sample in one inexpensive box, it had the Fourth Doctor whom everyone seemed to like, and it had a regeneration (which I hadn't seen up to that point). Ergo Keeper of Traken to introduce me to Classic Who.

What is basically a stage play recorded for television wasn't what I had anticipated but it was enjoyable. I ended up liking the other two stories in the set more, but we'll get to those.

Siskoid said...

Good story!

I think I was prepared for Who by Monty Python. I was already of a fan of that and somehow, when I saw my first Doctor Who (Hand of Fear), it was just "what British TV looks like", accepted it and concentrated on the story. Eldrad MUST live.


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