That Jackanapes (The Keeper of Traken)

(16 comments)

His coat contains a furnace where there used to be a guy.

It’s January 31st, 1981. John Lennon is down to two top ten singles - “Imagine” at number one, and “Woman” at number two. “Woman” takes the number one a week later, holds it for two weeks, and then yields to Joe Dolce Music Theater’s “Shaddap You Face.” John Lennon’s posthumous chart success going down to “Shaddap You Face” has to, upon reflection, be one of the better metaphors for the fall of civilization ever. Ultravox, Slade, Dire Straits, Blondie, and Stevie Wonder also chart.


In real news we’re a bit thin on the ground. Gro Harlem Brundtland becomes Prime Minister of Norway, while Wojciech Jaruzelski becomes Prime Minister of Poland and immediately begins trying to find an excuse to impose martial law. And the Stardust Fire happens in Dublin, killing 48 and teaching everyone an important lesson about not locking the fire exits that continues to periodically and fatally be ignored. On a related note, 21 people die in the Karaiskakis Stadium disaster in Greece, likely because of a failure to open an exit gate enough.

While on television it’s The Keeper of Traken, a story that threatens to be overshadowed by its continuity significance. This story also marks a personal milestone for the blog - from this story on I have seen every episode of the series at least once, although sometimes only that and nearly 20 years ago. These two facts are not entirely unrelated. For the archive-centered Doctor Who fan the primary appeal of The Keeper of Traken, superficially, is a triple-header of events: the introduction of Nyssa, the introduction of the Anthony Ainley version of the Master, and the beginning of the loose trilogy of stories covering the Doctor’s regeneration.

Every single part of this is horrifically misguided. One of the more tedious debates available in fandom is whether or not Nyssa counts as a companion in this story. It’s tedious because it’s a classic pitched battle not merely over no stakes whatsoever but over a technicality of an invented concept. There is no doubt that Nyssa is a companion, there is no doubt that she debuts in this story, but because she doesn’t join the TARDIS crew this story and is instead brought back in the next story there’s a debate over whether or not she’s a companion in this story. Personally I advocate the far more entertaining fandom debate - if we take Asylum seriously and assume that the Doctor knows Nyssa is a companion from the start, does the Doctor’s not taking Nyssa with him at the end of this story constitute a deliberate attempt to alter history?

(There’s actually an entertaining theory to be spun here. The fact that the Doctor knows he meets Nyssa in his fourth incarnation means that he cannot regenerate until he does. This corresponds perfectly with his cockier and more domineering demeanor in the Williams era. And after meeting Nyssa in this story he becomes deeply sulky and funerial, as if he knows the jig is up. Of course, the idea that he’s just grumpy about losing Romana is probably the better account.)

But regardless of one’s position on that particular trivia question - and let’s face it, the debate really centers on the desire of some fans to have a reason to tell other fans they’re wrong about something - the fact remains that Nyssa’s introduction in this story is not a big deal in terms of this story.

Likewise, the debut of the Anthony Ainley Master is little more than a cliffhanger for Logopolis - and a dumb one given what that story’s trying to do. Yes, Ainley is there throughout the story as Tremas, and there’s the debut of the anagrammatic silliness that surrounds the character in this era, but this story is not focused on the Master at all; he’s a twist in the final episode. The villain in this story is not the Master in any meaningful sense, and indeed was rewritten late in the game to enable the reveal. Again, it’s important for what came after but almost wholly irrelevant to this specific story.

The only thing about the Master that is worth noting is that there is a new relationship with the series’ past that debuts here. The Master isn’t revealed until episode four, but the story parcels out clues in an almost matter-of-fact way prior to that. First is the revelation that the Melkur is in fact controlled by someone inside it (and that the interior is dimensionally problematic given the size of the Melkur, although given the frequency with which aliens in human suits are mis-sized this actually barely registers as a clue), then the revelations of a gaunt and disfigured man inside it, the existence of TARDIS-like roundels inside it, and the fact that it makes a TARDIS sound as it dematerializes all  clue the end reveal, but none of this is particularly called attention to or flagged as a clue. It’s a relatively unhighlighted subtext for a more obsessive brand of fan that is likely to remember the fact that nearly eight years ago there was a regular Time Lord villain called the Master and that some four or five years ago the Master looked kind of like the guy in the Melkur statue does now.

Which leaves only it’s status as part one of an accidental trilogy (since Castrovalva wasn’t even remotely planned when this story and Logopolis wrapped). I suppose I’ve rather given the game away on that one by pointing out that it’s an accidental trilogy, but there it is - this is in no way intended to be the start of some high concept arc, and reading it through that lens is deeply misguided. Again, there’s some distant interesting aspect here - the way in which Bidmead and Nathan-Turner navigate the nearly impossible task of writing Tom Baker out of Doctor Who is an impressive piece of television show-running. They take the counter-intuitive but likely necessary approach of declining to make Baker’s departure the climactic event or allowing him to be the star of it, instead opting to build the Davison era’s trappings up around Baker and then finally delete him from a show that’s no longer his own. Certainly several major steps in that direction happen here.

But all of these macro-level moments of significance pose a problem for The Keeper of Traken itself - one I remember vividly from when I finally got my hands on a VHS copy and watched the much-anticipated story. Yes, there are a bunch of things going on behind the scenes of tremendous importance for the future of the program, but they’re collectively a tiny fraction of what’s going on in this story and if they are the spirit in which the story is watched it ends up being quite a disappointment.

On its own merits, however, it’s rather nice. The word Shakespearean gets thrown around a lot in relation to this story, but inexplicably it’s usually in relation either to the dialogue or the costumes and set. Given that Johnny Byrne and Christopher Bidmead are not exactly the go-to guys for searingly brilliant poetry and that “Shakespearean costumes” really just mean that we’re on another pseudo-medieval planet of the sort that we’ve seen three times already this season including last episode this argument holds very little water.

But that doesn’t mean the adjective is wrong. There’s something very Shakespearean about this story: the plot. In the end this is a story about a dying king and a battle of succession. The main Traken characters are all noblemen and advisors to the throne. All of their defining actions come from character traits and personal motivation. Nobody is a programmatic character save for Melkur, and his role in the story is more Hamlet’s father than Iago. The plotting is completely open - the audience knows more than any of the characters (save for one major exception we’ll get to later). This is textbook Shakespearean plotting, where it’s exceedingly rare to have closed plotting and where the dying king/bunch of squabbling nobles setup is absolutely textbook. Even the Melkur’s status as a magical statue faintly evokes The Winter’s Tale, albeit with a cruel reversal. The only difference is that in Shakespeare the stranger whose arrival kicks things off would have been a secret heir to the throne and ultimately the suitor of Nyssa, not the Doctor.

Miles and Wood identify the style of the story as being that of children’s television, and if I may be so bold as to suggest, we’re basically on different tones for the same thing here. As Miles and Wood note, children’s adaptations were commonplace. And the BBC was, in 1981, in the midst of an epic series of adaptations of all of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a straightforward example of Doctor Who nicking a production style from elsewhere on television.

Which brings us to another point. Anyone who doubted Wednesday’s claim that Bidmead is the closest thing to Whitaker’s heir that the program has seen to date should consider that the last time the series went full-Shakespeare was a Whitaker script that was, like Keeper of Traken, sandwiched between two deeply experimental pieces. This is a throwback right to the Hartnell era and its mandate to simultaneously educate and take the viewer to new places, alternating between science fiction oddness and familiar history pieces. Indeed, in the stretch of Full Circle through Logopolis Bidmead manages to imitate this structure perfectly, with the three more challenging scientific pieces fit around two evocations of familiar stories. The only difference is that the historical has been replaced by the fusion of science fiction with period imagery.

So we get a Shakespearean plot in which instead of revealing hitherto unknown information about the royal bloodline the Doctor solves science problems. It’s yet another story of Bidmead demonstrating how his approach can do anything, and more to the point, do it distinctively. Bidmead, over the course of this season, has cracked how to do Doctor Who that can at once retain the series “do anything, go anywhere” potential and remain distinctively Doctor Who. Starting by showing how his style could cover all the bases of what Doctor Who was he continues his second act of showing how his style can do all sorts of new things.

Which brings us to the one exception to the open nature of the storytelling here - Melkur’s unexpected ascension to the role of Keeper and the episode three cliffhanger. This is the one point where we discover that there was something big that we didn’t know - that Melkur had a trick up his sleeve the audience didn’t know about. But even this has firm roots within the Whitaker tradition that Bidmead is reanimating. It’s just narrative collapse. Melkur suddenly and abruptly breaks the rules of the narrative, becoming a vastly more compelling villain in the process.

And here we get to the part of the story that does feed into the future. Because once Melkur breaks the rules of the narrative the story is set up with just a bit of a problem. Namely that it has to find some account for why Melkur is able to defy the rules of the system. Doubly so within the Bidmead aesthetic, where the narrative rules of the system are paramount because they extend from the scientific rules. When Melkur breaks the rules of the Shakespearean world it is, in fact, a massive jaw-dropper of a moment. It’s just that the trick only works when you encounter the story in the wild. If you know that Melkur turns out to be the Master then the revelation is flat. If you don’t then it cuts against everything you think you know about the story simply because the story has, by all appearances, not been hiding anything prior to this point.

And so the story has to come up with a sufficiently compelling reason for why Melkur was able to break the rules. The answer, of course, is that he’s the Master. And the story plays perfectly fair with this, giving enough clues that anyone with a good enough memory of the show can figure out that he’s the Master before the big cliffhanger. But it’s still a great trick. And it does set up the season finale in Logopolis perfectly. The Master breaks this story and then escapes, setting up a finale in which he breaks the entire structure of the show.

Crucial to this is the character of Tremas. Whatever fault might be laid at Anthony Ainley’s feat for the latter days of the Master the man could act, and his performance as Tremas is a masterpiece of quiet dignity. But by rights, given that the Doctor is not a secret nobleman who will take over Traken, Tremas should be the Keeper at the end of the story. That is, after all, the “correct” restoration of balance. Indeed, the first clue that something is very much awry (other than the fact that bringing the Master back for that brief a twist ending would be utterly lame) is that the least developed of the Council becomes the new Keeper instead of him.
And so when the Master brutally cuts him down - and note that given that this story is not structured like a Shakespearean tragedy but rather like either a comedy or a romance Tremas should be perfectly safe - and steals his body it is an egregious act of violence against the basic structure of the story. Tremas clearly isn’t supposed to die. This is why it’s wholly fitting that the Master should be reborn. Even without a decent plot explanation for why the Master can just pinch bodies that easily and why he didn’t do it before it makes thematic sense simply because it’s such an act of violence against the plot. Of course when the Master does something as audacious as cheat the ending of a Shakespearean romance he gets a new body. That’s how it should be.

The only problem is that the season as a whole can’t have it both ways. Next story it tries to set up an ambiguity as to whether the Watcher is the Master, but it completely flubs this by having us know what the new Master looks like. You can either sacrifice Tremas to the narrative collapse to rebirth the Master and set up the destabilization of the entire narrative logic of Doctor Who or you can have a mysterious maybe-Master in the next story, but you can’t actually do both.

But this is a minor complaint. What we have here is another deliberate and carefully measured step along a well considered reinvention of what Doctor Who is and should be in the 1980s. For the first time in years we have a coherent vision of what Doctor Who is being executed with reliable competence by the production team. This is a crowning glory for the show.

Comments

Jack Graham 5 years, 7 months ago

Great essay.

One thing. I've always taken the business in 'Logopolis' about Adric thinking the Watcher is the Master to be dramatic irony. I mean, the Master is clearly implied to be the chuckling presence within the TARDIS, isn't he? And the chuckling presence is quite separate from the white sentinel. They occur at different times and in different spaces (e.g. inside the TARDIS; far outside the TARDIS).

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Paul Ingerson 5 years, 7 months ago

Interesting essay, but you missed out on the fact that they chose to remind us (and let new viewers learn for the first time) of the thirteen lives limit in the story right before a regeneration story. It's as though they really want us to feel that after Logopolis the Doctor (and the series?) will be one step closer to a final death. Great way to reassure us!

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Adeodatus 5 years, 7 months ago

Nice piece. Here's a thought: I've always felt that the Master's costume and demeanour from here on make him resemble nothing so much as a stage magician. Black velvet and glitter, showy "reveals", a grandiose manner. Given what you've been saying about Bidmead bringing back Whitaker's magic/science approach, might it be significant that it's this Master/Magician who (repeatedly) breaks the science-derived narrative?

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BerserkRL 5 years, 7 months ago

Petty quibble: I believe it's "jackanapes," not "jackanape."

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Alan 5 years, 7 months ago

Three points:

1. I've always attributed the weakness of the Ainley Master to writing more than the actor. In the better Master stories from here on out, Ainley is fine. In particular, "Survival" from the Cartmel era is easily his best story, IMO, because the story allows him to act out a barely restrained homicidal menace that's quite frightening at times. Whereas, in "Mark of the Rani," he shows up for no purpose at all except to screw around with the Rani and the Doctor, destroying the plans of the former for no purpose other than to stage an elaborate death trap for the latter. The Rani even lampshades it with that wonderful barb "Whatever his plan is, it'll be devious and overcomplicated. He'd get dizzy if he ever tried to walk in a straight line." It seems to me that, faced with a character who seemed to have no motives other than to be a pantomime villain, Ainley just shrugged and chose to play him as a pantomime villain.

2. I have to say I do think you underestimate how important "Nyssa as companion" is to this story. She is introduced as an excellent potential companion. I immediately fell in love with her in episode three. To recap: Up to this point, Nyssa is portrayed as a sweet young princess in the mold of Victoria Waterfield, who nevertheless has the presence of mind to pose as a cold arrogant bitch when necessary to bribe and bully guards. Then, she learns that the Doctor, Adric and Tremas have been captured and imprisoned. So this fairy tale princess (complete with a tiara and a poofy skirt), who was born and raised on a world that hardly knows what war or violence are, calmly goes home and assembles a stun gun out of ordinary household tools before staging a one-woman jailbreak. That's practically Leela territory as far as I'm concerned! And then, she goes on to matter-of-factly help Adric build the machine that will basically destroy her civilization because it's the only way to beat Melkur. It is only after the day is "saved" and the Doctor has literally run out the door to avoid interacting with these people anymore, that her father is effectively murdered and cannibalized by the Master. I think it's very significant that the last line of the story goes to the now orphaned Nyssa, who wanders in plaintively calling for her father. I remember watching this and being quite angry that the Doctor didn't come back either to save Tremas or to take Nyssa with him.

3. This is yet another episode in which, IMO, Adric is fine. He continues to have a good relationship with the Doctor (regardless of what was happening behind the scenes) and he even gets in a good line: In response to a bit of nonsense from the Doctor, he snaps "That's the silliest thing you've ever said," and the Doctor agrees! I laughed out loud at that.

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Iain Coleman 5 years, 7 months ago

That lengthy opening Tardis scene with the Doctor and Adric is easily the best we've seen the young lad. There's a real on-screen chemistry between the characters, and relationship of experienced eccentric man and bright but callow youth really works. If the characters had been able to continue in this vein, Adric would certainly have been more affectionately remembered, especially if it gave Matthew Waterhouse the confidence to finally figure out how to walk realistically.

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Spacewarp 5 years, 7 months ago

@Iain Coleman. I do so agree with you. It's the only time that the Doctor and Adric have got themselves to themselves, and they interact wonderfully. There's no real friendship or affection between the two of them because both characters seem quite alike - essentially emotionally stunted - the Doctor by the particular alien detachment this incarnation has from humanity, Adric simply by his youth and personality. As soon as you put a third person into the mix, Adric's one-to-one relationship with the Doctor disappears and he appears forced into the role of younger brother continually arguing with older sisters. You can see it in his bickering with Tegan and Nyssa, and to be honest you saw it previously with Romana. The problem is of course that he was plainly written that way, but it's Waterhouse who seems to have shouldered the blame.

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Shane Cubis 5 years, 7 months ago

"There’s actually an entertaining theory to be spun here. The fact that the Doctor knows he meets Nyssa in his fourth incarnation means that he cannot regenerate until he does. This corresponds perfectly with his cockier and more domineering demeanor in the Williams era. And after meeting Nyssa in this story he becomes deeply sulky and funerial, as if he knows the jig is up."

Just like Arthur Dent and Stavromula Beta!

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 7 months ago

how did Tom Baker know that he was destined to meet Nyssa prior to his regeneration? Am i forgetting something here?

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Matthew Blanchette 5 years, 7 months ago

That Stavro Mueller sure did have a great nightclub, eh? ;-)

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Abigail Brady 5 years, 7 months ago

"does the Doctor’s not taking Nyssa with him at the end of this story constitute a deliberate attempt to alter history?"

And then in the next story Nyssa turns up anyway. The Watcher is trying to get history back on the right track, and truly paving the way for the regeneration by making sure Nyssa is taken as a companion?

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Matthew Kilburn 5 years, 7 months ago

The borrowing from Shakespeare isn't just influence from The BBC Television Shakespeare - Johnny Byrne, hippy-era poet and pop culture guru that he was, was profoundly interested in harmony and the restoration of a lost balance of humanity with nature. There was a view of Elizabethan cosmology which chimed with this outlook, of ordered hierarchical spheres of influence, from an era when astronomy and astrology were allied disciplines. There's more of the same in Arc of Infinity. It's ironic that Bidmead, who later claimed to be seeking to stamp out mysticism in the programme, brought in a writer (who had had talks with at least two of the three previous script editors) who had the clearest mystical vision for Doctor Who's universe.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 4 months ago

Philip Sandifer:
"if we take Asylum seriously and assume that the Doctor knows Nyssa is a companion from the start, does the Doctor’s not taking Nyssa with him at the end of this story constitute a deliberate attempt to alter history?"

Ah, now I know you're not talking about the Amicus film. That one's got Geoffrey Bayldon in it, who turns out to be quite NUTS, and he even gets to KILL JESUS before it's over. No, really. All to the tune of Mussorgsky. (Come to think of it, "Doctor Who" is in that movie, too!)


"Of course, the idea that he’s just grumpy about losing Romana is probably the better account."

Of course. By my account, only twice in 26 tv seasons did he really fall in love, and this was the 2nd time he lost one.


"the debate really centers on the desire of some fans to have a reason to tell other fans they’re wrong about something"

You should see the arguments at the IMDB regarding Peter Davison (or Colin Baker).


"There’s something very Shakespearean about this story: the plot. In the end this is a story about a dying king and a battle of succession."

Yes, I really noticed that tonight. that and the way that, of all the stories this season, this is the one that most feels like a videotaped stage play. (And I've seen more Shakespeare in the last 10 years than in the 40 before that.)


"The only difference is that in Shakespeare the stranger whose arrival kicks things off would have been a secret heir to the throne and ultimately the suitor of Nyssa, not the Doctor."

I keep thinking Adric should have stayed behind with Nyssa.


"What we have here is another deliberate and carefully measured step along a well considered reinvention of what Doctor Who is and should be in the 1980s. For the first time in years we have a coherent vision of what Doctor Who is being executed with reliable competence by the production team. This is a crowning glory for the show."

Maybe. But of late, I'm finding myself partly wishing it had never happened.


Alan:
"So this fairy tale princess (complete with a tiara and a poofy skirt), who was born and raised on a world that hardly knows what war or violence are, calmly goes home and assembles a stun gun out of ordinary household tools before staging a one-woman jailbreak. That's practically Leela territory as far as I'm concerned!"

Wonderful! I love that sequence. Particularly, when she has the guy toss the key on the ground, apparently because she KNOWS they'll try to do something when she bends down to get it, giving her an excuse to open fire. After, note Tremas putting his arm around her and smiling with pride, to which The Doctor says, "Remind me never to fall out with your daughter."


By the way, I wonder what anyone here might think of the one reviewer at Page Fillers who felt this was actually the worst-plotted, though best-produced of Johnny Byrne's 3 WHO scripts? He ran down a list of identical plot elements in all 3 stories. Reminded me of when I watched 3 different Paddy Chayefsky movies on TCM within a few months of each other.

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goatie 5 years, 1 month ago

Thanks to the way the words on the page organize themselves around the picture, I got to read this:

"John Lennon is down to two top ten singles - His coat contains a furnace where there used to be a guy."

Now I'm imagining a John Lennon / John Linnell mashup.

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John Binns 2 years, 4 months ago

The line is "what can't be cured must be endured"!

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orfeo 1 year, 1 month ago

I don't think it's accurate to say that there's an accidental trilogy here, unless you're referring to the script as originally written before the Master was put into it.

Because another source discusses quite convincingly the various attempts that Nathan-Turner made to smooth over the departure of Tom Baker. He wanted a familiar character for the audience while the change in Doctor was occurring. His initial thoughts were to bring back a previous companion - either Sarah Jane Smith or Leela - but as both actors were not interested the decision was made to bring back a familiar villain instead.

So by the time Castrovalva was being made (and indeed even by the time it was being written), it had been intended for a long time that the end of Season 18 and the beginning of Season 19 would share a familiar character. To the extent that you invoke Castrovalva in your "accidental trilogy" notion, you're completely off base.

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