5 years, 9 months ago
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.
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