Back in N-Space, the Doctor and Adric find themselves close to the planet Traken, part of the Traken Union, an empire whose controlling Source has enabled its inhabitants to live in peace and harmony for many years. The guardian of the Source, the Keeper of Traken, is on the verge of death, and will soon be succeeded by one of the ruling consuls, Tremas. The Keeper pays the Doctor an unexpected visit in the TARDIS to ask for his help. He senses some great evil about to befall Traken. A malevolent force has infiltrated Tremas’s family, which includes his second wife, Cassia, and his daughter, Nyssa. Cassia has been tending to a Melkur in the grove of the capital. Traken is used to receiving Melkurs–corrupt visitors drawn to Traken that become calcified due to the overwhelming harmony and peace of the planet. These creatures don’t usually last long, but for some reason, the Melkur under Cassia’s care still stands. The Keeper fears the influence of the Melkur, especially at such a volatile time for Traken, with the Keeper about to die, relinquishing the Source to his successor. If this evil should get control of the Source, it will be an unimaginable catastrophe, not only for Traken, but, given the great power contained within the Source, perhaps for the universe. The Keeper is not exaggerating, especially when the Doctor discovers the true nature of the Melkur, and his intentions…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
Written by newcomer, Johnny Byrne, “The Keeper of Traken” is one of the gems in this season, though it changed somewhat between Byrne’s writing and broadcast, largely due to broader changes within the series that producer John Nathan-Turner was keen to implement. This means the story serves as a vehicle for the introduction of soon-to-be new companion, Nyssa, as well as building up to the departure of Tom Baker. We also see Adric come into his own without the dominating shadow of Romana to steal his thunder. He and the Fourth Doctor work well together, with the Doctor allowing Adric to share in the problem-solving, treating him as part of the team. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the story is the return of The Master, last seen at death’s door and sporting the skeletal look in “The Deadly Assassin” five years previously. More about that in a moment.
In terms of production values, there’s a lot to like. The costumes look good, the sets are magnificent, and even the Melkur statue has an eerie quality to it. The “laser gun” type effects are clearly period and don’t hold up so well. What can you say? The effects team did the best they could with what they had. However, there’s not much to detract from the enjoyment of the story. Indeed, the design supports the story very well.
Tom Baker puts in another flawless performance as the Doctor, with some nice light touches of humor. Matthew Waterhouse is surprisingly good in this story. I really do think Lalla Ward’s departure was the best thing that happened for Matthew. There’s a chemistry between Adric and the Fourth Doctor that is begging to be explored, but sadly doesn’t make it beyond the next story. I would have loved to have seen this developed, with the Doctor mentoring Adric in a sort of professor-student relationship. There also seems to have been an attempt to return to the original concept for Adric as a kind of “Artful Dodger”-type character, betrayed, perhaps, by his ability to pick locks. Sarah Sutton is superb as Nyssa. She plays her with conviction, and is totally believable as the young girl suddenly caught up in a difficult and dangerous situation, and having to come into her own. Her character was originally only written for this one story, but Sarah delivered such a good performance, Nathan-Turner offered her a spot as a regular companion.
Byrne’s original script did not bring back the Master–this was Nathan-Turner’s idea, requiring a rewrite to include him. But it works. And the hints of his return are dropped slowly throughout, first with the withered hand controlling the Melkur, and then the fact the Melkur somehow knows the Doctor and the TARDIS. Near the end of episode three, we finally see the decaying face behind the Melkur, and, in the event the audience doesn’t recognize him from “The Deadly Assassin,” when the Melkur appears on the Keeper’s chair, you can hear the TARDIS materialization sound in the background.
I do have a couple of quibbles with the story. First, the use of terms like “hugger-mugger” and “rapport” seem out of place for an alien planet. Especially “rapport.” This is a French word, and the Trakens give it the same meaning when they talk about having “rapport” with the Source. When did the Trakens learn French? How did this word come into their vocabulary, their technical vocabulary, no less? Science fiction does this a lot (i.e., put English colloquialisms or foreign loan-words on the lips of aliens) and it makes me cringe.
The only negative design element worth comment, in my opinion anyway, is the Master’s costume. It simply doesn’t look as good as the original skeletal face in “The Deadly Assassin.” It’s not nearly as creepy, and makes him look a lot better off than he did five years ago.
Toward the end of the story, the Doctor sets us up for the next serial by commenting on the need for the TARDIS to be repaired. Adric wonders why he doesn’t go ahead and fix it, to which the Doctor quips, “This type’s not really my forte” (har har–his TARDIS is a type-40). Another set-up for the next serial is the appearance of the Master’s TARDIS disguised as a grandfather clock (as it was at the end of “The Deadly Assassin”). After taking over Tremas’s body (Tremas, by the way, is an intentional anagram of Master), the Master takes off in his TARDIS, leaving us the impression that we’ll see him again soon. The story ends with Nyssa looking for her father, which is both heartbreaking, and makes for a sort-of cliffhanger.
I’m actually going to call this one a Must-See for Who fans. Season eighteen is one of my favorite Fourth Doctor seasons, and this story shines as an example of everything that’s good about it. It’s fresh and original, with great acting, a good script, and good production values.