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08 May 2016 @ 02:03 pm
The Randomiser: The Keeper of Traken  
The Keeper of Traken is a strange story in several ways. While it exists at the tail end of Tom Baker's reign, like Logopolis it feels in style a lot more like a Peter Davison story than a Tom Baker story. This might be a reflection of John Nathan Turner's hand at the helm, but the earlier stories this season (or at least Full Circle and Warriors' Gate both of which I have seen comparatively recently) have less of this feel to them.

Its tone, both in terms of dialogue and set design, is self-consciously Shakespearean in a way the show hadn't really attempted since some of the historical stories in the sixties. In this case, it isn't try to evoke a historical period but, instead an advanced and yet largely stagnant and formalised society. It suffers a bit from the rather flat lighting that was to devil 1980s Doctor Who, but the sets and costumes are lavish and thoughtful. The plot is also Shakespearean in its ambitions. There is a villain, but in general the drama is driven by the flaws of the "good" characters which the villain exploits. That said, the plot does rather rest on the idea that the consuls of Traken are not great, good and wise (as the set up initially suggests) but in fact foolish, prejudiced and easily led. Even odder, for a society that is supposedly regulated into being good and wise by the mystical forces of the Keeper, it is clear that the guard-like fosters, at least, are thoroughly corrupt and this is well-enough known that it can't simply have been a side-effect of the Keeper's waning power. Even the Keeper seems fairly foolish, in particular in failing to inform his consuls that he has appealed to the Doctor to help.

While the Doctor professes himself happy to aid the Keeper, he does not seem to particularly mourn the passing of the Keeper's power and makes comments to the effect that a little more free will in the Traken Union might not be a bad thing. I can't help wondering if there was a version of this story in which the claims that the Keeper magically maintained peace, harmony and all things good throughout the Traken Union were more explicitly shown to be largely false - or at least to lead to a population that rabidly collapsed into venality and corruption the moment their behaviour was not longer artificially regulated.

The ending of the story is also strange. The apparently "happy" resolution is undermined by the Master's theft of Tremas's body and then we learn, in the next story, that in fact the whole of the Traken Union is destroyed. Although not played as such, The Keeper of Traken represents a failure for the Doctor on a massive scale and the fact of this tragedy is oddly muted.

Anthony Ainley is, incidentally, excellent as Consul Tremas. Given I don't greatly rate his performance as the Master, it was interesting to see how good he could be in another role. All the acting is pretty good, in fact. Tom Baker is more subdued, as he was throughout his last season and even Matthew Waterhouse and Sarah Sutton (among the weaker companion actors) are likeable and engaging here. They get plenty to do, which, I think, also helps both characters seem more interesting.

As I said, it is a strange story. It looks gorgeous and the acting throughout is competent to good. I think it could have been a great story if it had been prepared to grapple more explicitly with the problems created when goodness is artificially imposed upon a society. But it seems unsure not only of what position it wants to take on that, but whether it wants to discuss it at all.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/191878.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on May 8th, 2016 02:41 pm (UTC)
Agreed that it's a strange story. I didn't like it much, but it's grown on me in recent years. The first half in particular is quite a strong character drama, with Kassia betraying the Keeper out of her love for Tremas, but this gets dropped once the Master takes her over. But the production values are strong (perhaps the strongest of the season) and the acting is good (I'm especially fond of Geoffrey Beevers as the Master in a mostly vocal performance) and the core of the story works, even if it drifts into Bidmead-style technobabble in the second half.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on May 9th, 2016 11:48 am (UTC)
I was expecting to like it less, partly because I had found Logopolis so disappointing on the last watch and partly because I've never much enjoyed the "the Doctor's main problem is that his natural allies distrust him" trope. So in some ways I was pleasantly surprised.
philmophlegm: cyberleaderphilmophlegm on May 8th, 2016 09:38 pm (UTC)
I've always liked it, but I think it works best as the first of a trilogy that continues with Logopolis and ends with Castrovalva (two stories that I also like a lot). But it is one of those Doctor Who stories where you feel that the writer had all sorts of clever ideas (and your point about free will might be one of them) that never really made it through to the final production.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on May 9th, 2016 11:54 am (UTC)
I've always considered them a threesome but I'm not sure that view acts in Traken's favour. I was bitterly disappointed when we rewatched Logopolis (I thought it poorly acted, poorly paced and sadly found its ideas to be largely incoherent) and I think Keeper of Traken is much better. If nothing else it is at least interested in trying to portray an alien society and at least vaguely interested in the impact of its ideas on the characters (though I'd say some incoherency there is definitely its major weakness - like you say it feels as if the writer had lots of ideas but lacked ability, time or resources to actually do anything with any of them beyond a half-nod in passing). I'll have to see what happens when Castrovalva comes along - I recall enjoying it first time around, but being disappointed when rewatching at DocSoc that the depiction of Escher's paintings weren't actually as clever as I recalled. I'm not necessarily looking forward to its mysticising (?is that a word) of the concept of recursion either (I suspect I will find that annoying).