Wednesday, March 07, 2007

 

Doctor Who – New Beginnings: The Keeper of Traken

The centrepiece of this recently-released Doctor Who DVD set is Tom Baker’s doom-laden final story as the Doctor, in which he sees chanting scientific wizards holding the Universe together, is haunted by his own future and overcomes death to become Peter Davison in an emotional transformation. Peter Davison’s first tale is much smaller in scale, a very personal threat to the Doctor from a reborn Master in an Escher-inspired city. Before both, there’s a lush, theatrical story with a walking statue. A fairy-tale love story turned Faustian pact, it’s like a film noir Shakespeare… And the best of the trilogy.
“All-pervading evil – and somehow nurtured in those three good people standing before me…”
I know, I know. I could sense your eyebrows raising when I wrote “film noir Shakespeare”. But if there’s one series that could pull the idea off, it’s Doctor Who. Cast your minds back not yet to 1981, but just a few weeks to Valentine’s Day. What could be more appropriate, thought the marketing people, than tales of lust, betrayal and femmes fatale, so they took the opportunity to release several superb films noir on DVD, including Farewell, My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet), Out of the Past and The Glass Key, with The Maltese Falcon temptingly re-released as a double-disc special edition. Though they’re all quite a long way in tone from most Doctor Who, as we were in the middle of watching all The Keeper of Traken’s features at the time I couldn’t help noticing the parallels in its themes and that, oh, frabjous day, an episode of it was first shown on Valentine’s Day 1981. Unusually for Doctor Who, The Keeper of Traken is very much a love story gone wrong, with a tormented femme fatale sacrificing all for the man she loves – but only ending up all the more doomed to lose him. Less unusually for the series, there are plots, betrayals and innocents framed for murder. Despite the frequency of such events in Doctor Who, it’s really quite rare that it dabbles anywhere close to the corruption of film noir, though there’s something of it (in a very different way) in the story this is something of a sequel to, The Deadly Assassin. Instead of a dark city with American-style cynicism and assassination, though, here we have perhaps one of the most unusual and lyrical stories of the whole series, with the rhythms of a Shakespeare play, a tale of society going to pieces that mixes Jacobean notions of kingship with modern mass hysteria, and gorgeous design for the world of Traken that creates a sort of medieval Art Nouveau.

It’s a lovely story to look at and listen to from the first, as the TARDIS is visited by Traken’s ancient Keeper, the god-like being who’s ordered their lives for centuries and now comes close to death. It evokes the feeling of a scientific fairy tale becoming powerful enough to draw the Doctor inside it as he tells our hero (and the viewers) what’s been happening in the enchanting style of ‘once upon a time…’ And speaking of telling tales, the deeper I get into this, the more spoilers will appear. So if you’ve not seen it and are concerned to avoid plot details being examined, skip ahead (if you’re reading this when it’s ready) to the start of my forthcoming Logopolis review. Before you do, though, be careful when you put on the DVD – the montage of clips used for the menus often crassly give away the ending, and these are no exception (as well as being quite poorly edited), so go straight to ‘Play’. But first, here’s my spoiler-free judgement: it’s a marvellous story, rich and layered, but it isn’t quite perfect, and there are three potential flaws that stand out. The design is beautiful, but it’s in no way naturalistic – imagine a lush, very expensive setting for a play, looking fantastic but quite definitely staged. That puts some people off, though it fits in fine by me. For me, it’s two other problems that niggle away. The story’s very strong, but it could be stronger; at a few important points that I’ll come to, it’s not told as clearly as it should be, and that’s a missed opportunity. The other problem is that, while most of the actors are quite compelling, arguably the most crucial role has someone who really can’t carry it. Even if you skip what I’m writing here and go straight on to watching it, you’ll not find it difficult to spot who I mean…

Dramatis Personae
“A whole empire held together by… Just by people being terribly nice to each other.”
That’s the Doctor’s description of Traken, but it’s not true, you know. Traken and its sister planets are actually bound together by ‘the Source’, a vast machine reaching into every mind, with the centuries-old Keeper as the system’s organising principle. Denis Carey is superb in the role, with a curious mix of mildness and power undermined by his fear of the future; he’s ancient and dying, and fears not just his own loss but that some all-pervading evil somehow fed by the fatal flaws of his own people will prevent his successor from carrying on the tradition. Which tradition is that? Well, that his mind controls all the peoples of the Traken Union: under the Keeper’s benevolence, they can do no evil, nor have any knowledge of good and evil save as words. While the Keeper’s power lasts, should outsiders arrive with evil intent they turn to stone and slowly wither away. He summons the Doctor to help, but it’s already too late – his power is fading, as we can see foreshadowed even at the wedding of which he tells the Doctor (it’s joyous, theatrical and poetic with vibrant celebratory music, but bluff, cheery Neman is already boasting of his own fatal flaw: he’d rather have silver than pretty stars, let alone self-sacrifice). Admittedly, the Keeper’s power drops away so suddenly that he drops the Doctor and Adric right in it in a rather contrived way, but perhaps if you’ve lived a thousand years, it’s difficult to admit even to yourself that you’re on the wane; a sense of how he has to ‘see’ the whole of Traken and, failing, is now struggling to keep pace and so easily loses his grip on any one bit might have helped. Without the Keeper’s mental influence over them even his courtiers, the Consuls, rapidly fall into fractiousness, superstition and ‘better safe than sorry’ judicial murder. Majestic old Seron combines reason with something of an Old Testament preacher, but is doomed through being too set in his ways to realise not everyone can any longer be trusted without ‘god’ directing their every thought. The other aged Consul, Katura, is stuffily conservative, with a tendency to make up her mind absolutely and come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who makes her scared of change. At the other end we have Luvic, who is neither as young nor as callow as he makes out, constantly protesting his stupidity – “I don’t follow this at all” – as his excuse for not taking responsibility while a fanatic uses a time of chaos to come to power.

The two crucial Consuls, though, are newlyweds Tremas and Kassia. Tremas is a widower with a daughter, an avuncular manner and a dedication to reason over superstition, though a little too excitable in his innocent cleverness. His new wife is slightly younger, a powerful orator utterly convinced of the rightness of all her passions, from that for Tremas to her conviction that she knows what’s best for the peoples of the Traken Union. Yet their marriage is undermined from the first as the Keeper, blessing them, names Tremas his successor. Soon he’ll be stuck in a chair for ever, elevated to something far beyond human, but Kassia wants a husband, not a god. Grief-stricken, she falls easily into the temptation to plot, betray and kill to keep him from power, a much more interesting motive than for most Who villains (Star Wars fans might observe that the fear of loss is the path to the dark side). Of course, her Faustian tempter turns out to have an ulterior motive that will destroy her: to pave the way for him, she must ultimately become Keeper instead and so, in trying to save Tremas, she loses herself.

So far, so powerful a story, but though it’s Kassia’s desperation to keep Tremas at any cost from which the whole tale unwinds, that’s also the story’s weakest point. In part it’s because the script needed one more draft to give more attention to their relationship itself rather than just the consequences of it, and in part it’s down to the actors. There’s no chemistry between them, and though in general Anthony Ainley is very sympathetic as Tremas, where it comes to his tragic love for Kassia there’s no sense of the loss he feels as she moves further into betrayal. Kassia is a brilliantly layered character on whom the whole story hinges; desperately in love, a religious fanatic, and a wicked stepmother to boot… An average performance would have difficulty doing her tragedy justice. Good news: Sheila Ruskin’s not average here. Bad news: she’s god-awful. She’s adequate in later scenes where her soul is well and truly damned and she’s called on to be a scarily right-wing rabble-rouser or just something approaching a generic villain, but while she still hopes to save her husband and herself and should be played as somewhere between Juliet, a tortured anti-Lady Macbeth, and a young Mrs Thatcher, she is monstrously hammy (though Richard finds her closer to Tony Blair: “religious maniac who promises to bring in reform and turns out to be a fascist”). There’s a point where she perorates and then ‘faints’ which has to be seen to be believed. It doesn’t help that she’s also the focus of the dodgier effects, with painted-on ‘glowing eyes’ when possessed by Melkur. Then the script can’t decide whether they project some psychic force that only takes hold when you gaze into them, or a more prosaic energy blast. It’s an enormous shame, as Kassia has to be persuasive but instead just lets it all down. Despite that, the story remains proof that you don’t necessarily need ‘people from Earth’ for compelling Doctor Who – anyone can recognise the fatal love story here, but only Doctor Who could wrap it up in a mix of science, fairy story and poetic speeches.
“I thought so.”
“Thought what?”
“I thought you might appreciate it if gave you the impression I knew what was happening.”
Tom Baker’s impressively moody here as the Doctor, though with lots of engaging interplay with Adric and numerous funny asides (including a pun about the TARDIS for regular viewers which, according to the DVD, Tom came up with himself) as the tension racks up for his impending ‘death’; there are portentous warnings from a god-like individual able to pop into the TARDIS, and Melkur can ‘disappear’ it at will. If even the TARDIS is violable, what about the Doctor? Only one aspect jars, and that’s the Doctor shooting down guards with a little gadget of Nyssa’s. Richard points out that this is the first story since K-9 left, so up until then the tin dog would have done the shooting and it wouldn’t have seemed the Doctor’s responsibility. It’s a notable story for the Doctor’s companions too, by the way; Adric isn’t remembered as a great success, a half-hearted juvenile delinquent with a high IQ and nasty pyjamas, but just this once he’s rather good. It must be because he’s solo with the Doctor, and he works well as Tom’s apprentice (there’s a lovely moment when the Doctor has to show him how to raise his hands when held at gunpoint, him being a new boy). He pairs off well with Nyssa, too, Tremas’ daughter. She starts off with no lines at all and just looking pretty, then suddenly knows all about bribery and how to abuse her position, as well as being a crack sharpshooter and the only one to stand up to Kassia. You can see why they decided to make her travel with the Doctor too after this, though she’ll never have this much fun again, generally being characterised as an insufferably superior walking encyclopaedia. Richard observed while watching these DVDs that the problem with both Adric and Nyssa is that they’re functionally identical to the Doctor – ‘alien brainbox’ – but without any of the engaging character, so enjoy them in this solitary story where it’s possible to.

The Return of the (Spoiler)

Another regular character who’s far more effective than usual here is the Master. Only revealed as such near the end of the story, Geoffrey Beevers gives a largely vocal performance that Richard could listen to all day: “pan-fried in evil with extra goose fat,” my beloved marvels. This isn’t just evil. This is rich, gloating M&Ster evil. This is a Master in between the two suave, bearded best-known versions, one of the Doctor’s people but with a taste for power rather than a wide-eyed enjoyment in exploring the Universe. Clinging to life with an almost-dead body (as seen in The Deadly Assassin), he’s come to Traken to usurp the power of the Keepership to prolong his life. His TARDIS landed years before, in the form of a ‘Melkur’, an alien invader of Traken, and with the Keeper still in the full flush of life it was immediately calcified. The Master waits it out, unharmed within his ship, and seems to have used to the time to influence Kassia, drip by drip, until as the Keeper starts to die he is able to speak to her, then ‘Melkur’ is able to walk. This inspires many ‘walking TARDISes’ in the novels, while his part here is obviously influenced by the Satan of Paradise Lost, or Tolkien’s dark lords: Melkor, of course, and Sauron stripped of his fair form, well-known to be evil, but still able to corrupt noble people with his persuasive voice (at one point Melkur even collects rings of power and hands them out to his cronies). With Melkur a walking statue, one of the most memorable images of the series is born, a stylish but an unsettlingly asymmetrical piece of art. The way he sees further than Kassia and is able to manipulate her into giving up all she holds dear through her desire to keep it is breathtaking, with a gorgeously malevolent voice ranging from silky persuasion to a hideous glee. Like Satan, too, he can quote scripture, notably getting Katura on side by quoting her own opinions back to her so that, reassured, she’s sure to agree with him.

The Master, of course, provides the sting in the tale that gives the story its gloriously downbeat ending after the false ‘happy ending’ that leaves the Doctor free to leave, with a clock showing four minutes to midnight as Tom Baker’s Doctor has just four episodes to go until ‘death’. The Doctor’s one last great mistake comes in assuming the Master destroyed, but he escapes to take Tremas’ body as his prize. Having swept Kassia out of the way, he finally extinguishes her husband’s soul in a horribly vampiric way, using Tremas’ body as his own and with Anthony Ainley going on to then play the Master throughout the 1980s, the Doctor’s arch-enemy always, in effect, remaining the possessed cadaver of his friend. One of the earlier episode endings is utterly spellbinding – chaos is unleashed as the Keeper dies and Kassia strides through the wind to succeed him, only to be destroyed at her point of apotheosis as Melkur takes the place of his slave, immediately after Melkur is revealed to house the Master (the revelation of an ‘old enemy’ merely adding to this climactic point in the plot, rather than being expected to impress the audience on its own) – but it’s the nasty twist ending that lifts the story in its closing moments to being so memorable.

The aesthetic side of the story is also beautifully detailed, from the rich design to the language. It’s both grand theatre and more small-scale than usual; as in several stories this season, there’s food, and in all three of the DVDs making up this ‘the return of the Master’ trilogy (or, as you might call it, The Master’s Doctor Plan), there’s a sense of time passing, with night falling and new days dawning in inspired lighting as, for example, Kassia confides in Melkur by moonlight. I’ve mentioned the work of art that is the Melkur, but the pin-sharp, carefully restored picture on DVD at last lets us see not just the huge, magnificent sets but all the detail of those beautifully sinuous Art Nouveau curves mounted on the stonework of the walls, too, mixed in with Elizabethan elements such as the lush velvet costumes. People talk of ‘Shakespearean’ dialogue here for its archaic language like “hugger-mugger” and rich, theatrical rhythms – and some of it is majestic – but it’s in the down-to-earth touches as much as the great speeches, that Kassia’s fall is for love, that people eat breakfast, and the Doctor has some great throwaway wit. If you’re interested, Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore have an interesting take on the Shakespearean influences in the language and the plot, as well as relating how the script became more sophisticated than its initial, rather simplistic, outline (one which made the story a stereotypical conflict between ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ factions rather than the much more layered and mythic critique implicit in the final script, depicting what happens if you do leave every moral choice to ‘god’).

The Problem With ‘Perfection’

The whole thing uses scientific trappings to tell one of the series’ most entrancing fairy tales, one where you can spot the good people because they apply science and rationality, taking at its heart the idea of Millenarianism – far more successfully than the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie – and setting it back in an almost medieval context, so that as the old king dies with his successor in doubt, the natural order collapses and the people fall into panic and superstition. Of course, this is in part dealing with the programme itself, and the fears that after Tom Baker playing the Doctor for as long as anyone could remember, the series might not survive his passing. There’s a palpable sense of death threatening the Doctor as the old Keeper dies and nature falls into storm-tossed chaos. One Halloween I was walking through a dark, windy park listening to the story on headphones, and when the storm broke as leaves whirled about me it quite gave me the shivers. Another vivid memory of the story is that I bought the book in a floating bookshop that used to be moored at Greenwich, on the afternoon that I walked through the tunnel on my first visit to the Isle of Dogs, well over a decade before I came to live here. The things you’ll do for love, the future of Doctor Who and mass superstitions of the Middle Ages aren’t the only underlying themes, though. One that might perhaps have been brought out more clearly is the threat posed even by the kindly old Keeper who makes evil shrivel up and die. “Maybe that’s why I never went there,” muses the Doctor, and I don’t blame him; though in the end he rather ambiguously preserves the Source and Keepership, he has the dangerous thought of destroying it to stop Melkur. In a world where free will is sacrificed for omnibenevolence, for such an iconoclastic individual as the Doctor all thoughts might be dangerous thoughts.

The lovely design, the fabulous villain, the quotable script and the tragic love story all make The Keeper of Traken special, but what really makes it great for me is the mythic idea beneath it all. While nature reverts to stormy winds without the Keeper, his people fall to pieces in more subtle and myriad ways. The moral of the Source creating such thoughtless sheep is never spelled out, but it’s there to see as, terrified and directionless, they act increasingly harshly and start believing in anything: there are several points where characters’ positions are ironically overturned but they’re so driven by events that they don’t even notice (belief in Melkur is first proof of guilt, then opposition to him worthy of death; first the TARDIS’ absence is suspicious – with the Consuls perhaps believing the Doctor and Adric to be wandering criminals or other uppity commoners rather than ‘important’ space travellers – then its presence damning, though the number of times Peter Davison’s Doctor feels the need to ‘prove’ the TARDIS to people suggests this story may have left a psychological scar). They turn to insularity, intolerance, and the injustice of the lynch mob. Without the Keeper’s benevolent crushing of every thought, the punishment for any misdemeanour, for being in the wrong place, dropping litter or looking suspicious, is suddenly ‘death’. “We’re all proud of our liberal traditions, but…” prattles Katura as she casually discusses the sad necessity of multiple executions; it’s difficult not to wince at that when every other week now someone in our own government (watch them fall to pieces as their decade-long ‘Keeper’ Mr Blair’s reign comes to an end) talks about how we can only protect our freedoms by locking up or burning any witchone who looks a bit funny or has seen a copy of the Magna Carta. Tremas is only able to get the Doctor and Adric the faintest hearing by staking his own life, making this ‘terribly nice’ planet suddenly one of the most authoritarian. Bribery and lies abound. And so almost every member of this perfect society is suddenly corrupt, scared and scary without ‘daddy’ to decide for them. It’s the same problem with any Utopia, that it can only be enforced at the expense of the individual and that that leaves moral responsibility withered, in this case utterly so. It only puts the icing on the cake when Kassia is proclaimed the only one who can ‘restore order’; it’s never promising when there’s no doubt about the choice of god. When Melkur inevitably seizes power through her he uses the Source to compel Tremas to kill, illustrating the problem with conscience decided by machine. Clearly it’s now overriding Tremas’ volition in a ‘nasty’ way, but procedurally this is no different to what’s been going on ‘for their own good’ for thousands of years.
“You see, Consul? You will accept me now that I have these powers as Keeper. You have no choice, really.
So, in the end, The Keeper of Traken is a morality play with an implicit critique of ignorance as bliss and the Garden of Eden as ‘paradise’; the Traken people have been kept innocent of the meaning of good and evil, so have no way of knowing how to act when left with free will and without their Keeper. You can’t help thinking the Master would have had a trickier job if they’d been used to thinking for themselves.

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