Monday, May 20, 2013

The Keeper of Traken

Dear Gary—
The Keeper of Traken always leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Partly because I know Tom Baker is not long for this Doctor Who world and partly because it is the start of average and less than average companions. But it’s more than that.
To start, I find the marriage between Tremas and Kassia to be unsavory. It’s not the age difference, and it is only slightly due to the fact that I can’t quite separate the actor (Anthony Ainley) from his Master incarnation to come. Mostly it is because I sense absolutely no love between these two. It doesn’t help that the cumbersome and voluminous costumes they are forced to wear keeps them at arm’s length at all times. Also, neither one seems anxious for the honeymoon. And then there is the fact that Kassia immediately betrays her husband once the ceremony is over. She claims it is to keep him from becoming Keeper so that he will remain with her, but I don’t buy it. And if they both knew Tremas was slated to become the next Keeper and the current Keeper was on his last legs, why did they get married? How could Tremas in good conscience wed Kassia, much less court her to begin with?
If this had been a relationship of long standing, if the marriage had taken place even a year or two earlier, I could buy into the story. But since I cannot believe in Tremas and Kassia as a couple, Kassia’s motivation falls apart as does the rest of the plot. This is merely the Master’s evil having wormed its way into Traken and into Kassia thus aiding him in his goal of gaining ultimate power and control of the universe. Ho hum.
The Keeper of Traken would have been better if it either committed to the good vs. evil theme or not submitted it to us as a false pretense.  Instead it wants us to believe that Kassia really has a “purity of spirit” and that she truly thinks that “this will all come to good in time.” And it wants us to believe that Traken is a society of “universal harmony” and that it is “so full of goodness that evil just shriveled up and died.” It wants us to believe all that. But it plays out in a much different way.
“It’s a pity about that poor chap having to sit for thousands of years in a chair.” Yes, a pity. And for what does he do it? For a society that is stratified, open to corruption, greed, bribery, superstition, and dissension. For a society of peace and prosperity that feels the need for numerous guards and that has an arsenal of weaponry on hand at a moment’s notice. For a society that executes prisoners with no evidence or trial. “Magnificent”? “A small price to pay”? Not in my book.
Given this, it is no wonder the Master is able to take over. The only question is why did it take him so long?
“A lot of the time you don’t really make sense,” Adric tells the Doctor. “Oh, you’ve noticed that have you?” the Doctor replies. “Well, I mean, anyone can talk sense. As long as that’s understood, you and I are going to get on splendidly.” I have understood that about the Fourth Doctor ever since Robot. He doesn’t really make sense, but anyone can make sense. It is the nonsense that makes sense; the Doctor’s lateral thinking, his diagonal thinking. We expect that.
A Doctor Who story, however, should make sense. It should be true to the parameters it has set for itself. It can create a world out of nothing that defies logic and we can suspend our disbelief to accept it, but once it has created that world it needs to adhere to its own boundaries. If it has created a world of universal harmony, peace, and prosperity, it can’t then treat it like any ordinary flawed society; a society in which a young girl can without hesitation bribe a guard and when he refuses her offer, shoot him down without compunction (even if the weapon is only set to stun); a society in which a loyal and respected Consul can be so easily called into question based on hearsay only; a society in which a discontented crowd of citizens can gather due to superstitious rumors.
“I thought you might appreciate it if I gave you the impression I knew what was happening. We could panic, of course, but where would that get us?”
OK, Doctor. I won’t panic. Where would that get me?
If I am to accept the premise of this story, Traken is a pure and righteous union of souls, and if greed, corruption, bribery and the rest has taken hold, it is only due to the malevolent nature of the Melkur (aka Master) that has slowly seeped into the fabric of society during this dangerous time as the Keeper’s life wanes. What we are witness to is the end product of this long process, the universal harmony has been compromised and the transition so gradual that the citizenry has hardly noticed.
But why hasn’t the Keeper noticed? Why hasn’t the Keeper warned his Consuls? What good is the Keeper’s power if he can’t control the spreading evil? Why has the Keeper felt the need to call in the Doctor but then never informed his Consuls? “The Keeper knows our situation,” Consul Seron says. “He’ll speak when the time is right.” But he never does.
“If I knew everything that was going to happen, where would the fun be?”
OK, Doctor. I’ll calm down. I’ll stop asking questions and let the fun proceed.
But the thing is, Gary, there isn’t much fun in the proceedings. It is not dull; I have to say that for it. There is plenty of action and intrigue, and it is all very interesting in concept. But the concept is not justified.
“Time reveals everything, Adric.”
Time reveals that evil is attracted to this pure and righteous planet but calcifies and disintegrates, all except for one Melkur, as this evil is so dubbed, that has lasted for years and has been tended faithfully by the virtuous young Kassia. This Melkur’s evil is so powerful that it has infected the now grown Kassia, feeding her fears of losing her beloved Tremas and persuading her to all kinds of evil, including accomplice to murder and the betrayal of her husband, all in the hope of saving her husband from the honor of becoming Keeper so that she can selfishly keep him by her side. Along the way, however, she ultimately agrees that her husband’s life is forfeit as he has become a danger to the Melkur’s plan, and she herself becomes Keeper, but only for the briefest of time since the Melkur destroys her and takes her place in the Keeper’s chair. Discovering that Melkur is actually the Master, the Doctor and Adric, with the help of Tremas and his daughter Nyssa, sabotage the Source to keep the Master from gaining control of the Traken union.
The Master seeking to gain ultimate power, pure and simple. Kassia was never believable as a pure and simple soul; the story should have reveled in her evil side and been done with it. Doctor Who abounds with disreputable humanoids seeking to use an evil power for their own ends and this could have been another glorious example added to the long list. Of course, it would have been a much better story if Kassia truly was a pure and simple soul, if Traken truly was a harmonious union; but since neither of these is even attempted by the resulting narrative the easier way should have been chosen. (Perhaps if Nyssa had been the one corrupted. . . .)
“With the Source out of control, nature, they say, reverts to destructive chaos.”
I’m shaking my head, Gary. This is just another reason why I don’t much care for or have much sympathy for Traken. What, the Keeper keeps Mother Nature in check for his thousands of years on the chair? No thunder storms, no hurricanes, no tidal waves, no earthquakes? And then when he is in his death throes all hell breaks loose? You can dam up the river, but when the dam breaks, look out. And when you try to dam all the forces of nature and all of the evil of the world knowing full well that all of this is dependent on the frail body of a Keeper who sits in his chair for thousands of years . . . well, I’ll let the Doctor say it:
“Its limitless organizing capacity refined to a single frame and obedient to the will of your Keeper. A great achievement, Tremas, and a great temptation to people less principled than ourselves.”
“Yes, the thought has occurred to me,” Tremas replies. But then, “Come, the grove is this way.” So what? Who cares? A trifling matter. I’ve thought about it. But why think about it?
Why, Tremas? Maybe because it is the reason your whole world is falling apart around you? Maybe if you didn’t rely on this ‘Source’ for your harmony; maybe if you didn’t place the responsibility of living on the frail shoulders of a single man in a chair for thousands of years; maybe if you gave it some thought; maybe you would have a loving wife by your side instead of a mad woman bent on destroying you and all you stand for.
Sorry, Gary. I didn’t know until now how much I really dislike this whole Traken thing.
“Still, what can’t be cured must be endured.” OK, Doctor, I’ll endure it.
“That’s the silliest thing you ever said.” Thank you, Adric.
“Don’t listen to me. I never do.” Thank you, Doctor. Just the right note of nonsensical logic I needed at this point.
The Keeper of Traken does have one notable thing going for it—it reintroduces a viable Master to Doctor Who. At the end of his generations and in a state of decay, the Master, through the power of the Source, is able to take over the body of Tremas; and Anthony Ainley makes an admirable successor to the late great Roger Delgado.
That’s about all I have to say about The Keeper of Traken, Gary. It is interesting, it doesn’t bore me, but it just leaves a bad feeling behind. And with only one more Tom Baker story to go that is a real pity.

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