“All-pervading evil…somehow nurtured in those three good people standing before me…” – The Keeper
The Keeper of Traken marks the start of another arc of thematically linked stories—in this case the surprise return of the Master and the degradation of the universe by entropy. We don’t initially see all these connections develop in this story, however. Instead, it seems like an interesting tale in and of itself with a number of elements that make the episode stand out. The first is just stylistic as the design and dialogue are both highly fanciful, almost out of a fairy tale. This complements the rich fantasy world-building of the story as we encounter the Union of Traken, an immensely powerful conglomerate of planets ruled by absolute good—good so strong that evil “just shriveled up and died.” At its center is the governing body (presumably on the planet of Traken) full of intricate rules and hierarchies. The mix of seeming old world magic power and science seen here is interestingly portrayed.
It’s an fascinating device to have the story introduced by the incongruous appearance of the Keeper on his throne—a being powerful enough to take over the TARDIS certainly warrants attention. His exposition of the state of Traken, and the interplay he has with the Doctor in telling it, is nicely done. That we get to see him so chummy with the Doctor makes it all the more frustrating later when his actions are misinterpreted by others as fear and condemnation of him. Things really get going once the subterfuge and intrigue of Kassia gets underway and the manipulative plot of the Melkur/Master comes to fruition.
It’s not clear how Adric would have developed the capacity on Alzarus to be not just a math whiz but a technical genius able to understand the most advanced mechanics and theories, but it’s actually easy just to accept this as a part of his character as it stays fairly consistent thereafter. With the departure of Romana, he starts to take a more prominent role in interactions with the Doctor—usually questioning him for explanations or innocently pointing out his contradictions. We don’t yet know the role Nyssa will play in the future, but she comes across as likeable and brave in her introduction. It is however odd to watch the story in retrospect as it’s hard to watch pre-possession Tremas and not imagine him as the Master in disguise.
I like that the Doctor is saved from being possessed by the Master at the end by Adric putting into motion a plan that the Doctor had mentioned in passing but not actually asked him to do. It makes both of them seem like they are keeping ahead of the game. Even Tremas does well as picking up on the Doctor’s cues of how to play the Master when they trick him with the hidden schematics. The swirling winds of the ending are fittingly chaotic as the story has been all about the harmonious society of the Traken slowly descending into disorder. Indeed, it’s noteworthy that, after all the pomp and formality surrounding the choosing of the Keeper, it actually comes down to an unprepared Luvic realizing he has to scramble and unceremoniously plop himself in the chair before the flame dies.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
As a kid, I was horrified that just after all seemed a happy ending that poor Tremas is suddenly grabbed and taken over by the Master. When watching the story now, I am also struck by the history of Kassia coming as an innocent young girl under the thrall of the Melkur. It’s obvious that its evil influence crept into her over the years from her interaction, and this move from childlike innocence to being fully controlled echoes the real-life grooming of an abuse victim, adding a creepiness factor that may or may not have been intentional by the writers.
It’s a bit odd that such a ‘perfect’ society would have weapons available for the Fosters to use—or that one of them would be known to be so easily bribable. I also wish they had been able to show how the larger society of Traken was falling into chaos rather than just mentioning it.