The Keeper of Traken is an example of the BBC taking a very good story, and making it even better by incorporating a new element. Unlike The Armageddon Factor, a weak story requiring the narrative of the Key to Time to rescue it, The Keeper of Traken would have worked as a perfectly good story even before series producer John Nathan Turner spotted the opportunity to use the position of the villain to serve a greater narrative need.
We join the story with Tom Baker’s time in the TARDIS drawing to a close. Romana and K9 had left in the previous story, Warriors’ Gate, and the Doctor and Adric had finally managed to escape from e-Space back into n-Space. The TARDIS is then drawn off course by a mysterious entity, an elderly man sat upon a throne, who reveals himself to be the titular Keeper of the Traken Union – a society (as the Doctor puts it) based upon ‘people being terribly nice to each other.’ The position of Keeper enables one individual to become an ordering principle, maintaining peace and order throughout the system, but when an incumbent Keeper dies the time of transition is always difficult. The present Keeper requests the help of the Doctor to meet an unknown evil, which he feels is centred around a calcified statue known as the Melkur.
The Doctor arrives on Traken to find distrust rife among the Five Consuls of Traken, the ruling council who serve the Keeper. Unbeknownst to the Council, one of their number, Kassia, has come under the influence of the Melkur, determined that her husband Tremas should not become the new Keeper. Melkur turns out to be no mere static statue, and has already murdered one man. The Doctor and Adric become the scapegoats for Melkur’s actions, as the Melkur uses Kassia to discredit Tremas and to become Keeper nominate herself. When the old Keeper dies, ‘Melkur’ uses his link with Kassia to become the Keeper himself.
So far, the story follows exactly the original intent of author Johnny Byrne. The story would have centred around Melkur as a malevolent being, and as planned he would have been defeated at the end of episode 4. John Nathan Turner however, spotted an excellent opportunity to use Byrne’s story to resurrect a very old foe indeed. Rather than make the Melkur the calcified body of an alien being, we discover at the end of episode 2 that there is another TARDIS on Traken, and by the end of episode 3 the audience realise, long before the Doctor does, that the Melkur statue is the TARDIS of his old enemy, the Master – superbly realised (in mannerisms, if sadly not in makeup!) by Geoffrey Beevers, who reprises the decayed Master portrayed by Peter Pratt in The Deadly Assassin. At the end of his regeneration cycle and facing impending death, the Master proposes to use the powers of the Keeper to steal the Doctor’s body and regenerate himself.
While the Master is thwarted, as Byrne always intended the villain to be, the story does not end on a happy note. The Doctor and Adric depart, leaving Tremas with his daughter Nyssa to clean up the damage caused to Traken. Nyssa’s character would prove so popular that Turner would bring her back in the following story, Logopolis, providing actress Sarah Sutton with an honour shared by Frazier Hines of staying as a companion for longer than the original story they were scheduled to appear in. For Tremas however … his own name was the most crucial change in the whole script, a fateful foretelling of his destiny. For the eagle-eyed of you will have spotted that ‘Tremas’ is of course an anagram of ‘Master’ … leading to one of the show’s most iconic moments, as the Master exults: “A new body! At last!” And takes over the body of Tremas. With more than a passing resemblance to Roger Delgado, the new Master sets off in pursuit of the Doctor …
The Keeper of Traken is a wonderful story. The sets and costumes are all beautiful, the story clever without being complex, and Beevers’ Master is deliciously malevolent. The characters are superbly realised, and particular credit is due to Anthony Ainley, who had the chance to demonstrate his capacity to play a very good man, before embracing with relish the evilness of the Master. Even Adric, who usually gets a bad press, demonstrates that alongside Nyssa he could have grown and developed in the role – the story being a firm confirmation (alongside Kinda) that the Season 19 TARDIS was very much overcrowded.
While the story very much leads into Logopolis, and is best enjoyed as the first in a trilogy, it is also a superb standalone adventure that manages to pay homage to the series’ history without alienating viewers who (like me!) had not grown up with Delgado’s Master. To me, that is one of the highest compliments you could pay any classic episode of Doctor Who!