Those of us who watched the original transmission of The Keeper of Traken may still retain a vivid memory of its initial impact during that wonderful, innocent time before trailers, spoilers, magazines and the internet told us far too much about what we should anticipate from each new serial before it aired. Those were the days when we would sit down on a Saturday teatime ready to be totally surprised and enthralled by the unexpected – a situation which helped create some of the magic of classic Doctor Who.
In this sumptuous multi-layered story, curiously pseudo-Shakespearian in style, a relatively unknown actor called Anthony Ainley portrayed the character of Tremas as a completely believable, thoughtful, gentle and likeable person who recognized the goodness in the Doctor and did what he could to help overcome a malevolent force that was slowly but surely eating into the peace and harmony of his world. People watching back in 1981 were given the treat of having absolutely no idea about what was to come – unlike anyone now viewing this serial retrospectively who is already familiar with Ainley and aware of the ingenious twist at the end.
Roger Delgado’s death 8 years previously was a great loss for Doctor Who and JNT’s classy re-introduction of the Master as a semi-regular adversary, now to be stylishly portrayed by Ainley with a deliberate echo of the Doctor’s archenemy from his original incarnation, was a piece of inspiration in terms of vision, timing and casting.
The Keeper of Traken is certainly memorable for the highly imaginative design of the intriguing calcified Melkur creature and the gradual unfolding of the evil secret that it holds within. Furthermore, the development of the main characters living within their cultured, hierarchical civilization, along with some well crafted incidental music and superbly detailed sets, skilfully created a striking backdrop to an idyllic, harmonious world under threat.
Without Romana and K9 in the Tardis, this is probably Adric’s finest hour prior to his heroic (and long overdue) demise in Earthshock. However, his time as a sole companion was to be very short lived since the character of Nyssa clearly showed promise, although not conceived as a regular when this story was written and filmed. Her future reappearance as a companion pulls another unforeseen legacy out of the Traken hat.
You had to be there at the time to fully appreciate the surprise and significance of this milestone story which both heralded the end of the Tom Baker era and brought back one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes. I was privileged to be there in 1981, and that is why Traken simply has to feature in my top 50. — Alan
Our inevitable countdown continues next week with #31.