The Keeper of Traken
"Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast:
for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six."
- Revelation of St. John, 13:18
Jesus! These past few weeks ...!
First there was David telling me that 'The Happiness Patrol' was really a fantastically
elaborate allegory constructed around the show's recent history.
"It's true," he babbled, his eyes glittering with unusual brightness. "I
read it all in DWB! Helen A is JNT, the Kandyman is Colin Baker and Fifi is Bonnie
Langford! You've GOT to believe me ..."
And then there were all those weird rumours about JNT being the Anti-Christ.
'The Space Pirates' was, after all, the first story he worked on - a 6-parter which was
the 6th story of the 6th season ...
And if all this wasn't enough, there was the stuff coming over the radio ...
"Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor Who, is to resurrect his television role of twenty
years ago in a multi-million-pound stage laser-spectacular which pits him against the
dreaded Daleks ..."
Did I hear that???
To be told that Jon Pertwee is playing Doctor Who in a
"stage-laser-spectacular" is too much. Shuffling on in a walking-frame, looking
about 100 years old ... Blue and pink lasers flashing and flickering ... A single battered
Dalek croaking ...
"I cross the void beyond the mind ..."
Strange things are happening, no doubt about it ... And there's no reason to believe
they won't get stanger still. Why not? We are, after all, approaching the Second Millenium
since the birth of Christ, and who is to say that the Great Beast Leviathan, the Whore of
Babylon and the Anti-Christ himself won't finally make the scene?
All Major Dates are marked by a crescendoing frenzy of craziness and sick degeneracy, a
blasphemous lather of neurosis ... In 1900, for instance, the dive to be seen in was
"L'Enfer", a Paris nightclub with a great green facade, a giant screaming
Satan-face with glaring red eyes. In you went through the huge fanged mouth, to be served
emerald absinthes in the near-darkness by waiters dressed as skeletons, while on stage
batwing devils pretended to flog naked, decadently bored women ...
And that was tame stuff compared to what used to go on in the Middle Ages, when hardly
a day would go by without some bearded freak descending on a peaceful town or village,
screeching about 1260 being the Year of Apocalypse, ladies and gents ... Whereupon all the
previously-peaceful townsfolk would go wild and parade through the streets, wailing,
rubbing ashes in their hair and lashing themselves with birchtwigs until the blood ran
down their backs ...
And if said holy man was stupid enough to still be in residence in the town when 1261
rolled along and no Armageddon - well, the enraged burghers would pull him
violently apart. Indeed. Quite understandable when you think about it.
All of which is leading up, I think, to this :
That Johnny Byrne is on record somewhere as saying that the Doctor Who story 'The
Keeper of Traken' (which, you may remember, he wrote) had as one of its Major Themes
eschatology. Millenarianism. "This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius, etc."
Freaky things starting to happen as the Age dawns, crop failures, wild storms, statues
coming to life ...
This, Johnny went on to say, was why he had written 'Keeper' with a monkish,
superstitious, monastic, medieval setting in mind. The screened Art Nouveau stuff looked
rrrrravishing, but rather diluted the impact of the Theme.
Well ... perhaps.
But I can't help feeling that Johnny is lying. That what we got was dam' good AND
fitted in with his medieval bumf.
Siddown, kid, an' lemme explain.
You see, another thing that came out of the Middle Ages (which J.J.Bentham says Robert
Holmes didn't like as a period because it "wasn't Gothic enough"!!??!) - another
thing which came out of 'em was the ROMANCE. 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', 'Tristan
and Iseut', 'The Death of Arthur', that sort of thing ...
But the point is that these medieval courtly Romances, and Medievalism IN GENERAL, were
really in vogue during - the late nineteenth century. The period of Art Nouveau, decadent
Paris nightclubs, etc ...
So all of a sudden we have Pre-Raphaelite paintings set in the Middle Ages,
pseudo-Romance poetry about King Arthur and co., and ... Wilhelm Richard Wagner's operas.
'Lohengrin'. 'Tannhauser'. 'Tristan und Isolde'. And others.
So what I'm saying is that 'Keeper of Traken' was not a 'medieval' story, but a late
19th-century-medieval/Art Noveau/Pre-Raphaelite story. And no conflict with Johnny's
Theme. Just look at a selection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and you'll see the lush visual
resemblance to the 1981 Doctor Who story. Honest!
But it doesn't stop there. Oh no. For one thing, I've been waffling on for quite a
while now and I've not yet bunged in a pretentious quote (or two) ...
"... the evil of Melkor and the blight of his hatred flowed out thence, and the
Spring of Arda was marred. Green things fell sick and rotted, and rivers were choked with
weeds and slime, and the fens were made, rank and poisonous, the breeding place of flies;
and forests grew dark and perilous, the haunts of fear; ... Then the Valar knew indeed
that Melkor was at work again, and they sought for his hiding place. But Melkor, trusting
in the strength of Utumno and the might of his servants, came forth suddenly to war, and
struck the first blow, ere the Valar were prepared; and he assailed the lights of Lluin
and Ormal, and cast down their pillars and broke their lamps. In the overthrow of the
mighty pillars lands were broken and seas rose in tumult; and when the lamps were spilled
destroying flame was poured out over the Earth. And the shape of Arda and the symmetry of
its waters and its lands was marred in that time, so that the first designs of the Valar
were never after restored.
In the confusion and the darkness Melkor escaped ..."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, 'The Silmarillion'.
"... I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?"
- T.S. Eliot, 'The Waste Land'
The Tolkien bit has no overwhelming relevance to this article, it's just a pretty nifty
coincidence of names and situations (Melkor/Melkur; foul weeds clogging up nice Middle
Earth/Traken gardens, etc.) ...
But the Possum quotation is Really Important.
Consider! Recently in Cambridge I purchased two black candles and an 'Aleister Crowley
Thoth Tarot'. Never mind why. The girl behind the counter gave me a very peculiar look,
but never mind that either.
Now, among the 78 beautifully painted cards that make up the 'Aleister Crowley Thoth
Tarot' is one called The Ace of Cups, not a description of David Gibbs, but a reference to
THE HOLY GRAIL.
Yassur! The pagan Celtic bowl (right at home among corn-dollies and maypoles) that
became the chalice used at the Last Supper and later caught the blood of Our Lord as he
hung on the Cross, having been jabbed in the side with a spear by some jobbie of a Roman
Legionary (right at home among the medieval Romances).
The medieval legends of the Holy Grail have several features in common, not a few of
'em descendants of pagan mythology. In the Germanic versions we have the following :
- An order of Holy Knights, guardians of the Grail.
- Their King, wounded a la Christ in the side with the very same Spear.
- His kingdom, mystically linked to the King himself, which, because he's wounded, has
decayed and degenerated into a wasteland.
- A Ritual in which the wounded King uncovers the Grail. This revives his weary Knights
with New Energy, making them immortal again. Making him immortal as well, which ain't very
nice 'cos he's wounded and so it just prolongs his agony - he Just Wants To Die, folks,
and stuff this Ritual for a game of soldiers ...
Old Possum based his poem around these legendary motifs - 'The Waste Land', geddit? He
played up the pagan links. Originally, the Grail King was this guy called the Fisher King
("I sat upon the shore / Fishing ...") - 'Fisher' 'cos fish were a symbol of
fertility. This fellow (also known as Bran the Blessed) had his wound in the genitals
(symbols of fertility), and as a result his rich, fertile, pagan kingdom has shrivelled
up, just like his Christian descendant's.
In Eliot's poem, the Waste Land is the modern world of the 20th century in the West -
degenerate, tawdry, cheapened and trivial - where the healthy act of copulation has become
sick and neurotic, where religion has none of the vitality it had in pagan and early
Christian times, and where the classics aren't even taught in the schools anymore. (He
also used our old friend the Tarot Pack as a motif, but let's not confuse matters ...)
Another genius who based a work around these Grail legends (and whom Eliot referred to
in 'The Waste Land') was Wagner - and this is where the real link with 'The Keeper of
Y'see, a few months ago I was watching that story and I felt haunted. Strange echoes
and resemblances nagged at my mind, but I couldn't place them. Sure, 'Keeper' was a fine
story, after the Mara tales the best thing JNT's managed to do, but now it suddenly seemed
And then it came to me.
The last opera (or music-drama if you're going to be pedantic) written by Richard
Wagner was called 'Parsifal', after Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval Romance, 'Parzifal'
(the French form, of course, being 'Percival'). Believe me, the music for this long
bastard (five cassettes!) is mind-flippingly beautiful - it really gives that old
soul/butterfly the psyche a liberating jolt. The other day I was listening to the
climax at one o'clock in the morning; I had loaded up on very strong white wine, a black
candle was flickering on my desk, me sitting a little away in the darkened room ... a
slight cold breeze through the window -
and as the music soared into its climax, the tableau in front of me of candle flame,
open black rectangle of window, anglepoise lamp, sea-green fluted mug on the desk,
underwent a transformation. The ebony rectangle of window suddenly seemed ... majestic;
the anglepoise, painted with white gloss, was the most sublime metal-sculpture imaginable;
and the sea-green mug, its facets reflecting the candle flame in brilliant sea-green
beams, became heaven - tears welled up in my eyes as the music reached it passion and my
gaze was absorbed by the heavenly sight of that cheap little green mug that was suddenly a
flaming, jade snowflake. Under my tears, the candle-beams faceted again, refracting and
dividing like a crystal, crystal needles, dazzling me like a spray of light-water.
Ecstasy! That holy tetrarchy - candle-flame, white metal lamp, green mug, black window -
became one, perfectly balanced in a pyramid of ... blazing ...
However, it's not Wagner's music but his PLOT, taken from von Eschenbach, that really
concerns us here :
The holy and compassionate order of the Grail Knights is in decline. An evil magician
called Klingsor has created a Magic Garden next to the Knight's kingdom. The life-forces
are leached out of said kingdom, while Klingsor's Garden runs riot, lush, luxurious and
Klingsor is really out to get the Knights. Not only are they so sickeningly
goody-goody, but he also wants to get his sticky mitts on the Source of their power - the
One of his tools in his designs is the beautiful, witch-like seductress Kundry, who on
Klingsor's orders goes about undermining the Holy Order. The Grail King, Amfortas, has
succumbed to Kundry's advances, and while he was thus distracted, Klingsor duly
poked him in the ribs with the Spear. So Amfortas goes about moaning and groaning about
what a burden the Ritual of uncovering the Grail is, and why can't he just be allowed to
die, blah, blah, blah.
The beautiful, intense Kundry, meanwhile, doesn't REALLY want to serve old Klingsor,
but she has no choice - she is helplessly under his evil Influence. However much she begs
for release, he will not free her from her hateful duties.
Enter the Holy Fool - Parsifal himself - young and innocent. The upshot of it all is
that he's so holy that Klingsor and his Garden just implode into nothingness and everyone
lives happily ever after.
O.K. - now look at the plot of 'Keeper of Traken'. Pretty similar, huh? A compassionate
order of semi-martial figures, the Consuls of Traken, sustained by the mystical energy of
the Source, whose leader, the Keeper, is dying painfully, his harmonious empire, the Union
of Traken, declining with him; an evil being with magical powers (Melkur) corrupting the
Union, creating his own lush, weed- ridden garden (the Grove), physically attacking and
wounding the ailing Keeper with his laser beams, and manipulating the beautiful, intense,
seductive Kassia in his attempts to secure the Source for himself; and in the end, Melkur
defeated and imploding into nothingness. As for the Holy Fool figure, well, the Doctor is
the obvious candidate, though Adric and Nyssa might also fit the role - or all three
Compare further :
"Powerless to stifle the sin within him,
... he then turned towards the Grail,
from which its guardian drove him out in scorn."
- Wagner, 'Parsifal'.
"And how are you today, you poor Melkur? ... If you wern't so evil you might be
able to move around a little, just inside the Grove. But being so wicked, you can't even
- 'T'he Keeper of Traken
"the Spear is now in Klingsor's hands:
if he can wound even a holy man with it,
he fancies the Grail already firmly his!"
SERON "Doctor, are you suggesting that the Foster was killed and the Keeper
attacked by some kind of supernatural force?"
DOCTOR "Not in the least. A high-energy beam, more likely."
MELKUR "... it is too late, Doctor. The Source is mine! ... Now this Traken web of
harmony is broken ...!"
"Amfortas lay in fervent prayer,
anxiously imploring some sign of salvation:
a blessed radiance emanated from the Grail;
a holy vision
clearly spoke to him
this message in words of fire:
'Enlightened through compassion,
the innocent fool;
wait for him,
the appointed one.'"
"The Keeper said someone would come to help Traken. Are you the one, Doctor?"
"[Melkur's] plan ... is only defeated by Adric and Nyssa, the representatives
(like Edgar and Cordelia) of youthful and incorruptable innocence."
- Justin Richards, 'Tragedy of Traken', Frontier Worlds #16.
(This latter comparison of 'Keeper' with 'King Lear' is interesting - by a mindboggling
coincidence, 'Lear' features a broken king with a blasted heath/wasteland of a kingdom.)
KLINGSOR "Up then! To work! ...
Your master calls you,
... Come hither, Kundry!
Your master calls: obey!"
KUNDRY "I ... will not ... Oh! ... Oh!"
KLINGSOR "You will, because you must."
KUNDRY "O endless sleep,
how can I win you?"
KASSIA "No, Melkur, no! You promised you would release me!"
MELKUR "Not until the work is done, Kassia!"
"... the magic garden rises and fills the whole stage. Tropical vegetation,
luxuriant display of flowers."
- 'Parsifal' stage directions
"... a kind of enclosed garden, filled with overgrown flower-beds and trailing
vines. The place seemed absolutely crammed with luxuriant foliage, and there was something
curiously sinister about it."
- Terrance Dicks' novelisation of 'The Keeper of Traken'
"... a dazzling ray of light falls from above on the crystal cup, which now glows
in a brilliant crimson, shedding a soft light on everything. Amfortas, transfigured,
raises the Grail aloft ..."
"Set into the far wall was an enormous globe, glowing and pulsing with energy ...
'This is the Source Manipulator,' said Tremas ... Admiringly the Doctor studied the globe
... 'Limitless organizing capability, refined to a single flame, obedient only to the will
of your Keeper!'"
I think you'll agree the culmative evidence is pretty convincing. Johnny Byrne and
Chris Bidmead are, I'm sure, intelligent and cultured men and I wouldn't be surprised if
they consciously or otherwise filched some of the 'Parsifal' elements for 'Keeper'. (And
this links back to the Apocalyptic Theme, 'cos the Grail stories all tend to conclude with
a holy, universal enlightenment not unlike that supposed to occur on Judgement Day.)
It's taken me a waffling long time to reach this point, and I am now faced with a
problem. O.K., so 'Keeper' is basically an SF version of the Grail/Parsifal legends - but
so what. What does that prove?
Well, not a lot, but it is quite interesting (I think so, anyway). Furthermore ...
I said Wagner's MUSIC had no relevance, but it now occurs to me that perhaps it does. A
Wagner experience (especially a 'Parsifal' experience) can come close to the PSYCHEDELIC
experience - particularly when you're drunk, have incense-sticks smoking merrily away in
the room and a very low-watt blue bulb fitted into the light socket ... As big-dome
philosophy-junkie Bryan Magee puts it :
"... Wagner's music expresses, as does no other art, repressed and highly charged
contents of the psyche, and ... this is the reason for its uniquely disturbing effect.
Some people are made to feel by it that they are in touch with the depths of their own
personalities for the first time. The feeling is of a wholeness yet unboundedness - hence,
I suppose, its frequent comparison with mystical or religious experience. The passionate
nature of it, its unwonted depth, and its frequently erotic character also explain why it
is like being in love ... it seems to transcend - and to expand the consciousness of its
listeners beyond - the bounds of what is possible ..."
Right on! All this is more or less true; and here lies another possible link with
'Keeper' - for that story can be seen as a psychedelic one. The Art Nouveau look of the
show is very close to psychedelic art - swirling plant-forms, a hint of the erotic, a
combination of dreamy, otherworldly feyness with exaggerated exuberance and excess. The
floral motif is very strong throughout the early episodes, while some of the dialogue
echoes the ecstatic love-philosophy of the 60s flower-children :
DOCTOR: "That's the Traken Union - famous for its universal harmony. A whole
empire held together by ... held together by ..."
DOCTOR: "Just by people being terribly nice to each other! ... They say the
atmosphere of goodness is so strong that evil just shrivels up and dies."
"A picture had appeared on the TARDIS scanner screen. It showed an ornamental
garden tended by cheerful, broad-shouldered men in grey working-clothes and high boots.
They were raking paths, tending flower-beds, potting plants ... 'These are the Fosters,'
said the Keeper. 'The garden they tend symbolises the spiritual welfare of our
Would YOU be surprised if the Fosters had also been wearing beads and long hair?
Neither would I.
Similarly, there is much in the libretto of 'Parsifal' that mirrors this hippy imagery
and philosophy. Not only do we have a bunch of characters called "Blumenmadchen"
("flower-maidens"), but also stuff like this :
"Parsifal turns and gazes in gentle rapture on wood and meadow, which are now
glowing in the morning light.
'How fair seem the meadows today!
Once I came upon magic flowers
which twined their tainted tendrils about my head;
but never did I see so fresh and charming
the grass, the blossoms and flowers,
nor did they smell so sweet of youth,
or speak with such tender love to me.'
'Now grasses and flowers in the meadow know
that today the foot of man will not tread them down ...'"
This is no superficial resemblance either: like many of the 60s hippies Wagner tended
to groove on Buddhist philosophy, taking on board such concepts as the compassionate
renunciation of the World, and the attainment of the blissful all-in-one Nirvana, in which
the individual is ... sublimated. These Buddhist notions (taken in Wagner's case via his
mentor Schopenhauer) permeate 'Tristan und Isolde' and 'Parsfial', but perhaps find their
best expression in the ending Wagner at one time considered for 'Gotterdammerung':
"I depart from the home of desire,
I flee forever from the home of delusion;
the open gates
of eternal becoming
I close behind me:
to the holiest chosen land,
free from desire and delusion,
the goal of world-wandering
redeemed from rebirth,
the enlightened one now goes,
The blessed end
of all things eternal,
do you know how I attained it?
opened my eyes:
I saw the world end -"
In other words - Turn on, tune in, and drop out! And - stop the Wheel!
Just as an LSD experience can slide from ecstasy into schizophrenic hell, the worst
visions of a Blake or a Van Gogh or a Munch, so 'The Keeper of Traken' begins to take on
the disturbing characteristics of the Bad Trip. Firstly, the gardens start to seem
ever-so-slightly too luxuriant and overgrown - slightly sinister; then a statue appears
which looks weirdly distorted underneath the surface elegance; then the statue begins to
MOVE, its eyes glowing a bloody red; and finally the last comfortable layer is peeled back
and we're into madness - the decaying Master, which Terrance Dicks describes as well as
"... the face of the Master ... was the twisted, malformed face of a decaying
corpse ... One eye glared madly from the crumbling ruin of a face and blackened lips drew
back in a ghastly chuckle."
... and by this time our acid head is a gibbering, paranoid heap on the floor. Such a
shame we had the boring old starfield titles for this story and not the freaky psychedelic
slit-scan tunnel ...
(Last issue I suggested that 'Terror of the Autons' was also a Bad Trip of a story - it
was, but from the very beginning. Where 'Keeper' started off as a nice Pre-Raphaelite,
'Terror' from start to finish looked amazingly like a James Ensor 'mask'-painting come to
And just as 'Keeper' goes askew in the later episodes, so Wagner's music can also cause
a Bad Reaction. Nietzsche started off a Wagner addict and ended up hating it (especially
'Parsifal'), sliding into megalomania and finally insanity. (No parallels with Ian here,
obviously.) Not even Nietzsche's mighty Will could save him from what he called the
"horrible sweet infinitude" of this particular drug. Early Wagner singers often
felt the same: one killed herself after 'The Ring', another died insane after 'Tristan',
another went mad studying 'Tristan', and another died insane after 'Parsifal'.
And just to add the final link in the chain (Nietzsche's 'Ring of Recurrance'???),
here's this from a 'Prisoner' fanzine discussing the psychedelic influences on that
"There are clear parallels between such a 'trip' and the great quests of mythology
for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece. In such tales, and in such drug experiences, many
obstacles have to be overcome as the path unfolds, many enemies have to be fought and
conquered, before the seeker reaches a state of enlightenment."
Sounds rather like this article - or any Doctor Who tale. Strange ...
In fact, this article is, I think, begining to resemble that animated underwater beast
from 'Yellow Submarine' - the one that goes around zooting up all the other animated
underwater beasts, then the background and finally zoots up itself.
So let's quickly find something to finish with ...
Let's face it. One of the main reasons why JNT is so disliked by so many people is
that, quite apart from being to Doctor Who what Mozart is to painting, the guy looks and
acts such a prat.
"Yeah ... Graham Williams ... well, okay, he produced the odd clanger - who hasn't
- but at least he didn't have a beer-belly. At least he didn't wear stupid shirts. At
least he didn't have a whining nasal drone that goes through you like an oily bradawl. Or
flashy gold jewellery. Or catchphrases, for Chrissakes! Yeah ... when you think about it,
Graham wasn't that bad ... bit of a genius, in fact ..."
O.K. So we have these two problems - the man looks dreadful and doesn't produce much
Ay, there's the rub. For HOW could this prize geek have turned out something like 'The
Keeper of Traken' in all its apocalyptic, psychedelic glory?
Plain jaded nowadays? No. After all, Letts stayed for five, an' S11 ain't as bad vis a
vis S7 as S22 was vis a vis S18, was it?
Beeb interference? No. Could explain forced whimsy, etc., but not basic crap like
useless scripts and direction.
The Bidmead Factor? Possibly. But who first hired Bidmead? JNT? Or Higher Powers? Who
Hell - I'm drifting into JNT-bashing again here what the hell, one last time, get it
out of the system, why not?
A few days ago I read this letter in DWM:
"I enjoyed the season and preferred it to Seasons 22 and 23. I can't remember
Season 22 clearly, but I think 25 was probably just as good."
Where do they find these people? Listen - stick 'The Keeper of Traken', Season 18,
written by Johnny Byrne, directed by John Black, script-edited by Christopher H. Bidmead,
and, yes, produced by John Nathan-Turner, stick it into the middle of Season 25 and then
see the difference:::: 'Remembrance' was the televisual equivalent of a Pot Noodle, coming
hermetically sealed in its own white, seamless, squeaky-clean, antiseptic plastic
container, it swells up inside you, filling your stomach without ever really satisfying or
providing nourishment. 'Happiness Patrol' - loved the Kandyman, could've been good if
they'd junked the purecorn dictatorship crap, done it as a really weirdo sinister fantasy;
as it was it was just Willy Wonka Meets the Sunmakers. 'Silver Nemesis' - merde! 'Greatest
Show' ('The Killer Kites of Ginseng?') - actually quite GOOD, until the last episode
screwed everything up with McCoy doing boring tricks with string ("I really enjoyed
the scene with the Doctor doing his magic tricks" burbles our DWM letter-writer) for
three cut-price Sutekhs for some reason named after the Scandinavian Gotterdammerung (hang
on a sec - Ragnarok - Gotterdammerung - Wagner - psychedelia - it all FITS, the Ring of
- stick 'Keeper' into the middle of all this and watch it GLEAM like a freshly-minted
coin tossed onto a shitheap.
We've got a lot to be thankful to JNT for.
"[The Doctor is] an only semi-enlightened being - someone who sees more clearly
into reality that we do ... because he is further along the path, so to speak; but by no
means is he fully enlightened. Unlike the old hermit he is no Parsifal, no Buddha."
- Barry Letts.
Issue four contents
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