The Keeper of Traken

1-story disc
Region 1

for North America
3-story box set
Region 2

for the U.K.
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 115, starring Tom Baker)
  • written by Johnny Byrne
  • directed by John Black
  • produced by John Nathan-Turner
  • music by Roger Limb
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each
Story: The ailing ruler of the Traken Union, known as the Keeper, asks the Doctor and Adric to help make the transition of power to a new Keeper as smooth as possible. Even after enlisting the aid of a conscientious councillor and his daughter Nyssa, the event is anything but, as an all-too-familiar evil has begun to corrupt the high council to make a grab for the secret technological powers behind the throne.
New Beginnings
3 DVD boxed set NTSC Region 1

for North America

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by writer Johnny Byrne, actors Matthew Waterhouse (Adric), Anthony Ainley (Tremas), and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa).
  • "Being Nice to Each Other" making-of featurette (30 min.) with Byrne, Sutton, Sheila Ruskin (Kassia), Geoffrey Beevers (Melkur),
    director John Black, and script editor Christopher H. Bidmead.
  • Featurette on the return of the Doctor's arch-enemy with Geoffrey Beevers, Chris Bidmead and John Black (9 min.)
  • Noel Edmunds interviews Sarah Sutton on Swap Shop (11 min.)
  • Isolated Music Score by Roger Limb (original mono)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery music montage (8 min.)
  • DVD ROM .pdf files: 1982 Dr. Who Annual, Radio Times, & BBC Enterprises literature

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

The excellence of season eighteen reaches its zenith with this story, showcasing the best of what the John Nathan-Turner era could do. Writer Johnny Byrne delivers what is quite possibly his strongest script ever, which goes on to inspire grand work from all the other participants in the production.

Traken is the type of world we should see more of in Doctor Who. Its richly tasteful sets and costumes speak of a grand civilized culture which is a delight to explore. Its people are ceremonial yet also technologically advanced. They are philosophically and politically interesting. And they are alien enough to surprise us with a few twists (even if it doesn't happen on screen, one can still imagine it). The TARDIS earns its marks for showing us more of the universe in this tale.

All characters are introduced exceptionally well, beginning with the Doctor and Adric, and continuing with the Keeper and all of the important guest characters. A proper opening materialization for the TARDIS would have been additionally satisfying, as well as supportive of later developments in the story, but the basic ideas of the craft are presented exceptionally well thanks to the use of the scanner screen during the opening shots, the model shot later on, and the general clarity in the well-laid out opening sequence.

Curiously, where Adric nearly took over the opening episode of his first story, new crewmember Nyssa only appears in two scenes of her first episode, containing a total of only one significant close-up and only one line. Thankfully she more than makes up for this in later episodes, giving us an easily-watchable well-rounded character with many strengths. Top marks are due to the entire cast.

Adric is also at his season 18 best in this story, now out from under Romana and K9's shadow. In fact, he often stays better focused on their mission than the Doctor, and is given almost as much to do in solving the challenges of this adventure. Good writing and directing bring out one of Matthew Waterhouse's best performances.

The Doctor and Adric take a bit too long to get to the scene of the action in the first episode for my tastes, after which the remainder of the episode is a bit too formulaic. Tom Baker plays on that fact, keeping it entertaining. Notice here though, that the people of Traken are refreshingly open to the truth about the Doctor and his TARDIS, which plays in his favour, while deception remains the method for the villains. Quite the opposite of many dreary openings approved of and written by David Whitaker during the earliest years of the show. Sadly the Keeper's communication skills have become pathetic enough to arbitrarily concoct a cliffhanger.

The Doctor puts in a good showing in the adventure, but I feel the script still needed to give him more to do in investigating and tackling the Melkur problem. Although there is a healthy dose of action in the piece, the Doctor's goal is too often to run away from guards and try in vain to get back to the TARDIS. Thus the faint odour of the "Marco Polo" plot mistake (see story no. 4) wafts in during the middle of this tale.

Mind you, it's not too noticeable, given all of the wonderful character scenes and developments that the guest artists are able to indulge in. Additionally, you know the Doctor wants to cobble together some solution to the Trakens' problems once in the TARDIS, not run away from them altogether, so it's nowhere near as awful as "Marco Polo". Plus the action is generally an improvement on much of what the show had been producing previously. Dave Chapman does outstanding work in creating visual beams for Melkur and the ion bonder, while Dick Mills provides energetic sound effects.


I had the strange fortune to see all of season 19 before season 18 came to me in re-runs, so Anthony Ainley was already firmly established in my mind as the Master - the only Master for that matter. And thanks to vague references from season 19, I'd been expecting him to be the adversary for some of season 18's adventures - in fact I suspected that he'd appeared once or twice in all previous seasons.

Thus Tremas appeared to be merely another of the Master's disguises. Ainley's delivery of "Obviously some... force" to Seron in episode one gave him away instantly - he was clearly scheming in his trademark secretive ways once more. He must also be controlling Melkur somehow, getting it to make the TARDIS disappear just as he sends the Fosters to look for it in the grove. It seemed a bit odd though, that Anthony Ainley's name appeared ungarbled in the closing credits. Surely that would give away the Master's presence to the audience a little too easily, wouldn't it?

And so I kept expecting the Doctor to discover the Master's dual role, which seemed to be taking forever. Tremas became more and more helpful and genuinely friendly, and I was more and more at a loss to figure out what his real scheme was.

With my suspicions distracted, the development of Melkur was an unusual set of surprises. No matter how you take the story, the reveal of the shadowy figure watching Kassia's plea on dual eye monitors, shutting them off with a claw and an evil cackle, is one of the great escalating moments in Doctor Who or any other sci-fi show. It's not done as often as you might think, and even then, this is one of the best examples ever.

Episode Three's reveal was a true shock and puzzler. After all the previous action and mayhem, the inner Melkur shows his face to the audience. I couldn't tell who or what he was supposed to be. But there was no mistaking the sound effect in the following shot, and I got goosebumps upon hearing the Master's TARDIS dematerialize. It still didn't all make sense. Anthony Ainley's character was the Master, wasn't he?

Only during episode four, where Ainley's character sets his teeth into opposing the Master's TARDIS and whatever was inside it did I accept him as merely being Nyssa's father, and a character in his own right. And of course, everything leads up wonderfully to the Doctor's confrontation with the Master. It's always a good idea to let the Doctor discover or reach a new room in the final episode, even better if it's the innermost sanctum of the villain's lair. Unfortunately the Doctor doesn't get to do anything critical there beyond character exploration and distraction; the critical actions all take place outside.

Motivating the Master

At this point, it is worth repeating something I noted back in the very first Master story "Terror of the Autons" (story no. 55):
          The Master is a difficult character to motivate properly, as his
     TARDIS provides him with all he needs for his material survival and
     gives him the freedom of all time and space.  That freedom in fact
     keeps him separate from any society he might wish to dominate.  What
     really is his life-style of choice?  Ruler of the universe surrounded
     by minions in a command structure, or self-centered loner wandering the
     galaxy by TARDIS?  Well, lots of people don't really have the issues
     in their lives all neatly sorted out, and villains should be no
     exception, particular those who miss their objectives as often as
     the Master does with the Doctor on his tail.  Still, in order for the
     Master character to work well in a script, he either needs a
     particularly grand ambition to deviously work towards, or he needs
     to be in some form of trouble causing him to work to regain what
     he originally had.  Ideally, both ideas should be in play.  Revenge
     is yet a third possible motivational factor, but I find it to be
     the weakest in terms of creating quality entertainment, and insufficient
     to sustain a complex character like the Master over the long-term,
     and "Doctor Who" is definitely a long-term sci-fi adventure series.
With this in mind, it is worth noting that Tom Baker's era boasts three of the very best Master stories, even if two of them don't really feature the Master in his trademark form. "The Keeper of Traken" has the Master trying to regain his mobility and a new body, while also working on the grand ambition of attaining the power of the Keepership. Additionally, "along the way, many old scores will be settled". So we have a little revenge on the side, which appropriately stays on the side. You would hardly know that the Master was a late addition to the story. His motivations are a perfect fit here.

Musically, Roger Limb delivers one of his best scores here in his Doctor Who debut. It is ultimately memorable due to the introduction of Nyssa's theme, arranged here at its best - fresh, light, and bubbly. There's also a nice menacing instrument sound for Melkur, many interesting pieces for Kassia's increasing enslavement by the creature, and several very respectable cues for the story's major turning points. Limb's waves and washes of synthetic sounds are tasteful, and his Achilles' heel - the overused semitone drop - is difficult to find. Very good job; I like this score a lot. Though I will probably still rank the rest of the season's music ahead of this score, the season's music sets a good standard, where even last place shines bright.
Music by Roger Limb and Special Sound by Dick Mills
"Nyssa's Theme" (stereo version, 0:43),
"Kassia's Wedding Music" (0:49), and
"The Threat of Melkur" (0:55) are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who - Earthshock
Silva Screen FilmCD 709

More info & buying options

The Keeper of Traken is full of excellent elements and heavy with series mythology. It also gels very well as a compelling story in its own right, neatly catapulting one on towards the season finale. An easy choice for the season's best story.

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Der Wächter von Traken"

Magyar: "Traken kapitánya"

Français: (Le Gardien de Traken)

Русский: "Хранитель Тракена"

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.

Single Story versions:
DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.:
See boxed set below.
VHS Video
NTSC A in the U.S.
NTSC B in the U.S.
NTSC in Canada
PAL for the U.K.

3-story boxed sets:
(Story Nos. 115-117: The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis & Castrovalva.)
New Beginnings
3 DVD boxed set
NTSC Region 1
in the U.S.
in Canada
New Beginnings
3 DVD boxed set
PAL Region 2
for the U.K.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Logopolis"

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