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Primeval

Doctor Who: The Big Finish Audio Adventures #26
Paul Clarke

After 'Winter For the Adept' and 'The Mutant Phase', 'Primeval' is a return to a more traditional Doctor Who story format, but on an epic scale. It is basically the story of good versus evil, as an almost all-powerful ancient entity takes power of an ancient and powerful artefact, which is fairly reliable story fodder when handled well. Here, it is handled very well, with additional interest deriving from the fact that artefact in question is the Source of Traken.

I was decidedly unenthusiastic when I reviewed 'The Keeper of Traken', but Parkin's sequel (or rather prequel) is much better than. A major theme of 'Primeval' is moral ambiguity, in the sense that none of the characters on display can easily be described as wholly good or wholly evil. One of the several criticisms I leveled against 'The Keeper of Traken' was that Byrne's concept of paradise boasted corrupt policemen and a very easily dispensed death sentence; some fans suggest that this was intentional, but it is nevertheless difficult to determine whether this was an intentional attempt to suggest that Traken is not the paradise it seems, or whether it was just sloppy writing on Byrne's part. 'Primeval' addresses this by having the Doctor actually question the Consuls on their use of the death penalty, and Traken's veneer of civilization is slightly scratched by the response. Janneus and Hyrca's assertion that dispensing such terminal justice is for the greater good immediately smacks of hypocrisy, and their later suggestion that Nyssa be disintegrated for the tenuous reason that she is a source of contaminating evil confirms that their definition of good is rather spurious. Once Kwundaar invades, the moral character of at least one of the Consuls is laid bare to a far greater degree, as the cowardly Hyrca grovels before Kwundaar. None of the Trakens are actually evil, but they are nonetheless capable of evil under the right circumstances. They are, in short, human.

But Traken is not the only source of this moral ambiguity. Kwundaar's followers are pirates and killers, but they are also portrayed as an army. They are well coordinated and undertake extensive military training. They conquer Traken with ease and a minimum of bloodshed; it is heavily implied that many of them want to "enjoy" the population, but their adherence to orders allows Narthex to prevent them from doing so. They are not mercenaries either, but people genuinely loyal to Kwundaar (at least when they first join him) who respect his leadership and follow him because they choose to, not out of fear. Make no mistake, this does not excuse their actions, but it does portray them in an interesting light. The most obvious example is Narthex. Narthex starts out as a loyal subject of Kwundaar; he needs the money, appreciates the fact that Kwundaar protects those who are loyal to him, and as a result he has committed piracy and has killed in his god's name. On the other hand, he eventually betrays Kwundaar for the sake of the greater good. So is he good or evil? Wisely, no such distinction is made; the Source spares him, the Doctor claims that there is good in him, and in an utterly nauseating scene that is the low point of the entire story, he tells his daughter that he loves her in a very saccharine fashion. On the other hand, he's prepared to kill on Traken, and has clearly done so in the past; significantly, his beloved daughters don't know what he does for a living. Once more, he is a human character, capable of both good and evil and not beyond redemption. In contrast we have Anona, loyal to Kwundaar for reasons as valid as Narthex's, but whose loyalty remains unswerving. Whatever potential for good she may possess is lost as she makes the wrong choices; Narthex shoots her down to save the Doctor's life. The Doctor suggests that all of Kwundaar's followers are capable of redemption, and that they have been led to take the life they lead by events in their past. This touches on issues of moral relativism that can fuel lengthy debates; for a story that revisits the Traken seen on screen, this is entirely appropriate.

And then there's Kwundaar. In keeping with the theme of good and evil, Kwundaar is without a shadow of a doubt the villain, but is given some excellent characterisation that explores what motivates him. Kwundaar protects those who are loyal to him and rewards them for their service; in contrast with many villains in Doctor Who, he seems more like a stern parent than a dictator. He is strangely charismatic and almost charming; he has a rapport with his crew that makes them seem relatively comfortable when addressing this "Living God". But he also orders the hijacking of ships and the killing of their crews, he organizes piracy and slavery and it would seem, rape. He wishes to keep Shayla on board his ship as a plaything, never to leave alive. He is a monster, but he's an interesting monster; moreover, he might even have once possessed the good in him that the Doctor claims is present in everyone. The revelation that Kwundaar created the Source and that the people of Traken worshipped him as a benevolent god explains his obsession with the Union; cursed to always be betrayed, Kwundaar briefly becomes a figure of pity, as it becomes clear that a betrayal nearly three thousand years old still hurts. This pity soon evaporates, as he suddenly announces his intention to kill everything and populate it with others of his kind, and this is my only other criticism of 'Primeval'; for Kwundaar to harp on about rewarding loyalty throughout most of the story only to decide to wipe everything out towards the end seems like overkill. Perhaps writer Lance Parkin wanted to emphasize the depths of Kwundaar's villainy before the denouement, but it seems a shade over the top for my liking.

On the subject of Kwundaar, Stephen Grief is superb in the role. Anyone who has seen Grief's performance as the original Travis in Blake's 7 will know that he excels at sounding menacing, and here his positively drips with malicious glee throughout. The heavy vocal effect adds to the impression of an utterly twisted being, whose physical appearance is kept deliberately non-specific so that references to his face allow the listener to conjure up the horror of his aspect without verbal cues. In fact the acting throughout 'Primeval' is superb, but as usual special mention must go to the regulars. Peter Davison excels even beyond his usual performance here, and taps into the slightly testy portrayal of the Doctor that worked so well in 'The Visitation'; his barbed comments to the prevaricating and bureaucratic Consuls demonstrate great depths of frustration. The Doctor's confrontations with Kwundaar are also highly effective, since he is clearly uneasy a being forced to make a deal with a devil, and his defiance in the face of a being that is capable of dispatching him with ease speaks volumes about the Doctor's character. His motivation is also well addressed, his frantic desperation not to lose another companion making his gamble in dealing with Kwundaar understandable, but his overwhelming sense of responsibility meaning that he won't willingly hand Kwundaar the Source even to save Nyssa. Of especial interest is the means by which he defeats Kwundaar, which it turns out he must have planned for by the end of Episode Three; it is unusual but refreshing for the Fifth Doctor to plan ahead in such a way, given that he tends to think on his feet even more than most of the other Doctors.

Sarah Sutton continues to prove herself as Nyssa especially when defying Kwundaar; her refusal to surrender to him in the face of death means that Nyssa really is a true daughter of Traken and this stands out particularly well in comparison with the craven Hyrca, played with equally convincing pomposity and cowardice by Mark Woolgar. Parkin's use of relatively obscure continuity is rewarding for fans, since it ties up Nyssa's bizarre faint at the end of 'Four to Doomsday' and the temporary plot contrivance of her psychic abilities in 'Time-Flight' without alienating whatever new listeners Big Finish is hopefully attracting. And speaking of continuity, the use of Traken is very effective, since it utilizes a familiar but largely unexplored setting and fleshes out the background of the Union by revealing the origins of the Source and featuring the first Keeper. Again, such concepts are sufficiently explained for the new listener (insofar as I can judge as someone who is already very familiar with Who continuity), whilst being especially rewarding for long time fans. Overall, 'Primeval' is a impressive audio debut for Parkin (one of the more prolific and popular Doctor Who novel authors) and a strong addition to "Season Nineteen B".

Lawrence Conquest

I must admit that the first time I listened to Primeval its charms bypassed me completely. I’ve never been overly keen on continuity-obsessed sequels (or prequels) to old TV stories – can’t people come up with their own ideas? Oddly Primeval seems to think that the fact that it’s a sequel to The Keeper of Traken is a huge surprise – well, maybe it would have been had someone not stuck a picture of the Source on the front cover!

Ignoring the issues of fill-in-the-blank continuity plotting, Primeval works well as an examination of culture clash – both between the non-interventionist Trakenites and the “Do what you will before your opponents do it to you” followers of Kwundaar and the religious and scientific factions on Traken. Some of the actual storytelling is a little suspect however, with the plot relying heavily on the Doctor’s supreme gullibility in allowing Kwundaar’s armies to invade Traken. This invasion is another example of Big Finish attempting something beyond their means, as two actors pretending to be an entire army stretches credibility to breaking point. The ending is also a particularly uninspired mental battle straight out of the Brain of Morbius. Performances are generally fine, and the production quality is back on track after the shocking lapse on Colditz.

Primeval is agreeable enough but, rather like Traken society, I did find it fairly bland at times. A decent but unspectacular Davison story.

Simon Catlow

'You'll have to forgive me, I always find it difficult to relax somewhere so tranquil. In my experience every paradise has it's serpents somewhere.'

With Nyssa suffering from a disease that the Doctor has absolutely no idea how to deal with, he is forced to take her to the only place in the universe that can help her. But their arrival there is part of a larger more sinister plan, which could mean the end of everything...

Lance Parkin makes his Doctor Who audio debut with Primeval, starring Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton as the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa respectively. Parkin's novels have had a consistent excellence about them, and his first audio Doctor Who story delivers well. Primeval is a superb entry into the Big Finish Doctor Who series, and continues the trend that Loups-Garoux and The Eye Of The Scorpion began which has seen a renaissance in the quality of the Fifth Doctor series and has put Peter Davison into a position where he is a genuine threat to Colin Baker's title as the best audio Doctor.

Primeval takes the rather unusual step of throwing the listener immediately into the action, with the Doctor bringing the suffering Nyssa to those that be believes might be the only people to help her. Whilst this is a little disconcerting at first as it's very unexpected, it helps the drama because it means that the story proper is underway instantaneously and attracts the attention of the listener. And the good thing about Primeval is that it doesn't let up at all.

By setting Primeval on Traken, some several thousand years before it's destruction in Logopolis, Parkin takes the opportunity to explore the Traken society in a way that was never really seen in the series, and the result is quite fascinating. The idea of the Traken Union, a society which existed in almost total perfection, is very intriguing and Parkin uses his story to delve into the history and to a certain extent the creation of the Union. Whilst this forms only part of Primeval's plot, it plays a significant contributing factor to the drama's ultimate success.

Peter Davison's continues to excel as the Doctor, with another excellent performance. In some of his earlier stories, Davison seemed occasionally to be having a little difficulty getting back into the habit of being the Doctor, yet now he really seems to relish playing the part once more now, and this shows through his acting. Given how young when he originally played the role on television, his voice shows the most maturing in the intervening years since of the four actors reprising the role as the Doctor for Big Finish at this time, but this doesn't matter because he is quite definitely the same Doctor, but a more effectual one, with a greater vocal presence. The fact that he's being asked to play the Doctor slightly differently to before really seems to motivate Davison to act well, and Primeval is another very fine performance from him.

Sarah Sutton puts in a very commendable performance as Nyssa, with it being very enjoyable to listen to. Although Nyssa spends a lot of the story suffering the effects of the malady which has afflicted her, this is no repeat of what happened in the television story Kinda where she was relegated to the TARDIS for almost the entirety of the story. Although her sickness scenes are occasionally unconvincing, this is a very strong story for Nyssa and Sutton's performance rises to the challenge that Parkin's script gives her.

The guest cast is good. Stephen Greif is wonderfully malevolent as the sinister figure of Kwundaar, and it's certainly one of the best and most memorable villainous turns to feature so far. Lance Parkin's script really builds up a sense of mystery about his character, about who he is and what he really wants and this the suspense is effectively sustained throughout until the truth about him is revealed. There are some particularly powerful scenes involving him and the Doctor as they face off against each other at various points in the story, one of which is the cliffhanger to episode one of Primeval which must qualify as one of the best that Big Finish have done so far. The effects used for Kwundaar's voice are exceptional as well, making Greif's performance even more menacing than ever, although there was a slight downside that very occasionally it was difficult to make out what he was saying exactly with the worst example of this being at the very end of episode two.

Susan Penhaligon is the other main guest star of Primeval, but while there is nothing wrong with her performance as Shayla, it just lacks the requisite shine that would have made it memorable. As it is it's adequate but the character's potential never really manages to emerge. Shayla does develop the same kind of rapport with the Doctor that he did with several female characters in the television series, but even so it still doesn't make her role within the story as good as might have been.

The rest of the cast are very good. They're very much divided between the two settings of the story, but both sides manage good performances. Ian Hallard does well as Shayla's assistant Sabian, and the relationship that he develops with Nyssa which at times borders on the romantic is very well handled by Parkin's script. Much like on television, the Consuls Hyrca and Janneus are at odds with the Doctor at times, but both Marc Woolgar and Rita Davies play their roles appropriately. Billy Miller and Romy Tennant form a good double act and they carry their scenes on board the spaceship well.

The production aspect of Primeval is once more impeccable, after an unusual blip with last month's Colditz, but given that there were problems in the CD Mastering which resulted in Primeval's release date being pushed back, this perfection should have been anticipated. Although the Big Finish website said that Russell Stone was set to compose the music for Primeval, the CD's notes say that sound designer Gareth Jenkins composed Primeval's score in fact. The score is very atmospheric, really assisting the mood of the play through appropriate music and by ensuring that it never intrudes upon the drama itself.

Primeval concludes this years Fifth Doctor offerings on a high note, with a very strong storyline, excellent performances from Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton and Stephen Greif and a well written script. Primeval is a very fine piece of drama and should definitely be considered one of the very best that Big Finish have released so far.

Nigel Parry

The fifth Doctor returns to the planet Traken, before his earlier visit by his fourth incarnation, to find a cure for companion Nyssa's current ailment. There, he meets suspicion and mistrust, but happens upon Shayla who befriends and helps him. Kwundaar, played magnificently by Stephen Grief (very Travis-esque, but many times more powerful), is controlling events, and is using Nyssa as a pawn to attract the Doctor to Traken. As a reward for helping Nyssa, Kwundaar demands the Doctor help him gain access to the Source, an immeasurably powerful entity first featured in the televised 'Keeper of Traken' story. As it transpires, Kwundaar is even more deadly than his fabled 'devil-pirate' image. He is the creator of the Source, has since been banished from Traken, and is determined to get it back. True to form, the Doctor tricks his assailant and turns the power of the Source against him. Shayla becomes the first Keeper of Traken (or second after the Doctor, technically speaking) in order to make sure that the source is never abused again. However, there is a price for his actions: the Doctor has been marked by Kwundaar, and now others of his kind will be trying to find him.

Lance Parkin's first, highly anticipated, audio play is an enjoyable romp. The story is very reminiscent of the style of 'Keeper', a successful recreation of the society; even the music (composed by Russell Stone, despite what the sleeve notes may tell you) is both threatening and tranquil, often at the same time. The scenes with Kwundaar (especially the early ones) are steeped in darkness and danger, and the electronic effect used on Grief's voice is very sinister indeed. So strong is the modulation in those early scenes, it is sometimes difficult to hear, and the effect is reduced as the story progresses.

Kwundaar's misuse of the Doctor's trust is not exactly unsurprising, and his eventual invasion is heavy in dialogue, but short on action, making the whole event some what unspectacular. But the fairly straightforward plot is added to with many incidentals (Nyssa's relationship with Sabian, and the Doctor's with Shayla for example) that it is hard not to enjoy the tale. In fact it improves with every listen.

The cast is very good: Davison gives his usual commanding performance - it is quite possible that his Doctor has never been better. Apart from his fine line in gentle sarcasm, he also has a low tolerance for people when their minds don't operate quite as quickly as his (which is unfortunate for them), but even when he snaps at them for their ignorance, it is impossible not to enjoy such bad temper; this is a Doctor entirely on our side.

Sarah Sutton as Nyssa also improves. Far from her earlier, slightly stodgy performances, her naivety is becoming more endearing, and even though she is ill and therefore out of the way for much of the first half of this story, she is more likeable now than perhaps ever before.

Of the others, the guest cast shine. Stephen Grief, as mentioned before, is superb. The actor notes in interviews how he is often cast as 'bad guys' and, with no disrespect to him, it is obvious why: he is so good at them. Even without his dark and sinister looks, he is effective, with a deep and menacing voice.

Susan Penhaligon is fine as Shayla. Rather like Todd in the televised 'Kinda', Shayla's relationship with the fifth Doctor is entirely innocent, but they seem very well suited: indeed, the Doctor even invites her to join him in his travels. She declines, of course. Another fifth Doctor companion at this stage might really confuse things a bit!

The supporting cast is also very convincing, either as suspicious and slightly arrogant Trakenites, or blind followers of Kwundaar. The story is left resolves, but open-ended. Maybe the followers of Kwundaar may return.

Todd Green

I'm a big fan of Lance Parkin's Dr Who novels, but I'm sorry to say I was let down by "Primeval." While the performances overall are excellent and the production superb, the story feels somewhat familiar. It was perhaps more disappointing coming from an author who in the past has excelled at giving us the unusual - the Doctor married, or the Doctor raising a daughter. While I'd make the same complaints regardless of the author, I expected something special, and "Primeval" didn't deliver.

I'm going to try to avoid spoilers but if you absolutely intend on getting "Primeval" or already have it and haven't listened yet, best to stop here.

"Primeval" starts with a great concept - explaining how Nyssa happened to develop psychic abilities during her tenure in the TARDIS. The Doctor arrives on Traken with Nyssa near death and can't explain why. The early scenes grabbed me immediately, the dialog and performances conveying all the necessary urgency.

Same goes for the Doctor's trip to Kwundaar's ship. Kwundaar is a serious enemy and Stephen Greif gives him delicious menace. However, here's where it starts to fall apart. By the end of episode two, our heroes have gotten clean away. The Doctor's made a bargain to save Nyssa, and she's healed. But the Doctor never intends to keep his end of it. I kept waiting for some terrible new problem to befall Nyssa as it did in "Madrwyn Undead," where travelling in the TARDIS caused her and Teagan to age or regress and forced the Doctor to stay put. But the Doctor as much as says "we've escaped" and then turns right back for Traken to cause all sorts of new mischief that keeps the plot going for another two episodes.

That's bad enough. Worse, however, is that we have an enemy invading Traken and attempting to take control of the Source, and if you've seen "Keeper of Traken" - and come on, most of us have - you can guess how it works out.

Which is a shame. Kwundaar is a great enemy, well realized, and overall, the concept would have worked better if Parkin had moved it to another setting - avoiding Traken and the Source entirely - and kept the Doctor in trouble longer.

In my opinion those are big concerns; however, they're the only two I can make. Overall this is the best Big Finish audio I've heard, performance and atmosphere-wise. The voices are distinct without resorting to "unusual accents," the music doesn't overpower the dialog, the cliff-hangers kept me on the edge of my seat. The secondary characters are all well developed, each responding realistically to the Doctor and the impending invasion. And of course, Peter Davison and Sarah Sutton turn in great performances as well.

However, if you're looking for something special in keeping with the "Parkin-verse," best to re-read "Father Time" or wait for "Trading Futures" which sounds like a winner.

Jonathan Dreyfus

I suppose that the best word to describe the run of Fifth Doctor/Nyssa stories to date would be "cursed". The Land of the Dead was peculiar, Winter for the Adept pathetic and The Mutant Phase, though promising, was pointless, its penultimate peroration proving it paradoxical. So, as you can imagine, the first letter of the title and the author's surname sent a nasty shiver of foreboding up my spine. Which was completely unjustified - Parkin's Primeval is practically perfect.

Setting the story on Traken was a very good move. Keeping it secret was even better, though slightly unnecessary. The time in Traken's history in which it takes place is the Primeval time, before the Keepers came into existence, when the Source governed itself. The first Keeper of Traken is introduced in this story, and it is perfectly believable that society would change after such a radical alteration.

Perhaps one of the most awaited authors at Big Finish has been legendary Who novelist Lance Parkin. His debut audio adventure is superbly scripted, all his characters believable and his set pieces realistically created. There is hardly one line that is not relevant to the resolution, and although the Doctor does tend to prattle on a bit, this is very much in character and doesn't detract in the slightest from the action.

Up until Loups-Garoux, Peter Davison hadn't been given one single decent story to work with. This year, however, has given him an opportunity to really shine with three outstanding stories. Primeval presents him with possibly his best audio role yet, and he appears to absolutely relish this chance to show how good an audio Doctor he is, now rivaling Colin Baker for the "top Doctor" position.

This is one of the rare cases in Doctor Who when the companion is absolutely vital to the plot. Too often they are just there to ask questions so the audience understands, but in this instance the story would not have happened without Nyssa. Sarah Sutton's performance is spot on, recapturing the Nyssa she had on television exactly. The subtle flirting with Sabian is well handled and delivered by both actors, and her overall performance is a delight.

The real star of the piece, however, is Steven Grief, putting on a deliciously malevolent performance as Kwundaar. He creates the perfect blend of nastiness, sarcasm and sadness to make his character the perfect exiled god. When we discover why he hates Traken so much, it's difficult not to feel sorry for him.

It is therefore a great pity indeed that the only fault of the entire production befalls him. Gods are generally heard with deep, resonating resonating resonating resonating resonating voices. Here, the god of the piece's voice is treated to make him sound like a drowned rat, and about as easy to understand. There are several lines to suggest that Kwundaar is mutated and deformed, but this is taking things a little too far, as it is often grievously difficult to make out what he is saying.

Susan Penhaligon also does very well with the role of Shayla, coming across as a compassionate and kind person who places high value in morality. Her exchanges with Kwundaar's followers are very well scripted and performed, and her eventual acceptance of the position of first (well, second technically) keeper is a fitting reward for such a caring person.

The rest of the guest cast all put in memorable performances, possibly the most striking comes from Billy Miller as Narthex, because he is such an interesting character. We can tell from the outset that he doesn't really enjoy what he does, but can't do anything to set himself free... or can he?

Ever since his arrival in the range, Gareth Jenkins has, time after time, produced excellent results at his post of sound design and post-production. His only flaw in this story is the disastrous voice effect added to Kwundaar, but otherwise, his sound design and creation of acoustics and locations are breathtakingly realistic and true to the script.

Despite the rather unflattering mistake in the credits for this story, it was not difficult to pick up that Russell Stone, not Gareth Jenkins, had composed the music, which indeed he had. He has a very distinctive style. His music here is excellent, a militaristic theme for Kwundaar's ship, a threatening drum piece that accompanies Kwundaar himself, and slow, tawdry chords that, although very predictable, suit the steady, unchanging atmosphere of Traken perfectly

Despite all this, however, Primeval's success should be attributed mainly to the superbly crafted script and believable, well ordered plot. Lance Parkin is often said to have written some of the best books in the BBC range, and here it is fair to say that he has penned possibly the finest audio in the range. Primeval rises spectacularly to challenge the likes of The Holy Terror and The Marian Conspiracy. And succeeds with style.