Starring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, Primeval returns the listener to Traken, Nyssa’s homeworld. The planet first appeared in Tom Baker’s almost-finale The Keeper of Traken, and has always been a favourite setting of mine. Primeval drops us earlier in the planet’s history, and picks up the lose thread from the show involving Nyssa’s mystery illness. Much of this story seems to revolve around exploring Nyssa in a more developed, continuity rich way than we ever saw on the screen, with references to the Charleston from Black Orchid, and even her change of costume later in the show.
The story belongs to a long run of audios set between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity, and has The Doctor and Nyssa travelling alone together. The Fifth Doctor travelled with a single companion only once during the TV show’s original run, and it’s no surprise it was one of his strongest stories. Big Finish have known well enough to follow that example in recent years. (Though Janet Fielding’s refusal to revive Tegan may have been more influential.)
The mysterious fatigue that grounded Nyssa during Kinda makes a sudden reappearance. To treat her, The Doctor returns her to Traken centuries prior to its destruction. Here he finds experts Traken medicine, but the society on Traken is radically different to his last visit. In this era it is dominated by an almost religious dependence on their guiding power, The Source.
The locals seem unable to help Nyssa, and aren’t fond of the Doctor. Circumstances force him to seek help from a local terrorist, Kwundaar, who is believed to be a god by his followers. Kwundaar manipulates the Doctor into returning to Traken and destroying The Source. This allows Kwundaar to invade the planet. Once there he reveals himself to be the ancient God of Traken, cast out when society left the age of superstition. The Doctor challenges him to a battle of wills and wins, becoming the first Keeper of Traken.
Primeval isn’t a very famous Big Finish release. Not as remembered as Jubilee or Spare Parts, it doesn’t feature a quirky Doctor performance or a remarkable new companion. It doesn’t matter. It just works. The setting plays a bit part of that. Traken was a remarkably visual place on the screen, and just evoking it in audio brings back memories. The story is written for those familiar with Keeper, and yet in tone it reminds me of Caves of Androzani. The Doctor must care for a dying companion, there is a villain who monologues and waxes lyrical on politics and philosophy, and at one point The Doctor manages to screw it all up quiet dramatically. There’s humour here, but this story explores the difference between appropriate subservience and slavery. Both the people of Traken and Kwundaar’s forces are dogmatic, and both perceive the other as naive.
There are some touching moments along the way too. Nyssa reaffirms her desire to travel with The Doctor. When faced with the opportunity to return home, she draws a line under her life on Traken and moves on. We see a different side of Traken society. The emphasis on tradition is a part of life here, but at this time it’s stifling and isolationist. There is a moment when a physician from Traken meets one of the terrorists and is confronted with the fact that thousands outside Traken are dying from diseases she can easily treat. It’s moments in which the good and the bad are not so sharply delineated that Doctor Who excels.
It’s a solid script. It moves from place to place slowly, but it’s never plodding. Each scene contributes to the plot, and the sense of place. I got through it in two sittings for this re-listen but I’d have gone from start to finish if I’d had the time.
Too often stories are forgotten because they’re not “special”. They aren’t anniversary episodes or crossovers, Dalek or Cyberman stories. That doesn’t mean they aren’t well written. Primeval doesn’t try to shock and surprise you, instead it tries to welcome you back to a place you know, and tell a strong story there. It accomplishes this so well, I can’t fault it.