Review – Big Finish Doctor Who #26: “Primeval”

This is the next in line of my Big Finish Productions Doctor Who retro-reviews.

#26 – “Primeval”

From Big Finish’s site:

Nyssa will die at dawn, and the Doctor doesn’t even know why.

To save her life, he must make a desperate journey to the only place in the universe where a cure might exist.

When even that fails, the Doctor has a choice — let Nyssa die, or make a deal with the devil.

After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions…

Written By: Lance Parkin

Directed By: Gary Russell


Peter Davison (The Doctor); Sarah Sutton (Nyssa); Susan Penhaligon (Shayla); Stephen Greif (Kwundaar); Ian Hallard (Sabian); Romy Tennant (Anona); Rita Davies (Janneus); Mark Woolgar (Hyrca); Billy Miller (Narthex / Captain Kabe); Alistair Lock (Etrayk)

***minor spoilers ahead***

When Nyssa was first introduced in “The Keeper of Traken,” near the end of Tom Baker’s run, Traken was a paradise world.  There was no disease, no evil.  (Pay no attention to The Master standing in the corner over there, preparing to steal a new body for himself.)  This was due to the powerful energy known as the Source, which the Keepers of Traken regulated and consulted throughout the centuries.  It was said that there was so much good in the air that evil would simply shrivel and die.  But as Don Henley reminds us, when you call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.  Traken was destroyed in the 4th Doctor’s finale episode, Logopolis.

So what happens to a native Trakenite when she’s been removed from her paradise to travel with the Doctor through time and space?  Consider the evils she’s seen, the myriad philosophies to which she’s been introduced.  It doesn’t take much to corrupt the pure, and in this case, Nyssa had seen more than the majority of her people even before she left her homeworld.  What would her own people think?

This is the setup for “Primeval.”  Nyssa is dying, and the Doctor has brought her home to be cured… 3,000 years before her time.  As Traken had no disease in Nyssa’s time, it’s necessary to find an expert of Trakenite biology from a time when medicine is practiced, and the TARDIS records gave him a prime candidate in Shayla.  What the Doctor did not bank on is how superstitious the people of Traken are at this time.  As there is no Keeper, the Source is communed with directly in this time.  It rules on everything… everything, that is, except for the Doctor.  This is the crux of Shayla’s diagnosis: Nyssa’s problem is that she has been infected with evil.  The council, denied the Source’s decision, rules that the Doctor and Nyssa are to be exiled.  Nyssa’s fate is not their affair.

Shayla disagrees, and she and the Doctor race against time to find the cure.  This leads the Doctor to Kwundaar.  Outside of Traken, Kwundaar is seen as a living god by his followers.  They live and die by his command, and in return their every need is tended.  He is undeniably evil as every serpent in the garden should be, and he’s more than willing to grant Nyssa a cure in exchange for the Doctor doing him a favor.  You just know that can’t be good when a god of war sets his sights on a pacifist world.  He is psychically powerful enough to reach through space and time to read minds, and even the Doctor’s psychic defenses are as nothing.  Is he a match for the Source itself?  And what is it that he could ask of the Doctor?

I won’t spoil it from there.  Suffice to say, battles of ideology are standard seeds in the Doctor Who arsenal, and the past of Traken is fertile ground for such a story.  It’s a bad day when the sun itself turns black.  For fans of Nyssa and her homeworld, this is a most important story.  As with most stories involving the 5th Doctor and Nyssa, you won’t get much humor, but you’ll get plenty of superior-minded grandstanding and semantics.  Where stories that build upon the mythos the original TV series sets up are concerned, this one is loyal to that mythos.  More than that, it delivers in a way so authentic to the era that only Big Finish could pull.  It feels like the audio track from one of the “lost episodes.”  And it works so much better if you’re familiar with “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis.”

Special thanks to my SciFiFX colleague Carl, who guided me through the continuity of Doctor Who when Big Finish was first introducing me to these stories.  Thanks to his efforts, I can navigate the minefield left behind by 26 seasons of TV and pass that knowledge to new fans who might only know Doctor Who through the current TV series.  Indeed, that’s my primary motive in reviewing these Big Finish audios, for I still contend that they’re better than most of what we see on screen, and they fulfill many promises left unfulfilled by the current incarnation by hearkening back to the classics with modern storytelling sensibilities.

As an afterthought, now that I consider it, this is one of the stories that sets up the rather disturbing pattern wherein Big Finish has dumped the evils of the universe squarely on the conscience of the 5th Doctor and pointed the finger of blame straight at him.  Where stories like this are concerned, this one doesn’t end quite so badly, but the precedent is set for later stories.  It’s like the writers at Big Finish are having a contest to see who can break the 5th Doctor.  “Spare Parts” comes to mind, but I’ll get to that one in sequence.  It’s sort of like watching The Clone Wars, specifically looking for signs of Anakin’s path to the Dark Side.  In this case, the 5th Doctor’s Big Finish adventures are almost adding to the weight of the 8th Doctor’s role in the Time War.  After all these years of audio immersion, I look at Eccleston, Tennant, and Smith, and I can see very clearly how their near insanity can be explained by what Big Finish does to the 5th Doctor as much as what they do to Paul McGann’s 8th Doctor.  You see, I’m convinced these 5th Doctor stories severely affected the Zagreus story as well, which we’ll cover when we get to it as I realize that means very little at this stage of the game for those who have not listened ahead.  After all, it’s the straightest arrow that snaps loudest, and Peter Davison’s 5th Doctor is about as straight an arrow as they come.  So it begs the question: just how much evil can you drop on someone like the Doctor before he snaps?  We know he snapped, but we’ve never truly seen the evils piled on him.  In a lot of ways, this is where Big Finish specializes.  But then, I’m clearly biased.  Give these stories a listen and tell me what you think.