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…
“You’re one of those people whose glass is always half empty, aren’t you?”
Strangely enough the above quote applies to the person who reviewed it for Doctor Who Magazine, which once called Primeval “the worst Fifth Doctor audio there’s ever been”. I can tell you right now, it definitely isn’t. It’s not perfect but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be the holder of that award.
Primeval brings to a close the thread of Nyssa’s heightened mental abilities, which (in hindsight) started with Time-Flight and was carried through Land of the Dead and Winter for the Adept. The scenes on Traken are much better than those off-world and whenever the story shifts to the ship nearby I found myself wanting it to finish quickly so we could have more of the Traken stuff.
Susan Penhaligon does a great job with Shayla, making her likeable, sympathetic and believable. She portrays the independence and detachment of a scientist while having the thoughtfulness and responsibility of a Consul, putting the actual Consuls to shame, which is what ‘s supposed to happen. She develops a rapport with the Doctor very quickly and helps to carry the story along. It’s a good thing too because, to be honest, Nyssa is pretty much sidelined for the first two episodes – suffering from problems due to her mental abilities – and doesn’t really get anything decent to do until Part Three.
The Consuls are both very good, They’re not villains but they are at odds with the Doctor because they feel that he threatens the harmony of the Traken Union. Especially when the Source goes silent and they have to make the decisions themselves. This is also where they become separate characters and not just ‘the ruling council’; Janneus is the stronger of the two, sticking to her guns and not wanting to afford any argument, although this is because she knows who and what Kwundaar is and hopes that by keeping the secret, nothing will change. When things do change, she doesn’t lose her cool and accepts that something must be done. Hyrca however, seems more highly-strung and keen to get rid of the Doctor and Nyssa. He seems unable to cope without the Source making the decisions. When Kwundaar turns up, Hyrca just rolls over and declares him the ruler. It’s like he’s glad that someone else is there to make the decisions (he should have a sign on his desk that says “the buck stops…over there”.
The music that Russell Stone has created for Traken is very good. Rightly, he’s decided not to emulate Roger Limb’s score for The Keeper of Traken and has gone down his own route (makes sense since this is set centuries in the past). All of the Traken stuff just feels right, the atmosphere, the music, the characters, acting and direction; it all comes together and there’s just nothing wrong with it…well, there’s almost nothing wrong it.
The only fly in Traken’s ointment is Sabian, Shayla’s assistant. There’s never been a wetter blanket. He’s a colossal drip who is only there so that Nyssa can have scenes while the Doctor and Shayla are off-world. He really doesn’t contribute anything to the story and it’s a thankless role. Ian Hallard does what he can with it but, quite frankly it’s a waste of a character. You get the feeling that they’re trying to make Sabian and Nyssa develop feelings for each other but if so, then they do a very half-hearted job, almost as if they give up halfway through, and that just makes the character worse.
There’s more to this story than Traken though and we have three villains lurking in a ship nearby. Kwundaar is the omniscient, ex-living god of Traken who created the Source and then was expelled from the planet when people turned away from religion. He’s since become a conquerer of worlds with his own army who worship him. I’m not quite sure exactly what he is, but I think he’s supposed to be an ancient, primeval being from an older, more distant part of the Universe – similar to the Great Intelligence, the Gods of Ragnarok or the Celestial Toymaker. It’s never really made clear but he does tell the Doctor that he’s sent a message to others like him, calling for them to return and telling them about the Doctor (and to the best of my knowledge, none of them have since come to get him). But more on Kwundaar later.
Narthex is the leader of Kwundaar’s army and is a really good character. He starts off as an utter bastard, he doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything and you hate him right from the off. He shows utter contempt towards the Doctor, Shayla and the whole of Traken and he even treats his own subordinates like dirt. And then you start to find things out about him. He doesn’t have the blind devotion to Kwundaar that others do, he has a family back home who appear to be living a normal life, oblivious to his job. It becomes clear that he wants to provide for his family and at one point he says he wants to keep them safe, so you start to think that maybe he’s got himself into this situation and has to keep going so that his family don’t suffer or find out or something else happens to them, and you start to feel sympathy for the guy. Then when he sees an opportunity to escape from Kwundaar and helps the Doctor, you’ve gone from hating his guts to hoping he makes it to the end. Well written, well acted, an excellent character.
Anona is the other member of Kwundaars army that we meet; angry, violent, late teens/fresh from the academy type who has utter hatred and contempt for anyone who’s not on her side. She believes totally in Kwundaar and worships the ground he walks on (if, indeed, he walks) and is itching to get down to Traken and hurt people. It’s a good character and you’re just waiting for the moment when she gets her comeuppance.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen. There is no comeuppance, there are no consequences to her actions. She is a being of “evil” invading the tranquil planet of harmony that is Traken and her morals and convictions are the complete antithesis of the Traken way of life. So I would have expected some kind of challenge to her beliefs and convictions regarding the hatred and violence before she died. But there isn’t, there was a small scene in Part Two but there should have been something else once she was on Traken and could actually see the place and the people that she’s been despising all this time. So that, when it has no effect on her and she remains villainous to the end, her death feels like it’s where the character was heading all along. But nothing happens to challenge her and when she does get killed it feels like “oh no, Part Four’s nearly over and we’ve still got all the characters…er, bang! You’re dead”.
The final character, the point of the story, Nyssa’s mental abilities, the history of Traken… So much of this story hinges on the character of Kwundaar. They’ve got the brilliant Stephen Grief to play him and frankly, it’s a waste of a guest star as they put an effect on Kwundaar’s voice so that not only can you not really tell that it’s Stephen Grief but half the time you can’t even make out what he’s saying. Really, anyone could have played that part. If you’re going to get Stephen Grief to play a part in this he should have been Narthex. Also, oddly enough, I have absolutely no mental image of him whatsoever. I can picture all of the other characters in my head but there’s nothing to go on here. He can’t show people his face because they’ll go blind or mad or something, or both. When people are talking to him you have no idea if he’s standing up, sitting down, is he even humanoid? Is he even there? All he is is a voice. There’s nothing wrong with that but in Part Four you have to assume that he’s humanoid because he’s walking around talking to people – but then, hang on a minute – everyone can see him and not one of them is going mad or blind, or shrieking like a gibbon. So what was the point of all that stuff early on? It’s like they just forgot that people can’t look at him.
He’s also responsible for Nyssa’s mental problems. Nyssa’s mental abilities started on TV in Time-Flight and went nowhere. Big Finish decided to make something of it and continued the idea with Land of the Dead and Winter for the Adept (which take place after Time-Flight). Finishing it off in this story, we discover that Kwundaar looked into the future – because he can do that – and saw her leave Traken so he heightened her mental powers knowing that it would ultimately bring the Doctor to him. Then he turns her mental powers off, just like that. Anti-climax or what?
The final thing I have to complain about is the huge, massive, cavernous, gaping plot hole that even a herd of obese elephants would find un-necessarily roomy. Kwundaar is omniscient right? He can see the past and the future and he knows all the things that are going on; he knows Narthex will betray him, he knows that Nyssa leaves Traken in the far future and that the Doctor will be involved in Traken’s destruction. He knows the Doctor will come to him and that he’ll sabotage the Source so that Kwundaar can get on to Traken. He knows all these things but the one thing, the ONE thing he doesn’t know is that he’s going to fail and be killed. A rather important and convenient piece of information for him to lack given his ability to see through all of time isn’t it? And because his omniscience is such a big part of the character, it makes it all the more obvious that there’s a big plot hole. And you don’t really want to do that.
I like Primeval, I enjoyed it. It’s not brilliant, but it’s quite good. There are some excellent characters, it’s well directed, very well acted and the Traken scenes are so good to listen to. Every story has problems like the ones with Sabian and Anona so you can forgive those, but Kwundaar is a rather large, messy stumbling block.
A story that could have been very good in almost every way is spoiled by a pivotal character who isn’t clearly explained and doesn’t seem to have been fully thought-through. 2.5/5
The Doctor: Peter Davison | Nyssa: Sarah Sutton
With: Rita Davies (Janneus); Stephen Grief (Kwundaar); Ian Hallard (Sabian); Alistair Lock (Etrayk); Billy Millar (Narthex/Captain Kabe); Susan Penhaligon (Shayla); Romy Tennant (Anona); Marc Woolgar (Hyrca).
Writer: Lance Parkin | Director: Gary Russell | Music: Russell Stone | Release Date: November 2001 | Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes | Number of Episodes: 4
Set Between: The Mutant Phase and Arc of Infinity