We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re listening to Main Range #26, Primeval, featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
Nyssa has collapsed, and the Fifth Doctor needs help. He takes her to a healer named Shayla and her assistant Sabian for help, having already induced D-Sleep. It’s not her first collapse, but her recovery last time seems to be temporary. After Shayla stabilizes her, she meets with the Doctor, and takes him to see Nyssa. Nyssa awakens in the morning from a nightmare to find the Doctor beside her; she recognizes a bird outside the window as being from Traken. The Doctor explains that they are on Traken, but three thousand years prior to its destruction. He cautions her to keep the truth about their travels as vague as possible. Sabian arrives and sends the Doctor to Shayla, who must report his presences to the Consuls; he offers to stay with Nyssa in the meantime.
The Consuls, Hyrca and Janneus, are uncertain about the Doctor, and Janneus communes with the Source for more information while Hyrca guards her. It warns of danger, but doesn’t explain; it cannot track the patterns involved. This turn of events makes them respond to the Doctor with some hostility. Shayla reports that Nyssa’s souls has been corroded by exposure to evil, which doesn’t fit with anything the Doctor has encountered before; evil, he insists, is a relative concept, not an objective force like radiation. The Consuls insist that evil is in fact an objective force, and that the Source protects them from it, rendering Traken perfect; the Doctor counters this by pointing out that even Traken has the death penalty. The Consuls conclude that the Doctor is jealous of the Trakenites. Later, the Doctor consults with Nyssa, who knows little of her own history, but acknowledges that Trakenites of the past were more superstitious—consistent with Shayla’s view that Nyssa has been corrupted with evil.
Outside the Traken Union, a fleet of warships has waited for 2500 years, led by the living god Kwundaar. Kwundaar summons Captain Narthex, but he sends a young lieutenant, Anona, in his place. He will not allow her to look at him or speak to him. He reads her mind, and binds her to his service. He reveals that he intends to conquer Traken—Paradise, as he calls it—and claim the Source, which is also dangerous to him. He sends her back to Narthex; she wonders why Kwundaar doesn’t go out to conquer. Narthex suspects he has an agent on Traken, as Kwundaar claims; but also that the Consuls will attack soon.
The Consuls meet secretly with Shayla and discuss the Doctor and Nyssa. Shayla, like Nyssa, believes the Doctor to be a good man, but the Consuls disagree. The Consuls decide to send the Doctor and Nyssa out of the Union. Shayla insists that Nyssa needs the Source to recover, but the Consuls insist they will kill Nyssa rather than let the Union be endangered. Elsewhere, Sabian tells the Doctor about the Source, a sentient, artificial sun. Shayla arrives, and as she explains the outcome of her meeting, Nyssa falls into a near-coma. Frustrated at the lack of knowledge of Nyssa’s condition, Shayla suggests something audacious: She suggests contacting Kwundaar, who is allegedly omniscient despite the terrible crimes of his followers. The Doctor agrees, but Shayla knows the Consuls will kill him if they find out he intends to contact Kwundaar; therefore Shayla bribes a merchant captain at the spaceport to smuggle them out of the Union.
After their departure, Nyssa awakens and speaks with Sabian, who lies—badly—about the Doctor’s whereabouts Hyrca interrupts them and summons them to a meeting to account for Shayla and the Doctor. En route to the meeting, she collapses again, sensing Kwundaar’s mental presence, coupled with danger for the Doctor. Meanwhile, the merchant ship is captured by Kwundaar’s forces as soon as it exits the Union; Anona takes the Doctor and Shayla prisoner, and kills the crew. The Doctor is sent in alone to meet Kwundaar, who claims to know who the Doctor is and what he wants; he will help, but it will cost. The Doctor challenges him to show his face, and he does—and the Doctor screams.
After the Doctor stops screaming, more than an hour passes before Shayla is allowed to see him. He reveals that Kwundaar, a powerful telepath, had to push hard to break down the Doctor’s mental defenses. Negotiations will resume when the Doctor recovers; in the meantime, the Doctor debates what Kwundaar could want from him, and indeed, what Kwundaar is. Despite Shayla’s distrust of Narthex and Anona, the Doctor insists they are not evil so much as misguided by their lives, and he will save them if they can. On Traken, Nyssa attends the meeting with the Consuls, and offends them when she questions their blind reliance on the Source, which she insists is just a machine, free of morality; they consider this heresy. They suggest that her evil is contagious, which they suspect prompted Shayla to flee; they say they may have to kill her, which sends her into a rage and causes her to pass out again.
The Doctor and Shayla try to reason with Anona and Narthex, but to no avail; each for their own reasons, they are devoted to Kwundaar, and in their own contexts, their reasons are, well, reasonable. Kwundaar calls the Doctor back, and shows him the Traken Union from a distance; he reveals that the light of the Source would destroy him, and yet he once walked on Traken. The Doctor refuses to help destroy the Source, regardless of the cost; but Kwundaar, well aware of Traken’s future destruction and the Doctor’s involvement in it, doesn’t seek destruction as such. Instead, he seeks an item from the vault of the Source interface, and to that end he offers to strengthen Nyssa’s mind until the next day; but he declines to tell the Doctor what he seeks. Meanwhile, Shayla—feeling chastised by Anona’s judgment of her—shares all the medical knowledge on her portable datapad with the ship’s computer; but to her frustration, Anona scorns her for this.
As Nyssa recovers, the Consuls adjourn until morning, and leave Sabian in charge of Nyssa. He takes her to an underground spa with a warm spring, which will aid her recovery; the stream that feeds the spring, incidentally, passes by the vault of the Source interface. The warm waters help her to feel better, and she realizes that the spa is an ancient temple of some sort; Sabian says that it predates the Source. She feels fully restored, but doesn’t realize that it is due to Kwundaar rather than the spring. Back at Shayla’s house, they find the TARDIS missing; the Consuls have quarantined it, and now intends to quarantine them, though their reasoning for imprisoning Sabian is very flimsy.
The Doctor returns, and Kwundaar speaks through Anona to send him back to Traken. However, Kwundaar says that Shayla will stay as a slave, never to be returned to Traken; the Doctor refuses to allow it, and flees with Shayla. He breaks into the merchant ship in the bay, threatening the crewmembers who try to stop them, and blasts his way out, damaging the flagship in the process. Narthex is angry about this, until Kwundaar reveals the truth: He has engineered everything, from Nyssa’s illness to now, in order to bring in the Doctor to serve his own purposes—and now, the Doctor will deliver Traken over to him.
Arriving at Traken, the Doctor and Shayla are collected by the Consuls, who are confounded to see that no evil has yet arisen from their activities, despite their contact with the Union’s enemies. He asks to see Nyssa, and is granted permission; she is fully recovered as yet, and is teaching Sabian to dance the Charleston. He explains that Trakenites of Nyssa’s era have been protected by the Source for so long that their mental defenses have degraded; however, he can teach her meditation techniques that will strengthen her defenses. Before he can begin, he reports to the Consuls about Kwundaar’s fleet, which is preparing for war at the moment. He is dismayed to see that the Consuls are mostly uninterested; once he has fully reported, they dismiss him, and order Shayla to ensure that he and Nyssa leave the Union. He offers to take Shayla with him, but she declines, though acknowledging Traken’s insularity. At last they depart in the TARDIS, leaving the Consuls debating among themselves about Kwundaar. Soon the Source begins to track preparatory activity in the fleet.
The Doctor can’t simply leave, however. He rematerializes in the spa chamber, as he can’t fly directly to the Source interface vault. Using swim gear and artificial gills, he and Nyssa swim to the Source interface, and the Doctor notes that its vault is the same age as the temple structure at the spa. He grows curious about their origin and purpose. He is confounded by Kwundaar’s purpose; there is nothing in the vault to be removed except the interface itself, and there is no Keeper in this age. He looks into the Source itself via the interface, using a combination given to him by Kwundaar to open its shield briefly, but has no idea how to proceed. He closes the shield, boosting its power for safety, and leaves with Nyssa, planning to go back to the TARDIS via the grove rather than the stream.
Kwundaar joins Narthex on the bridge of the flagship and announces that the Doctor has done his part, and orders the fleet to attack.
The Doctor and Nyssa are caught first by Sabian, then by a Foster named Etrayk, but are interrupted by a bombardment from above. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Sabian manage to hide, but Etrayk sounds the alarm, and is quickly captured by Kwundaar’s pirates under Anona. As the fleet destroys the spaceport, the Doctor realizes that the Source’s light is not destroying the fleet as expected—and when the sun rises, it is jet black. It seems the Doctor’s efforts to strengthen the shield, rather than keeping Kwundaar out, have kept the light in; and now Kwundaar is conquering Traken, and will take the Source.
Shayla and Etrayk arrive at the Consular Chamber, and find Janneus and Hyrca helpless to stop the crisis, just before Narthex and Kwundaar transmat into the chamber. Kwundaar’s gaze drives Etrayk mad. Kwundaar orders his troops to shoot the Doctor on sight, but retracts the order, choosing to watch the Doctor die personally. In fear, Hyrca leads him to the Source interface, and Kwundaar secures the vault and sends Narthex for a device from the flagship. He orders that the civilians be unharmed, as they will make better slaves that way. The Doctor, meanwhile, moves to intercept Kwundaar, sending Nyssa via the spa and taking Sabian with him via the grove. They spot Kwundaar’s followers carrying the Source Manipulator to the vault; he gives Sabian the code that must be put into the manipulator. Narthex captures them, stunning the Doctor, and orders Sabian to carry the Doctor’s unconscious form to the Consular Chamber.
Nyssa encounters Anona at the spa; she lies and says that the Doctor is swimming upstream to the vault. Anona dives in to follow, not realizing that the water is infused with energy from the Source, which burns her. Nyssa wrestles away her gun and stuns her with it, then heads for the vault. Anona recovers enough to warn Narthex, who in turn warns Kwundaar, who already knows. Kwundaar meets Nyssa at the vault, and invades her mind, forcing her to operate the Manipulator so that the Source will accept Kwundaar’s control. He then sends Narthex to bring the Doctor. The Doctor, meanwhile, is recovering, and compares notes with Hyrca, who has lost hope. He realizes that Kwundaar has been waiting outside the Union for 2532 years—exactly as long as the Source has been active. He does not know what Kwundaar was doing before that.
Narthex brings the Doctor and Shayla to the vault, with Anona accompanying him. Nyssa is also recovering, and the Doctor suspects she is experiencing racial memories of past battles between the Trakenites and Kwundaar, with the Source as their weapon. However, Kwundaar insists that the Trakenites once worshipped him; he gave them scientific skill, and they promptly used it to expel him. The spa and the vault were once his temple; and he has returned for revenge. Just before entering the Source chamber, he orders Narthex and Anona to kill the survivors. Anona prepares to do so, but Narthex shoots her; he has reconsidered his allegiance to Kwundaar, fearing for his family. As she dies, Anona shoots the Source Manipulator.
Up above, in the Consular Chamber, Sabian argues with the Consuls, who reveal they have known the truth all along, though it has long been concealed from the public. Now, they are rationalizing their actions in the face of their failure, preparing to hand their civilization over to Kwundaar.
Anona destroyed the control keyboard, but the device is intact. Narthex plans to cannibalize the keypad from the vault entrance door, but it will not be quick. The Doctor gives Nyssa the code and then goes to confront Kwundaar. Kwundaar tells him that he no longer seeks worship; he just wants to destroy everything, and to that end he is using the Source to summon other exiled gods to his cause. He strikes the Doctor down, and leaves the chamber. Nyssa tries to psychically hold Kwundaar back, but he removes her psychic powers at once, and gets the code from her mind. He inputs the code, intending to lock the Source into its current configuration, then prepares to kill Narthex. However, the Doctor comes out, and is in control of the Source; he reveals that he lied about the code, and rather than locking the Source, it transfers control to whomever is inside at the time it is entered. The Doctor uses the Source to restrain Kwundaar, while Nyssa uses the Manipulator to purge the Source of corruption. The Doctor sets the Source to re-open, and offers to let Kwundaar escape; but Kwundaar declines, and stands fast, until the Source burns him away.
The light does not burn Narthex, indicating he may be a good man, despite his past. The Doctor transfers control of the Source to Shayla, and then Nyssa enters the real lockdown code, making Shayla the first Keeper of Traken. Shayla chooses not to punish the Consuls, who have just seen all of Kwundaar’s followers dissolve in the Source’s light. Narthex leaves to recover and repatriate any of Kwundaar’s followers who may have survived, with the Doctor’s word to vouch for him when he returns. The Doctor offers to let Nyssa stay; after all, Kwundaar did manage to summon other primeval adversaries, and they will be searching for the Doctor. She refuses, and chooses to stay with the Doctor regardless.
This story taxed my memories of The Keeper of Traken, to which it serves as both prequel and sequel. We revisit the idea of the Source—Traken’s artificial and semi-sentient sun—in a time perhaps midway through its existence, but before the existence of the Keepers who control it. Traken is ruled by its Consuls at this point, but they’re practically useless; we find in this story that they’ve been setting themselves up for centuries to simply fold over if an actual threat arises. The television series did a good job of making Traken seem like a nice place to live, but it’s not viewed very favorably here; its people are insular and confident in their security, and as a result they won’t look beyond themselves. In most Doctor Who stories, that would be the primary problem, and the Doctor would set it right in the course of the story; here, it’s actually a secondary issue, and he leaves the Trakenites with the tools to correct their problems, but without actually doing so himself. In the process, he establishes the position of Keeper, and even momentarily serves as the first Keeper himself, before passing on the role.
Like other Five/Nyssa stories, this audio drama has to come between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity, as that is the only place in the Fifth Doctor’s televised timeline that allows such a pairing with no other companions. This one connects a little more directly with the television series, in that it gives us an explanation as to why Nyssa’s telepathic powers disappeared between the two episodes. The power is intrinsic to Trakenites, but latent; this story’s villain had previously (and remotely) awakened it in Nyssa, but then removes it (or more likely, suppresses it again) later. The story also explains the shift in type of villains in the later fifth Doctor era; he begins to face more godlike beings, such as the returned Omega (Arc of Infinity), the Mara (Snakedance; it had appeared before, but was essentially banished, making it fit this story in its return), the Eternals and the Guardians (Enlightenment), and perhaps others. Those creatures are summoned by the villain of this story, Kwundaar, using the power of the Source. The Doctor comments that he may even have been the one to banish some of those godlike beings (e.g. the Mara, et al), which may explain how past characters such as the Great Intelligence can have appearances not just with the Fifth Doctor, but with future incarnations. (Admittedly, with beings like that, one may not NEED an explanation, but there it is anyway.)
Nyssa remains one of my favorite companions, and she carries herself well here. She is ill throughout much of the story, in keeping with the episodes of Season 19, which famously found it hard to write well for all of the TARDIS crew at once, and therefore would often have Nyssa passing out or otherwise out of action through most of the story. That storytelling trick is given an in-universe explanation here, and it works out surprisingly well; this too is resolved by the end, setting up for Season 20. I’ve always felt that Nyssa, more than any other companion (except perhaps River Song) is a match for the Doctor on an intellectual level, and she shows it here, outwitting the Consuls and successfully manipulating the Source.
Supporting characters are average at best here. Shayla, the healer who is the reason for the Doctor and Nyssa’s visit in the first place, becomes the first Keeper of Traken, but she is almost devoid of personality otherwise, although she does have a good scene in which she reconsiders her own moral stance on an issue. Her assistant, Sabian, is there strictly to escort Nyssa around and make info-dumps for the audience; I expected more from him, but he’s mostly a non-character. Kwundaar’s flagship captain, Narthex, swings between cruelty and affection, and this is the defining conflict for him; I won’t say how it ends, but it did surprise me, at least, given the violence of his mood swings prior to that point. His lieutenant, Anona, is brainwashed early by Kwundaar, and becomes so outlandishly violent and terrible as to be almost a caricature of a warrior; she meets a predictably bad end. I’ve already spoken about the Consuls, Hyrca and Jannaeus; they had potential, but they are so deliberately weak as to squander it all.
Kwundaar is a mysterious villain. He claims to be a god, and even to have initiated Trakenite society. He is functionally immortal, in that he can’t die naturally, but he does have weaknesses that can kill him, or one at least. His backstory is practically untouched; no indication is given of any of his history before coming to Traken thousands of years earlier. He’s a powerful telepath, powerful enough to overwhelm the Doctor, but that doesn’t make him a god; I suppose I’m suggesting that it’s unclear whether he is actually a being of that class, or whether he’s just one of the many sophisticated mortals that we’ve encountered over the years. Either way, he’s entertaining, though he falls victim to the same thing that undoes so many villains: Pride, and arrogance.
Continuity References: References are entirely to other Fifth Doctor stories. Nyssa previously collapsed due to the illness pictured here in Four to Doomsday; her telepathy was featured in Time-Flight, as well as Land of the Dead and Winter for the Adept. Traken’s destruction in Logopolis is referenced often. Nyssa mentions Adric’s death in Earthshock. Empire of Death reveals that Nyssa had previously considered visiting pre-destruction Traken, but had refrained from asking the Doctor to take her there. She teaches supporting character Sabian to dance the Charleston, which she learned from Tegan in Black Orchid.
Overall: “You can’t go home again”, or so the saying goes, and for Nyssa it seems to be true. She fondly remembers Traken, but travel with the Doctor has inevitably changed her, and for the better, in my opinion. She’s always been a good and effective companion, but here she makes it official; when faced with the prospect of fighting gods by the Doctor’s side, she simply shoulders the weight, and says “It looks like we have work to do!” I think it’s no coincidence that years later, the Seventh Doctor would say the same thing to Ace as they left television behind them and headed into the New Adventures. I’d consider this one a win.
Next time: We join the Sixth Doctor and Mel for a less serious entry, The One Doctor! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this audio drama’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.