Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 026. Primeval by Lance Parkin (November 2001)

Lance Parkin has come up with a truly, truly beautiful premise: address the many traumas Nyssa has suffered throughout her time on the TARDIS whilst at the same time deepening her relationship with the Doctor and lending it proper weight, and giving us another fascinating look at a well-developed alien society to boot. This is a rich, poetic and stylishly written slice of sci-fi, and great Doctor Who to boot. It’s not quite perfect, and it’s not quite my favourite Big Finish, but this is definitely in their upper tier of output so far as I can judge.
I absolutely love the portrayal of Traken. We don’t often get alien worlds this fleshed-out and this only adds to The Keeper of Traken rather than detracting from it. The Union, the Consuls, the reliance on the Source and its mystical judgments, the healing properties of the spa, the ancient temples, the concept of being “exposed to evil”…it’s like an outer-space Rivendell. The moment where the Doctor and Shyla watch a vivid sunset over the planet is beautiful, as is the Doctor and Nyssa’s exploration of the temple which houses the Source. Parkin’s quasi-biblical dialogue is nicely evocative of the earlier story (“I always find it difficult somewhere to relax somewhere so tranquil. In my experience, every paradise has its serpent somewhere”, right down to water being the life-giver, although that’s hardly exclusive to Christianity). Indeed, religion and devotion, and the contrast with science and rationality, is key to Parkin’s script: the Doctor’s (wholly secular) devotion to his companion and friend; Narthex and Anona’s devotion to Kwundaar; the Trakenites’ devotion to the Source; etc. Someone has been borrowing from the Book of Genesis!

The Doctor’s liberal objections to the society are fair (of course he’d come down on the side of anti-death penalty and anti-elite) but by and large Traken has one of the more positive portrayals we’ve seen in Doctor Who. Their zeal and interest in self-preservation is not evil, but well-presented and morally grey. “I know that every mind is devious, that every being that ever lived is a liar, a hypocrite, a cheat,” says Kwundaar earlier in the story, and this is nicely reflected when Hyrca sides where the power is, allying himself with Kwundaar in order to save his skin. These people are not perfect but nor are they out-and-out villains. It’s a well-drawn society.

Davison is always good when a situation pushes him into a panicked state and right from his opening line “This is Nyssa, my companion; she collapsed, her temperature has fallen dramatically, and it’s still falling! I didn’t know where else I could go,” one is dragged right into the dilemma. He is quite paternal towards her (“Her father died. I pledged to look after her” and later “Who’s Nyssa? Your daughter?”), and this makes for a different dynamic than Five normally has with his companions. He’s also pretty resourceful in this one, cracking complex locks (alright, with some help) and well-equipped with artificial gills, laser cutters and a waterproof bag! As ever, Davison does a great job of sounding natural and as if he is in all of the situations he’s in, rather than in a studio (one of his talents, I find. He’s getting seriously good at convincing voice work). His role as a “trickster” in the final battle with Kwundaar works terrifically, using his enemies’ psychic prowess against him. “Pick on someone your own size,” he says, emerging out of the Source and claiming the Chair of the Keeper for his own. What a triumphant moment. “Look me in the eye!” Davison bellows in a rare flash of fire from his Doctor.

Although she starts the story off in a coma, this becomes a story that’s very much a showcase for Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa. Her role in the Consular meeting is a particular highlight as she answers their questions on her past. Her understated affection for the downplayed, slightly moping Sabian is another lovely subtle touch in this generally rather subtle story. Her familiarity with her own culture and history means she has a nice equality of relationship with Davison’s Doctor in this one, even getting to deliver the infodump to him at times. It’s very touching when Nyssa decides to continue travelling with the Doctor rather than stay on Traken, even though it is her home, correcting his “find me” with a charming “find us”. Bravo for the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, with whom I am falling in love more and more.

The waiting star-fleet, full of Kwundaar’s followers, gives the story a great sense of scale and allows us to leap out of the confines of Traken alone. In fact, Kwundaar is a triumph, and Lieutenant Anona approaching him is a moment of quintessential Who. His unique theme is beautifully eerie, and Stephen Greif’s shadowy voice is excellent too: he is an archetypal audio villain, working only as well as he does because he is a shadowy voice rather than a mediocre humanoid figure. That the story gets the Doctor face-to-face with such a figure by the end of Part One is a tribute to its relative paciness, and Parkin keeps the mystery and enigma of Kwundaar’s “theatrics” very well done. It’s rare to hear the Doctor as petrified as he is when he sees Kwundaar’s face – Davison lets rip with a bloodcurdling scream and provides us with a cracking cliff-hanger.

Parkin has here crafted a truly worthy adversary, a psychologically scary one, and as usually happens it causes the Doctor to up his game. Seeing him forced into a kind of servitude under Kwundaar, carrying out an errand for him, is a novel yet welcome take on his clashes with opponents. It’s also clever the way Parkin uses Kwundaar to explain Nyssa’s illness in other stories, meaning this story punches above its weight in terms of its significance within the Davison era. The eventual twist on Kwundaar’s existence and true origins and relevance to the people and society of Traken is a great, great one, and a clever way of highlighting that the serpent has always been in us (so to speak), as a kind of selfish god (and it is very much a cult; Kwundaar intones “she is returning to the fold”). There’s a lovely moment when Nyssa expresses disgust that the Trakenites would ever have worshipped something as foul and barbarous as Kwundaar. But of course they did. When faith advances man to such knowledge that he can possess science, faith is rejected, it turns bitter. Kwundaar is fed up of being worshipped by inferior beings, and yearns for the company of other exiled gods, but of course he is crushed under the weight of his own ambition and omniscience, eaten up by the rational instrument of science he bestowed upon the civilisation that worshipped him. Science devours faith: it’s relatively unambiguous, and although I love my ambiguity it works well.

Of course it would be a medical healer who becomes the first Keeper of the new Traken. That’s what the Doctor does. He takes stories of oppression, and makes things better, and Shayla will continue to do so in his own image. How melancholic that we all know listening to this what will happen to this wonderful society in several centuries’ time, yet how beautiful, too.

Other thoughts:
The score is great, so evocative after the hideously overdone stuff last time around.
After seeking medical help for Nyssa: “I’m the Doctor. Yes, I appreciate the irony.”
“It’s a figure of speech. I really must stop using them.”
The Doctor chuckles at the Trakenite view of good and evil : “I’ve travelled quite widely, met the most terrible people with the most appalling beliefs; I consider them evil, but I’m sure if you were to ask them they’d tell you that I’m the monster, not them. Evil is relative.”
“Perfection is something we should strive for, not something we should ever attain.”
“There was religion… so Traken wasn’t a true paradise.”
Captain Kabe is a pleasing if short-lived riff on Han Solo.
Kwundaar’s followers receive “the wages of sin” (I thought this was a Parkin original; turns out it’s from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. Pity!)
“Don’t turn around.”/ “I’m not frightened of you.” / “No, but you haven’t turned around, have you?”
“Two hearts, eh? Does that mean he’s more likely or less likely to have a heart attack, do you think?”
Ever the polite gentleman, eh, Five: “Could I trouble you for a seat and a glass of water?”
Kwundaar’s followers are a kind of nod to Epicurus and the Cult of Hedonism (“to repress your feelings and desires is the only true evil”). Their invasion of Traken toward the end of Part Three is Big Finish and Gary Russell on top form: a wonderful, stirring score provides the perfect backdrop to the cheers of “Kwundaar!”, the sun going black, and the true realisation of the desperate situation in which the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves.
Serving Kwundaar: “He provides my body with health and my soul with meaning.”
“Let a man sit by your fire and he’s warm for the night. Show him how to start a fire and he’ll be warm every night.” / “Set him on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life!”
“What do you see?”/ “Well, stars, it being a star map.”
I’m glad Parkin makes the thematic connection between Traken and Gallifrey, as it was something which was becoming clearer to me with every passing minute.
“The mark of a gentleman is that he knows how to Charleston, but doesn’t.”
“Bigger on the inside, to coin a phrase.”
“It’s always darkest before the dawn.” (The Doctor’s aphorisms are nicely punctured by Nyssa’s scientific mind: it’s always lightest before the dawn).
While I’ve referred to biblical allusions throughout, there’s also a strong whiff of Milton’s Paradise Lost and indeed of the subsequent sci-fi trilogy it spawned, CS Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (the middle volume, Perelandra, is the one this most resembles and also the best. Highly recommended).
“Sir, the strength of the Union is our… well, our unity.”
Nyssa: “It’s not as though I’m concealing a weapon in this [my swimming costume]… I’m barely concealing myself!”
“Believe me, I know what being knocked out feels like. I should write a paper on the subject.”
“Ah, Consul Hyrca, Consul Janneus, you’ve got matching chains.” The Doctor gets one cracking line after another here!
“You can feel me in your mitochondria.”
“I am the lantern. He is the light.”
Narthex to Kwundaar: “How would you know? Oh, of course. Forgive me.” (Although it does beg the question, why doesn’t Kwundaar know he won’t succeed?)
“I am their God. When the first sons and daughters of Traken walked among the groves and the forests, I was there. I was the God of wisdom and learning. My temples were libraries. I lived among them.”
“I gave them knowledge. I taught them the language of science, the mother tongue of the universe. I gave them control of their environment. They built Paradise, but it was my hand that guided the architects and the masons… [the Source is] the ultimate expression of science.”
“Before the Source, the Consuls of Traken were the high priests to a dark God. The God of forbidden knowledge. The bringer of fire, and the secrets of the universe.”
The Doctor is truly heroic here: “I’ve met some of [those exiled gods]. I was probably the one that exiled them in the first place… I challenge you, Kwundaar. Your will against mine.”
“I have total control. I have won… The darkness. It fills me. I become the light. It becomes me. And so darkness falls, and I see the universe, and all of time and space, and the whole universe will kneel before me in worship.” The Doctor refuses to kneel, like Christ to the Devil in the Gospels.

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