Blurb: The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, Vicki and Jospa land the TARDIS on the homeworld of the Arunde. Emerging into the jungle that covers the planet and encountering the strange wildlife dwelling within, the travelers are unaware that the true rulers live high above them in the trees.
The ape-like members of the tribe are in trouble. The last Matriar’s nest has been lost to the surface, and the people are hungry… Maybe these strangers may be responsible. And some believe they may be salvation.
The TARDIS crew are about to find themselves in the middle of somebody else’s battle. But there’s more at stake than even they can know.
Review: Years ago it was a controversial move for Big Finish to add a new companion for any Doctor. These days it’s old hat. Characters like Evelyn Smythe, Hex, and Oliver have been added and to many fans are just as legitimate as any of the companions introduced in the TV series. What makes The Fifth Traveller, the second story in the third season of The Early Adventures, different is that new companion Jospa is introduced by way of an adventure in progress as the five travelers try to escape from the Vavidic Empire. It creates an interesting and different dynamic than the previous origin story introductions. The listener is left to learn about Jospa through his interactions with the other characters. Yet, it also creates some doubt in the minds of the listeners. Is Jospa a legitimate new companion or is something else at play? That question looms like a specter throughout the narrative, which makes it fairly engaging as the listener tries to piece together Jospa’s story and whether or not he is what he appears to be.
Despite it’s name, The Fifth Traveller isn’t all about Jospa. Philip Lawrence does a wonderful job crafting a story around the Arunde, a race of intelligent, telepathic apes. Lawrence crafts a culture, language, and way of thinking for the Arunde that has hints of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but is also full of new and original ideas. For instance, the Arunde live high up in the trees and fear the ground where there’s scant light. They imbue the ground with mystic properties and talk of it reaching up to pluck down weak Arunde or objects left unattended by the careless. Giving the Arunde a unique cultural perspective makes them more interesting, which helps to keep this story interesting and engaging.
The matriarchal society of the Arunde was recently thrown into disarray when the previous Matriar plummeted to the ground and died. Her daughter, Sharna, was unprepared to lead the tribe, and her telepathic powers, which are necessary to guide the tribe on the hunt, were as yet underdeveloped. Sharna’s former lover, Gark, questions the need for a Matriar, and a power struggle ensues. That power struggle is made worse by the arrival of the Doctor and company. Many of the Arunde believe that nothing good comes from the surface and while Sharna espouses diplomacy, Gark seizes upon this as leverage that he can use to break the tribe away from Sharna.
The Early Adventures have suffered at times from being clunky and a bit boring. Part of this seems to be because some directors and writers don’t know how to make an exciting Doctor Who story in the sixties style. Thankfully, The Fifth Traveller is directed by Lisa Bowerman, veteran director of the majority of The Companion Chronicles. Lisa and Philip seem to understand how to make these stories work. One would think that a story about the power struggle between intelligent apes wouldn’t be all that interesting, but here it works for a number of reasons. First, the characters are interesting. Gark is cast in the typical villain’s role, but his character has some nuance. He genuinely cares about Sharna, even though he wants to see the end to the role of the Matriars. Sharna is vulnerable and conflicted, but also compassionate and reasonable. Jospa is a thief from the far future, full of curiosity and humor. Second, the world is well fleshed out. Doctor Who at its best always does a fantastic job of world building. Here, the world is developed as the Doctor and his friends explore. Since there’s a new character added to the cast, the world building actually works twofold, as Jospa’s past is fleshed out at the same time as the travelers explore the Arunde’s world. Finally, there’s pacing. Even in the television stories the pacing could get clunky, but here Lawrence keeps the story fresh by dividing up the travelers into multiple groups and cutting between their stories and that of the Arunde. Several mysteries are woven into the different threads that don’t come together until the end, which helps to maintain the listener’s attention as they try to work out exactly what’s going on.
No story would be complete without discussing the cast. As always Maureen O’Brien is fantastic as Vicki and the narrator. She has a wonderful way of pitching her voice, so that she sounds just like she did when she was on the show fifty years ago. When she gives a piece of Vavidic organic technology the pet name “Squishy” it works not only because it’s the kind of thing that her character was always doing in the series, but also because she sounds exactly like her younger self when she says it. As the narrator, O’Brien uses her modern voice. She has a great quality for narration, reading calmly and with a steady pace, but keeping enough inflection that it’s enjoyable to listen to. Sadly, William Russell who was once one of the greatest vocal talents that Big Finish had access to has started to flag in recent years. It is becoming harder and harder to tell his Doctor voice from his Ian voice, and his Doctor voice continues to lose its presence and sounds very weak. To keep things in perspective, this is a man performing at ninety-two years of age. It’s amazing that he was able to put in such strong performances in his eighties, so one shouldn’t get to bent out of shape because the years have caught up with him.
The guest cast is mostly good. James Joyce deserves special mention as Jospa. He really has a great manner that makes you instantly like him. He’s open, curious, and funny. He has a nice rapport with Vicki that hints of a future romance. Yet, when Jospa has to get tough, Joyce really delivers. Jospa can even be a little scary at times. It’s a great character, and Joyce does a fantastic job playing him. Kate Byers also puts in a strong performance as Sharna. Byers has to play the role on multiple levels. Sharna’s the leader of an entire culture, born to rule, but also uncertain because she’s to young and untrained for what has been thrust upon her. Yet, she’s compassionate and level-headed. Byers does a wonderful job with it, balancing Sharna’s various duties, desires, and feelings and conveying it all with her performance. Elliot Cowan also does a great job as Gark. It would be easy to play him as a lumbering brute, but instead Gark comes off as more sullen. He’s a brooding figure that ponders over past mistakes to guide him in his decisions. Cowan plays him with a bit of a bitter undertone, mostly keeping him from being a powerful or forceful presence, which makes him a bit more interesting than he could be. Orlando James rounds out the Arunde as Krube. Krube’s a loyal member of the tribe, and while the part is small James conveys a conciliatory character who wants to do right by the tribe wherever he can. The one negative standout is Jemma Powell as the recast Barbara Wright. Unlike previous Big Finish recasts, Powell doesn’t sound a thing like Barbara. While it seems like she’s tried to imitate some of Jacqueline Hill’s rhythms, the voice is just to far away, and it makes it very difficult to suspend one’s disbelief while listening to her. While playing the narrator, Barbara, and their own character is to much for Carole Ann Ford and Maureen O’Brien, it would be nice if Big Finish had looked a bit harder to find their Barbara. Powell’s stint on An Adventure in Space and Time showed that she could look vaguely like Jacqueline Hill, but she never sounded the part. They need another actress to do this if they plan on doing these stories long term.
The sounds and music are also a major part of the production. This story is a bit unique from that perspective. The music carries quite a few of the sounds. The TARDIS materialization is woven into some of the music, and many of the jungle background sounds are part of the music as well. For the most part, the music utilizes primitive instruments and jungle sounds to convey a variety of moods from calm to extremely tense. There’s an imperial fanfare for the Vavidic empire with lots of horns. There’s also some experimental sci-fi type sounds with lots of electronic noises as well. It’s pretty rich and varied and enhances the story. The sounds are mostly good. There’s a lot of squelching from people sinking into swamps or the gooey sounds of the Vavidic organice technology. There’s also the noises of jungle animals and laser fire, acid rain, and others. The one sound that doesn’t work at all are the ape sounds. It’s clear that Big Finish has just taken some canned ape sounds and peppered them into the story. It’s unlikely that the Arunde would sound exactly like that, and when the voice of the character doesn’t match the sound of their “roar” it’s very jarring and sounds silly rather than deadly serious. It doesn’t help that there’s always an awkward pause between the Ape speaking and the ape sounds making it even harder to suspend one’s disbelief that the character is making these noises. Still, as usual the sound design on this one is mostly top notch as is standard for a Big Finish production.
Recommendation: It’s a neat little tale set in the middle of the Hartnell era. Jospa’s an interesting character who’s given a lot of development while the Arunde story is a fascinating science-fiction story in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition. This is one of those stories that pays off the promise of The Early Adventures, that these are stories being told in black and white. This is a classic Who story at their best. I recommend listening to it.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Philip Lawrence
Runtime Approx 120 min.