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.
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring William Russell and Maureen O'Brien published by Big Finish Productions and released October 2016.
Setting: The unnamed homeworld of the Arunde, time unknown.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Web Planet and The Crusade and prior to the audio stories The Dark Planet and The Rocket Men. Ian refers to the times that Jospa helped them in Byzantium (see Byzantium!), Rome (see The Romans), China (see The Eleventh Tiger), and Vortis (see The Web Planet). Vicki refers to the fact that she's an orphan (see The Rescue). The Doctor muses on being able to visit Susan again (see The Dalek Invasion of Earth).
Canonicity Quotient: Expanding the gap between The Web Planet and The Crusade is problematic, since Barbara doesn't mention this adventure to Saladin. Otherwise this story fits in well with the established canon. 0.98
Discussion: Ok, time for a show of hands here. Who bought into the whole fifth traveler idea? I've got to say that even before I heard the first second of this drama, I had Jospa pegged for a spy of some kind. Of course, having not heard the story, I didn't know anything about the Vividic Empire. I assumed that Jospa was probably one of the apes who was somehow able to make the travelers think that he was one of them. Of course, once the opening sequence showed that they were fleeing Vividus, I immediately clued into the fact that that was who he was working for. It didn't help that he just happened to have a device that he wanted to have the Doctor connect up to the TARDIS to control the ship. There were little things, such as his not knowing when and where Ian and Barbara were from even though Jospa was ostensibly also from Earth. There was also his strong reaction to the Doctor going exploring, which seemed a bit odd.
To Philip Lawrence's credit he tries to do his best to cast doubt on any preconceived suspicions. Big Finish has added companions in the past, even to the first Doctor's era. Lawrence capitalizes on that by ensuring that no details are given about Jospa early in the story. Since this story takes place in a gap between two television stories, it's possible that they picked him up in that same gap and this is only the third adventure that they've had with them. Of course, it all starts crumbling down once someone mentions that he was on Vortis. At that point it's impossible for Jospa to be anything other than an infiltrator into the group, but that doesn't happen until the third episode. It's pretty amazing that Lawrence was able to keep it going for that long.
The Fifth Traveler seems like a mix of Edgar Rice Burroughs, 100,000 BC, and the New Age movement of the sixties. I honestly thought for a moment that Ian was going to say, "Remember, Gark is not stronger than the whole tribe." The Arunde are a neat concept. They're a primitive species of jungle-dwelling telepaths. Lawrence does a good job of trying to think of how these alien apes would perceive life and peppers their language with metaphors that explain the Arunde's world view such as their perception of gravity as "The Ground" reaching up and grabbing things down to it. He's not in the same class as Paul Leonard who seemed so adept at creating aliens that seemed truly alien, but Lawrence at least put me in mind of Leonard.
Less can be said of the Vividic Empire. Science fiction is chock full of oppressive regimes that heavily pollute their own worlds and are bent on conquest. The idea of psychic spies who weave themselves into their targets' minds as an ally is interesting, but the rest is stock b-grade stuff. Still, that isn't such a big deal for a story like this because the Vividic Empire is only around to give some background context. The travelers only spend a few minutes there in the actual production.
Unlike most of the Early Adventures to date, this story doesn't drag. I think a large part of that can be laid at Lisa Bowerman's door. The Bounty of Ceres didn't drag either, and that was the only first Doctor Early Adventure that's been able to keep up its pace. I think that Bowerman just understands how to do a first Doctor story with all its explorations and science discussions while also making it an interesting adventure story. As much as Ken Bentley does a great job with some of the other ranges, I have a feeling that he's not to keen on the Hartnell era and as result his stories are VERY low energy and something of a chore to get through. The one thing that I thought was off from a directorial angle is that Ian and Sharna's conversation seems as if they each understood each other even though moments before they'd just said that they don't understand each other's language.
The plot may not be the most complex to date, but it doesn't need to be. If anything, this story needs to be typical, because it's about the presence of the eponymous fifth traveler. The story is a vehicle to explore the character of Jospa and how he relates to the crew. It's only after we've experienced the group with Jospa that we begin to learn more about him and the story starts moving towards its conclusion. It's also why the characters all have to be spot on to their television characterization. Vicki even names the Vividic control module "squishy", which is classic Vicki to a "tee". The interesting part, though, is to see how Jospa effects the dynamic. Yes, there's a power struggle that's highly reminiscent of the 100,000 BC portions of An Unearthly Child, but the real climax of the story is when the Doctor and Jospa confront each other in the TARDIS.
There were only two things that I had a problem with. First, we're told that Matriar's can't have a mate. Yet, Sharna is the daughter of a Matriar. How does that happen? Maybe the Arunde reproduce in a way far different than anything that we can imagine, or maybe the Matriar adopts, but it's something that should have been explained. The second is that Jospa basically propositioned Vicki to settle down somewhere with him. Yet, this story references Byzantium!, which states that Vicki is fourteen years old. While society's standards about this sort of thing change, you'd think that she'd be to young for that sort of thing and would say so. Sure, she leaves to get married in The Myth Makers, but that's about a year on in her personal timeline at least. It doesn't help that Maureen O'Brien didn't even look fourteen. [Spoiler (click to open)]Of course, if Jospa really has risen through the ranks of the Vividic military then he has to be far older than fourteen. Is his telepathy so good that the travelers perceive him as a fourteen-year-old even though he must at least be in his twenties? And was tempting Vicki with being his lover really the best temptation he could think of for a fourteen-year-old? It seems a little odd.
The performances are mostly good and guest actors Kate Byers, Elliot Cowan, and Orlando James deserve special credit as the Arunde. Kate Byers especially brings a hesitant warmth to Sharna, a maternal figure coming to grips with her responsibilities and unsure if she can fill them. Elliot Cowan plays Gark as a sulky, brooding figure rather than as a brutish bully that one might expect a dominant ape to be, yet it makes so much sense for his character, still young and unhappy in the society in which he lives. James Joyce also deserves special mention as the fifth traveler, Jospa. He's a fun loving, happy-go-lucky, energetic young man. Yet, Joyce displays a pretty full range in this, being able to sound incredibly nasty when the need arises and making him a fairly memorable character. Maureen O'Brien doesn't disappoint as Vicki either. She's still got all that youthful charm and energy. It's clear that O'Brien loves working with Joyce. The chemistry is real. O'Brien also does a find job narrating. While she's not in the same class as Purves or Russell in his prime, she's one of the better narrators and it's nice to listen to her using her current natural voice and describing scenes.
Unfortunately, it's clear that age has taken its toll on William Russell. His Ian and Doctor voices are distinguished far less and sometimes its hard to tell which one is speaking. His Doctor sounds incredibly tired all the time, and he's no longer able to make Ian sound all that youthful. Jemma Powell also does not impress as Barbara. Her performance here is better than in The Age of Endurance, and it appears that with a larger part that she's growing with the character. Yet, unlike Tim Treloar or Elliott Chapman, she doesn't sound a thing like Barbara. There are times when she seems to get the right vocal rhythms, but she sounds far to young and light to be Barbara. It's unfortunate, because it was necessary to add someone to play Barbara so that the writers didn't feel like they needed to write Barbara out of every story, but Powell just is not all that strong in the role.
There are a lot of great sounds in this one. There are strange beasts in the jungle as well as the regular background sounds that you might expect in such a locale. There's rain, squishy sounds from the Vividic control module and all kinds of things. The only thing that disappoints are the canned ape sounds used in conjunction with the Arunde. They just don't match up well with the characters making the sounds, and it's clear that they come from some kind of documentary material. The music, though is excellent. There's a whole suite of music composed just for this story that is included as an extra. There are a lot of instruments that one might find in a jungle setting, but there's also some sixties Hartnell era mood music.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: On one hand, the story's maguffin is obvious, but writer Philip Lawrence deserves credit for making it just about believable that a fifth person somehow shows up in the season two TARDIS team. The Arunde are a neat sci-fi concept that work well. The story keeps its pace and the characterization is spot on. There are a few plot issues and the direction for how the canned ape sounds interact with the voices doesn't work, but overall the story is very good. I recommend getting it.