Recreating the very beginnings of the ever-popular sci-fi show, DOCTOR WHO – THE EARLY ADVENTURES from audio drama production company Big Finish give listeners a great sense of what the early episodes were really like, with solid storytelling, less emotionally convoluted plotlines, gripping villains, a moral battle, and everybody home in time for tea. They also provide a great nostalgia hit for those around in the 1960s, as they feature the remaining original cast members William Russell and Maureen O’Brien who very effectively reprise their roles, despite half a century having passed since they played them on television. The series also acts as being a perfect jumping-on point for new fans, being self-contained stories free from the enormous weight of legacy and the show’s own twisted history (which of course had yet to be written back then!).
The latest in the series – THE FIFTH TRAVELLER by Philip Lawrence – features one of the very earliest TARDIS teams: the irascible but twinkle-eyed First Doctor, accompanied by 1960s schoolteachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, and Vicki, a space orphan from the far future. The main part of this drama, however, revolves around an unexpected ‘new’ fifth member of the crew: Jospa, a young man from 30th century Earth. Is he a goodie or a baddie? Of course, you’d think there’s absolutely no way that that simple idea could be successfully sustained for almost two hours of audio entertainment; but you’d be wrong. It absolutely does.
Part of that is down to Lawrence’s script, which balances its arguments on a knife edge and keeps you guessing all the way through. Another big part is down to the performance by young actor James Joyce, who gives Jospa enough likeability that he sets up a dichotomy in your mind: you fairly quickly suspect he’s a wrong ’un, but then you really start to want him to not be, and for Big Finish to be wrong-footing you with the obvious, and for him to be a goodie after all.
And while the nature of Jospa is the real meat of the story, what’s very much in the foreground is a solid, Sixties-style adventure, with the crew +1 arriving on a jungle planet inhabited by no-legged, four-armed, yellow-haired psychic ape-creatures called the Arunde. The Arunde have problems of their own: deathly afraid of the ground and its hunger to pull them down from the trees, there’s revolution in their ranks, as the rule of the young Matriar, who collects all the ‘seeing stones’ through which the tribe’s minds can be linked, comes under threat from some aggressive males who want to control their own minds and their own destiny. And then a group of aliens arrive on their world. Because that always improves matters.
So on the one hand you have an action adventure story with a political foreground and an individual will versus state power theme (in itself very Sixties material), and on the other, you have the psychological thriller element of trying to decide whether someone clearly regarded as one of the closest friends of all the TARDIS travellers is everything they claim to be. That’s a lot to cram into two hours, and the defining pleasure of The Fifth Traveller is that it feels like a fast listen. The backstory is well layered, but never oppressive, so the story hooks you in and drags you forward, and when the truth eventually emerges about Jospa, it actually comes as a surprise to you that you’re as far along as you are.
In addition, there’s also another moral woven neatly and lightly through the story, without ever getting in the way: a moral of temptation, and even a vaguely Buddhist vibe that having desires is the pathway to disappointment. The genius in this story is in the balance: Lawrence’s script, directed by Big Finish stalwart Lisa Bowerman, never feels heavy-handed with its morals or messages. Everything is simply woven into the ongoing storytelling, leaving you, at the end of two hours, with a big grin of satisfaction.
In short, The Fifth Traveller is a cracking story that races along, while still managing to deliver some gripping backstory and a handful of themes.
DOCTOR WHO: THE FIFTH TRAVELLER is available to buy now exclusively from Big Finish until November 30th 2016, after which date it will be available from Amazon.co.uk and other leading audiobook retailers.