If Chris Chibnall listens to Big Finish, which the past three years would suggest maybe isn’t the case, then he would probably have thought to himself, ‘blast, this would have made a great story for Series 13’ after listening to Big Finish’s latest Fourth Doctor Adventures release, The Primeval Design.
For a start, it’s got a strong female character (of historical significance) who… actually has greater presence than the Thirteenth Doctor; it’s set very firmly on Earth despite including elements of the alien; it’s loaded with regional accents (not a Chibnall-specific thing, but his era tends to avoid London where possible); and it includes dinosaurs on a spaceship. Kind of.
The Primeval Design is set in Dorset, 1830, and revolves around an archeological rivalry between Mary Anning (played by Big Finish favourite Lucy Briggs-Owen) and the patronising duo of Lord Macavoy and Dr Richard Numan whose attitudes towards gender equality are literally prehistoric.
While this is pre-Victorian era by a few years, it’s a typical Victorian fashion encounter for Leela as she has to navigate floor-length skirts and appropriate etiquette. While you can tell this is a very developed partnership between the Fourth Doctor and Leela at this point, and she fits fairly seamlessly into other time periods, the 1800s is where savage versus civilised always have some friction.
The Doctor and Leela encounter Mary by visiting her shop in Lyme Regis, and soon the trio find a dead body punctured by teeth marks that could only have belonged to a giant prehistoric lizard or someone playing around with big dinosaur bones. And there’s definitely a bone missing from the latest big find on the Jurassic Coast.
One of the suspects is of course Mary’s rival fossil hunters, and so they pay Lord Mcavoy an unannounced visit. It’s hard to read if he’s guilty when all he does is get outraged that he’s being questioned by women, but as it turns out there is something large and scaly dwelling in his grounds and with teeth big enough to kill a person…
The episode one cliffhanger doesn’t play its dinosaur reveal straight away, and a 1977 BBC budget would be really stretched if you’d splashed it on a life-size dino only a quarter of the way into the script. Finding rooms for the cast to stay in during tourism season in Dorset would also be pretty costly too, which is why this story belongs best in audio form.
The sinister creature that is encountered at the end of episode one is beckoned away in typically Fourth Doctor style at the start of the next episode, and Mcavoy sets out to inform Newman of these worrying events until he is stopped by a grisly encounter of his own.
Each of the supporting cast is well developed here, and Big Finish debutant Charlie Bate gets given a lot to do from an acting perspective in the role of Mcavoy’s employee Lizzie Berenger who is heavily pregnant and easily distressed. Chekhov’s pregnancy – that’s all I’m saying.
When it boils down to it, Numan is a typical villain of 1970s Doctor Who, and he even engages in combat with the Doctor before leaving him to the mercy of another giant lizard at the end of episode two.
While the resolution of that cliffhanger is a bit too silly for older listeners, it certainly captures the teatime audience well and it provides more time with Mary who proves to be a clever and likeable character and avoids the blandness that some one-off roles have.
Episode three is all about new life and skeletons, and a look at the cover art for the story will provide a clue as to what’s now at play. Although to be fair, with the cover in mind, it’s very easy to predict the story is headed in that direction from the early scenes of episode one. Numan’s turn from controlling man to slave to a greater force intent on destroying all inferior life is somewhat predictable too once he admits he’s more than your usual dinosaur fanatic, and there’s another perilous moment to end the episode.
An extra character is added to the mix in the final episode, a very small one at that, and the stakes immediately get higher given a newborn can’t just run away from a dinosaur threat or keep its head above water if stuck in the sea. It allows everyone to have a turn at unfiltered heroism, and when dino defenses have to be built we get everyone working together to save Lyme Regis like a medieval mob. And to be fair, if you were recording Doctor Who on location in 1977, why wouldn’t you go all out to reward the viewers who have stayed on over the previous three weeks?
The actual ending is pretty rushed, but then that leaves time afterwards for a nice departure scene with Mary where the Doctor leaves her a message about her place in the universe. A set up to use her as a companion many years down the line, I’m sure.
The Primeval Design is available now from Big Finish, as both an individual adventure or packaged together with The Tribulations of Thadeus Nook.