We’re back, with another Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Apocalypse Element, number eleven in the main range of audios—and for once, it lives up to its name! The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe have their work cut out for them this time…with a little help from a long-lost old friend. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened to this audio!
The Time Lords aren’t the only race to develop time travel. In fact, twenty such races—and by default, twenty of the most powerful civilizations in the universe—are gathering on the planet Archetryx for a conference regarding time travel and its limitations. Archetryx’s monitors get a strange reading before the conference, but there is an explanation: the Monans, whose time vessels are even more highly powered than the Time Lords’ TARDISes, have arrived, and their ship’s powerful engines created a disturbance in Archetryx’s temporal defense shields. It’s done more than that, however; it has dragged in a straggler, the TARDIS occupied by the Sixth Doctor and his companion, Evelyn Smythe.
They shouldn’t be there, but they are saved from trouble by Coordinator Vansell of the Gallifreyan Celestial Intervention Agency, who declares them part of the Lord President’s entourage. Nevertheless, there’s no time to rest, because strange things are still happening.
Twenty years ago, the nearby planetoid of Etra Prime—the oldest planetoid in the known universe, coincidentally—vanished from time and space. It took with it five hundred scientists, mostly from Gallifrey, including the newly-elected Lord President Romanadvoratrelundar, Romana for short. A year later, three hundred of them reappeared on Archetryx, dead and distorted by time. To avert an accusation and a war, Archetryx agreed to host this conference, which has now come to fruition. Romana, however, is still to be found. Now, the Archetryxans detect that Etra Prime has returned—and it is on a collision course with Archetryx! And worse…it becomes clear that the Daleks are behind it.
The Doctor begins to investigate, at the behest of the current Lord President, who was raised to the post when Romana failed to return; he is also loyal to Romana, and tries to uphold her decisions. The Doctor quickly finds that the Daleks have agents among the Archetryxans, operating under mind control. They kill themselves, but not before the sensors and shields are sabotaged, letting the Daleks into the complex. Another spy also destroys an exterior wall, allowing them in, and unintentionally trapping Evelyn. Vansell, accompanied by the Archetryxan Monitor Vorna, rescue her, but can’t stop the Daleks. However, rather than attack directly, the Daleks steal the Monan time ship. It is not dimensionally transcendent like a TARDIS, and so only a few Daleks fit inside; the rest move deeper into the building and self-destruct, blocking all the delegates from escaping.
The Doctor goes to the gravity wells in the facility to effect repairs and raise the shields. He is attacked by Daleks—but not their machines. The mutants have left their casings in the zero-G environment of the wells, and are attacking personally.
Inside Etra Prime, Romana has been a slave for twenty years. The years have weighed on her, but she retains her identity and sanity by force of will. She and another slave, a Monan engineer named Vrint, are pulled out to cannibalize the Monan ship; they are instructed to use its engines to build a temporal centrifuge. Etra Prime contains a ridiculously rare element, which, when refined, has fantastic power over space and time; the Daleks call it the Apocalypse Element. As they work they overhear the Daleks’ plans. Later, they finish the centrifuge, but sabotage it; they then use a nearby transmat to escape to Archetryx. The transmat is destroyed in Dalek crossfire. Romana takes with her a strange crystal; it a communicator of sorts, used by the Daleks to telepathically communicate with their spies, so as to avoid detection of conventional signals. It is a rare item, and the Daleks want it back, as it has another purpose—and is vital to their plan.
The Doctor escapes the Dalek mutants, and rendezvoused with Evelyn; she helps him escape, but it’s only temporary, as he must go back in. Meanwhile, the Daleks are stealing technological secrets from the various time machines (though, presumably, the TARDISes have sufficient security to resist entry). The Black Dalek leading the force also tells the delegates that attacks have been launched on their homeworlds. Evelyn volunteers to help clear the way to the ships. Vorna goes with her, and Romana joins the Doctor. The delegates also attack the Daleks. The Doctor gives back the crystal, and the Daleks evacuate, clearing the way; the delegates escape. The Doctor, Evelyn, Vorna, and an Archetryxan security agent named Trinkett escape in the TARDIS immediately before Etra Prime crashes into Archetryx, destroying both worlds and killing everyone remaining behind.
The President and Vansell arrive on Gallifrey before the Doctor. Immediately they learn of a Monan ship seeking refuge there; the President and security Captain Reldath are suspicious, but Vansell, hungry for the Monan’s time travel secrets, persuades them to allow them in. It is a ruse; the Daleks, possessing their own version of a chameleon circuit, have created an illusion of the Monan ship to hide their own ships. Now inside the transduction barriers, they invade Gallifrey.
Romana, whose presidential codes have never been revoked (unlike the Doctor’s), links to the TARDIS telepathic circuits to gain entrance to the Gallifreyan citadel. The Daleks have taken the TARDIS cradle area under the citadel, and have harvested the eyes of a dead soldier to defeat the retina scans on all the security doors. Being forced to get by the Daleks, the Doctor prepares to try his luck; but Romana offers them her presidential codes if they will spare them. It is a ruse, but they fall for it; they need the codes to take down the barriers and allow invasion en masse. She links with them telepathically to transmit the codes; but instead, she unloads twenty years of pain and hatred into their minds, stunning them and allowing her and her companions to escape. They force her out of the link, but she senses enough of their plan to get an inkling of their plans for the Element…
Reaching security control, the Doctor has Vansell erase every Gallifreyan retinal print from the Matrix, and install Evelyn’s human retinal print instead. As she is the only human around, she is now the only key to any door—and the Daleks do not have her, nor can they risk killing her. The Doctor sends her with Vansell to rally the guards. He then seals the bulkheads on the TARDIS cradles, trapping the Daleks there. Evelyn and Vansell meet up with Trinkett and Reldath, but are cut off as the Daleks burn through the wall of the cradles.
The Black Dalek learns that the Element is ready, and sends a Dalek with it to the center of the Seriphia galaxy—four times the size of the Milky Way, and heavily populated—to prepare to ignite it. The Black Dalek demands the help of the Time Lords, as the Element, once ignited, can only be controlled via time distortion—essentially, a bubble time continuum around its field of effect. Otherwise, it will quickly consume the entire universe in a massive chain reaction, ending everything. The President thinks it is bluffing—and so the Black Dalek ignites the Element in Seriphia. Now the Time Lords are forced to act to contain it.
The Doctor and his group make their way to the Eye of Harmony (or rather, its main interface in the Panipticon. He sends Evelyn and Vansell to collect power boosters, which he will need to create enough power from the Eye to contain the Element.
The Daleks discover the Element is proceeding far faster than they predicted. They realize that they must work with the Time Lords to be able to contain it, or they will be destroyed too. They strike an uneasy bargain with the Lord President, allowing them to land at the Citadel. Evelyn and Vansell get the boosters, but Evelyn is wounded by a Dalek and temporarily paralyzed; she sends Vansell ahead, trusting that the Daleks won’t kill her, as they need her eyes. However, this undoes the president’s plan; with her in custody, the Daleks don’t need his cooperation to get inside, and they kill him. With Evelyn’s forced cooperation, the Daleks already in the citadel shut down the transduction barriers, allowing the fleet to land, and marking the fall of Gallifrey.
The Doctor and Romana use the boosters with the Eye, but it is not enough. The Black Dalek, however, via one of the communication crystals, adds the combined mental might of all the Daleks on Gallifrey to the Eye. The combined power is enough, and the Element is contained; moreover, the containment field has been modified to accelerate time within. This not only burns out the Element, but also leads to the creation of a new galaxy from the rubble—billions of stars and planets, all unoccupied…and all ripe for occupation by the Daleks. The sacrifice of the Daleks on Gallifrey, it seems, was not as altruistic as it appeared. A new Dalek Empire will soon be born.
With the president dead, Romana—who was never removed from office—is now Lady President. Evelyn’s retinal print is removed and replaced with Gallifreyan prints; but the Doctor suggests that traces of it may remain. Romana promises help to any survivors of Archetryx and the Monan homeworld, but there is nothing to be done for the dead of Seriphia. She also promises intervention against the Daleks in that galaxy, and promises to strengthen Gallifrey for the future.
This story was a roller coaster from start to finish. As the DisContinuity Guide states, “there’s a lot going on here.” It’s most notable for two events that have major impact on continuity (and also on the future of Big Finish’s spinoffs): the return of Romana (subsequent to her original return from E-Space in the VNAs), and the establishment of the Dalek Empire. Romana will feature heavily in the Gallifrey audios, and the Dalek Empire in, well, Dalek Empire. There are some other references worth noting, as well; Evelyn’s temporary paralysis at the hands (plungers? blasters?) of the Daleks echoes a similar wounding of Ian Chesterton in The Daleks. The Daleks hollowed out a planet for a weapon in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Reldath appeared previously in The Sirens of Time. Evelyn mentions having a specialty in creating feedback loops, previously noted in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor. The Doctor mentions his presidency, most recently seen in The Five Doctors, and also in The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time (coincidentally also involving a successful-but-temporary invasion of Gallifrey), but he has since been removed from office. Most interestingly, this story accounts for the use of a human retinal print in the television movie; some trace of Evelyn’s print remains. (Though occupying a human body, the Master could not open the Eye, as his eyes had been changed by his possession of the body, and possibly by remnants of the Cheetah virus from Survival.) These Daleks appear to be post-Davros-arc Daleks that did not originate with his Imperial faction, as they are led by a Black Dalek and refer to Skaro.
The Sixth Doctor is truly at his best here; the action in this story is much more like what we’d see under, say, the Tenth Doctor, with a frantic pace and lots of yelling. Evelyn takes a bit of a backseat, but that’s to be expected in a story that showcases Romana; of course Romana gets the lion’s share of the attention here, although I don’t mean to compare the two as companions. Evelyn can hold her own easily in that regard. Romana is a hard character compared to her previous appearances; she’s been shaped by her years of slavery. Twenty years may be a blink of the eye to a Time Lord, but it’s still a lot of torture and hard labor.
We’ve seen universe-threatening forces before, and the phrase “destroy the universe!” gets thrown around quite a lot. This time, though, it truly comes across as serious. The Apocalypse Element is frightening in a way that most threats can only dream about; it says something that even the Daleks are frightened of what they’ve unleashed. While they weren’t being altruistic in helping the Time Lords, the fact that they would ally themselves at all speaks volumes. The Part Three cliffhanger is quite the wicked trap: Either lower the barriers and lose Gallifrey, or keep them up and lose the universe.
I’ve been trying for some time to date Dalek stories in one specific sense: do they possess time travel or not? In this story, they are mentioned as having it, but not until near the end. Is this the moment when they acquire it? It’s curiously vague on this point. Still, they have the chance to steal technological secrets from a variety of time vessels, so I think this is a likely candidate—unless I’m contradicted later, of course. It is very like the Daleks to steal and modify the technology rather than develop it on their own. This is borne out by the fact that no Davros story in the classic area—again, unless it happens in audios I have yet to hear—involves Dalek time travel. Related: They DO possess dimensional transcendent technology, but interestingly, I think they stole that from the Time Lords at some point in the past—the Genesis Ark in Series Two would seem to indicate as much.
The Monans represent a disturbing implication. Many times in the new television series, the Doctor states that his TARDIS—being the last one—is the most powerful ship in existence. This makes sense, as it draws from the Eye of Harmony. However, the Monan ships are said to be far more powerful. That fact alone should give us pause—what is more powerful in terms of raw power than the Eye of Harmony? I’m interested to see if the Monans appear again in the audios.
My final verdict: This is a great story, one of the highlights of the early Main Range. Ordinarily I try to find some flaws, but I don’t see any here. Check it out!
Next time: On Thursday we’ll continue the Destiny of the Doctor series with the Second Doctor’s contribution, Shadow of Death; and then we’ll return to the main range for The Fires of Vulcan, with the Seventh Doctor and Mel! See you there.
All audios in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below. This and other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.