With Christmas behind us, we’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #15, The Mutant Phase, starring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison) and Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
At an unknown time in the future, a starship is conducting a survey when it is attacked by a swarm of over a hundred billion strange creatures, flying so tightly that they appear to be a single organism. The ship is knocked off course; its commander, Ganatus, and scientist Ptolem find that they are near–and possibly crashing on–the planet Skaro, home of the Daleks.
Elsewhere–or rather, elsewhen–and aboard the TARDIS, Nyssa repairs the proximity alarm, only for it to go off. The Fifth Doctor tries to evade, but finds that they have been captured by a time corridor in the vortex. They escape by “bouncing off” the corridor; in the process, the Doctor notices a strange ripple in time, a “bump” in the timestream. They land in a cornfield in Kansas. Emerging from the TARDIS, Nyssa is stung by a large wasp, but defers getting any treatment. They are then interrupted by what seems to be a spaceship passing overhead; another soon follows. They find a body in a field, which has been shot; it bears marks of technological implants, which have since be removed. The Doctor determines that the year is 2157 (actually 2158, as it turns out, but who’s counting?), and immediately insists that they leave. Meanwhile, Ptolem and Ganatus are also on Earth–but not in the same time period–and report that the Doctor has been located in 2158. Ptolem advises waiting, however; the Doctor won’t stay long, if history is correct.
Returning to the TARDIS, the Doctor and Nyssa are intercepted by a strange man, one with implants like those that had been removed from the body. The man–or Roboman, rather–calls for backup. A spaceship arrives, and the Doctor recognizes it: It is a Dalek saucer. A Dalek emerges, showing signs of battle damage, but doesn’t recognize the Doctor. They break for the TARDIS and escape; the Doctor tells Nyssa, who didn’t recognize the Daleks, about his history with them–he knows them, but in this time period, they do not yet know him. He previously encountered them on Earth, a few years after 2157, during the end of the Dalek invasion of Earth. But now they have another problem: having dematerialized, they are caught in the time corridor again. They can’t escape via time; but they can alter their spacial coordinates, landing somewhere afield of wherever the corridor takes them–and it’s as well, because wherever they land, there will be Daleks there. No one else has the ability to create these time corridors.
Ganatus reports to the Daleks that the Doctor has not arrived in the right place. The Daleks intend to find him.
Upon landing, the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves underground. They are taken in by two humans, Dolores and Albert, who offhandedly mention the “Thals”, piquing the Doctor’s interest–after all, the Thals are the other race from Skaro, and ancient enemies of the Daleks and their predecessors, the Kaleds. Albert admits the Thals have helped the humans on Earth, of whom there are only a few left; but he doesn’t know much about them, and indeed, they appear to be mostly serving their own interests. However, thirty years prior to this time, there was a disaster on Earth, which led to the depopulation of the planet. Dolores takes the Doctor to see a scientist, Professor Hendryk, while Albert tends Nyssa’s arm.
The Daleks have decided to return to Skaro. However, one of them loses control, and breaks open, revealing that it has further mutated and is now deadly to the other Daleks. The Daleks try to kill it, but Ptolem stops them, and takes it for study, placing it in containment.
Albert slips away briefly, and Nyssa finds him reporting their presence to someone–the Daleks, she assumes. Her arm still untreated, she goes to find the Doctor. The Doctor, meanwhile, meets with Hendryk and compares notes. Hendryk does not know about the Daleks–revealing that their invasion was centuries ago–and shows him one of the mutated creatures, similar to the one being viewed by Ptolem and Ganatus in the future, but dead. He describes how a swarm of them came to Earth and drew all the life out of the planet, but then died suddenly and without any known cause.
On Skaro, a crisis is happening. The numbers of mutated Daleks are increasing rapidly, and they are assaulting the Dalek defenses. Soon they will break through. A squad is dispatched through the time corridor to Earth to claim the Doctor, whose presence has been located.Ptolem and Ganatus are sent with the squad. Nyssa, meanwhile, finds Dolores, who doesn’t comprehend about Albert; but she takes her to the Doctor and Hendryk. They immediately head for the TARDIS. Albert finds them, and turns them over to the Daleks. Albert and Hendryk are killed by the Daleks; the Daleks also kill Dolores and threaten Nyssa, persuading the Doctor to surrender.
Ptolem and Ganatus, it turns out, are Thals, and have allied with the Daleks to eliminate the mutant creatures. They tell the Doctor about the mutants, into which the Daleks are developing; the creatures have the potential to end all life, everywhere. Only on Earth, thirty years ago, did they ever die out, and no one knows why. It’s the Thal base where they are analyzing the captive mutant; and they and the Daleks want the Doctor to help them. However, the creature escapes, destroying the base and everyone in it. The Doctor, Nyssa, Ptolem, Ganatus, and the last few Daleks escape into the TARDIS. The TARDIS, with everyone in it, rides the time corridor to Skaro…
The Doctor is taken before the Dalek Emperor, who insists on his help. After much debate, he concludes that, as bad as the Daleks are, the mutant creatures are worse; and he agrees to help. Meanwhile, Ptolem examines Nyssa’s arm, and finds a strange thing: Insect eggs in the wound, which share some DNA with the mutant creatures. He extracts them, and treats her wound, and takes the eggs for research. He reaches the same conclusion the Daleks have reached: the mutant phase originated in 2158 on Earth. It spread from the first affected Dalek, because the Daleks routinely undergo genetic extraction, which is used to breed the next generation of Daleks. The Daleks need the Doctor because they lack the power to go back far enough to change the events of 2158.
It is the final moments for Skaro. The creatures are breaking into the Dalek city. The Doctor, Nyssa, Ptolem, and Ganatus flee in the TARDIS, back to 2158, as the Emperor destroys Skaro rather than let it fall to the creatures. Unexpectedly, Ganatus collapses. In flight, the Doctor tries to sleep, and Nyssa does some research. However, Ptolem has a secret–and unknown to him, Ganatus does too…Nyssa determines from records what killed the mutants on Earth, but before she can discuss it with the Doctor, Ganatus awakens, and the cloister bell sounds. The time corridor is collapsing around them…the Doctor breaks them free of the corridor, and lands, and finds that they are in the exact spot where the TARDIS landed the first time, in Kansas, 2158. They watch on the monitor as their earlier selves are accosted by first the Roboman, then the damaged Dalek. The earlier version of the TARDIS had dispersed itself via the Hostile Action Displacement System; realizing their earlier selves are about to walk in on them, the Doctor dematerializes, allowing the earlier TARDIS to return, preserving events. Nyssa explains that a pesticide, GK-50, killed off the creatures in the future. The wasp that stung her had been made aggressive by exposure to genetically modified crops; the same wasps also penetrated the damaged Dalek’s casing, making it patient zero for the mutated DNA. It must be stopped. They go after it; but first, they synthesize some GK-50, although Ptolem doubts it will work this early in the mutation’s history. As they leave, the Doctor and Nyssa feel a temporal distortion–the beginning of a dangerous paradox.
Ganatus grabs the injector of GK-50 and threatens to kill the Doctor with it. He reveals that he is not Ganatus anymore; the Emperor, on Skaro, implanted him with its own memories, essentially making him a copy of the Emperor. He forces the Doctor to track down the damaged Dalek, and thus ensure Dalek survival and victory; the Doctor refuses. They are captured by a patrol, and taken to the local Dalek base.
Ptolem tells Nyssa of his own secret. He has secretly developed a retrovirus that will wipe out all Daleks. If deployed here and now, in two generations no Daleks will exist. Nyssa begs him not to use it; this moment in history is already damaged and fragile, and any major change to history here can destroy everything. He is adamant, however.
Against all odds, the copied Emperor gets the local Daleks to give him a hearing, and tries to warn them about the Doctor’s future interference with the Dalek Invasion (apparently not aware, however, that this is a later version of the Doctor, and exterminating him here will not prevent the presence of the First Doctor in that future year). However, the Doctor tells him that he is the reason for the paradox that may come to pass; by coming back in time, he will ensure the Daleks get the pesticide too early for it to be of any use, and thus he will doom them, setting his own course. If he had not come, the Daleks would have detected the wasp DNA in the damaged Dalek on their own, and extracted it, thus preventing the rise of the mutated creatures. Ptolem tries to use his retrovirus, but the Emperor makes the first move, destroying the pesticide. A wave of time distortion immediately passes through as the paradox is resolved, and suddenly, Ptolem and the Emperor vanish–events in their proper order would never have caused them to come here, after all. The Doctor and Nyssa escape in the TARDIS.
Safely back in the vortex, and free of the time corridor, the Doctor explains the outcome to Nyssa. He muses that the universe is safe because the Daleks, for once, followed his advice–and maybe that means there’s hope for them.
This is a noteworthy story, largely because it didn’t originate with Big Finish. Rather, the core story comes from an audio drama of the same title, produced by Audio Visuals, which in many ways was the (admittedly unofficial) predecessor to Big Finish Productions. Nicholas Briggs wrote both versions. It has been adapted to some degree to fit in with the main range–notably, Nyssa mentions the events of The Land of the Dead. This story is also considered to be part of the Dalek Empire arc, the third story in that series. With all of that said, you wouldn’t know there was any difference; it’s done in similar fashion to the preceding audios, and fits well with regard to continuity. As with previous Fifth Doctor/Nyssa audios, it must occur between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity, as Nyssa is the only companion present.
There’s a good deal of obfuscation here with regard to the time periods involved, mostly for the sake of suspense; but it has the effect of making it hard to keep track. Three time periods are actually involved: 2158 (mistakenly cited by the Doctor as 2157, but later corrected), nine years before the events of The Dalek Invasion of Earth; 4253, in which the future scenes on Earth take place, and which occurs thirty years after the sudden death of the mutant phase creature on Earth; and an unidentified point in the further future, in which all the Skaro scenes take place. The story is utterly self-contained, in that its events only occur because the Daleks force the Doctor to become involved, and the events resolve themselves–indeed, vanish completely from history–when the Doctor is removed from the equation at the end. Along the way, we get some good throwbacks to The Dalek Invasion of Earth; the Robomen appear again, and we get a mention of the Dalek plan to drill out the Earth’s core and install a hyperdrive. This story occurs largely in America (accompanied by some truly atrocious Midwestern accents), which makes it clear that the invasion really was worldwide, a fact that one could overlook in Dalek Invasion.
Nyssa is well-played here as always; I like her character, given that she really doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses. I’ve often said that she’s an intellectual match for the Doctor, and she shows it here, in repairing the TARDIS and researching the pesticide. She’s no match for the Doctor’s pride, unfortunately; he’s more than a little patronising to her, refusing to trust her with certain information, and reacting badly to her repairs on the TARDIS. The Doctor is at his most frustrating here, although I don’t mean that as a complaint; it’s vital to the story, in that he’s intentionally concealing information from those who should not have it. It’s clear here that he feels like events are getting away from him–and indeed, they are; it’s only at the last second that things are set right. Otherwise, characterization is not so great here; Hendryk is a Russian caricature, Ganatus is really nobody at all until the Emperor manifests in him, Ptolem is interesting but nothing new, and everyone else…well, mostly they get killed before they can be anything, really. Truly, the most interesting character here is the Dalek Emperor; we learn that he is the same Emperor that ordered the Dalek Invasion of Earth, two thousand years prior, reinforcing the idea that Daleks are very long-lived. He’s also implied to be the same Emperor seen in The Evil of the Daleks, although I am not sure where that story fits into chronology. Most interestingly of all, he deviates from usual Dalek behavior when he accepts the Doctor’s word and destroys the pesticide; it’s a far cry from the Emperor seen in The Parting of the Ways, which believed itself a god. I could get used to this portrayal; I suppose I’ll have to listen to Dalek Empire to continue his story.
Some other references: The Hostile Action Displacement System (HADS) first appeared in The Krotons; strangely, the version seen here is more akin to the Hostile Action Dispersal System seen in NuWho, which cause the TARDIS to disperse into the local area rather than actually relocate. Nyssa refers to Adric’s death, as seen in Earthshock. Strangely, the First Doctor is not directly referenced, but the Doctor mentions him tongue-in-cheek when he comments that he and the Emperor have both had a face-lift.
Overall, it’s a great story, and my only dislike is that it was hard to follow the times and locations involved. Of course, that’s by design; but still, it’s annoying at best. It’s a great additioin to the main range, and sets the groundwork for much of the Dalek Empire series. For fans of the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, it’s a must-listen.
Next time: On Thursday we’ll continue our look at the Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor; and on Monday, we’ll get a look at the Eighth Doctor’s first Main Range appearance in Storm Warning! See you there.
All audio dramas in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.