Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Mutant Phase

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!

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Mutant Phase

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Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Holy Terror

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re looking at Main Range #14, The Holy Terror, starring Colin Baker as the Sixth Doctor, and Robert Jezek as comic-strip companion Frobisher, the shapeshifting penguin private investigator. (Now THERE’s a sentence that could only exist in Doctor Who!) It’s my first encounter with Frobisher, as well as his first appearance in Big Finish. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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The story cold-opens on an imperial drama: God-Emperor Pepin VI (the empire is not named, only its leaders) has died, and his son, Pepin VII, is succeeding to the throne. Of course, there can only be one true god, which means that if Pepin VII is god, his father must have been a false god—making everyone who worshipped him a heretic and worthy of death. Unfortunately, that includes everyone. The fallen emperor’s wife, Empress Berengaria, is arrested and taken to the dungeons. On the way, she meets her second son, the bastard Childeric, who wants to depose and usurp his brother. He’s come to gloat, but there’s just one problem: Berengaria doesn’t care. In fact, she’s bored and disappointed by the whole situation.

The Empire isn’t the only place with problems. Frobisher has been playing with the TARDIS’s dimensional stabilizers, which govern its internal geometry; the Doctor finds him in the bath, and scolds him for it. It’s irrelevant now, though; the TARDIS is acting up anyway. The Doctor and Frobisher can’t figure it out; against all odds, it seems the TARDIS is just…miffed. It may not be able to speak, but it gets its point across: It’s tired of being taken for granted, and now it’s going to take them where IT wants to go.

Pepin VII is met by his high priest, Clovis, and his royal scribe, Tacitus. Tacitus has a unique job: he records the emperor’s deeds and words, producing scriptures—a new bible for a new god. It’s too bad that the new god-to-be is so nervous… After the meeting, Clovis meets Childeric, and agrees to help him depose Pepin—after all, it’s traditional! With the time of the coronation—when Pepin will ascend to godhood—at hand, everyone gathers in the throne room, with crowds watching. Clovis crowns Pepin, who doesn’t feel any different. He performs the accompanying miracles, which are—to any outside observer—just cheap tricks. Pepin can’t handle the charade anymore, and declares he is not actually a god; Childeric steps in to try to take the throne, leaving Pepin at the mercy of the crowd. He is saved, however, when a real miracle happens: the arrival of the TARDIS.

The scanner at first reveals only a white void outside, but then resolves into the throne room scene. Frobisher comes out, with the Doctor following…and they are immediately proclaimed as heavenly messengers. Pepin’s deity is confirmed, against his protests—protests which, I should add, offend his wife, Livilla, whose life is also on the line. The Doctor and Frobisher help Pepin to his rooms to rest. Meanwhile, Clovis meets with Childeric to work on his plans. Pepin and Tacitus are beginning to explain history to the Doctor and Frobisher; but Pepin’s guard captain bursts in and shoots him (with a gun. In a medieval setting. Just go with it.) Pepin is unharmed. He confirms the guard captain’s faith and sends him away…then reveals that the gun was stocked with blanks. After all, why waste live ammunition on a god, anyway? Besides, the assassination is a ritual, like everything else—just tradition, as in the ancient texts. The Doctor decides he’d better see the texts.

It seems that many things are “just tradition”. The Emperor is always god, but always dies and is succeeded, thus proving that he wasn’t really god; his faithful and his wife are always executed. One son is always good, the other—the bastard—is always evil, and always conspires with the high priest to betray him, but they are always defeated and executed. Frobisher is stunned by it all, as is the Doctor. The texts are strange, as well; every god’s bible is full to exactly its last page, with no waste, and all are in the same writing: Tacitus’s handwriting. Meanwhile, Livilla visits Berengaria and tries to side with her to put Childeric on the throne; but Berengaria pushes her away, stating she doesn’t really want to live, and looks down on the whole situation. Furious, Livilla beats her badly.

Clovis takes the Doctor and Tacitus to Childeric, who forces them into the catacombs under the castle. He doesn’t need the Doctor, only Tacitus, but lets him observe anyway. He reveals he has a son, whom he has kept hidden from everyone except a tongueless servant, so that he will be uncorrupted by anyone and will develop into a true god. However, the moment has come years earlier than planned; therefore he will take the throne until his son is old enough to rule. Meanwhile, the crowd has become a mob, destroying statues of Pepin and threatening his life…until he admits he is no god, but claims another god is present. He presents their new god: Frobisher, the “big talking bird”!

Childeric intends to trap Tacitus with his son, so that he can chronicle his life as he has done with other gods (sans tongue, of course), until the child can take the throne. The Doctor, he intends to kill. Meanwhile, Frobisher tries to return to the TARDIS, but it has locked him out. Therefore he accepts the throne—chiefly to save his own life—and orders that Pepin not be executed for heresy. (This, of course, is highly unconventional.) He announces he will make other changes, too. Livilla goes to Childeric and curries his favor by telling him that Frobisher has been proclaimed god and emperor (Emperor penguin? Hmm). Childeric decides that he must release his son on the world ahead of schedule.

As Frobisher unsuccessfully tries to introduce parliamentary democracy, the guard captain comes in for the ritual assassination. Unfortunately, thanks to the previous criticism, he’s using live ammunition this time. Frobisher, however, is unharmed; the bullets pass through him without injury, leaving holes in the throne behind him. Now EVERYONE is confused.

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Livilla, Childeric, Tacitus, Clovis, and the Doctor all return to the catacombs, and Childeric releases the child. Tacitus reacts terribly, as—unbelievably—he recognizes the child’s face. The child speaks to them—which it should not be able to do—and reveals it does in fact have godlike power. It transforms Livilla into an infant, then kills her. Its tantrum then nearly destroys the castle, causing Tacitus, Clovis, and the Doctor to flee. Tacitus claims to have killed the child, many times, but it keeps coming back—and suddenly, the Doctor knows what is going on. He returns to speak to the child.

Frobisher learns that the first statue of him is already up; it doesn’t match exactly, but it’s close. Seeing the artist’s terror, he changes his own beak to match the statue—another miracle, they assume. He learns that in previous eras, the artist could be killed for such a failure, and he pardons the artist. He announces that nobody will die for him, and is advised that a prisoner—Berengaria—already awaits execution. He goes to her; Pepin begs Frobisher to heal her injuries—and to Frobisher’s own shock, he does.

The Doctor and Childeric confront the child, which kills the tongueless servant. It just wants to kill everyone except its father, with whom it will rule; and it has no conception of a universe outside the castle. The Doctor now knows that of everyone here, only the child can harm him or Frobisher. Childeric thinks this is madness, and opens his mind to merge with the child—but the child discovers Childeric is not his father. It tears him apart. It asks the Doctor who its father is. The Doctor asks it to lower the pitch of its voice…and when it does, the voice becomes that of Tacitus.

The child is not a god; it is a trap for one man, designed to torture him. The Doctor refuses to share the information, but the child forces itself into the Doctor’s mind. It sees memories of the universe, and is terrorized by them; it believes only the castle really exists. It disappears, and the Doctor rushes to find Frobisher.

Berengaria talks with Pepin, and finally—at long last—begins to heal some of the wounds and misunderstandings in their relationship. They are interrupted by the child, which demands worship from them; Pepin tries to defend Berengaria, and is killed at once. Berengaria refuses to worship the child, and it kills her as well—which is what she wanted anyway. Meanwhile, the Doctor encounters Clovis, who wants to help—but the Doctor knows Clovis will betray him. It’s not his fault; after all, the Doctor now knows that no one here is real, except the child and its father. They were created by an uncreative man, and their personalities are stereotypical, quite against their will. He leaves Clovis behind. The child appears and kills him, and in Clovis’s final moment, he does indeed betray the Doctor—he points the child after him.

Tactitus reaches the throne room, where Frobisher waits, and hides behind the throne, ranting in terror. The child is coming, killing everyone it finds en route. The Doctor joins them there, and reveals that everyone else is dead—or rather, never existed. This place is a place of fiction—a created world, a kind of illusion. It’s dimensionally transcendent, like the TARDIS, which is why the TARDIS came here; it needed a place to recover from the damage Frobisher had done when messing with the dimensional stabilizers. The place is a prison for Tacitus, who once committed a terrible crime: he murdered his own child. The entire cycle is a fantasy in which Tacitus is prisoner, participant, and planner: he relives his son’s reality through the child, which tries to kill him, only for him to kill it. The cycle has repeated for centuries, so long that he doesn’t even remember (until now, anyway); it will go on forever if he doesn’t break the cycle.

The child arrives, and Tacitus confronts it. He admits to madness; he must have been mad, to kill the child he loved—and he did love him, and does. The child loves him too, but is compelled to kill. Tacitus has a knife, and can kill him, as he has done before; but against the Doctor’s urging, rather than drop the knife, he gives it to the child, which kills him instead. The cycle is broken, and the castle disappears.

The Doctor and Frobisher find themselves back in the white void, but with the TARDIS waiting, its damage now fully repaired. It’s a sad ending, but one from which they have learned—or so they hope. They board the TARDIS, and move on.

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Everything I have to say can be summed up in one sentence: This is not your usual Big Finish. The company itself has referred to this story as a “side-step into a 2D universe”, by which they mean the reality of the Doctor Who comics. Frobisher had never appeared in the audios prior to this story, but was a semi-regular in the comics, especially the Marvel Doctor Who comics; I admit I only know the basics of those comics, and haven’t read any of them as yet, though I hope to do so. He will appear again in one more audio, The Maltese Penguin, which I hope to review at some point. For those not familiar, he’s a Whifferdill, a shapeshifting race; although they may have a base shape of their own, he doesn’t seem to be bound to it, and can choose to remain in a form at least semi-permanently. His preferred form is that of a large penguin (hence my “emperor penguin” pun). He is a private investigator by trade; his portrayal here is the stereotypical noir take on a PI, complete with faux-gangster accent, but then, that’s perfect given that this story uses stereotypes as a theme. Frobisher is a delightful character, once you accept that this is by no means a serious story.

Or, is it? It comes across as very humorous on the surface, but there’s some drama to be had underneath. It’s quite sad that the majority of the characters turn out not to be real; even though they are played for laughs, and even though they are unabashedly declared to be stereotypes from the beginning, it’s easy to become fond of them very quickly. In a way, they each become little case studies of the type of character they represent—and of course, that has bearing on real life, as we all experience these kinds of feelings at some point. Berengaria is a study in hypocrisy versus genuineness; she’s aware she’s a caricature, and she’s bored with it, and craves authenticity, even if it means dying. Pepin is a study in adequacy, or rather, inadequacy; he has so much to live up to (plus some serious daddy and mommy issues), and knows he can’t, and he’s driving himself crazy trying to escape it. Clovis is a study in temptation; he understands that it’s a part of his character, but he wants to be more and better (and unfortunately, he fails). Childeric is a study in the definition of evil; he knows that he is supposed to be evil, but he questions what that really means, and where the line is between ambition and evil. He revives the old questions of “are villains really evil, or just misunderstood?”

The story took its darkest turn for me with the revelation of the child and the reason for its existence. I am a father of three children, and the thought of a parent murdering their child never ceases to upset me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to sink to that level, and I hope I never know; I’ve had nightmares in the past about harming my child by accident, let alone on purpose. It would have been simple to portray Tacitus as a pure criminal, perhaps deluded; but instead he’s cast as insane. Sometimes that may be a stereotype in itself, but here it comes across as a mercy to him; when finally confronted with his own guilt, he’s horrified too. He’d change it if he could; he’s not a monster, just a horribly broken man. It’s almost too bad that it ended with his death; I’d like to see him have been redeemed.

There’s a significant (and yet unspoken) link between this story and the classic serial The Mind Robber. This environment isn’t declared to be the Land of Fiction from that story—in fact, I’m sure it isn’t the Land of Fiction—but it’s just like it, complete with the white void framing the internal reality. We are never given any indication of how this came about. Who imprisoned Tacitus? How long has he actually been here? Where is this in relation to the real universe? We may never know. There’s some evidence it may be on (or at least originating from) contemporary Earth; there are a number of concepts and references to Earth history, if an abridged version of it. Even the names are of European origin, and in some cases refer directly to historical figures of note.

Other references—beyond the existence of Frobisher, which links to the comics—include the Dimensional Stabilizers, which date to Planet of the Daleks at least. Gumblejacks—the fish that Frobisher is hunting (in projection form) in his first scene—were mentioned in The Two Doctors. We’ve had other references to a bath in the TARDIS, notably in the novel Lungbarrow’s early scenes, and with Leela in The Invasion of Time; if it’s actually the TARDIS pool in question, we’ve had still further references. Frobisher mentions having been an Ogron at one point; Ogrons first appeared in Day of the Daleks.

I really enjoyed this story. I kept an eye open for any dislikes, but it I didn’t find any; ordinarily my dislikes consist of things that are out of character or continuity, or perhaps portrayed badly, but as this entire story is out of character and continuity by definition, I thought it best to be pretty forgiving. Frobisher in particular is highly entertaining, and I wish he had more Big Finish material. It’s almost going to feel like a letdown when we return to more serious material next week.

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Next time: On Thursday, we’ll look at Destiny of the Doctor #5, Smoke and Mirrors; also, with the Christmas holiday approaching, I will be offline for most of the weekend, and therefore I hope to post my NuWho rewatch post on Thursday instead of Friday. By the same token, I’ll be late with the next Main Range post; I hope to post on Wednesday instead of Monday next week. After that we should be back on schedule. The next Main Range post will look at #15, The Mutant Phase. See you there!

All selections featured 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.

The Holy Terror

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Shadow of the Scourge

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Main Range #13, Shadow of the Scourge, featuring the Seventh Doctor, Ace, and professor Bernice Summerfield. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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August 15, 2000: The Pinehill Crest Hotel in Kent is hosting three different conventions. A New Age spiritualist group is meeting under the guidance of channeler (and fraud) Annie Carpenter. At the other end of the spectrum, a scientific convention is in progress, featuring an experiment in time travel, hosted by Michael Pembroke. And, oddly, a cross-stitch convention fills a third suite. Brian and Mary Hughes, of Hughes Avionics, are in attendance; Brian is attending the science convention, and Mary the séances. Mary invites Brian to join her, seeking a common interest; he does so, but is skeptical, and ends up in a confrontation with Annie. Both Brian and Annie are shocked, however, when a strange presence does possess them—and leaves a pentagram mark on their right hands…

The TARDIS brings the Doctor, Ace, and Benny to the hotel. The Doctor has called the police regarding a body; but he made the call too early, before the body is actually present. It arrives on a lift, and the Doctor avoids the police and checks the trio into the hotel in Benny’s name. He sends Ace to the time experiment and Benny to the séance. At the experiment, Ace speaks with the creator of the experiment, Michael Pembroke, and witnesses Brian Hughes—who represents a sizeable investment—tampering with the machine. Hughes locks it into a program that is creating an accelerating time-space curve. Ace also finds that everyone has been locked into the hotel. The Doctor, also investigating, finds that there are “663 attendees, more or less”—or, obviously, 666. He also finds that a pentagram mark is on the hand of the dead body, who was a homeless man called Old Will. Benny meets Annie Carpenter and Mary Hughes, and learns some of their background; she deduces that Annie is pregnant, and notes the mark on her hand. As the séance begins again, the alien presence comes through, and inhabits Annie—and also Brian and the dead man—and transforms them into insectile aliens: the Scourge. Three scourge are present: the Leader, the Demi-Leader, and the Bridgehead. The Doctor meets the leader in the foyer, and offers documents: a full surrender of the planet Earth.

The Scourge recognizes the Doctor as a Time Lord. They seem to be wary of the Time Lords; for some reason, they need the permission of the Time Lords to invade Earth. As they hammer out details of the treaty, Ace tries to help Pembroke shut off the machine, which has created the gateway that allowed the Scourge to materialize fully; but he cannot shut it off. Benny arrives and compares notes with Ace; Ace says that the Doctor is pretending to side with the Scourge while he works on defeating them. Meanwhile, the Demi-leader has snuck off and begun killing individuals. The Doctor negotiates with the Bridgehead, as his “payment”, he wants an implant which the Scourge generally use for torture of humans, but which will allow the Doctor to travel the multiverse via his mind only. They have met the Doctor before, as he dreamed on the astral plane; they know he often tries to trap his enemies, but are placated when he says that he typically does that to enemies who are much less intelligent than him.

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The Doctor arrives and confers with Benny, Ace, and Michael; he sends them to wait in his room (#666, incidentally) while he gathers the Scourge together. He credits the Scourge with much of Earth’s religious dogma, including demons, and says that their voices resonate at a tone that humans cannot resist obeying. He also says they have taken the hotel outside of 3D space and into a fractional universe. He intends to “overfeed” the Scourge with human fear and panic—which is their source of sustenance—and then destroy them as they materialize. As part of the plot, he has put a canister of pacification gas in the air system, to be released at the moment of full materialization—thus sedating the humans and cutting off the “food supply”—and at the same time he will cut off Michael’s machine, closing the gate and destroying the Scourge.

However, the Scourge have outwitted him in one regard. Instead of general panic, they are using just one person: Mary. They summon her and give her visions of hell, at the same time killing her with radiation. Her terror as she dies is overwhelming, giving them everything they need to bring their army through to this dimension. Further, owing to their distrust of the Doctor, they have preemptively found and defused his traps; the gas canister is empty, and modifications which he made to Pembroke’s machine have been counteracted. Then, his defeat is finalized: As the Scourge army arrives, the mark of the Scourge appears on the Doctor’s hand, and he begins to transform.

The Doctor puts himself into a trance, halting his bodily functions and pausing the transformation. Seeing that they still have a chance, Ace gets Gary—the organizer of the cross-stitch convention, who is trapped with them—to box her ears, rupturing her eardrums and deafening her, with the assurance that the TARDIS’s medical bay can fix her; it’s painful, but works, and keeps her from being controlled by the voices of the Scourge. They go to find and kill the Scourge leaders. They find the Bridgehead searching for the Doctor—having sensed that his transformation was stalled—while the Demi-Leader spreads more panic to force materialization.

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The Doctor is alert inside his mind, having trapped the Scourge soldier that was trying to possess him—but he has trapped himself in the process. He battles the creature inside his mind.

Ace finds that a portion of the pacification gas remains in the canister. She attacks the Bridgehead, which used to be Annie, and overpowers it; the gas allows Annie to reassert herself and regain control. She is horrified at the changes to her body, but works past it to help them. They take her to the Doctor. She proves to be less a fraud than she thought; she does in fact have some psychic ability, which is what made her available to the Scourge in the first place. When she touches the Doctor, he is able to speak through her. He sends Ace to the TARDIS, and draws Benny into his mind to help him; Benny’s body becomes comatose. However the connection breaks before he can give Ace further instructions. Ace and Michael leave for the TARDIS, unaware that the Leader has also detected it—its power is trapping the hotel in this universe—and is headed there too. Gary is left in charge of Annie, with the gas canister.

Gary hides Benny’s physical form. However, he runs out of pacification gas, and loses control of Annie. The Bridgehead reasserts control. It orders Gary to choke himself to death, and leaves him to die; it leaves the Doctor’s body untouched as well, as it believes the Doctor will soon fully transform.

Inside the Doctor’s mind, Benny finds that it’s not just the TARDIS holding them in the fractional universe; it’s the Doctor. When he trapped the Scourge soldier here, he trapped them all, as they are a hive mind of sorts. She witnesses his past selves, and even a possible future self: the Eighth Doctor (with whom Benny is quite taken). She tries to help him, but ends up feeding his despair, which in turn feeds the Scourge. The Doctor gives in, and loses control completely.

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On the roof, Ace and Michael are trapped between the Leader and Demi-Leader. The Leader tries to get Ace to kill herself, but she can’t hear it; she wounds the Leader. It then orders Michael to throw her off the building.

The Doctor, however, isn’t dead. He let go purposely, so that he could join the Scourge group mind—and now he uses that connection to speak through Michael to Ace. He tells Ace to pretend to fight, and in the process gets her closer to the TARDIS—and she gets herself and Michael inside. Inside the console room, Ace’s ears are healed; the Doctor, in a moment of foresight, had redirected the medical bay’s nanites to the console room. The Doctor uses Michael to direct Ace to remove some safeties from the TARDIS; the fractional universe has certain peculiarities that can be exploited by changing its relative dimensions, and the TARDIS will now do that, giving them an advantage.

Benny returns to her own body, and saves Gary from killing himself. They locate the Bridgehead; at the same time, the TARDIS arrives, warping local space and knocking the Bridgehead unconscious. They help Ace bring it aboard; the TARDIS’s systems and nanites free Annie from the Bridgehead’s control again. The Doctor tells them to get everyone to the foyer; with the alterations to the dimension, they are now equal to the Scourge, and can no longer be controlled by voice. He releases Michael. Ace and the others head for the foyer; but Benny takes Annie back to the Doctor, and has Annie put her back in his mind.

The Leader and Demi-Leader have been partially blinded, as they now cannot control time and space. Still, they are determined to physically fight the humans—and they can still inspire despair. In the physical world, Annie inspires the others to hold on; in the Doctor’s mind, Benny does the same for him. The Doctor overcomes the Scourge in his mind, and they return to their bodies. In the foyer, Gary leads the others to confess their sins and weaknesses to each other, thus removing the Scourge’s ability to use those secrets to inspire despair; he himself is guilty of stealing a large sum of money from the convention funds. The Leader and Demi-Leader grow weaker, and Ace attacks them. She is captured, but the Doctor arrives to help. He confronts the Scourge, and shows them humanity’s other side: hope in the face of despair. He reveals Annie’s pregnancy to Michael, who is—unknown to him—the father (having had an affair with Annie); this adds Michael’s hope to everyone else’s. With their power cut off, the Scourge army has already been banished back to its original dimension. The Doctor offers mercy to the Leader and the Demi-Leader; they refuse. The Doctor speaks to the Demi-Leader’s host, Brian, and gives him peace with his words; the Demi-Leader cannot hold on, and is banished. The Leader’s host, the dead homeless man, cannot be reached; but the Doctor dispels the fear of him among the hotel guests, which was what allowed the Leader to hold on, and the Leader is banished as well. The fractional universe breaks up, returning the hotel to Earth…and it is over.

In the aftermath, Brian wrestles with depression regarding the deaths that he feels he caused. The Doctor acknowledges that even he can’t save everyone; he will bear the guilt along with Brian. He assures Brian that, though Mary is dead, Brian will go on, and marry again, and the Doctor will visit him to remind him of this. However, he tells Ace and Benny afterward that he doesn’t really know that; he just has faith. Michael, meanwhile, plans to tell his wife the truth about his affair, and divorce her to move in with Annie—not a happy ending, but an honest one, perhaps. Gary discovers that he has been officially forgiven by the convention’s committee; he will be separated from the financial aspects, and must pay back his theft, but he will keep his job. Hope, it seems, has won the day.

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I’ll admit to struggling with this audio, not because it was bad—it wasn’t—but because it assumes a fair bit of background that I simply don’t have. In a first for the main range, it is placed less within the television or Big Finish continuity and more within that of the Virgin New Adventures (VNA) novel series; in fact, it occurs between the novels All-Consuming Fire and Blood Harvest. I am aware that Bernice Summerfield has an extensive history of her own, both with and without the Doctor; but this is my first encounter with her, as I have read none of the relevant novels, and have heard none of her audios. Consequently, anything I may say regarding that aspect of continuity is drawn directly from the TARDIS wiki, the Doctor Who reference guide, and the Discontinuity guide. Also in regard to that placement, the Doctor and Ace as represented here are a later version than that found in the television series and the preceding audios; it’s not as noticeable with the Doctor, but Ace has clearly been through much. The aforementioned guides make reference to her time in Spacefleet; even her costume on the cover illustration is that of Spacefleet.

References to other stories are thin on the ground, and mostly refer to VNA stories. Bernice makes reference to Love and War, when she first met the Doctor. Ace’s spacefleet career (spanning multiple stories) is referenced within the audio when she uses a Spacefleet tool to open the lift doors. Bernice also mentions that Ace has once been inside the Doctor’s mind; this is a reference to the early VNA novel, Timewyrm: Revelation, by Paul Cornell, who also wrote this audio. Humans with psychic abilities are a minor recurring theme in the main range so far, appearing first in Phantasmagoria and again in Winter for the Adept; it also appears in various episodes, both past and future. The Eighth Doctor’s appearance as a potential future incarnation—and more specifically, Bernice’s murmur of appreciation for him—is a nod to her eventual romantic feelings for him in the VNA The Dying Days.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about this audio—such as it may be considered a complaint—is the use again of an extradimensional force that wants to invade. It’s a trope that is used very commonly throughout Doctor Who, and sometimes in creative ways; but here, it’s a bit much, given that we had a similar situation in Winter for the Adept, just three stories ago, and in a modified form in The Spectre of Lanyon Moor, one story prior to that. I suppose it would be unfair of me to say that there are only so many possible versions of this trope; this is a very creative franchise, after all; but it’s still possible to overuse it. Another negative for me is that this story comes across as sloppy, chiefly because it tries to do to much. The Scourge are at one point implied to be the source of demonic manifestations in human history, but this is mostly abandoned as the story goes on, along with most of the demonic imagery. The time experiment is quite underused; the Doctor abandons the plan to stop the machine, and in fact it’s never really stated what became of the machine (which should still be running, and dangerous even without the Scourge). It’s never really clear whether the Scourge are actually killing people, or whether they are manipulating their bodies for possession.

On the plus side: This story is a decent introduction to Bernice Summerfield. We get a glimpse of her in action, without needing to know her backstory, as the references are subtle. It’s a bit disconcerting for someone unfamiliar with her to just see that she is suddenly there as a companion, with no introduction; but that’s a minor thing, and hardly unheard of even in the television series (Melanie Bush, anyone?) There’s just enough hint of her past with the Doctor to make me want to look further (which is something I intend to do anyway, though I don’t know when). It’s also a good story for Ace, who—despite her additional history—is still the same character we know and love. She’s matured a bit; I think that early Ace would never have been able to willingly injure herself for the sake of winning the fight as she does here. As for the Doctor, he’s a bit wearier, a bit more pessimistic than we have seen him—but still holding on and holding out. I’ve often been of the opinion that the Seventh Doctor grows increasingly more troubled and tired as he ages toward his regeneration; I feel that this is supported by his characterization in Lungbarrow, the penultimate VNA novel, which carries us to almost immediately prior to his regeneration in the television movie. This story seems to reflect that, although he hasn’t fully given up hope—and of course he has more adventures between now and then. As always, he’s a fascinating and complex character, more so than nearly any other incarnation.

Overall, it’s a good story, but one for which I felt unprepared. It will be interesting to see if the main range continues to explore this part of the Seventh Doctor’s life; if so, I may have to brush up on my VNA knowledge. Still worth a listen—I haven’t found many audios that aren’t—and a fan of the VNAs will appreciate this more than I did. Unfortunately, due to my own lack of knowledge, I have to rank it lower than perhaps it deserves, when compared to the preceding main range audios. Perhaps I’ll check it out again later, when I’ve caught up more.

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Next time: On Thursday we’ll look at Babblesphere, the Fourth Doctor’s contribution to Destiny of the Doctor; and then we’ll return to the main range for The Holy Terror, starring the Sixth Doctor and another unexpected (and new to me) companion: Frobisher, the shapeshifter. See you there!

All audio dramas featured 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.

Shadow of the Scourge

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Spare Parts

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today, we’re taking a detour from our regular schedule, and listening to Spare Parts, number thirty-four in the main range of audios. Here, we’ll get a look at the origin of one of Doctor Who’s most iconic villains: the Cybermen! Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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Somewhere, an explorer named Donald Philpott steps onto a planet’s surface, the first in many years to do so. It’s a moment of victory—and suddenly turns to disaster.

The Fifth Doctor and Nyssa land the TARDIS in a curious place. It appears to be London or a similar city, circa 1950s…but London never had a roof of stone over its collective heads. Further, the TARDIS’s systems indicate they are in deep space, near a dangerous formation called the Cherrybowl Nebula. Space is unstable and deadly in the area, but that’s not the strangest part: This planet doesn’t seem tied to any star.

The Doctor, showing uncharacteristic anxiety, wants to leave right away. Nyssa, however, wants to explore, and so he reluctantly gives her half an hour, and goes out on his own as well. Nyssa meets a woman named Yvonne Hartley, along with her father; Mr. Hartley is injured, and Nyssa believes him to be dead—no pulse can be found—but he proves to be mostly unharmed. They quickly take her home with them, as a curfew has arrived. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets one Thomas Dodd, and finds that he has an unusual business: he deals in human organs and limbs. Transplants are common here, in both natural and artificial—or cybernetic—parts. Dodd confirms what the Doctor has feared: this planet, a rogue world wandering the stars, is called Mondas—a name the Doctor knows well, for it is the homeworld of the Cybermen. They are interrupted by a cyber-augmented policeman on a similarly augmented horse; the Doctor creates a distraction, allowing them to escape.

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Nyssa has her own brush with the authorities in the form of Sisterman Constant, a sort of public nurse, who comes to the Hartleys’ apartment. Nyssa has no identity papers, making Constant suspicious; Constant leaves, but calls in about Nyssa’s presence. She also reports Yvonne as a possible conscript, or “call-up”, for the work crews in the city. Nyssa meets Frank, Yvonne’s younger brother, and also learns that cybernetic animals are as common as cybernetic people; the replacement of parts with cybernetic substitutes is very common, and many people are in ill enough health to require such replacement. She also witnesses a disturbance in the street, and sees that a neighbor is carried off by police.

The Doctor also sees the disturbance, and realizes that something illicit is happening during the night. He and Dodd make their way to an abandoned church tower to observe, and find that bodies are being exhumed and taken from a graveyard by the augmented police. They are caught by a policeman, who dies in the struggle; they flee, but the Doctor causes the church bell to ring, rousing the people in the neighborhood to see what is going on. He resolves to that if he can’t change this future, he will help the people try to change it themselves.

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Mr. Hartley reveals his own enhancement: a chest unit that keeps his heart beating. It needs repairs, which Nyssa provides. Nyssa is forced to flee when the police—summoned by Constant—arrive; Yvonne gives her a gift: her old pet, an augmented creature called a Cybermat. She meets the Doctor at the TARDIS, but refuses to leave; she wants to change the Cybermen’s history, though the Doctor says it can’t be done. Unknown to them, the Committee—the cybernetic gestalt which controls the city—has already become aware of them, and ordered their elimination.

Nyssa argues with the Doctor, and brings up the death of Adric. They are diverted, however, by the presence of the Cybermat; it chews into the TARDIS console, seeking the power source, until it fries itself—but the damage is done. The Doctor leaves Nyssa to begin repairs, and goes out, and sees that the police have stopped the bells and dispersed the crowd.

Constant has returned to the Committee’s palace. There, a Doctorman—the chief researcher under the committee—named Christine Allan is drinking away her frustrations. She has had problems with augmenting—converting, really; she calls it processing—the work crews, and the Committee is demanding a pace that prevents revision of the process. Hearing Constant’s story, she sends Cybermats to observe the visitors. The Committee then summons her, and demands more processing subjects.

In the morning, Frank goes in search of Nyssa, and finds the Doctor near the TARDIS. The Doctor sends him inside to speak with Nyssa, and then leaves to find Dodd. Inside, Frank gets over his astonishment at the TARDIS, and helps Nyssa with the repairs; he explains that Cybermats are attracted to power sources. It proves true; a horde of them are observed trying to break into the TARDIS—and Frank left the outer door open…Nyssa routes the power into the shell of the TARDIS to fry them all. Afterward, Nyssa and Frank return to his apartment, where they discover that the Committee has announced its plan to convert everyone.

Constant meets with Allan, and learns, to her horror, that the Committee will soon process everyone, turning them all into the latest iteration: the Cybermen. Allan, thoroughly drunk, goes out to find the Doctor and interrogate him, having seen him via her Cybermats. Along the way, she passes Yvonne’s work group, which is about to be processed. Meanwhile, the Committee learns that Mondas is approaching the nebula—and its catastrophic instability—sooner than anticipated. They call the leader of the work crews, the fully-converted Zheng, back to the city to deal with the problems going on.

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The Doctor asks Dodd to help him get to the Committee; but Dodd traps him in a freezer instead, reasoning that he is healthy and will make a good source of organs. He is rescued by Allan, who takes him along with Dodd for use in experimentation. They are interrupted by a blackout, and the roof of the cavern begins to cave in.

Yvonne’s group is not fully processed when the blackout happens, and she has wandered off. The rest are confused and demanding to be told their purpose; but they are already aware that they must protect the Committee. Allan persuades them that she must restart the palace generators, and she is accompanied there. The Doctor and Dodd infiltrate the palace, and find that enough Cyberman frames have been constructed to convert the entire population. Dodd flees, later to be captured and converted. The Doctor rescues Allan from her escort, but is nearly killed when gold leaf—a common weakness of later Cybermen—doesn’t work on this one; Allan activates a kill switch on the Cyberman to stop it, and goes with the Doctor to the generators.

Outside, it’s getting darker and colder, as the city is exposed to the surface by the broken roof. A Cyberman breaks into the Hartleys’ apartment; they are horrified to find it is Yvonne. She doesn’t remember them; but when the Doctor gets the power back on, she suffers a seizure from too many signals, and dies.

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The Doctor is forced to manually activate the generators. Zheng arrives, and sends Constant for processing. He reveals that the Cybermen were created for only one purpose: to activate and control a large propulsion system on the surface, which will save Mondas from the nebula by rerouting the planet’s trajectory. The final breaker on the generators is jammed; Zheng activates the power early, electrocuting the Doctor and seemingly killing him. The Committee decides to put Zheng in charge instead of Allan. However, the Doctor is still alive, and recovering; Allan marvels at this, and persuades Zheng that she must examine him, as he may represent new possibilities for the Cybermen. Initial scans show that he has a discrete lobe in his brain which can handle bodily functions unaided, allowing the rest of the brain to devote to cognitive capabilities; this pattern can be useful in the next generation of Cybermen, and may solve the problems Allan has been facing. To his horror, the Doctor realizes that the Cybermen of the future will owe their existence to him.

The Committee faces a conundrum. If they do not repair the roof, the people will die; but if they divert resources from the propulsion system to effect repairs, the planet may be destroyed. To resolve it, they order that everyone remaining be processed into Cybermen. Nyssa is brought to the palace, only to see Zheng start the full scan on the Doctor. The Committee finds itself divided with regard to the Doctor’s usefulness; realizing that division is their greatest problem, they eliminate their individuality and combine their minds into one, and become the first Cyber-Planner.

When the scanner opens, a new Cyberman is revealed; Nyssa believes it is the Doctor. However, it is Dodd, having been converted according to the new template based on the Doctor. The Doctor is still alive. The Doctor and Nyssa borrow wine from Allan, who is now despondent at the end result of her work, and use it to contaminate the Cyber-Planner’s nutrient feed. Allan goes to warn the Cyber-Planner, and meets Zheng on the way; he says that the propulsion system must be activated right away.

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Nyssa, Frank, and Allan are all captured and taken to the processing lines, but the Doctor succeeds in contaminating the Cyber-Planner’s nutrient feed. It becomes irrational, pulling power from the propulsion system to protect itself. The Doctor reconnects with Hartley; together they create an energy pulse that attracts a horde of Cybermats to the Cyber-Planner, disorienting it and allowing Zheng to divert power back to the propulsion system. Mondas is redirected away from the Nebula, and the Cyber-Planner shuts down; Zheng, critically injured, appears to die as well.

In the aftermath, the Doctor and Nyssa help Allan formulate a plan to reverse some aspects of the processing, making the Cybermen potentially more human. It will not prevent their existence, but may alter the course of their history for the better. However, after the TARDIS departs, Allan finds that Zheng has not died as she thought…and processing will continue, against her will, until every Mondan is a Cyberman. Meanwhile, the planet hurtles through space on a new course, one that will take it back to the solar system from which it came, and to a confrontation with the First Doctor…and the planet Earth.

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This story was written by Marc Platt, author of the Seventh Doctor serial Ghost Light, and also of the famous (or possibly infamous?) New Adventures novel, Lungbarrow. I’ve opted to review it here, out of order for the main range, because it serves as the inspiration for the Series Two episodes Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel.  While it’s often been suggested that the revived television series sometimes steals ideas from Big Finish’s audios, this was a more overt usage: Marc Platt received both credit and payment for the use of his concepts.

The television episodes, which I reviewed yesterday, gave us the origin of the new series version of the Cybermen, via an alternate-universe corporation called Cybus Industries. This story, in contrast, gives us the origin of the original Cybermen in the normal Doctor Who universe, sometimes referred to as N-Space. We’ve known since Season Four’s The Tenth Planet—the final story for the First Doctor—that the Cybermen originated with Earth’s twin planet, known as Mondas; and that Mondas was ejected from its orbit in the distant past and sent careening through the cosmos as a rogue planet, before eventually returning. Mondas is an interesting subject in its own right; it is not just a twin of Earth in the sense of sharing an orbit (though it did indeed share an orbit before its ejection), but indeed, it is identical to Earth, having matching continents and oceans, as can be seen in The Tenth Planet. It is also populated by people who are, for every practical purpose, human; they call themselves such, and are biologically the same as Earth humans. It has never been established how these oddities came to be. In fact, Mondasian (and I use that word for lack of any clear direction; “Mondan” may also be correct) society is parallel to Earth to an incredible degree, to the point that even words and mannerisms are seen to be the same (to a degree that exceeds that of TARDIS translation). However, the Mondans are technically more advanced; the Doctor comments as much here, and says that the cultural level—equivalent to the 1950s—is a result of deliberate repression by the Committee.

Early drafts of the television episodes reflected a dying Earth (though this was abandoned in the final release); accordingly, Mondas is a dying world. The city seen here is alleged to be the last city on the planet, and its population is estimated at about three thousand. The surface is uninhabitable; even Cybermen only have a nineteen percent survival rate on the surface. Still, this is to be expected on a rogue planet; in its own way, Pete’s Earth, on the television series is more of an anomaly. The Doctor in that episode claims that there are no Time Lords in that universe; and yet he and the Time Lords have affected the development of N-Space Earth so much that the alternate version should be radically different, if it exists at all. Fortunately, this audio corrects that a bit: if the Cybermen exist partly because of the Doctor, then his absence in Pete’s universe may have caused them to never exist, which explains why they didn’t conquer Earth in 1980, long before the events of the episode. But we’re getting far afield here.

This audio is stated by Big Finish to occur between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity; and indeed it must, as with all stories that only include Nyssa. Tegan exited the TARDIS in Time Flight and returned in Arc of Infinity; Nyssa was never alone with the Doctor again, as Turlough joined the crew before Nyssa exited in Terminus. Adric, as the audio mentions, was already dead; the Doctor admits that he never properly stopped to mourn his death.

These Cybermen differ from their later versions in several ways. They do not suffer the weakness to gold, as the Doctor discovers; I can only assume that the modified respiratory system is a later innovation, though it seems like a step backward here. Before the Doctor is scanned, the Cybermen suffer frequent organ failures, miscoordination, and programming errors; his bioscans provide the solution to these problems. Cybermen are seen here in various stages of conversion; it was not a one-time development, and the Doctor sarcastically comments at one point that it began with cosmetic surgeries. Interestingly, Torchwood will later reveal a partially-converted Cyberman, of the Cybus variant, which is at odds with the conversion process we see in The Age of Steel.

In addition to the obvious links to various Cyberman stories (The Tenth Planet, The Tomb of the Cybermen, Revenge of the Cybermen, Earthshock, Attack of the Cybermen, Silver Nemesis), there’s a considerable amount of reference to The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. Nyssa talks at length about her lost world and family, even elaborating on Trakenite holidays and festivals. She makes an oblique reference to the Master, saying that her father “went away”; in reality, Tremas’s body was stolen by the Master, and maintained until at least *Survival, and possibly all the way to his death in the television movie. In the other direction, future episodes of the revived series will make reference to this story; the Mondasian Cybermen will eventually merge with the Cybus variant, and a Cyber-Planner (though not the same one in any case) will appear in Nightmare in Silver, as well as several audios: The Girl Who Never Was; Legend of the Cybermen; Last of the Cybermen; and the Cyberman range of audios.

Some technical details: This is a long story, clocking in at more than a half hour per part, with a total running time of about two and a quarter hours. Each part has been given an individual title, much like the early seasons of the classic series: “Surfacing”; “Necessary Force”; “Popping the Seals”; and “Shelter”.

This is a haunting story to which to listen; personally, I find it more so than Genesis of the Daleks, to which it might be compared. While the Kaleds and the Mondasian humans are equally victimized, the Kaleds were at the end of a horrific and long-lasting war, which makes them harder to sympathize with. The humans here, however, just want to live; and they are truly deluded about how to go about it. As well, there’s no individual to blame here, unlike the alternate universe’s John Lumic, who can easily be compared to Davros (they even both require a life-support chair). Perhaps it’s simply that the Cybermen have caused so much emotional misery—not least of all, the death of Adric, whom many fans still mourn—or perhaps it’s that they are simply so much like us to begin with; but either way, this story is full of both dread and sorrow at what they become.

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Next time: Back to the normal schedule, we’ll be looking at Destiny of the Doctor: Vengeance of the Stones, followed by Main Range #13, The Shadow of the Scourge! See you there.

All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story’s purchase page is below.  This and many other selections can also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Spare Parts

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Fires of Vulcan

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Fires of Vulcan, the twelfth in the Main Range of audios, featuring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor and Bonnie Langford as Melanie Bush. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t listened to this audio!

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An archaeological dig in Italy has turned up something strange—so strange, in fact, that UNIT, under the command of Captain Muriel Frost, has been called in. But how did a certain—and very familiar—blue police box wind up buried in the ruins of Pompeii?

The TARDIS has landed, but with an odd fault: it won’t tell the Doctor where or when it has materialized. Upon exiting, the Doctor and Mel meet a slave, Tibernus, who takes them for emissaries of the goddess Isis. He tells them it is the twenty-third of August; and the Doctor makes a sudden realization: it is the year 79 AD, and they have landed in Pompeii—and it’s volcano day!

Or, almost. Mount Vesuvius will erupt tomorrow, in fact, at mid-day. The Doctor, preoccupied, lets Mel decide whether to leave or stay; she opts to take a look around. In the city, her odd clothes attract the attention of the decurione Popidius Celsinus, of the city’s municipal court. He is intrigued by the rumor that they are messengers of Isis, as that goddess is his patron. Meanwhile, Tibernus reports to his owner, Eumachia, who is also displeased with the news.

The travelers quickly make new—and not altogether good—acquaintances. The Doctor meets, and subsequently (by exposing his cheating at dice) offends, a disgraced gladiator named Murranus, who thereafter swears revenge on him. Mel meets another slave, a brothel slave named Aglae. Both are interrupted by an earthquake. Mel is disturbed to find that the locals dismiss the quakes as the displeasure of the gods; they refuse to accept any actual danger. However, there’s a problem: the TARDIS is gone, buried beneath a building that collapsed in the quake. Unable to dig it out on their own, the Doctor and Mel are now trapped. The Doctor is strangely unsurprised; finally he tells Mel that he expected this, as he knows that the TARDIS, in the year 1980, will be dug from the ruins of Pompeii. He has encountered this before, in his fifth life, courtesy of UNIT; and now the time has come.

Mel refuses to accept defeat, and promises to solve their situation. She goes to seek help, while the Doctor returns to the inn—owned by a woman named Valeria—where he humiliated Murranus, who is now thankfully not present. Elsewhere, Eumachia meets with Celsinus, and tries to get him to help her expose the Doctor and Mel as impostors. She also buys some of Aglae’s time at the brothel, and questions her, then beats her. Mel interrupts and stops her, but Eumachia is not deterred. Later, Celsinus invites Mel to dinner; she accepts, knowing that he has the means to get help in digging out the TARDIS. The Doctor joins her there, as does Eumachia. The dinner goes badly, and ends in an argument; however, the Doctor has come to his senses now, and vows to do what he can to save himself and Mel, though he knows he is fighting time and paradox itself to do so. In the meantime, he tells Mel to leave the city so that she will survive if he runs out of time. However, Eumachia brings a squad of guards and has Mel arrested, on (admittedly false) charges of theft.

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During the night, the Doctor realizes he has overlooked something both obvious and important. He drafts Aglae to help him rescue Mel. Meanwhile, Celsinus visits Mel in the local gaol. She admits that she lied about being a messenger of Isis, but denies the theft. After some debate, he decides that she is probably innocent, and that he was manipulated by Eumachia; he determines to have her freed—and it should only take a few days…Mel, dismayed, sends him away. She barely has hours, let alone days. The Doctor meets him on the way out, however, and hypnotizes him—along with the guard on duty—and frees Mel. Aglae will take her out of the city, and the Doctor will search for the TARDIS; he realizes that the building that collapsed was excavated much earlier than 1980, meaning it is not the location where the TARDIS was found. The TARDIS, therefore, has been moved.

Mel and Aglae try to leave the city, but are caught by a gate guard. Aglae knocks out the guard, and they hide in the nearby necropolis. They are caught again by the same guard when they try to leave in the morning, and locked up again.

The Doctor returns to the inn, but Murranus—who is fortuitously drunk—is there. Murranus threatens Valeria into helping him capture the Doctor; she does so, against her will, by drugging the Doctor’s drink.

Celsinus meets with Mel again, and she tells him the whole truth. He doesn’t want to believe it; but he tells her that Eumachia has described the TARDIS, and when she confirms its detailed description, he believes her. He releases Mel and Aglae, just as another tremor strikes. Vesuvius is about to erupt.

The Doctor awakens in the local amphitheatre, where Murranus waits. He is forced to fight. At first he refuses, but Valeria comes to his defense, and he is forced to fight back to save her. He is about to be killed…when the mountain erupts.

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In the ash and darkness, the Doctor and Valeria escape; Valeria believes he must be a messenger from the gods after all, if he has power to make the mountain explode. He brushes that aside, and sends her away, warning her to flee the city.

Mel leaves Aglae with Celsinus, and makes her way to Eumachia’s house. Eumachia admits to taking the TARDIS, but refuses to reveal its location; she insists that the ongoing destruction is because of Mel. Tibernus reveals that the TARDIS is in the necropolis, but he does not know which tomb; he only has an approximate location. He refuses to flee, choosing to stay with his mistress even in the face of death. He and the other slaves will die, as will Murranus and the other gladiators, who have retreated to their barracks.

The Doctor meets up with Celsinus and Aglae, and passes Valeria to them, warning them all to flee. They do so, but lose Valeria in the crowd; history will record that she died in Pompeii. They escape the city, but their fate is unknown. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds Mel, and they make their way to the necropolis…and as the city chokes on ash and smoke, they locate the TARDIS, just in time.

The TARDIS materializes in 1980, just before the earthquake that unearths it. Mel comments on the fate of their friends, and the Doctor reflects that they may have survived; he does not know, but chooses to believe they survived until he sees proof to the contrary. She asks why they spent three days waiting in the TARDIS before leaving. The Doctor says that it is so that the ash and lava would harden around the TARDIS, forming a TARDIS-shaped cavity, into which he then materialized it in 1980. Thus the timeline is preserved, and no paradox results. They exit the TARDIS and hide just in time to see Captain Frost approaching the scene of the discovery; in a few days, they will go to UNIT and reclaim the TARDIS, and be on their way.

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This is not the Doctor’s only trip to Pompeii; the Seventh Doctor himself would one day return, accompanied by Ace, in the BBC novel The Algebra of Ice. More famously, the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble would visit Pompeii in the televised story The Fires of Pompeii; companion Jack Harkness would also mention visiting Pompeii on volcano day in The Doctor Dances. The Tenth Doctor, in fact, would be responsible for the eruption, although it’s safe to say the Pyroviles were more responsible. That story, released some years after this, makes no mention of this story; but it’s difficult to believe it was not influenced by this. Aside from the similarity in title, there is a similarity in theme, as both stories deal with the futility of fighting time, and the need to save someone regardless of the inevitability of destruction. Also, there is a running element of conflict between religious elements within the city, prevalent in both stories.

References to previous stories here are practically nonexistent, if one excludes the future references I already mentioned. UNIT gets a mention, of course, and its one named officer—Captain Muriel Frost—is a carryover from Doctor Who Magazine’s comics. The Fifth Doctor is referenced, but the adventure cited has never been seen; I suspect that the Fifth Doctor was selected for the reference only because he was commonly found on Earth in 1980, his episodes being broadcast around that time. The Doctor’s hypnotism is perhaps not a direct reference; but it is reminiscent of the Master’s ability to control minds using only his voice. A few of Mel’s character traits, such as her vegetarianism—played for a joke here, as in “Where is this ‘Vegetaria’?”—have been mentioned before. Most of the Pompeiians in the story are references to real people, whose names and/or bodies were found in the ruins. Within the television continuity, this story must occur prior to Dragonfire, when Mel leaves the TARDIS; it has been suggested to occur after Delta and the Bannermen, the preceding episode, though I found no real indication as to why that must be so.

Behind the scenes, this was Mel’s first audio; she will go on to record a number of others in multiple ranges, including Doctor Who Unbound as well as the main range. It is also Bonnie Langford’s first return to the role in seven years, since 1993’s Dimensions in Time. It’s something of a triumphant return for Mel; she gathered a lot of criticism in the classic series, but here, she is really the star of the show, much as Donna will one day be in The Fires of Pompeii. She’s still loud and opinionated—again, much like Donna—but she’s also reliable, solid, and committed to doing the right thing (and the similarities to Donna just keep mounting!). Her behavior gets her into some trouble, but that’s not surprising; really, it’s a wonder that anachronistic behavior doesn’t get more companions into trouble. While I’ve never been one of Mel’s diehard defenders—I also think she could be flakey in the television series—I also don’t dislike her; and I think this outing really does justice to her. You begin to see what it is that the Doctor sees in her, and it’s great.

Overall, this is a very solid entry for the Main Range; it doesn’t attempt anything revolutionary (although, on further reflection, it really doesn’t have a well-defined villain, instead choosing several minor villains instead—a bold move, I suppose, but one that is executed well here). It’s enjoyable, and well-paced; it neither drags nor rushes, or at least, not until the volcano erupts, at which point it’s perfectly reasonable to rush. My only regret is one that is not particular to this story; that is, it’s eventually overshadowed by its television twin, The Fires of Pompeii. In that regard, it comes across almost as a prelude to that story, in that you can imagine that the Doctor regrets not definitively saving someone here. That is a theme that will haunt him all the way to his time as the Twelfth Doctor, when he chooses the face of a Pompeiian.

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Next time: We’ll detour back to the Destiny of the Doctor series, with the Third Doctor’s Vengeance of the Stones; and then we’re back to the Main Range with The Shadow of the Scourge! See you there.

All audios featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below.  This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.

The Fires of Vulcan

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Apocalypse Element

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

The Apocalypse Element

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: Winter For The Adept

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week we’re listening to Winter for the Adept, the tenth in the Main Range of audios, which features the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, and serves as a sequel of sorts to the recent Land of the Dead. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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We open on December 1963, with a diary entry by a girl named Alison Speers. She and her roommate Peril Bellamy are students at an isolated finishing school in the Swiss Alps, and they are snowed in for the holidays, having missed their chance to go home. They are accompanied by the headmistress, an odd character named Miss Tremayne, and also by her assistant, Mademoiselle Maupassant. And Peril is planning an escape—literally, by climbing down the roof to meet her lover, one Lieutenant Peter Sandoz of the mountain patrol, and elope with him.

Sandoz has already been sent by his superiors to check on the school and the girls, but en route, he meets someone: Nyssa of Traken, who has just found herself teleported from the warm TARDIS to the cold mountainside. He takes her along to the school. Arriving, they find bigger problems: Ghostly happenings are occurring, and Peril and Alison are out in the storm. Sandoz leaves to find them. As strange occurrences begin to happen, he brings them back, and announces his plans to elope with Peril; this sends Miss Tremayne into a fury of somewhat-religious rage. However, more happenings—involving moving furniture and a smashed mirror—force them to retreat to the attic…where the TARDIS appears. The shock makes Miss Tremayne faint.

The Doctor regroups with everyone, and apologizes to Nyssa; her unexpected teleportation was a side effect of an experiment in, as he calls it, “Spillage detection”. However, her story catches his attention, and he reveals—to her chagrin—that the school appears to be genuinely haunted.

While preparing to investigate, the Doctor works with the rather surly Sandoz to repair the school’s broken radio, allowing help to be summoned. As soon as he leaves the room, however, someone smashes the radio to bits. The Doctor then gathers his spillage-detection equipment from the TARDIS, though he keeps his plan mostly to himself. He begins to run experiments in the chapel; while there, he notes a picture on the wall of one Harding Wellman, a mountaineer who died in an avalanche; the picture is not the source of the psychic residue. He gives Peril some special tea to brew; and suddenly there is another psychic attack.

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Nyssa is nearly killed, but the Doctor saves her. He finds no psychic residue in the area, however. He explains that he suspects an extradimensional race called the Spillagers—not their name for themselves, but that by which the rest of the galaxy knows them—who may be trying to invade. He withholds any other details about them. He notices, though, that every manifestation is accompanied by certain out-of-place scents. He gives Peril and Alison some of the tea to calm them, and they fall into a trance; the Doctor reveals that it contained a sedative. While they are entranced, he implants a hypnotic suggestion that will make them fall asleep at his command, so that he need not use the tea again. Peril, under hypnosis, admits that she is an Adept, as her grandmother called it; the female line of her family has often manifested psychic abilities, sometimes being mistaken for witches. She has this power as well, in the form of telekinesis. However, she is not solely to blame; the Doctor realizes that Alison is also an Adept of sorts, possessing telepathy rather than telekinesis. Both are involved in the disturbances, with Alison triggering Peril—but what is triggering Alison, who is also unaware of her role?

Unfortunately, Miss Tremayne has overheard, and in her religious frenzy, she determines to kill Peril and Alison as witches. She confronts them in the kitchen, but is shot and killed by Sandoz as she tries to attack. The disturbances continue, and the Doctor opts to get to the bottom of it the old-fashioned way: with a séance.

Sandoz and Maupassant both decline to participate, for various reasons. The Doctor, Nyssa, Alison, and Peril conduct the séance, and to their surprise, they summon the spirit of Harding Wellman. The Doctor suggests that it isn’t actually him; it may be an energy being that has absorbed his memories and identity, making the idea a bit more palatable to Nyssa. Wellman discusses his death, and events thereafter; he also reveals that he had epilepsy. The Doctor puts it all together: It is a feedback loop, in which Wellman’s presence produces a scent of flowers, which triggers migraines in Alison; her powers then trigger Peril’s telekinesis, which activates Wellman’s epilepsy, which then produces outbursts of telekinetic power. Without all three of them, there are no disturbances, as the Doctor demonstrates by putting the girls to sleep.

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Still, this is not all that is happening. The Doctor and Nyssa return to the TARDIS for better equipment. He tells her that there are still the Spillagers to deal with. His equipment, he theorizes, had homed in on Spillager activity here; the teleportation sent Nyssa there, forcing the Doctor to follow, and therefore deal with it. The Spillagers are a hostile race that want to invade from another dimension; they were attracted here by the psychic activity, and now want to use the feedback loop to open a gateway through which they can bring their fleet. In fact, they have an advance scout in the school already, to open the gate.

The Doctor thinks it is Miss Tremayne—but he scans her body, and finds he is wrong. Instead, it is Maupassant. She reveals herself, and states she chose the students for the purpose of creating the feedback loop. She attacks, but the Doctor forces the trio to create a psychic disturbance, which then crushes the Spillager to death.

With her dead, they can now strike back by closing the gateway. The Doctor, Sandoz, and Peril carry the body out into the snow; it will decompose quickly. However, Sandoz pulls a gun on the Doctor, and reveals that he is a second scout—and the gateway is already open. He has been siphoning off waste energy from the disturbances to slowly open it. He contacts the Spillagers and tells them to come through. Peril is furious—Sandoz, the real Sandoz, was her lover, after all—and prepares to start a disturbance to kill him; but he shoots her. His shot causes an avalance, however, and he is buried and killed.

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The Doctor uses a special poultice from the TARDIS to save Peril, but she is too weak for the séance which will close the gate; so he makes Nyssa, with her own rudimentary psychic ability, stand in. The Spillager fleet, halfway through the gate, is crushed and destroyed by its closure.

With the crisis averted, the Doctor and Nyssa use the TARDIS to take Peril and Alison to their family homes, giving Alison a final diary entry.

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This story comes across as a bit messy in its structure, but I overlooked that for the sake of its cleverness. Every time you think you have it figured out, there’s a new twist—nothing large, but enough to keep the interest going. There are plenty of clues along the way, but they’re fairly subtle; for instance, it’s clear that Sandoz must be the one who destroyed the radio—although the Doctor doesn’t directly accuse him, only suggesting it to deflect attention from himself—but this in no way gives away that he is a second Spillager. As well, it becomes apparent early on that Peril is linked to the phenomena, but it came as quite a surprise to learn that Alison was also involved—and I in no way saw the presence of Wellman coming. The Doctor is very vague as to Wellman’s true nature; that mannerism is not uncommon for the Fifth Doctor, who likes to rely more on distraction than information when dealing with those around him. Still, it’s a curious omission for us as the audience; we usually get some decent form of explanation, but not here. Wellman may very well be a ghost; the Doctor downplays his suggestion to Nyssa that it’s really an energy being. Wellman’s fate is not mentioned at the end, but presumably he continues to haunt the school.

There are next to no references here, and the handful we do get, all come from Nyssa. She mentions Traken, as she often does; it was last seen being destroyed by entropy in Logopolis. She ties us to both the television series and the audios; she mentions the Xeraphin from the television serial Time-Flight, and the Permians and Alaska from The Land of the Dead, indicating this story takes place not long after that one. As well, it must take place between the television stories Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity, and by extension in the gap between seasons nineteen and twenty; Tegan exits the TARDIS in Time-Flight and returns (some considerable time later, from her perspective) in Arc of Infinity, and this is the only period on record when Nyssa alone traveled with the Doctor.

Andrew Cartmel is the writer of this story, and to date it is his only contribution to the Main Range of audios. As he typically writes for the Seventh Doctor and Ace, this constitutes quite a change; however I think he captured them well, especially the Fifth Doctor’s characteristic air of embarrassment (which is used strategically, I might add) and deflection. I’m a fan of Cartmel’s other work for Doctor Who, and I think this is a welcome addition. He also gets a brilliant line at one point, with the Doctor advising Sandoz that “you’ll end up cutting our throats with Occam’s Razor”, in reference to Sandoz’s insistence on the simplest and most earthly explanation for the odd phenomena.

On the downside, the Spillagers are a bit boring as an enemy, although their advance agents performed admirably. I like the idea that we don’t get a proper name for them; that is just what you would expect for a bizarre and hideous alien race that universally destroys the populations it invades. After all, why would they waste time announcing themselves and opening a dialogue? Still, it’s a bit farfetched that they would be “all evil”, so to speak; villains with more nuance are usually more interesting. They do hint at other adventures, however; their empress knows the Doctor and considers him an old enemy, but we’ve never seen any previous encounters (or at least not at this point—there may be appearances I haven’t seen, but I didn’t find any as yet).

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Next time: Having finished Season One of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, we’ll be launching into the Fiftieth Anniversary series, Destiny of the Doctor! Then, we’ll be returning to the Main Range with #11, The Apocalypse Element, featuring the Sixth Doctor and Evelyn! See you there.

All audio dramas in this series can be purchased from Big Finish; this and other selections may also be found on Spotify (search artist “Doctor Who”) and Google Play.  Link for purchase is below.

Winter for the Adept

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Genocide Machine

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Genocide Machine, the seventh in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this serial!

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We have a significant milestone in this serial: The Daleks appear for the first time in a Big Finish audio drama. It’s a good matchup as well, as we’re following the Seventh Doctor and Ace. While doing some sorting in the TARDIS library, Ace finds some books from the library at Kar-Charrat, which is widely regarded as one of the wonders of the universe, and is said to hold all the knowledge of every civilized world. It’s a fanciful claim, but the Doctor takes it seriously enough; and he determines to return the books and own up to having unintentionally removed them—it’s not a lending library, after all. Meanwhile, on Kar-Charrat an expedition of four individuals led by Bev Tarrant is exploring a ziggurat of more than a thousand years in age, hidden in the rain forest and the perpetual rain. The expedition—actually a mission of theft, aiming to steal the entire ziggurat—is cut down by mysterious assailant. As Bev, the only survivor, crawls away, odd voices note that her now-dead partner Rappell no longer needs his body—but someone else does.

The Doctor and Ace arrive, but the library appears to be in ruins. The Doctor explains that this is Time Lord technology at work; he was here with others at the time of construction. The Time Lords created not only a defensive grid, but also a time barrier that projects an impenetrable illusion of the way the library will look more than three thousand years in the future. Only one who is time-sensitive—like the Time Lords—or specially identified in the system can pass through it. He brings Ace through, and introduces her to the head librarian, Elgin, and his assistant Cataloguer, Prink. The return of the books prompts a momentary scandal; but Elgin relents, and shows them around.

The library has a new achievement. It now contains a “wetworks”, a huge array of water tanks that use the fluids as a complex form of memory storage. In this way, they have vastly increased their information capacity. The information can be retrieved via direct download to the brain. Elgin mentions that no one has access to the library—it is for storing information, not sharing it. This frustrates Ace, and she leaves to return to the TARDIS. Elgin tells the Doctor that the non-sharing policy has prompted a response from numerous races—including a semi-robotic race called the Daleks. This alarms the Doctor, and he begins to interrogate Elgin, discovering that the Daleks did attack once, but failed to penetrate the defenses.

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Outside the time barrier, Acemeets the wounded Bev Tarrant. The duo are then captured by the Daleks, and—unknown to Bev—Ace is copied into a human-form Dalek operative. As Ace has been given a security tag for the library, the duplicate is able to return and infiltrate the library. At the same time, the Doctor takes Elgin out to find Ace, deeming the situation unsafe in case the Daleks are still around. He finds her—or rather, the duplicate—and Tarrant, and has them taken to the library’s medical bay. He then has Elgin take him to the nearby ziggurat, which has piqued his curiosity.

Near the ziggurat, they find the remains of Tarrant’s crew, with some oddities about their corpses. Elgin tells him some unsettling stories about supposed phantoms in the jungle, dating from earliest colonization. They then find that the ziggurat has been opened from the inside. Putting things together, the Doctor realizes it’s not an ancient artifact, but rather, is a Dalek hibernation unit—and its inhabitants have now awoken! He finds a cloning chamber in the corner, and realizes that the Ace he sent to the medical bay is a Dalek operative.

“Ace” lowers the defense grid, and the Supreme Dalek orders its ship in orbit to send in attack troops. Their plan, it seems, is to seize control of the wetworks facility and its store of data. The Daleks kill everyone in the library except a few key individuals; they save Tarrant for use in luring out the Doctor if necessary, and send the real Ace to join her at the library. They require the Doctor for his Time Lord brain; without him, their download of the data in the wetworks will take far longer, delaying their invasion—in fact, a test run, without the Doctor, sends the test Dalek into madness.

The Doctor and Elgin try to return to the TARDIS, but are intercepted and captured by the Dalek Supreme. They are returned to the library; the Daleks explain that they plan to create a Dalek that can contain the data store, creating a mobile repository of information that can be used to conquer first the galaxy, then the universe. For this, they require a Time Lord brain. The ziggurat—and others like it around the region of space—was a trap set to spring at first detection of a time capsule of any type.

The Doctor is plugged into the system, and the experiment succeeds—the second test Dalek acquires the data. However, the strain appears to kill the Doctor. The Dalek Supreme returns to his ship to destroy the library.

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Ace and Tarrant are intercepted by the body of Tarrant’s partner, Rappell, which is now animated by…something. The entity says that it is a native of Kar-Charrat; its species is water-based, not just living in the water, but composed of water, which is what allows it to inhabit the body. It and its kind are fighting for survival, as the wetworks represents imprisonment and death to them. Meanwhile, they have saved the Doctor, by temporarily uploading his mind into the wetworks. They explain everything to him, and return him to his body, on condition that he keeps his promise to save them.

Meanwhile, Daleks are dying mysteriously. The test Dalek, due to its newfound knowledge, deduces the truth about the natives, who are the source of the Kar-Charrat phantom stories. It realizes that the natives can infiltrate Dalek casings and drown the mutants inside. It insists the natives are non-hostile except in self-defense; but the Supreme Dalek can’t accept this, and orders their extermination. The Dalek Supreme reports to the Dalek Emperor on Skaro, and is ordered to continue the plan, including destruction of the planet.

Back in his body, the Doctor castigates Elgin for the genocide that the wetworks poses to the natives. He then gathers Elgin, Prink, Ace, and Tarrant and takes them to the TARDIS, planning to destroy the wetworks and free the natives. Along the way, the duplicate Ace arrives and captures Elgin, prompting Prink to attack her. She kills Prink, but is killed in turn by the natives.

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Inside the library, Ace bluffs her way past the Daleks by pretending to be the duplicate. The Dalek Supreme orders the destruction of the library, but is attacked by the test Dalek, who now sees no purpose in the destruction. During the conflict, Ace plants Nitro-9 explosives on the wetworks, and the Doctor sets up a final download which will remove the data load from the natives in the system. As the explosives detonate—and the Doctor and Ace escape in the TARDIS—the natives drown the remaining Daleks; after a final report to the Emperor, the Dalek Supreme self-destructs.

The library is now the ruin it always appeared to be. Elgin, repentant of his mistake, chooses to stay and await the next visit from the Time Lords, hoping to recover some of the lost knowledge from the ruins. Tarrant returns to her own ship. The Doctor and Ace depart the planet in the TARDIS; but they know that the Daleks have only been set back, not deterred.

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In addition to its placement in the Main Range, this serial is the first in the Dalek Empire series. It has been tentatively dated to 4256; however, in light of a later story which also involves Bev Tarrant (The Judas Gift), it has been retconned to 5256. This places it after the Classic Series’ Earth Empire period, though the remains of the Empire seem to still be in place. However, this does create a bit of a continuity problem, as the Dalek Empire series at least partly concerns the invasion of Mutter’s Spiral, which dates to 4162. (I’ll delve more into that upon reaching those audios, whenever that may be.) Bev will go on to appear in other stories as well, especially in the Bernice Summerfield series.

This audio is fairly straightforward, with little humor and no particular tricks regarding continuity. It does make indirect reference to several classic stories involving the Daleks, and even, in a sense, to some New Series stories. There is a Dalek Supreme, as mentioned in several stories, and a Dalek Emperor (which does not appear to be Davros as in the final seasons of the Classic Series, but is an actual Dalek, presumably of the type witnessed in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End). There is also a Special Weapons Dalek, which previously has only been seen in connection with Davros’s Imperial Daleks. The Daleks also mention using time corridors, as in several Classic episodes, and do not seem to possess actual time machines or capsules. The human-form Dalek is a nice touch, and one that would later be picked up in the new series (The Time of the Doctor, et al), though I do not know if it was adapted from this story.

The acting is top-notch, as usual. Elgin is a bit stereotypical with regard to his librarian status; he is obsessed with the accumulation of knowledge to the exclusion of everything else. Real librarians would probably be offended. Otherwise the casting is fantastic. There’s an understated running joke in which Prink—voiced by Nicholas Briggs—rarely says anything; every time he is addressed, he is interrupted just before answering. The natives of Kar-Charrat, while credible enough, are an odd creation; the concept would be reused in The Waters of Mars as a villain, although I do not know if it was adapted from this story or developed independently. They certainly are capable, as we’ve seen before that a Dalek can be completely submerged without harm (The Dalek Invasion of Earth), but they are capable of penetrating the inner shell surrounding the mutant itself.

Overall, this is a solid story, without much to distinguish it, but still good. It’s reminiscent in its environment and adversaries of Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks. Mostly it is valuable for setting the stage for the Dalek Empire series, which we will explore later. I would recommend it anyway, on the strength of the Seventh Doctor and Ace; and I would doubly recommend it for anyone who wishes to go on to that series.

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Next time: We join the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller in Phobos; and we’ll return to the Main Range with Red Dawn! See you there.

All audios in this series are available for purchase at Big Finish; this and many others can be found on Spotify and Google Play.

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Marian Conspiracy

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Marian Conspiracy, the sixth in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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We open with the Sixth Doctor, companion-free for the moment, visiting a university history lecture in the year 2000. Or rather, he’s disrupting the lecture; upon dismissal of the class, he is called down by the instructor, one Dr. Evelyn Smythe. Evelyn claims to trace her lineage back to a Tudor-era courtier named John Whiteside-Smith. The Doctor makes a rather radical claim that Evelyn is at the center of a temporal nexus, but she rejects him, though with some humor. She isn’t laughing, however, when he meets her at her home and persuades her to review her family history—and finds that half her family tree is vanishing from the records. In fact, she herself is at risk of vanishing, because history has been changed.

Recovering quickly enough, Evelyn goes with the Doctor to 1558, to the royal court. Unfortunately—and unknown to them at first—they land three years earlier than planned, in 1555. This mistake nearly costs Evelyn her life; for Queen Elizabeth I is not yet on the throne, which is held by her sister Mary. Toasting Elizabeth’s reign, Evelyn is taken for a traitor. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds himself attending Mary, who believes she is pregnant.

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Evelyn is rescued by a group of conspirators, who secretly support Elizabeth and want to put her on the throne. She finds she is in over her head, however, when they reveal they intend to depose and kill Mary to achieve their goals. This contrasts with established history; and yet it is possible—and Evelyn unintentionally encourages them, by revealing that Mary’s pregnancy is not real, but psychosomatic. The Doctor finds himself confronting another conspirator, the Bishop Francois de Noallies of Aix, and making the situation worse. The time travelers are reunited in Mary’s presence, only to find that Evelyn has been set up; de Noallies rushes in and accuses her of attempting to poison the queen with painkillers (which are unknown in this period). He does this to deflect attention from his group’s own plot, but fails when the Doctor demonstrates that the pills are a medicine, and in fact gives some to Mary, winning her favor. However, Mary shows her favor by declaring that the Doctor will be married—to her handmaiden, Sarah. Putting the names together (the Doctor’s John Smith alias, combined with Sarah’s last name of Whiteside), she suggests that her ancestor is in fact the son of the Doctor and Sarah—making him her ancestor! He counters that history also attests that John Whiteside-Smith’s father was executed at the order of Mary.

Immediately thereafter, the Doctor and Evelyn are arrested, accused of heresy, and locked in the Tower of London. This happens because they were implicated by the Reverend Thomas Smith (small world, that last name), one of the conspirators, who has since been captured. While there, they determine what was changed to create the temporal nexus: Mary is due to die of natural causes in 1558, but if unimpeded, de Noallies will poison the sacrament at her next mass, causing her to die three years early. They escape the Tower—no thanks to the Doctor, with his current lack of a sonic screwdriver—and make their way to where the queen is taking mass. There they are prevented from entering by Sarah.

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Suddenly things fall into place for the Doctor. He realizes that de Noallies—who, despite his conspiratorial leanings, is quite devoted to his faith—would never pollute the sacrament, considering it a sin. Rather, Sarah is the true co-conspirator; and now it comes out why. She was married to Thomas Smith, but Mary’s recent edicts have disqualified her marriage to the Protestant reverend. Therefore she was going to poison Mary, and see Elizabeth onto the throne. Mary is of a mind to execute both of them; but the Doctor reveals that Sarah is pregnant with Smith’s child, and therefore persuades Mary to spare her. Instead she sends Sarah away into Elizabeth’s service. In gratitude, Sarah tells the Doctor she will name her child after him. Thomas, however, declines to recant his Protestant faith, and is burned at the stake. And thus, history is restored—and so is Evelyn, who now knows the truth about her ancestors.

In a final act, Evelyn insists on saving the other two conspirators, Leaf and Crow, who have since also been imprisoned in the tower. Using the TARDIS, they rescue them and place them in a Protestant city, where they will be safe. Afterward, Evelyn insists on traveling with the Doctor; she has a chance to see history with her own eyes, and will not turn it down.

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This serial was, in my opinion, the best Sixth Doctor outing so far. It’s a pure historical, complete with established historical characters (as opposed to, say, Black Orchid, which just includes the historical setting); these were increasingly rare in the later classic series, and I usually don’t find them to be particularly engaging, but in this case I’m making an exception. It’s a bit of a revision of history; Mary was historically not a well-regarded queen, but this story gives her a human side that history usually disregards. She has her positives—in her human affection—and her negatives. It says something about the Doctor that he treats her just as favorably as he later will do for her rival, Elizabeth; he has nothing personally against her, and even makes a brief attempt to show her the error of her ways, although he knows that history will be unchanged. Still, the story doesn’t gloss over her cruelty and dogmatism, either.

Evelyn Smythe is the real gem here. I had heard of her, but only in the most basic sense; she’s a refreshingly different companion (mostly due to her age—there, I said it; you may commence throwing stones now). The Doctor has been running around with young women for quite some time; Evelyn confounds him, I think, but at the same time they make a good team. I’m looking forward to more appearances from her.

Placing this story in the Doctor’s timeline is a bit difficult. He is traveling alone; but the television series affords a few times that that is possible, if we extrapolate a little. It could occur between Peri’s death and the beginning of Trial of a Time Lord; though I find that less likely, as the episodes seem to imply that not much time passed in between. More likely, it occurs after Trial—and in fact, Big Finish states that this is the case—but to allow this we have to assume that he was able to take Melanie Bush home as planned and wait to meet her in the proper order. This was hinted onscreen, but never established. In that case, Evelyn’s adventures would occur in the gap between Mel’s arrivals. Certainly once Mel becomes his regular companion, there is no room for any more independent adventures (or at least, without creating some unusual circumstances to justify it), as Mel remains until Ace joins the Seventh Doctor.

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Quite a few references occur in this story, although some of them refer to things that wouldn’t be established until some years later. The queen asks the Doctor about marriage, and he remarks that he has “not attained that happy state”; it plays perfectly as an allusion to his later marriage to Elizabeth I (and also to River Song), although that would not be fully established until The Day of the Doctor. There’s a reference back to the Great Fire of London, which makes the Doctor uncomfortable; and well it should, as his fifth incarnation was partly responsible for the fire (The Visitation). There are several references to events which at this point had not been established, but would later be fleshed out in other audios. The Doctor mentions other imprisonments in the Tower of London; though not seen onscreen, these were also referenced in The Sensorites by the First Doctor, and The Mind of Evil by the Third Doctor. He would later be imprisoned in three incarnations at once in The Day of the Doctor, and have a similar conversation about the sturdiness of the cell door. He refers to having killed an entire race, which occurred in Terror of the Vervoids; and he mentions the deaths of other companions, though not by name (The Daleks’ Master Plan, Earthshock, and—though it hasn’t been established yet—the audio The First Wave).

The scenes in which Evelyn briefly vanishes are reminiscent to me of the Doctor in The Name of the Doctor, when the Great Intelligence enters his timeline and causes it to “burn from the inside”. Although the Doctor doesn’t vanish outright, it seems to be that the cumulative effect, if unchecked, would be that he would cease to exist. It’s an effective cliffhanger in part three when Evelyn vanishes just before the closing; even knowing she will survive, it’s very well-played.

Overall, I feel that the main range is beginning to pick up well at this point. The first few audios were a bit rough, having just gotten started; now they are flowing smoothly, and the actors seem more comfortable in their roles. It’s a good time to be the Sixth Doctor, as Colin Baker seems to be getting more stories than any of the others; and it’s about time, as well. Had his television episodes been like this, perhaps the series’ history would have been very different.

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Next time: On Friday, we’ll look at Immortal Beloved, the next in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, Series One; and Monday, we’re listening to Main Range seven, The Genocide Machine, starring the Seventh Doctor and Ace, which begins the Dalek Empire arc! See you there.

All audios reviewed in this series can be purchased here from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below.  This and many other audio dramas are also available on Spotify and Google Play.

The Marian Conspiracy

Doctor Who Audio Drama Review: The Land of the Dead

We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Land of the Dead, the fourth in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!

Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!

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It’s 1964, briefly at least, and the Fifth Doctor has just recently left Tegan Jovanka at Heathrow Airport in the wake of Adric’s untimely death. Traveling alone with Nyssa of Traken, he materializes the TARDIS in the icy north of Alaska. I say “materializes” rather than “lands” because he doesn’t land; the TARDIS arrives in midair, giving it a close call with a small plane. The TARDIS seems to have a mind of its own, locking in on an odd energy source and disappearing back into the vortex; it rematerializes in the same location, but thirty years in the future, in 1994. Here it does land, and the Doctor and Nyssa find themselves chased by a dangerous creature across the tundra to an unusual house, and an odd group of individuals.

Multi-millionaire Shaun Brett (which sounds like a pro wrestler name to me, but what do I know?) has made a fortune in Alaskan oil, but at a price: the death of his father in 1964. He is now building and furnishing the house—sourced from local materials, which is a desecration in the eyes of the local natives—as a shrine to his father’s memory. He is matched with Tulung, a half-Koyukon native hired by Brett to liaise with the locals, whose father died in the same incident as Brett’s father. Each blames the other’s father for the tragedy (spoiler alert: Tulung is correct). Brett is assisted by Gaborik, another Kolyukon, who is secretly sabotaging the work so as to ensure his own continued employment, and is also stealing pelts from the house to sell. Also on site is Monica Lewis, an interior designer who has been working at the site for three years, crafting the interior of the house.

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As the plot unfolds, the creatures—for there are more than one—are found to consist of only bone, and ancient, mostly-fossilized bone at that. They are held together by a bio-electric field, which seems also to be their weapon, as it exerts damaging effects on the minds of those around it—especially Nyssa, who seems to be particularly harmed, although not controlled by the effect. The Doctor determines that the creatures are much older than the dinosaurs, although still somehow living; they date, in fact, to the Permian era, and thus he nicknames them “Permians”. Further, they consume sources of energy, including living beings, as revealed when one of them manages to kill and devour Gaborik.

The situation devolves, as Brett and Tulung each try to confirm their own version of history—and discover that Nyssa, somehow, was there, when she identifies the plane she witnessed in 1964. With the Permians’ electric field affecting his mind, Tulung decides that Nyssa is supernaturally powerful, and kidnaps her to protect himself and Brett from the creatures as they make their way to the site of their fathers’ deaths. Once there, Tulung discovers the truth: That their fathers unearthed a Permian and were attacked—but that Brett’s father fled in the plane Nyssa witnessed and left Tulung’s father to die. He defeated the Permian, but died in the process, and his remains are still on the ground inside the dig site. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Monica are forced to battle the monsters in the house, and escape via a shortcut, arriving at the dig site.

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Brett refuses to believe the truth about his father, and attempts to destroy the Permians with dynamite, sacrificing himself in the process. However, the attempt reveals that they are vulnerable to fire. The Doctor and the others rig the house to burn, then trap the creatures inside and burn it to the ground. With the threat eliminated, Monica and Tulung—now free of the field’s influence—leave in the site’s transport, and the Doctor and Nyssa depart in the TARDIS.

While interesting enough, this story was a bit hard for me to follow; there were several long stretches of dialogue with very little action, a portion of which was awkwardly written; and I also admit that I was a little distracted while listening. Still, it’s an interesting plot, although I couldn’t help wondering if it would come across as culturally insensitive to anyone of actual native Alaskan descent. To its credit, it doesn’t try to delve too deeply into that culture or its mythology, just touching on the parts necessary for the sake of the story; otherwise it would probably have come across as hamfisted. Tulung is a bit of a caricature, as is Gaborik, but only mildly so; and some of their fanaticism in the story is explained by the effects the Permians had on their minds.

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Brett is a bit of a stereotypical power-mad villain here; he’s very much in the same vein as Henry Van Statten from Dalek, although not so over the top. He, too, however, is made worse by the Permians; he is much more restrained at the beginning, before the creatures start to affect him. Monica Lewis is mostly annoying, but she does get some good banter with the Doctor (their constant argument over tea is understated and hilarious), and she proves to be both honest and very useful in the end, being instrumental in the burning of the house. There’s a hint of a possible relationship between Monica and Tulung, but it’s shoehorned in at the end, and not really supported by anything preceding it. The plotline involving Gaborik and his thefts and sabotage had potential, but also felt extraneous to the story; and I can’t help thinking that the writers agreed, as they killed him off early.

The Permians are odd villains; there seems to be a streak of somewhat-unbelievable monsters in the main range at this point, and the Permians fit right in. They have no flesh—in fact, they historically consumed their own flesh—and yet they keep living, with the nebulous concept of a bio-electric field maintaining them. They’re certainly menacing enough, but difficult to grasp.

Nyssa is delightful as always, although she’s a bit underplayed here as compared to her television appearances. I’ve often said that she’s a match for the Doctor in intelligence and skill; but that is mostly unseen here, and she’s more of the damsel in distress that so many other companions have been. It’s unfortunate, I think, as she had an excellent opportunity to shine, being the only companion on hand for a brief time. The Doctor, too, is a little different than usual, at least toward the end, in that he’s more than willing to destroy the Permians mercilessly, whereas typically he tries to save his enemies. He justifies it by saying that they had their time millennia ago, and can’t be allowed to master a time that has moved on without them; while it’s true, it’s a bit out of character for him.

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Overall, this audio is middle-of-the-road, in my opinion. It’s certainly not great or memorable, but listening was not a chore, either, and it made for a fun couple of hours. Peter Davison is always a pleasure to listen to with regard to dialogue, and the plot wasn’t bad, only stretched. While it’s not one of the greats–Phantasmagoria and Whispers of Terror, the two preceding dramas, were both better, in my opinion—it’s still worth a listen.

Next time: A possible sidestep into another range, or, barring that, Main Range five, The Fearmonger! See you there.

All audios reviewed in this series can be purchased here from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below.  This and many other audio dramas are also available on Spotify and Google Play.

The Land of the Dead