Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 011. The Apocalypse Element by Stephen Cole (August 2000)

What fascinating results hindsight can yield. Listening to The Apocalypse Element in 2014, with our knowledge of the Last Great Time War and Russell T Davies’ explicit intention that this “Etra Prime incident” is its first skirmish, we cannot help but view this story in terms of what is to come. This story feels as soaked in the excesses of an RTD-era finale as it does its classic Who iconography. And though none of this was planned in 2000, of course, it makes for a few interesting dialogue moments (see Trinkett’s “It could be the end of civilisation as we know it…That’s the wonderful thing about time travel capability isn’t it? You never know when retribution will pop along.” More than you know, love. Or again, referring to the Dalek assault on Gallifrey, “There was never any provision for a catastrophe like this...”/“Well, you’ll know for next time!” Again, this is lovely foreshadowing when one has the hindsight of the new series). Rather like knowing that a few years after he chats with Mary in The Marian Conspiracy, a later incarnation of the Doctor will be eloping with Elizabeth, the overlapping narrative of different eras of the programme yields great results here: given that this story is explicitly set after The Genocide Machine from the Dalek point of view, this means that all that suffering, and the anguish felt by the War, Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh incarnations, and indeed many major plot points in post-2005 Who, stem from the Seventh Doctor forgetting to return his library books at some point prior to arriving on Kar-Charrat. I kinda love that.

This is the first Big Finish audio to aim squarely for an epic scope, unless you count The Sirens of Time, in which case it’s the first one to stick the landing. It being unapologetic fan service probably does deny it being the greatest story ever told, but it doesn’t necessarily make it bad. It feels full of broad strokes and big set-pieces, and it’s undeniably tight and pacey, but there’s so much going on the B-list characters are rather poorly fleshed out and you occasionally wish for a few more of the quieter moments of characterisation (though since there’s so much happening it’s good to see this story at 2 hours rather than 90 minutes as was the norm for the earlier audio plays). Kudos to Cole for launching into the story pretty head-on, even if some of the action-adventure dialogue is quite pulpy, and as has been pointed out, this sets a new high for technobabble even by Doctor Who standards.

The Daleks are great here, much better served than in their previous outing. They feel cunning and dangerous and scheming in a way even The Genocide Machine didn’t quite manage (partly because they’re ambitious here, too). That they have replaced the rulers of Archetryx many years ago really puts them ahead of the game in a way we don’t have often see. They’re also very exploitative, getting their plungers on minerals and slaves and duplicates etc. They’re probably also at their nastiest here – “prepare to remove his eyes!”

Full of explosions, laser fire, Dalek rays, Dalek screams, etc., this is the most high-octane and action-packed audio yet – and well-directed by Briggs. Nice audio work on the Dalek mutants, which sound suitably creepy. The eerie choral work, quasi-Gregorian chanting, and drumming make for a fine, tense backdrop to Cole’s foreboding scenes. And there’s plenty of good content here, too: the time travel conference is a cool idea, if under-utilised, the mystery of the disappearing planet is a good one to hang the initial hook on, and the Daleks’ scheme is a genuinely horrifying one.

Evelyn is a very odd fit in such a story – about epic war raging on Gallifrey itself. In one sense, Doctor Who is always about revolutionising and rewriting the familiar structures of the kinds of stories we tell. Winter for the Adept saw the Doctor and Nyssa gate-crashing a traditional ghost story narrative and warping it into a dimension-hopping science-fiction plot around them; this takes a similar tack, but Evelyn is the outsider. We find the Doctor surrounded by his home-world, his own species, his former companion and good friend, his arch-enemies… much of the paraphernalia is from his personal past. But because it’s his OWN story, Evelyn is an odd fit in such a world, good as Maggie Stables’ work is (given the awkwardness of the plot point in 1996 in the first place, Cole does a decent job of tying the human retina pattern opening the Eye of the Harmony with Evelyn’s role here. It still feels irritating though, and the retina override far too easily re-written (most offending is the line “to think, a human opening the Eye of Harmony!”)). Baker’s Doctor is written quite interestingly here; he’s not quite as involved in the action himself as he might sometimes be. In fact he weaponises others, turning them to his best advantage, in a way more like McCoy or Eccleston.

The portrayal of Gallifrey is reasonably in keeping with the bureaucratic fools of the main show: they feel like a conservative old boys’ club here, especially in the scene with the President declaiming “I will not have Gallifrey overrun by aliens!” (that said, that Romana was President implies there’s hope for its future direction). Vansell’s eager greed to discover the secrets of the Monan Host leading to the Dalek invasion of the Time Lords’ home-world is also a nice touch.

Bringing me to Romana! Wow, her return is gritty and hard-hitting in a way we don’t often see (those dehumanising numbers in the Dalek camps, shudder). Lalla Ward delivers her initial monologue so well, not to mention the defiant rage with which she first says her name. Her performance in general is not just older, but steelier, wiser, tougher, and more pragmatic. I’m a fan of her strong role as President once she is on Gallifreyan ground. That said, there’s a disappointing lack of discussions between the Doctor and Romana (that don’t further the plot, that is) and her return from E-Space isn’t really addressed. Her top moment is easily the initial monologue quoted below.

And my oh my, the cliff-hanger to Part 2. I won’t deny the massive goose-bumps one feels upon hearing “the Daleks are invading Gallifrey!” especially with all the baggage of the new series. Nothing this ambitious was ever attempted in the old show, and it sort of feels like a Terry Nation Dalek adventure deluxe, all souped-up and with heightened tension and a broader canvas, but with plenty of The Deadly Assassin thrown in. Part 3 is even bigger in terms of tension and stakes – a dual cliff-hanger, with one leaving completely baffled as to how they’ll get out of this. Yes, Cole has written a truly dramatic and grandiose space opera, probably about 80% of which comes off well. Perhaps another quarter of an hour or so could have given it more space to breathe, but all things considered, there’s a lot to enjoy here.

Other things:
“Self-serving and avaricious” is how the Doctor dismisses the Celestial Intervention Agency, who are “normally a pretty shadowy bunch”.
The Sixth Doctor’s hissed “Will I never be rid of them?” and his later great moment of rage when he cries “DALEK! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
The Time Lords’ slow-moving nature reminds me of Ents, weirdly enough. They take twenty years to make even the tiniest of advances.
“Is that space minutes? Or good old-fashioned earthy minutes? Oh never mind. Twenty whatevers!” I still love Evelyn. “Oohh, aren’t you an interesting colour?”
Romana: “Footsteps. Not today, then, not today… It’s not over yet then. Even after twenty years I still fear them coming for me. They leave me in here for days at a time, no distractions, no exercise, no food. And you never hear them coming. And it’s in dark, so you never see them. They roll along that metal floor, closer and closer, soundlessly, nearer and nearer… They may look like the robots, but you know what you’ve become. And just as we wouldn’t thank a robot, when the work is done they send you away again in silence. Silently up the corridor, the black plastic poking you in the back, and you look down and you remember when your body was full and young and fit and not emaciated, atrophying in some stinking hole in the rock…The days and nights are always the same, and all that’s changing is a little bit of dying, day after day after day…”
“We are responsible for…” the Daleks sound like a gloating terrorist cell here.
“I’m wearing the right body, just not necessarily in the right order.”
“Now I’ve seen everything – a Dalek silly mid-off.”
A bit too self-knowing “Half the science we’ve used is nonsense!”/“No changes there, then.”
“You can’t take it in, can you? Oh the blessing of a human mind. It’s a matter of perspective, Evelyn. Let’s take your own galaxy, the Milky Way, an area of space so vast that if it were reduced to the size of the United States of America the Earth would be less than the smallest mote of dust barely visible through an electron microscope. Serephia is four times larger than the Milky Way, and in just a few hours six hundred billion stars will be as snuffed out candles to a new sun, a ball of fire 400, 000 light years across and from there it will spread on and on and on through the 100 billion other galaxies in the universe! The death toll will be as incalculable as it will be absolute and by the end there will be nothing left! Nothing!” Baker’s anger here reaches great levels and is well matched and complemented by Evelyn’s startled apology, and the Doctor’s subsequent anguished “No, I’m sorry.”
“All those lives. So many magical worlds I’ll never know.”
“Life from death. You hear that, Dalek? Life wins!” – this very much echoed in 2014’s Into the Dalek.
Even though the resolution is a bit disappointing and reset-button-y, it still shows the Daleks overreaching themselves like Faustus, and the Daleks attain a kind of victory in that they scheme to conquer the new-born galaxy another day.

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