Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Apocalypse Element written by Stephen Cole and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about? When the planet Archetryx is threatened by a Dalek assault squad, the Doctor and Evelyn become embroiled in an ever-deepening mystery. What has become of President Romana, missing for twenty years? What lurks in the vast gravity wells of Archetryx? What is the secret of the ancient element the Daleks are synthesising - and how does Gallifrey feature in the plans?
The Doctor finds that if his oldest enemies cannot conquer the universe they will watch it go up in flames...

Softer Six: Heading the fantastic characterisation on display in this audio, the Doctor continues his run of luck from Marian and Spectre. Colin Baker has put some real thought in how to exploit this script and in the first episode he is very quiet and grave and his performance becomes steadily more dramatic as the threat escalates before blowing his top in spectacular style in episode four, one of the best moments yet from Big Finish and quoted in its entirety below. There are so many aspects to the sixth Doctor these days it is impossible to reconcile him with the bully who everybody hates from season 22. He has a spectacularly low opinion of Vansell, thinks he is self serving and avaricious and is proven right by the end of episode two. His is a terrible reputation amongst the Time Lords and is known by many colourful names. There is a quiet sigh when he wonders if he will ever be rid of the Daleks. He is extremely protective of Evelyn in a very sweet way (he even kisses her in the heat of the moment!) that we have never seen before but is more than happy to use her if the situation requires it because she is so useful. He is shocked by Romana’s lack of compassion and has to remind her several times there is an emotional stake in all this destruction. He does not think the TARDIS is quaint. There is a gorgeous scene where he gives his friends the chance to walk away because what he is proposing is insanely dangerous and he very gently thanks them all for being willing to risk their lives. His sheer horror at the destruction at the climax is palpable, as is his joy at the formation of another galaxy. This is a very trying experience for the sixth Doctor and he acquits himself very well. Great job.

Learned Lecturer: You would think with so much going on Evelyn would be overlooked but even when there are bodies flying and planets exploding she manages to get more than a few moments to shine. She has her first experience of TARDIS buffering and it leaves her quite shaken. She is subtle and discreet, pretty and functional. There is a hilarious moment when she is surrounded by aliens and is agog with pleasure with the sheer oddness of some of them. She asks the right questions and there is never any question of her not doing the right thing, putting herself in danger over and over, facing bombs and Daleks. Evelyn tidies up after the Doctor. She becomes vital to the plot in later episodes when her retina pattern is the made the master key to operating every system on Gallifrey, to her delight and the disgust of the xenophobic Time Lords. During a tense sequence Evelyn delights at being escorted by guards, thinking she was too old to give squaddies the eye. Her apology to the Doctor after his spectacular rant in episode four is heartbreaking. These two sing when they’re together.

Aristocratic Adventurer: The remarkable Lalla Ward returns to Doctor in a shower of fireworks. I thought nobody could top Baker and Stables but there are scenes she effortlessly steals with her commanding and ice cold delivery of Romana’s lines. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Romana has left E-Space and returned to Gallifrey. The current (retiring) Lord President fought to bring her to power, despite objections. She was on Etra Prime when the Daleks stole the planet and has been their prisoner for 20 years, emaciated and atrophying. She desperately wants to travel again, to go through a door and not know what’s on the other side. Her captivity has left her out of shape; the Daleks took away everything from her except her Presidency. Reminding us of the cheeky traveller of old she thinks the Doctor will make a beastly mess if he is left on his own, tells him he is in the wrong body and during her bluff to the Daleks she admits (with more than a ring of truth) that she is too old and important to be taking orders from the Doctor. She manages to pacify the Daleks mentally, suggesting formidable telepathic powers. At the climax she questions why they are saving the universe only to expose it to Dalek subjugation, only for the Doctor to remind her once again that it is always worth saving lives.

Great ideas: Oh Christ where do I start. I have always been an ideas mean, I have to be straight with you. I like my science fiction to be big and bold as well as small and intimate and I just love it when a writer packs in loads of clever ideas and dramatises them in a way that I had never seen before. It happened in The Last Resort, probably one of the most loathed EDAs of the lot but I adored it because it took a genuinely groundbreaking idea (that each scene was taking place in an alternative universe and you were reading subtly different takes on each character from one scene to the next) and took it too a truly mind blowing conclusion (thousands of Doctors, Fitz’s, Anji’s and TARDISes encrusting on a desert plain…what a visual!). The Apocalypse Element is similarly loathed and yet the escalating threat in this story is like a dangerous swelling of drama, finally bursting in that last gloriously destructive final episode. There are so many good ideas in this story they all deserve a mention.
The planetoid Etra Prime is missing, stolen by the Daleks and strip mined for a rare element. They are piloting the planet through space and in a moment of utter cruelty they set the planet to collide with Archetryx destroying both now they have what they have raped the planetoid of what they needed, leaving no evidence of their activities.
This story is practically audio Dalek pornography with the grisly mutants shedding their casings and attacking the Doctor and Trinket in a tense sequence. They are the epitome of evil in this story, willing sacrifice anything to achieve their goal. Daleks commit suicide by detonating their shells to prevent people escaping and to get through doors on Gallifrey. They murder indiscriminately, killing everybody on both Etra Prime and Archetryx and slaughtering Gallifreyans galore to satisfy their bloodlust. In one particularly squeamish scene they burn out the eyes of a near-dead Gallifreyan (his scream is horrible) and use them to access systems. The final indignity though is their diabolical scheme to cause death on such a scale as the only alternative to their subjugation of the universe. Abominable. Even when trounced the Daleks refuse to acknowledge defeat, seeing the newly formed Serephian galaxy as a million worlds for the Daleks to conquer. Their arrogance and genocidal lust is so out of control now it is unsurprising that the Time War (of which Russell T Davies mentioned in the Doctor Who Annual 2006 that the ‘Etra Prime incident’ was one of the opening skirmishes of) took things to their natural conclusion, utter destruction for both Empires.
But wait…there’s more! We’re introduced to the Monan Host, a new temporal power who we will be seeing a lot more of in the future. There is a chilling image of 300 corpses turning up on Archetryx riddled with time distortion. The Dalek replaced the rulers of Archetryx years ago with their duplicates.
The Daleks invading Gallifrey should be the centrepiece of the story but things get much more dramatic than that. However their method, stealing a Monan Host ship and duping the Time Lords into thinking they are a Monan evacuee fleet in need of assistance. It wouldn’t work as a ploy in narrative terms if the Time Lords weren’t so greedy in wanting to get their hands on Monan technology. There is almost a feeling of justice as the Daleks pour out of the ship cutting them down. Even more brilliantly they try the same sort of ruse again…’Oh Time Lords, we cannot control the element…let us in and we can work together to contain it!’ Unbelievable underhandness.
The Apocalypse Element is a focussing device allowing the Daleks to channel their thoughts. It is woven into the very fabric of the universe and with Monan and Time Lord technology they can hold the whole of time and space at ransom. The destruction of the Serephia (four times the size of the Milky Way) is something of a minor demonstration of what they could have achieved.

Standout Performance: Lalla Ward for her devastating speech in episode two where she describes 20 years being trapped with the Daleks. Not only does she sounds as though she only left days ago she has come back better than ever, aristocratic, officious and downright sexy.

Sparkling Dialogue: Subverting my expectations after some of the unconvincing dialogue scenes in Land of the Dead, there were some blinding lines in this story, including a powerful speech by the Doctor that really drives home the severity of the situation (Colin Baker’s pitch perfect performance helps immeasurably) so see if you can spot which one it is below.
‘It looks like our phantom planetoid is back!’
‘Who would risk the wrath of so many galactic powers?’
‘If it’s any consolation there are still about 20 Daleks who missed the bus!’ – Evelyn cuts to the point with great humour.
‘Trust Time Lords to be the most clinical gossips around.’ – Trinket bitches about ‘contact’.
‘Now I’ve seen everything. A Dalek sillied me off!’
‘The Daleks are invading Gallifrey!’ – the only cliffhanger that really matters!
‘If Gallifrey falls imagine what the Daleks will set their sights on next?’ Indeed!
‘Knowledge like this can blow your filthy, twisted little minds! Romana on fine form.
‘Half the science we’ve used is nonsense!’ ‘No change there then.’ The Doctor and Romana sparring.
‘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 the size of 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!’ The performances in this scene are perfect, proving Nick Briggs is just as good at directing actors as he is blowing stuff up; Evelyn’s digging, the Doctor’s rising anger, Vansell’s gentle warning, Evelyn’s shock and finally the Doctor’s anguished apology.
‘All those lives. So many magical worlds I’ll never know.’
‘Life from Death.’

Audio Landscape: The Apocalypse Element is an audio tour de force for Nick Briggs who provides a glorieux portmanteau landscape, combining dramatic music, varied sound effects and superb performances to gripping effect. Alien crowds scenes suggest a Cantina of different races. The multitude of Dalek sounds is impressive, from the mind blowing Black Dalek voice to the squelchy and shrieking Dalek mutants and the weird farting noises they make as they fall to the floor as the gravity restores. Bombs explode and Daleks self destruct with the sound of an igniting car, all tearing metal and flames and when Romana subdues them in later episodes the Daleks gurgle with drunken pleasure. Etra Prime strikes Archetryx with maximum devastation and Time Lords scream as extermination blasts tear them to pieces. There is a wonderful airless sequence where spacesuits stick to an unventilated surface and you wince when the Daleks burn out the Time Lords eyes. There are also lots of glorious touches of continuity in this story too; the Monan Host ship sounds like Mavic Chen’s Spar, the Doctor’s TARDIS sounds throaty and gorgeous but there is also the SIDRAT noise from The War Games and the wonderful Dalek time ship materialisation from The Chase! The Deadly Assasin Gallifreyan alarm makes an appearance as does the War Games TARDIS bay hum.

  On a more hilarious note, the new super powers in town, The Monan Host, are clearly the mincers of the universe, sounding rather like a cross between Julian Clary and a Bandril.

Musical Cues: Easily Nick Briggs’ best score to date, he makes this dramatic story even punchier. The piano heartbeat that suggests the Daleks presence builds menace superbly and the electronic sting when they appear beautifully suggests the conflict of emotions you are feeling, sheer terror for the characters and pure thrill for the fan in you. There is a superb piece in episode three when the Daleks spot the TARDIS on the scanner screen, the sixth Doctor is on his way to kick their ass and the music reflects the excitement of that. The string music towards the end of episode two works a treat, an urgent we’ve-run-out-of-time feeling but gently played rather than forceful.

Isn’t that Odd: That the trailers are now at the beginning of the play. Maybe nobody was listening to them on the end (I was) but it just feels odd to start the story with a taster of the next story.
This story has a technobabble factor of about 400 trillion.
Was the whole point of Evelyn becoming the key to Gallifrey’s technology simply to explain why they needed a human eye to open the Eye of Harmony in The TV Movie? I hate it when spin off stories go out of their way to explain established continuity in contrived ways. Simply to make Evelyn our salvation was more than reason enough.

Standout Moment: Whilst I would like to choose Romana’s devastating confession in episode two the Colin Baker fan in me chooses his dramatic end-of-the-universe rant in episode four. A truly standout audio moment suggesting the spiky hero of old hasn’t gone anywhere.

Result: An unfairly maligned story, this is leagues ahead from Steve Cole’s previous effort. There is something romantic about defending a derided story but I feel there is more than enough evidence listed above to hold The Apocalypse Element in high esteem. The blockbuster script is powerful and dramatic, with a believable escalating threat and some really meaty ideas and rather than being a soulless action thriller there is some blistering characterisation that keeps this real. Cole’s dialogue has improved in leaps and bounds and the story has some highly quotable lines and the story moves at a frantic pace that never threatens to leave the audience behind. I love a story with huge ideas, science fiction can accommodate the melodrama of universal peril and Doctor Who especially so and Cole introduces a threat so absolute in this story we reach theatrical levels of drama. Colin Baker, Maggie Stables and Lalla Ward all give magnificent performances and Nick Briggs convincingly brings this space opera to life with real gravitas. You might hate it, but I enjoyed it thoroughly in two blocks of two episodes and think this is one of the few stories to sustain its threat from the first scene to the last. Justice for The Apocalypse Element!: 8/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


Anthony Pirtle said...

I'm just now getting into Big Finish's enormous back catalog of adventures, so I don't know a darn thing about which of these I am 'supposed' to dislike, but I have a hard time understanding how anyone couldn't enjoy this one. It's definitely my favorite of the monthly range up to this (admittedly early) point.

Armando Ali said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ali Servan said...

I love Colin Baker. He's cracking in this adventure, and the wonderful, brave and clever Evelyn, my personal favourite companion... an utterly enchanting performance by Maggie Stables who is sorely missed. The standard of the Big Finish productions is always top notch. Fantastic.

Fair Play said...

Gallifrey brought me here. Great Review. You helped me understand some stuff.

Robert Konigsberg said...

I've listened to this story, oh, four times now, and I can't stand it because of one thing: Evelyn. Her dialogue is awful, she's trying to be funny, she does absolutely nothing interesting.

Maggie Stables is a great performer, and I cannot wait to hear more of her stories, but in this one, she is given worse than nothing to do. Maybe she was written into an existing script? I bet.

It completely pulls me out of the story, and that is why I still hate it. Which is too bad, because so much of it is interesting.