We’re back with the Big Finish Vault, this time looking at two rather brilliant audio adventures, The Apocalypse Element and The Fires of Vulcan. The Apocalypse Element feels like one of the initial skirmishes in the Time War while The Fires of Vulcan sees the Seventh Doctor and Mel take a fateful trip to Pompeii, on the day that Vesuvius erupted. Both stories are full of peril and both pose the question, how will they get out of that one!
The Apocalypse Element
Written By: Stephen Cole
Nowadays, the Time War is a well-used trope in Doctor Who storytelling. However, in both the classic series and the wilderness years, neither the Daleks nor the Time Lords had too much to do with one another, despite being bitter enemies even then. That all changed with Stephen Cole’s The Apocalypse Element, which finally saw the Daleks invading Gallifrey.
While The Apocalypse Element serves two main functions, it sets up the Big Finish Gallifrey range, which was presumably in the planning stages at the time as well as continuing on the Dalek Empire series, due out a little while after this story. It’s a cracking good listen anyway, not only giving the Sixth Doctor another brilliant Dalek story, nearly twenty years after Revelation of the Daleks, it also sees Evelyn getting to meet the Doctor’s most dreaded foe as well as bringing back Romana, years after she’d left in Warriors’ Gate.
Actually, as the story tells us, Romana came back to our universe twenty years previous to the time this story is set in but had been held prisoner by the Daleks all that time so they could gain access to Gallifrey. If twenty years had passed for Romana, it didn’t feel like longer had passed for actress Lalla Ward who effortlessly reprised her role for the first time here on audio. She sounds exactly the same while simultaneously making herself sound more regal now that she is the President of Gallifrey, that is an element that would be continued in the Gallifrey range, but its a little plot element that is on offer here and used to brilliant effect and it was a nice touch that Romana became President of Gallifrey!
Also on top form here is Colin Baker who is obviously relishing the story. Not only is he facing off against the Daleks once again, but he’s also got Maggie Stables’ Evelyn in tow and getting to meet Romana once again. I know people will bemoan the fact that it doesn’t feel like the Doctor/Romana pairing of old when talking about this release, but they seem to forget that some considerable time has passed for both characters, they’ve experienced different things and this isn’t Tom Baker and Lalla Ward! For me the pair is excellent. Maggie Stables is also brilliant as Evelyn, easily one of my favourite companions from the spin-off medium. It’s nice to hear her getting to face off against the Daleks for the first time and this is a story that puts the friction between her and the Doctor to good use. The Doctor almost becomes a different person here, something Evelyn isn’t afraid to pull him upon. It’s a strong character moment not just for Evelyn but for the Doctor also, who sees the man he becomes when facing off against the evil pepper-pots.
Its all handled nicely by Stephen Cole who has a great handle on all the characters here and this couldn’t have been an easy script to write. Without having to tie into two upcoming spinoff series, writing for the Daleks and Time Lords much be something to dread slightly! Luckily he pulls it off brilliantly, tying it into the end of the previous Big Finish Dalek story, The Genocide Machine, with the Daleks armed with the knowledge they picked up in the Library they faced off against the Seventh Doctor and Ace in. Even better is that Cole seems to make it look like the Daleks really might succeed this time around and much of the enjoyment of this story comes from hearing the dread and fear in the character’s voices as they begin to realise this too.
As usual, though, Cole makes sure that the Daleks are their own worst enemy and the power of the titular Apocalypse Element destroys them before the Time Lords and the Doctor can do it. But this was the closest they came to finally achieve the universal domination they eternally seek. Sure the continuous explosion bombardment can sometimes overshadow the bombardiers but that might be an issue with the sound design, rather than the script, but Cole has still managed to sculpt a near-perfect Dalek story.
Perhaps the story’s one downfall is that it is action all the way through and doesn’t allow any of the characters and the listeners as a result, to really think about what is going on. We move from one dramatic set-piece to another scene after scene and the story rarely lets up. Its a shame too because Cole has a lot of different elements running throughout the story and one wonders if this would have made a brilliant small boxset for Big Finish rather than a two-hour adventure. However one can’t deny that this is one of Big Finish’s early success stories even if a few of those other successes do stop this one from reaching the top tier.
The Fires of Vulcan
Written By: Steve Lyons
We all know that it was the Doctor and Donna who stopped the Pyrovile’s from destroying the world by blowing up Vesuvius. But what about all the lives of those around them. We know what happened to one family but what about the thousands of others who lost their lives, what were they doing?
Steve Lyons is one of my favourite Doctor Who writers and wrote my favourite Big Finish outing, Son of the Dragon. The Fires of Vulcan is another classic from him, which obviously came out long before The Fires of Pompeii. Rather than the Pyrovile’s, Lyons’ script focuses around UNIT discovering a fossilised TARDIS in the ruins of Pompeii in modern-day. We then head back to Roman times to find out what happened to the Doctor, Mel and the TARDIS. What follows is a timey-wimey story where the duo tries to avoid destiny and predestination, where they try to navigate Roman politics and make everyone see that the gods aren’t angry, the volcano is about to explode and rain hellfire and brimstone down on everyone.
What I really liked off the bat was that Lyons gives us a Seventh Doctor who is much more sombre and downbeat than he was when paired with Mel. On one hand, it makes the listener wonder which version of the Seventh Doctor this is, but on the other, Lyons manages to make the situation much more dire this way, the clownish Seventh Doctor is gone as he broods over the idea that he really might die this time. McCoy does a brilliant performance and I’ve always liked his pairing with Bonnie Langford’s Mel. It seems Lyons really likes the pairing too as he really makes the most of both their characters.
Bonnie Langford gets plenty to do here and one wonders if Pompeii writer, James Moran took a few notes from Lyon’s story when it comes to how emotionally involved Donna gets with the people of the town. Mel gets rather attached to a few people here and Langford is instantly likeable. It makes the inevitable all the sadder when it does happen because through Mel we get to know these characters, some of whom are evil, some misunderstood and some kind and loving. None of them deserves what happens to them.
Despite being on audio, Lyons’ script is so strong that one can vividly picture the horror of the eruption. The scene that sticks with me is when Mel and her friend are fleeing the town as the ash and smoke begin to blot out the fields around them. Mel comments with horror at the sight of all the other villagers running in their direction and how many of them fall and get trampled. It makes one wonder what killed more people, the eruption or there trying to getaway. It’s a tough question to ponder and Lyons doesn’t soften the blow either by offering us an answer.
Some of the supporting cast is a little well less rounded but in a two-hour audio, that might be expected. This might have been because there were a few too many characters and one wonders what this story would have been like as a novelisation. But the characterisation of one or two supporting characters is a minor quibble when the story is as good as this.
I’ve seen some fans wonder how two Doctors could seemingly visit the same location at the same time and how it shouldn’t work for the sake of continuity. For me, though it isn’t that hard to see, the Doctor and Donna are dealing with the main threat while the Doctor and Mel, in another part of Pompeii deal with their problems. Both stories are heartbreaking but for me and the images it gives the viewer, The Fires of Vulcan is the stronger Pompeii story.
Next Time: The Shadow of the Scourge and The Holy Terror