The Element of Distraction

Review of The Apocalypse Element (#11)
Big Finish Release Date: August 2000
Doctor/Companion: Six, Evelyn Smythe, and Romana II
Stars: Colin Baker, Maggie Stables, and Lalla Ward
Preceding Story: Winter for the Adept (Five, Nyssa)
Succeeding Story: The Fires of Vulcan (Seven, Mel)

A few months ago when Big Finish was having a sale, I managed to snatch up a few audio adventures for a song. Now that I have a bit of vacation time coming, I thought I'd listen to a few of them. Starting with the earliest release I had in my downloads, then, I jumped into one with Ol' Sixie.

Perhaps it was simply the rigors of preparing for the approaching holiday while caring for a sick child, or perhaps it really was something about the story itself, but for what may be the first time, I found myself unable to enjoy a Big Finish drama to its fullest extent.

The Apocalypse Element follows the Sixth Doctor and his Companion Evelyn as they find themselves pulled off course (surprise!), and subsequently arriving at a time travel conference, where various temporal powers have gathered—including some Time Lords.

Over the course of the play, we learn that Romana, now Lord President of Gallifrey, is missing (along with an entire planet) and that the Daleks are involved. Eventually it comes to light that control of the mysterious "Element," and its use as a weapon of galactic-scale destruction, is the Daleks' objective.

So what's not to like? I'm really not sure. I'll admit I started out confused because the cover image shows only Six and Romana; when I heard Evelyn—who began her travels with the Doctor in the sixth installment of Big Finish's nascent Main Range five months previous (Mar 2000), but who I've never encountered before—I couldn't figure out who was with the Doctor. (Reviewing the opening minutes, I realize that he even calls her by name, but it seems I was somewhat distracted on first listening.)

Once I got a handle on the main players, it was a little easier to follow, but as is often the case—especially with the Big Finish stories, in which they have much more time to develop a story than the 45-minute modern television format—I found myself missing so many pieces of the puzzle that without undivided attention (remember the sick kid?), I had difficulty keeping track of all the strands.

Nor is this the first time I've had trouble with an audio drama. For example, The Minister of Chance, a top-notch story (set in the Whoniverse, though not specifically connected), lost me several times on first listen. I think that I have been so trained for visual input that I have a hard time parsing audio-only stories. (Which, by the way, is one reason I'm so keen to see MoC on film. If you feel so inclined, you can support that effort by buying shares in the feature film. The entire audio play is available for free, as is the proof-of-concept Prologue video.)

My point is that I believe my lack of enthusiasm for The Apocalypse Element is more the fault of the listener than of the material. Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor is very Doctor-y, not at all (well, not much) the brash, abrasive character we saw on screen; Maggie Stables as Evelyn makes a great, no-nonsense Companion, long since comfortable in her own skin (she is 55 years old when she begins her travels with the Doctor); and Lalla Ward's return to the part of Romana (this being the first time the character officially appeared after remaining behind in E-Space instead of going home with Four and Adric at the end of Warrior's Gate) shows how perfectly the role suits her.

The usual twists and turns abound, as the Doctor unravels the Daleks' scheme. Aside from not having much clue where it was going or how, I enjoyed the archetypal flavor of the story. One of my favorite parts was the retcon that explained away the need (raised in The Movie) for the Doctor to be half human by offering an alternate explanation for why the Eye of Harmony would open for a human retinal pattern.

It's little nuggets like this that demonstrate the deep love and attention to detail the Big Finish team always throw into their Doctor Who lines. I certainly want to hear more. One thing I know for sure: I need to go back to Evelyn's earlier stories, as recommended by Paul, and start from her beginning. Confused though I was, I enjoyed the chemistry she had with Six. Add in the fact that Maggie Stables passed away about three months ago, and my path seems clear. Next stop: The Marian Conspiracy.

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