We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Seasons of Fear (Main Range #30), which continues the informal second “season” of Eighth Doctor audios in the main range. We meet an old enemy, and Charley keeps a long-awaited appointment in this entry by Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not heard this audio drama!
The Doctor at last succeeds in getting Charley to Indonesia for a long-overdue appointment. She is to meet a young man named Alex Grayle at the Singapore Hilton hotel on New Year’s Eve—the reason she stowed away on the R101 airship. The Doctor has his doubts about his actions, but puts them to rest when he sees Charley happily meeting the young man at the bar. However, as midnight approaches, he is interrupted by another Grayle: the immortal Sebastian Grayle, who has come to gloat over his deeds. At some time in his past and the Doctor’s future, Grayle killed the Doctor, and allowed the Earth to be invaded. Those invaders, having conquered Earth, have become masters of time and space; they created this timeline as an illusion, to draw the Doctor in and give Grayle a chance to gloat over him. He departs as Charley returns; when she reveals that young Alex’s last name is also Grayle—and indeed, he is Sebastian’s grandson—the Doctor realises how Charley has been used. He takes her to the TARDIS, and discovers that the web of time is indeed unravelling; but over Charley’s objections, he attributes it to Grayle, not to his own interference in saving her life from the R101 crash. Knowing that she kissed Alex, he collects a sample of Alex’s DNA from her mouth; the TARDIS traces it through time to the Grayle family’s home, in England. They hurry there, and in the attic, they find a Roman amphora, which they suspect is also a clue. They head into the past…but first they stop off for some research.
The Abbey of Felsecar keeps an extensive library. Here the Doctor finds that the Grayle name first appeared at a Roman fort in Britain in the year 305 AD. The TARDIS takes the Doctor and Charley there, and they search for Sebastian Grayle—or rather, for his Roman identity, one Decurion Sebastius Gralae. They find him praying in his tent, and warn him that the Picts are about to revolt, but he brushes off the warning, insisting that he must oversee a temple ritual. The Doctor leaves Charley to search the tent and follows Gralae to the temple. Charley finds an alien communicator in the tent, used to connect Gralae to the future alien invaders. Meanwhile, at the temple, two men—Marcus and Lucilius—welcome the Doctor in. They tell him about the ritual, which re-enacts the mythical slaying of a demon bull by the god Mithras. To that end, there is a sword present which never rusts, which Mithras allegedly used in his battle. However, Gralae is moving some of the statues to new positions, which will alter the ritual; Marcus attributes it to the Londinium-born Gralae’s “odd ideas”. Allegedly the man considers the demon bull to have been more powerful than Mithras.
As the ceremony begins, Charley calls the Doctor out and reveals the communicator, which is set only for sound (as opposed to video). The Doctor takes this to mean that Gralae is still unsure of his masters; and his wearing of armor indicates he may not yet be immortal. The communicator activates, demanding to know if the sacrifice is ready; the sacrifice of lives will secure the first part of Gralae’s power. In the temple, Lucilius lets Gralae take charge. Gralae breaks an amphora of bull’s blood on the floor, then runs out and seals the door, locking everyone inside. The Doctor and Charley arrive to see a bright light surround Gralae; the Doctor identifies it as psionic energy, focused through a black hole for channeling into Gralae. The Doctor gets the temple open and warns Marcus and Lucilius to evacuate; they gather their men to flee the fort. However, at the gate they encounter a metal monster that threatens to exterminate them—a Dalek, though they would not know the term. They manage to destroy it, and continue running.
The Doctor tries and fails to reason with Gralae. Gralae vows to serve the demons that are now empowering him; as an additional benefit, he will now outlive all his siblings and inherit his family’s fortune. He refuses to believe the Doctor regarding what he will become, or what his masters really intend. The Doctor tells him that without the now-escaped sacrifices, his masters will not come through to this world, and Gralae will not become truly immortal, although he will live for centuries. Gralae tries to kill him, but Charley uses the rustless sword to intervene; Gralae can’t hurt a woman, and he backs off, but vows to kill the Doctor if he encounters him again. Charley and the Doctor also retreat to the TARDIS; not knowing that the sacrifices have fled, the aliens are trying to transmat the victims off planet. When the transmat beam finds no target in the temple, a shockwave blasts out, destroying the fort.
Barely escaping, the Doctor traces the transmat beam to the Ordinand system; the layout of the system and its nearby black hole will prevent the aliens from contacting Grayle again for 750 years. Charley muses on the paradox of the situation—Grayle hates the Doctor for his interference, but there would have been no interference if Grayle hadn’t come to gloat—but the Doctor tells her to let it go, as the logic may drive her mad. He mentions a somewhat-relevant old Gallifreyan myth about a creature called Zagreus, before dropping the thought. For now, they are going 750 years ahead, to the court of Edward the Confessor. Edward held his throne for decades by promising it to many others, causing the would-be heirs to fight each other instead of Edward. A signal from Ordinand leads directly to the court; and a radiation detector reveals a power source nearby. Edward and Edith have just banished the Earl of East Anglia; now they must fill his position. The likely candidate is Bishop Leofric of Exeter, who has come to visit the court, bearing gifts forged from a new metal found nearby. The Doctor is known here, and introduces Charley as “Lady Charlotte”. He leaves Charley with the king and queen, and goes to speak with Leofric, who is revealed to be Grayle. The ancient Roman has married—and buried—twelve wives; he spent decades as a penitent monk, watching his fellows wither away. He burns with hatred for the Doctor, but knows his masters—whom he now believes to be angels—will soon destroy the world. The Doctor tries to get more information, but is interrupted when Charley collapses with fever; she has been poisoned.
The Doctor hurries her to the TARDIS, where the medical nanites will heal her; but he leaves the door open, and Grayle follows him in. He prepares to kill the Doctor; already he has no compunction about killing Charley or any woman, his years having changed him. The Doctor manages to knock him out with a hatstand. Charley suggests dropping him on an isolated world, but the Doctor refuses; he needs Grayle as a link to his still-elusive masters—and truth be told, he pities the old man. For now, they must find out what is so special about the new metal Grayle has been mining. Carrying him out of the TARDIS, they are caught by Edith, who has them arrested; the Doctor suspects that she doesn’t really think he harmed Grayle, but rather is bitter over their last meeting, which did not go well. Grayle arrives at their cell and states that the king is ill, and has sent Grayle in his place to take the Doctor’s confession. He searches the Doctor and finds the radiation detector, which buzzes when he picks it up. He then tortures the Doctor; the Doctor endures it, until he prepares to torture Charley as well.
Edith arrives, and congratulates “Leofric” for poisoning Edward; when he is dead, she intends to bear Grayle a child who will take the throne. However, she faints; and Grayle explains that the jewellery he gave to Edward and Edith is made from the new metal, which can kill within hours. The Doctor identifies it as plutonium—and one hundred barges of it are en route to the court, to power a machine Grayle has constructed to bring his masters here. However, just as Grayle begins to gloat over his triumph, Edith revives and Edward bursts in—both recognized the threat, and swapped their jewellery for fakes, which is why they didn’t set off the radiation detector. Grayle flees. Edward releases the Doctor, who urges him to stop the barges from unloading. On the roof, the Doctor confronts Grayle, who receives a second burst of psionic energy, giving him more centuries of life, and time to finish and power his machine. The Doctor again tries to reason with him, but fails; Grayle tries to throw him off the roof.
Charley watches Grayle fall from the roof into the river—but the Doctor knows he will survive to try again to summon his masters. As well, the presence of the machine may indicate they lack the power to transport themselves… At any rate, the Doctor and Charley destroy the machine, and give the members of the court anti-radiation pills, and tell them how to dispose of the plutonium. Inside the TARDIS, the Doctor collapses from the delayed effects of the torture. He admits that he wasn’t thinking of Grayle’s immortality; he just wanted him dead for hurting Charley. Most of all he is bothered by the fact that Grayle is willing to destroy time and space over the terms of his father’s will—such a petty reason!
Buckinghamshire, 1806: the TARDIS lands inside a cavern system. The Doctor must wear a rapier to fit with local customs, and he takes the rustless sword from the Roman temple. Inside the caves, they find a banquet hall, and he deduces they are in Wickham Caves, one of the strongholds of the Hellfire Club, which they have encountered in the future. In this, its original form, many celebrities attended, including president Benjamin Franklin. Grayle is here somewhere, as the cave is stocked with Minoan artifacts—Grayle is still fascinated with demon bulls. They meet one Sir Richard Martin, a guest here, and give him a quick cover story; he takes them to the host—Sir Sebastian Grayle.
Grayle is hunting with a falcon as Martin’s daughter Lucy watches. Martin brings him a horned goblet for the evening’s ritual, and introduces the Doctor and Charley, much to Grayle’s delight. Grayle asks them to dine with him, and the Doctor accepts. However, at dinner, Grayle twists the Doctor’s words into an offense that justifies a duel, and challenges him. Here, he wants not just to kill the Doctor, but to bring him down to his level. The Doctor chooses swords as his weapon. Martin refuses to watch, but Charley and Lucy attend. Lucy, sensing that the Doctor and Charley are more than they seem, confides that Grayle has proposed to her, but she intends to decline—she has another reason for being here. The duel begins. Grayle is overconfident, trusting his invulnerability; but he finds he is wrong, as the Doctor nicks him. The rustless sword draws the alien power out of Grayle, reducing him to mortality; if it touches him long enough, he will feel all of his centuries of life. The Doctor offers him mercy, but he refuses, and tries to stab the Doctor with a dagger. The others intervene in the fight, but Grayle manages to take Lucy as a hostage, and rides away, intending to sacrifice her for his masters.
Martin figures out where Grayle will take Lucy. He tells the Doctor of a strange device in a cave; the entrance is blocked, but one can enter through its chimney. As they go there, the Doctor tells Charley that the sword is pure iron, which is often cited as a defense against magic. Inside the cave, Grayle chains Lucy to a stone. The Doctor and Charley come down the chimney, but too late—the transmat is active. It pulls a travel pod through time and space, and the Doctor recognizes it; he knows who Grayle’s masters are. Charley frees Lucy; but Grayle opens the pod, releasing the Nimon onto Earth.
The Nimon are weak from their journey; they have sent ahead of them a binding energy oscillator to drain the life from their victims. However, Grayle finds that the oscillator—the horned goblet—is missing, along with many other items. Martin and Lucy are not what they seem; they are con artists, and have robbed him. He hurries after Martin, leaving the Doctor, Lucy, and Charley locked in with the Nimon. The Doctor takes advantage of the Nimon’s weakness to examine its travel pod; it requires power from Grayle’s machine, but can be piloted independently. He explains to Charley and Lucy that the Nimon spread from world to world like a plague, consuming everything before continuing on—but Earth, being a time and space nexus, will let them conquer all of time and space. A Nimon scout must have given rise to the Mithras legend. They must be stopped before they can regain their strength.
Grayle catches Martin and recovers the goblet, then pushes Martin down the chimney, killing him. The falling body distracts the Nimon, and the Doctor recovers some of the gold coins Martin had stolen. He gets Charley and Lucy into the pod, then pilots it to the cavern beside the TARDIS. He then pilots the TARDIS into the time corridor to block any more Nimon from arriving; but this is not without risk, for he remembers Grayle in Singapore saying that the Doctor died at a distance. That event may happen here.
Grayle arrives with the goblet, allowing the Nimon to consumer the other members of the Hellfire Club. They begin to summon more Nimon, but find the corridor blocked. With Grayle, they recover the travel pod and pilot it into the corridor, then materialize in the TARDIS. The Doctor knows they are now a threat, and so he gives Lucy a message for Charley; then he opens the doors. The Nimon are swept into the vortex, but so is the Doctor. Grayle closes the doors; and he is able to use the TARDIS communicator to get instructions from the Nimon. He pilots the TARDIS out of the corridor. Although Grayle has won, he feels cheated by not getting to gloat over the Doctor; therefore he plans to request the false timeline that led the Doctor here in the first place, so he can gloat over him. As Charley mourns the Doctor, Lucy gives her his last message: “Fast return switch, three times fast.” Lucy distracts Grayle, allowing Charley to carry out the instructions. Grayle catches on, but it’s too late; the TARDIS is in motion. Nevertheless, he draws his flintlock pistols, and takes Charley and Lucy hostage.
The Doctor anticipated this course of events; before the Nimon arrived on the TARDIS, he programmed the TARDIS to create a tunnel to preset coordinates. He manages to arrive ahead of the Nimon, landing in the Roman fort where it all began, just prior to his previous visit there. He warns Lucilius and Marcus that the demon bull is returning, and must be defeated; Lucilius takes the rustless sword from the temple. The Doctor heads for Gralae, realizing that at this early point, Gralae is praying not to the Nimon, but to Mithras, seeking a sign. The Doctor summons him out to witness the battle preparation; and as Gralae has never met him yet, he takes the Doctor for a messenger of Mithras. He pleads for forgiveness, and the Doctor gives him the gold coins; this will allow him to buy out his commission and purchase a villa, and thus marry the woman he loves. Thus the source of his turn to evil is averted.
The Nimon are still en route. As they arrive, Lucilius leads the attack, and cuts them down. Five dozen Romans die in battle, but all five Nimon are killed.
The TARDIS then arrives, and the older Grayle comes out. Gralae is appalled at his older self, who treats the women badly and dismisses his love for his bride-to-be as foolishness. Grayle intends to kill the Doctor even though he himself is still mortal at the moment; but before he can do so, Gralae stabs him to death, so as to prevent himself from becoming Grayle. The Doctor then tells him to destroy the Nimon communicator, and evacuate before the transmat begins.
History is now correcting itself, although Charley’s memories are now confused. Some she will remember as dreams or stories. The Doctor returns Lucy to her own time, then takes Charley to Singapore, 1931, although the TARDIS still seems reluctant to go there. He insists that it is still nothing to do with his saving Charley from death on the R101—but time may prove him wrong.
IN 1806, Lucy arranges Martin’s funeral, but is shocked to find him alive. They are interrupted by the arrival of Charley Pollard—but it is not really Charley. Something hungry has entered the universe, and is dangerous to the universe’s continued existence. As Lucy is touched with chronon energy as a byproduct of her time travel, and Martin is the product of a paradox, the creature consumes them both.
And now we get down to the serious business! Or at least, it seems that way. I admit that it might not be obvious if one has managed to avoid all indication of what is to come, but this story begins to set up a couple of major story arcs to come (or perhaps just one; I haven’t read very deeply about it yet). The Doctor finally gets Charley Pollard to her date—let’s call it what it is; it’s less meeting and more date—at the Singapore Hilton on New Year’s Eve, 1930, just in time for everything to fall apart. Things go well for Charley, but it comes as quite a shock to the Doctor to find out that he is already dead, as his killer comes to gloat about it. This kicks off a lengthy chase through time as the murderer, one Sebastian Grayle, seeks to help his unseen alien masters invade the Earth. Killing the Doctor may have been incidental to that, but it’s certainly relevant to the Doctor and Charley!
Along the way, we meet an old enemy: the Nimon. (Perhaps it’s a spoiler to say so, but then, the promotional materials for this story have long since revealed that detail.) They’re just the same as always—there are no surprises here—but that’s fine, as they’re a formidable villain in their own right. Here they are tied a little more tightly to the minotaur legends of Earth, and especially to the cult of Mithras in the Roman era. Interestingly, in a practical sense they are the secondary villain here, despite the fact that the primary villain, Sebastian Grayle, works for them. The Doctor’s chief issue here is with Grayle, and it’s by defeating Grayle that he overcomes the Nimon.
There are a few apparent anomalies in this story. A Dalek appears seemingly at random in the Roman era in part one; it’s not named as such, but the sound effects make it clear. This will be explained in an upcoming audio, The Time of the Daleks, but admittedly it seems rather random here. As well, both Charley and the Doctor refer to Benjamin Franklin as President of the United States; this has been hinted before, but will not be explained for several more stories. Curiously, the Doctor doesn’t see anything strange about this; usually if something has changed in time, he can sense it on some level.
I find that the Eighth Doctor is perhaps the most self-referential of all the Doctors, rivaled most closely by the Sixth Doctor. For the Sixth Doctor, dwelling on the oddities of his life seems to be a matter of pride; for the Eighth Doctor, it’s a source of unending humor. Here he jokes about how easily he goes through regenerations (“I go stumbling my way through lives like I own a particularly dangerous bicycle!”), and constantly spars with Charley over his refusal to kill his enemies. He muses over his past experiences with a sword (“I’ve had a few good moments!”), and chides himself for not figuring out the Nimon threat sooner. Even as the tension of the story ramps up, his outlook makes it seem light, and I think that’s a great way to tell an Eighth Doctor story. In addition, he acts as narrator in this story, speaking to an as-yet-unknown figure, whom he addresses as “my lord”—an interesting take, and I hope something more comes of it.
As far as the ongoing plot arc is concerned, this story serves one valuable purpose: it misdirects the Doctor. Until now, he has had difficulty taking the TARDIS to 1930 Singapore; he at first suspected that this is because of a problem caused when he saved Charley from the R101 (as suggested in The Chimes of Midnight). This story leaves him thinking instead that it was Grayle’s intervention that caused the problem, and therefore that it should resolve itself. He’s wrong, of course; saving Charley did indeed damage the Web of Time, as the final scene indicates. Things will explode soon enough, I think!
We are loaded down with continuity references here! In addition to those I’ve already mentioned: There are frequent references to Storm Warning, as Charley explains about meeting Alex Grayle at the Hilton. The Nimon last appeared in The Horns of Nimon with the Fourth Doctor. The Hellfire Club last appeared in Minuet In Hell; Charley mentions having attended an orgy there. The library at the Abbey of Felsecar was previously mentioned in Love and War and the novel version of Human Nature. The Fourth Doctor and Leela visited Roman Britain in The Wrath of the Iceni; Boudicaa, who featured in that story, gets a mention here. The Fourth Doctor also went to Roman Britain in The Relics of Time, with a similarly explosive outcome—in fact, this entire story is reminiscent of the Demon Quest arc into which The Relics of Time fits. The Zagreus rhyme is recounted here; it was first mentioned by the Sixth Doctor in Project: Twilight. The Doctor uses a few future Doctor catchphrases here: the Ninth Doctor’s “Fantastic!” and the Eleventh Doctor’s “Geronimo!” The Doctor mentions rarely eating meat; this may stem back to his decision to become a vegetarian in his sixth incarnation in The Two Doctors. His swordplay has featured in The Sea Devils, The Masque of Mandragora, The Androids of Tara, and The King’s Demons, and will do so again in The Christmas Invasion and The Next Doctor. Earlier in the Eighth Doctor’s timeline, but later in publication, he caught a glimpse of this adventure in the novel The Tomorrow Windows. The TARDIS’s healing nanites appeared in The Shadow of the Scourge, where they healed Ace; strangely they do not seem to help the Doctor here. Three other Time Lord villains are mentioned here, indirectly, in the Doctor’s dialogue: The Master (“I’m not the one who says ‘you must obey me’”), the Rani (“I’m not a glamorous woman at the moment”), and the Monk (“I don’t meddle!”). As well there is a possible echo of City of Death, when he comments about another character: “Edith is a beautiful woman, probably”. Last but not least, the Fast Return Switch first appeared a very long time ago in The Edge of Destruction.
Overall: This story manages something difficult: it tells a good, enjoyable story while still managing to exist mostly for the sake of its foreshadowing. Certainly great things lie ahead, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying this adventure along the way. I expect grimmer things in the future, but that’s okay; we’re overdue. In the meantime, this one is quite good.
Next time: We’ll continue the Eighth Doctor Adventures on Thursday with The Zygon Who Fell To Earth; and then on Monday we’ll return to the Main Range for Embrace the Darkness! See you there.
All audio dramas featured in this series may be purchased from Big Finish Productions; this story’s purchase page is linked below. This and many other selections may also be found on Spotify and Google Play.