We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to Embrace the Darkness, written by Nicholas Briggs and starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and India Fisher as Charley Pollard. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
The resource-rich (but perpetually dark) planet Cimmeria IV is uninhabited, making it a valuable target. A team has been sent to survey the world and install Energy Projection Units (EPUs) in anticipation of more extensive mining. The team, consisting of Ferras, Haliard, and their leader Orllensa, power up the EPUs; but the base begins to shake on its deep-buried foundations. Power begins to fail, leaving the base in the dark. As Ferras searches for emergency lamps, something touches him in the darkness—it seems they are not alone. Orllensa sends a distress signal with the last of the power; the team then hears a strange hum, and an alien voice whispers to them, “Embrace the darkness. You are safe forever.” The trio begin to scream.
The Doctor detects a fleet of Type 70 TARDISes nearby. Attempting to avoid them, he tries to slip by, but is knocked out of the Vortex by temporal turbulence. Back in real space, he finds himself in the past of the Cimmerian system. Charley, having paid attention to his lessons, pulls the relevant data from the databank. Legend says the Cimmerian star disappeared in the past—or, from their current position, in the future—giving the system its name; “Cimmeria” means “of darkness”. He sends the TARDIS drifting forward in time at fifty years per second; they see strange objects approach the sun before it goes dark. He tries to go back and watch it in real time, but the TARDIS does not cooperate, and materialises fully. It is located by Rescue Operational Security Module G723—ROSM, for short—which is responding to Orllensa’s signal. The ROSM teleports the TARDIS aboard and continues to attempt to contact the now-silent base. When it fails to make contact, it prepares to land. The Doctor and Charley try to leave the TARDIS, but find themselves locked inside a forcefield.
Inside the still-darkened base, Haliard won’t stop crying, and Ferras cannot find him. Orllensa answers Ferras’s calls at last, surprising him; he thought she had been taken away. Both of them remember the pain they just experienced, and doubt their chances of survival.
ROSM sends an assault unit to interrogate the Doctor and Charley. It determines that Charley is a biohazard and must be eliminated; she tries to retreat to the TARDIS, but finds it cut off by a forcefield. The Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to disorient the unity, allowing Charley to flee. As the ROSM unit recovers, it confiscates the screwdriver; recognizing the superior technology, it decides to keep the Doctor alive for further interrogation. It remains suspicious of them, as they are the only lifeforms in evidence other than the base crew.
Charley is recaptured, and the Doctor manages to persuade ROSM that the “impurities” in her are naturally occurring and are no threat. It intends to terminate her anyway, having detected other oddities about her. She escapes and flees through a hatch—but finds she is in an escape pod, which launches. ROSM explains to the Doctor that the pod will home in on the airlock hatch of the base on Cimmeria IV. The Doctor persuades it finally that she is no threat, but is at risk from the threat that is affecting the base. It allows him onto the control deck, but keeps him behind a forcefield. Preparing to land on the planet, it detects unidentifiable particles in the atmosphere, and generates a beam to disperse the particles.
Ferras no longer hears Haliard crying; but Haliard is no longer there. Orllensa, still acting strangely, says they will follow him into the darkness soon. As the pod docks, they hear Charley calling, and follow her voice to the airlock. They can’t see her, and the light from the pod reveals to Charley why they can’t see her: their eyes are missing.
ROSM detects an increase in particle density, but is unable to disperse the particles any further without docking. Meanwhile, Orllensa and Ferras aren’t handling the news about their eyes very well, but more than that, they pity Charley, whose eyes are beginning to hurt. The Doctor wants ROSM to consider the particles a greater threat than Charley, but it reserves judgment. It links with the airlock, and powers up the dispersal beam to reduce the particles to minimum density; and it returns the Doctor’s screwdriver and allows him to accompany an assault unit into the base. It restores some of the lights. Searching for Charley, the Doctor runs into Haliard, who is mad from fear and pain; when the Doctor approaches, he runs away screaming. Meanwhile, alien voices whisper against the light, insisting that the newcomers will die unless they embrace the darkness.
The Doctor finds Orllensa, and is appalled at her condition; she seems resigned at first, but snaps angrily at him, suggesting she is in shock. She has lost Charley, but leads the Doctor back to the airlock where she first met her. Charley, meanwhile, has fled into the base, with her vision blurred but not gone, and with pain in her eyes. She hears Haliard, who flees again at a chittering sound. She sees a blurred shape, and realises it is a native Cimmerian. She demands to know why it is burning out their eyes, but it doesn’t understand; what are eyes? It insists that light is bad and that she must embrace the darkness; it discharges particles in her direction. Before the particles can harm her, the assault unit arrives and opens fire on the Cimmerian.
The Doctor follows the gunfire, and finds the Cimmerian stunned. ROSM has kept Charley alive for analysis, due to the particle field. The unit brings the Cimmerian with it, and the Doctor leads it and Charley back to the airlock. The other Cimmerians plan to respond to this; the infiltrators will not be allowed to leave, lest they bring suffering back to the planet.
ROSM sends in more assault units, and scans Charley in greater detail. Meanwhile, Charley’s eyesight is returning. Orllensa is now very angry, and lashing out at everyone, especially the Cimmerian. The Doctor describes it for Charley and Orllensa; it is small, childlike, and well-adapted to darkness. Orllensa wants to leave, but there is Haliard to deal with; fully mad, he is hiding in the base, trying to convince himself he does not exist. He is found by the Cimmerians, but his raving makes no sense to them; they wonder why he cannot taste the darkness. They ask him if he is in pain, and they can sense his terror; they decide to do something about it.
Ferras hears the screams, leading ROSM to consider this a hostile attack and respond accordingly. It is bound to its orders and cannot consider the Doctor’s requests for caution. He sends Charley to take the others back to the ship; ROSM refuses to let him interfere with its operations, and states it will kill him if he does. He persuades it to let him take the captured Cimmerian to the ship for study, although this bothers Orllensa.
On the ship, the Doctor tries to reason with ROSM, but it is too busy with its attack on the Cimmerians. He goes to the bridge, leaving Charley and Orllensa with the Cimmerian; Orllensa is angry that he shows concern for the creature. Charley realises that her eyesight is continuing to improve, and that it began when the creature spoke to her. She asks Ferras why he is here, and he explains about the EPUs—artificial suns deployed in orbit. Orllensa tries to stop him, but Charley snaps at her, and goes to find the Doctor—but unintentionally leaves the Cimmerian at the mercy of Orllensa and Ferras.
The Doctor watches the assault units encounter the Cimmerians, which refuse to return Halard. ROSM leads them to open fire; but the assault units detect increased particle density, and begin to malfunction. The particles travel along the communication wave back to the ship, and begin to affect ROSM’s central computer. As Charley arrives, ROSM realizes what is happening and, following the Doctor’s advice, cuts communication with the assault units. However, it forgets to close the airlock, allowing more particles into the ship. Before it can close the airlock, it forgets who it is. The Doctor begins working on it with his screwdriver, but it recovers just long enough to close the airlock; but in its sudden paranoia, it also puts the Doctor and Charley behind containment fields. As the ship’s defenses begin to break down, the Doctor realizes that this is why the mystery of the sun has never been solved—the particles first blind intruders, and then kill them.
The Doctor convinces ROSM to take off, but it is too late; the engines are not functioning. The systems failures have also shut down the containment fields; and now the Doctor decides to return the Cimmerian in hopes of aborting the attack. As soon as he and Charley leave to do so, Haliard contacts ROSM with a message from the Cimmerians, but ROSM refuses to listen, and cuts communications.
The Cimmerian is gone; Orllensa and Ferras deny knowing anything, or hearing it leave. The Doctor speculates that an energy field from the creature has restored Charley’s eyesight, possibly related to the “tasting” that the Cimmerians mentioned. Orllensa scoffs at this, but the Doctor theorizes that the burning of their eyes was accidental, and that the Cimmerians might be able to heal them. Without much choice, Orllensa takes a leap of faith and tentatively agrees. But first they must find the Cimmerian.
The Doctor takes Ferras, and sends Charley with Orllensa, on the theory that it may be drawn to the suffering of those without eyes. As they walk, Ferras tells the Doctor about the EPUs, and how the Cimmerians knocked the central EPU out of alignment just before activation. They arrive at the bridge, and hear Haliard trying to persuade ROSM to let him in; but with the computer in shutdown mode, they cannot override the airlock. ROSM is worsening; and so the Doctor decides to activate the EPUs by remote, hoping the burst of light and heat will destroy the particles.
Charley and Orllensa swap stories regarding their pasts; Orllensa is fond of her team after several bad experiences with other crews—and meanwhile Charley realises that she now considers the TARDIS her home. Charley hears a chittering ahead, and checks it out; meanwhile Orllensa is found by the Cimmerian. It releases an energy wave at her. When Charley returns, she finds Orllensa singing a lullaby to the now-exhausted creature, which has restored her eyes. It tells them that what it has done is forbidden; now the Solarians, creatures from the past, will return, see the light, and destroy them all.
The Doctor finds the manual system for the EPUs, and learns that the twelve slaved units will automatically adjust to the central unit, meaning they should still work. Meanwhile, Haliard is becoming more desperate to warn the crew; and the life support will soon shut down. The Doctor manages to send the activation signal before ROSM’s communication system shuts down for good. Almost immediately, Charley, Orllensa, and the Cimmerian arrive with their story—and the Doctor realizes he may have made a fatal mistake. As there are many races that call themselves Solarians, the Doctor can’t be sure who these enemies are; but it seems the sun was darkened deliberately to avoid them. The new light from the EPUs may spell disaster.
As Haliard’s message gets through, the Doctor finds more disturbing information. Haliard is no longer mad or coerced, but is giving a real warning: the Cimmerians are peaceful, and the light is summoning the Solarians. The heat and light overwhelms the particle wave, and ROSM begins to recover—but his scanners detect an unidentified fleet entering the system. The Solarians are arriving.
ROSM attempts to link with the orbital satellites for a better image of the fleet. It also restores communications, revealing that Haliard has his eyes back, as well as his sanity. It seems the Cimmerians are a race of healers, which is confirmed when the Cimmerian on the bridge restores Ferras’s eyes as well. However, the creature is left too weak, and dies; it seems it is compelled to heal regardless of the cost. The Doctor sends Orllensa to prepare for takeoff and destroy the EPUs. He leaves with the dead Cimmerian to return it to its people, leaving Charley behind on the ship. ROSM, however, is not fully restored; and its incomplete memories cause it to continue to distrust the Doctor. Frustrated, the Doctor uses his screwdriver to open the airlock, letting Haliard in as he exits. Haliard tells him the Cimmerians will be too weak to release more particles for some time; the Doctor blames himself, and asks Haliard to care for Charley in his absence.
ROSM gets a clear picture of the Solarian fleet; Charley recognizes them as the ships that she and the Doctor saw in the past, approaching the sun before it went dark. Haliard arrives and tells her what the Doctor said; angrily, she goes to join the Doctor. He says that he wanted her safe, but she insists he wanted the Cimmerians to punish him for his mistake. The Cimmerians arrive, and reveal that they possess a form of teleport technology, which takes the Doctor, Charley, and the body down through the rock to a chamber below—this explains how they escaped the lounge of the ship. The Doctor and Charley try to learn more about the situation, realising along the way that the Cimmerians don’t call themselves by that name; it was imposed by outsiders. After mutual apologies, the Cimmerians agree to let the Doctor and Charley taste their history—literally, in the form of a stew that imparts knowledge via the sense of taste.
ROSM’s repair routines show that there is a 45-minute margin to save the planet; but the Solarians are accelerating. Their ships are powered by solar sails; the increasing light as they approach the planet leads to increasing speed. Orllensa tells ROSM to skip as many safety checks as possible; she sends Haliard to warn the Doctor that as soon as everyone is aboard, they will blast off.
The stew shows the Doctor and Charley the history of the Cimmerians and the Solarians. A plague once struck the Solarians, leading them to this world on the light of the sun; the Cimmerians healed them, but the demands were too great, and millions of Cimmerians died from exhaustion. As the Solarians kept coming, the Cimmerians took their only option: they darkened the sun, preventing the Solarians from returning. Afterward, the exhausted survivors slept for years, in which they adapted to the darkness. Fatalistically, the Cimmerians regard the Doctor’s intervention, and its results, as justice, because they once put their own needs above those of others. Haliard arrives to reclaim the Doctor and Charley, and they depart, but the Doctor promises to save the Cimmerians if he can.
The Solarians are dangerously close now, and as soon as everyone is aboard, Orllensa orders ROSM to blast off. As they make orbit, the Doctor wants to contact the Solarians, but the invaders open fire. ROSM refuses to shut down the EPUs, and shuts down its own weapons instead. The Doctor decides they have no choice but to shoot the Solarians; but ROSM refuses to allow it, as it no longer trusts Orllensa.
As the shields weaken, Orllensa transmits a surrender. The Solarians prepare to dock; and the Doctor leads everyone to the TARDIS to escape—but finds it still behind a containment field. ROSM refuses to let anyone into it, as it is still unknown, and therefore possibly a threat. The Solarians arrive, riding in miniature tanks, and demand to know why the humans are trespassing on their world. Angrily, Charley tells them it is the Cimmerian world; this leads to confusion for the lead Solarian. To its horror, it learns there are survivors on the planet, survivors who darkened the sun because of the Solarians. The lead Solarian opens its tank, revealing the truth: it is the same species as the Cimmerians, albeit with eyes. The Solarians, it seems, are archaeologists searching for a lost civilization, a group that their ancestors once abused—but the conflict was a civil war of sorts.
The Solarians take the humans back to the base, and from there they make contact with the Cimmerians. The Doctor allows them their reunion, hoping for a better outcome than that of history. He disables ROSM, allowing Orllensa and her crew to use the ship to return home. He and Charley depart—but not before Charley beats Haliard at draughts.
A common theme in Doctor Who is that of an enemy who is not what it appears to be. That’s what we’re dealing with in this story, and it’s done fairly well; nothing groundbreaking, but not bad at all. The Cimmerians—not their own name for themselves—seem to be the enemy at first; later the focus switches to the Solarians, but neither group is quite what it seems. In classic Doctor Who fashion, both groups have a fairly happy ending; in fact, this story is happier than most, as there is only one death in the entire story (an unnamed Cimmerian).
The supporting cast in this story—the base crew of Orllensa, Haliard, and Ferras—are members of a race called the Throxillians. Originally they were to be the Morestrans, from the serial Planet of Evil, but the rights could not be acquired; therefore this race was substituted. It’s unclear whether they are actually aliens, or whether they are a branch of humanity (possibly from a colony world?); they are described sparsely, but similarly to humans, and as well the Doctor refers to human history when arguing with their ROSM rescue ship’s computer. As well, the Doctor states that humans gave the natives the name of “Cimmerians”. The Cimmerians are blind, lacking eyes; they rely primarily on the sense of taste, which seems like an odd choice for a forced evolutionary path (forced, in that they had eyes in the past, but were obligated to evolve for total darkness). One would think that hearing or touch would make for a better and more likely primary sense. They have the biological ability—and imperative, it seems—to heal whenever it is needed. They seem to be quite advanced, having the ability to darken their sun while leaving it intact; as well, they possess complex teleportation technology. The Solarians possess a similar level of technology, and use solar sails for their interstellar travel.
The real villain here, it seems, is the ROSM computer. The rescue ship’s computer is bound by a particularly rigid logic to begin with, and it becomes progressively more damaged and paranoid throughout the story, causing it to do exactly the opposite of what needs to be done in every situation. It’s the computer you love to hate, which I suppose indicates that the story is good enough to draw me in. Its behavior reminds me of the Skovox Blitzer from The Caretaker, with its singlemindedness and distrustful, “shoot first” nature. It’s also reminiscent of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey; I usually avoid real-world references, but this one is so obvious that it would be remiss of me not to mention it.
There’s a fair bit of foreshadowing in this story, enough that it feels almost as though it exists only for that purpose. Near the beginning, the Doctor encounters a flotilla of Type 70 TARDISes; their purpose will be revealed in Neverland. In addition, ROSM detects an unidentifiable problem in Charley’s body; this will also be fully revealed in Neverland. Perhaps it’s not a lot of references, but they’re very conspicuous.
There are no real continuity references to speak of here, aside from the future references I already mentioned. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Doctor continues to make what I would call meta-references. I’ve commented before that the Eighth Doctor frequently makes jokes and references to the history and tropes of Doctor Who, not quite breaking the fourth wall, but close. He does so again here; at one point he talks to the sonic screwdriver (“Oh, sonic screwdriver, how do I ever manage without you!”), a probable reference to the years in which the television series eliminated the now-ubiquitous device.
Overall: I have mixed feelings about this one. There are no major complaints, just several small ones, some of which I’ve mentioned. The foreshadowing is a bit overpowering; the storytelling gymnastics required to obscure the truth about the Cimmerians is considerable; and if the Solarians are archaeologists, why do they need well-armed tanks? On the other hand, the story is an excellent entry for the audio format; I can’t imagine it would do as well on television or in print. I wouldn’t call it scary, but it’s quite creepy at first, and that’s a nice touch when done well. More than anything, it feels like an interlude, as we gear up for the end of this pseudo-series of Eighth Doctor audios. Two entries remain!
Next time: On Thursday, we’ll continue the Eighth Doctor Adventures with Sisters of the Flame; and then on Monday we return to the Main Range for The Time of the Daleks! 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.