We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! Today we’re continuing the Main Range of audios with the forty-fourth entry, Creatures of Beauty. This story features the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, and was written and directed by Nicholas Briggs. The story is groundbreaking among the audio dramas for its non-linear presentation (which makes it difficult for me to write a plot summary for the blog version of this post, but so it goes). The story was published in May 2003. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama! For a spoiler-free review, scroll down to the next picture.
An explosion splits the sky, and a voice whispers: “Beautiful”. Elsewhere, a woman discusses with the Doctor her search for a cure to a disease, which took her to a space station for zero-gravity experiments and contact with a race called the Koteem. Elsewhere yet, Nyssa struggles with another woman over a knife. Later, she is with the Doctor on a long journey, and debates working with someone named Quain…which may or may not be the right choice. Either way, they need to reach the TARDIS and leave this world.
Brodlik, a psychiatric interrogator for the security forces of the planet Veln, meets with his superior, Gilbrook, regarding his recent interrogation of Nyssa. Allegedly the interrogation is about an incursion by the Koteem, but Brodlik disagrees. Nevertheless, they agree that Nyssa is beautiful, even with bruises from her arrest. On the tape of the interview, Nyssa and Brodlik discuss her arrest, and statements she made at the time, which Brodlik considers bizarre—notably, that she is not of this world. She admits to having a concussion, and asks after the Doctor. Watching the interview, Gilbrook is unhappy that Brodlik didn’t get a description of the Doctor so he could be arrested. They return to the interview, which picks up with Nyssa’s medical reports. The reports confirm that she is indeed not from the planet Veln; this convinces Brodlick that she is a Koteem, and complicit in what the invaders have done. He forces her to look at him; his face is warped and scarred. Only the rich and powerful can afford surgery to restore their features to the way they looked before the Koteem came and poisoned the atmosphere with dyestrial toxins—Brodlik insists that as Nyssa was arrested on the manor of Lady Forleon, she should know this. Nyssa understands the effects, but isn’t sure the toxins are a result of the invasion. Brodlik mentions that security has dealt with numerous Koteem agents; Nyssa is appalled. She demands to know if her blood samples were compared to Koteem samples as they were to Veln. Here, the tape reveals that Brodlik—quite rattled by Nyssa’s testimony—left three hours early and went home. Gilbrook informs him of the trouble he’s in, and demands to know what happened after that.
At home, Brodlik remembers, he was confronted by two men wearing pollution masks. Inside his apartment, they reveal that they are not mutated like Brodlik, who is a third-generation Veln after the pollution. He assumes they are Koteem agents; one of them protests, and is revealed to be the Doctor. He is angry about Nyssa’s beating, but defers to his partner, Quain, who puts pressure on Brodlik. Quain threatens Brodlik’s family with the same kind of violence the security forces use. Brodlik tells Gilbrook none of this, however, and only admits to thinking about Nyssa’s words. However, Gilbrook has video indicating that Brodlik returned to the medical department that night to compare Nyssa’s blood to Koteem samples. The two are vastly different. Gilbrook assumes this means she is just a different type of Koteem, and mentions that Brodlik never brought it up as he should have done. Gilbrook has Brodlik play the next day’s tape, but it cuts off at once. The fault is timely, as this was the point at which the intruders entered the medical building. Brodlik says they had legitimate documents to take possession of the prisoner, and so he released Nyssa to them. However, Gilbrook just asks him what really happened.
Brodlik recalls joining Nyssa in the interrogation room, and uses a device given to him by the Doctor and Quain to jam the surveillance system. He is going to release her, but is unhappy that she will get away with her crimes; despite her protestations of innocence, he has met her associates, and doesn’t believe her. He demands to know why she came back to murder and mutilate a Veln? In a flashback, Nyssa’s struggle for the knife is heard again, and the whispered word: “Beautiful…”
At Lady Forleon’s manor, the Doctor has just left Nyssa, when he hears screams from her direction. He turns back, but is held up by two armed men, Seedleson and Murone. They take him to the house, as the screams end and sirens are heard. The two men also send a patrol back for the Doctor’s “landing pod”, the TARDIS. Meanwhile Lady Forleon is getting a rather confused report about the screams and the arrest. Quain arrives and reports the arrival of a “replacement”, but the man—the Doctor—seems confused. Forleon meets with the Doctor, and finds he is confused; he considers himself a prisoner here, and claims to know the screaming girl—which he could not, if he is newly arrived. He admits to being here about the dyestrial pollution—a statement she expected—but his odd story makes her believe he has a concussion or brain damage from his landing.
The Doctor goes with Forleon and Quain to view the rather odd “landing pod”, the TARDIS. He tries to get back to the topic of Nyssa, and Forleon realizes he wasn’t talking about the local girl, Veline, but the other girl in the report, the arrested party. Murone shows a surveillance photo of Nyssa being arrested for Veline’s murder; the Doctor is shocked to see that she does have blood on her hands. He demands to know what is going on. Forleon realizes he really doesn’t know, which makes him a risk, and she has Murone cover him with his weapon.
Flash-forward: Nyssa is now free, thanks to Quain, but the Doctor doubts the man’s motives. They have now been traveling for four days, into a snowy wilderness reminiscent of Alaska. Quain assures the Doctor he is working for the sake of all Veln, even if they don’t realize it. They arrive at a hill which is actually a hologram, made with Koteem technology. Inside, they find a Koteem ship. They are subjected to a bioscan in preparation for an interrogation by a Koteem. Because the TARDIS is here somewhere, they submit to the interview. The Koteem doesn’t give its name, as it shouldn’t be here, and it wants to know if they plan to inform the Galactic Sector Council. The Doctor does not; he barely understands what is happening here. The Koteem doubts the Doctor’s words, and asks the Doctor’s personal opinion of events here. The Doctor thinks the Koteem is suffering the effect of the pollution just like the Veln, implying their fates are tied together. The Koteem admits that his people used the dyestrial as an energy source, not realizing the risks until it was too late. The Council allowed them to dispose of the wastes in an uninhabited region, but the disposal company cut corners and dumped it near Veln. Four generations back, an accident dumped a deadly amount of pollution into the Veln atmosphere, condemning the planet to death within eight generations. This Koteem and his friends want to change that.
Meanwhile Gilbrook has obtained a warrant for Lady Forleon’s estate, and is taking pleasure in destroying the beautiful surroundings. Jealousy is at the root of his attitude; he lives in ugliness thanks to the Koteem, and resents the rich who manage to avoid that fate. He believes he can prove she has been harboring Koteem agents; and once he has her in custody, her beauty won’t last long. His forces do not find the agents they seek, but they find a sealed basement room. Against Forleon’s protests, they break in, and find Koteem equipment. Forleon insists that, while the Veln are ugly, it’s because they are dying—and she is trying to fix it. They trigger a recording in the basement of the operation conducted on the unfortunate Veline, in which Forleon tries to soothe her—but Veline begins to scream as the surgery begins.
The surgery goes wrong, and Veline breaks free, screaming in pain. She flees the basement with a scalpel in hand. Forleon has Seedleson and Murone attempt to restrain her without harm. Quain worries about what may happen if she escapes the grounds; the last patient died in the lab. As luck would have it, at that time, the sensors have detected something strange: the arrival of the TARDIS. Meanwhile a passerby has called security, and they are on their way. This will give Gilbrook the excuse he needs to investigate the estate.
Veline escapes the gate guards. While pursuing her, Seedleson and Murone find the Doctor, and assume he is a Koteem. Murone, who only works here for the pay, suggests shooting him in revenge for the Koteem’s actions, but Seedleson, who believes in Forleon’s work, is disgusted. He leaves to take the Doctor into custody. Meanwhile, Nyssa finds Veline, who has begun to feel something alien inside her head. She begins to hack at herself with the scalpel as if trying to cut something out; Nyssa tries to stop her as sirens approach. She is arrested for Veline’s murder, but holds to the story that she was trying to save the girl. The oddity of the story gets her handed over to Brodlik, bringing us full circle to Brodlik’s interrogation of Nyssa. In the meantime, Gilbrook prepares for his raid on the Forleon manor.
Prior to the raid, the Doctor is still being held by Murone and questioned by Forleon. She believes him to be either crazy or an impostor, but either way, he is a threat. However, she performs a bioscan, which reveals he is neither Veln nor Koteem. When the Doctor hears the name “Koteem”, he is disturbed to remember them as an extinct species, which is not yet true. However, they are arthropods, so why would Forleon and Quain think he is one? Forleon explains that Veline killed herself, but that Gilbrook will not see it that way—and will use this opportunity to first put a beauty like Nyssa on trial. Since the Doctor seems to be truly unaware of events here, she withholds judgment for now.
Later, Quain reflects on what he has done in taking the Doctor and Nyssa—along with more travel pods—to the Koteem. While the Doctor thinks it is still uncomfortably like an invasion of Veln, he admits that neither race has any options. Still, the Koteem let them go, much to Nyssa’s surprise; and the Doctor is more than willing to bow out of this complex situation. He reflects that although Nyssa’s arrest may have led to the Forleon raid, but even without it, Veline’s death would have led to complications. Despite all their involvement, the Doctor feels they were simply caught up in events, rather than influencing them.
He is wrong, however. Gilbrook, as it turns out, was unable to get his warrant based on Nyssa’s arrest and escape, at which time he interrogated—and threatened—Brodlik to get what he needed. And so, as the Doctor and Nyssa depart, they don’t realize the full impact of their presence.
Many years earlier: The Veln system has been visited by a Koteem waste ship, which is here illegally. It is running silent to avoid detection; and when an alarm indicates that its toxin containment field has a leak, the captain opts to shut the field off instead of fixing it. Meanwhile the Doctor and Nyssa have just finished some repairs to the TARDIS, and are passing near the Veln system. It is a culturally significant time in the Veln’s history, and incursion has been declared illegal by the Galactic Sector Council; nevertheless, the Doctor chooses to materialize for a moment to test some repaired systems. A slip in systems puts the TARDIS into Veln orbit briefly, where the ship detects dyestrial toxins. The pollution interferes with the power relays, preventing dematerialization, and the TARDIS lurches as though it hit something. It leaps forward a century and rematerializes on the planet’s surface for self-repairs.
The concentration of toxins has decreased, and short exposure is harmless, so the Doctor goes to look around. He leaves Nyssa by the TARDIS while he goes to the nearby manor house to warn them of the toxins. Nyssa stays, but then hears Veline screaming, and goes to help, leading to her arrest. Gilbrook considers the murder to be a direct case, but wants to use it to obtain access to the Forleon estate; he ignores his medical staff’s report that the killer was apparently trying to dig something out of the victim. During this time, the Doctor is captured and questioned by Forleon and Quain; Forleon contacts the Koteem at the ship and informs him of the Doctor’s presence. The Koteem wants to question him in person, and asks Quain to rescue Nyssa as well. The Doctor is obligated to help.
In the meantime, the Doctor deduces that the Koteem are giving the Veln something…but what? Forleon doesn’t like his attitude, and tells him that outside the estate, the planet is nearly dead, as its people soon will be. The pollution has led to mutations in the Veln, the destruction of the food supply, and resulting social upheaval. Forleon uses her fortune to try to find a cure. It did not go well at first, until her desire to experiment in zero-gravity led her to purchase a space station; once there, the Koteem contacted her privately and offered their DNA for use in her work.
It’s not quite that simple, however. The genetic essence is that of a complete Koteem in each case, and the only way to use it is to transplant it into a Veln. Once placed, the essence heals the Veln of mutation; but little remains of the donor Koteem. The Koteem are willingly giving their lives to make amends and save the Koteem; but the bitter and vengeful Veln are not willing to accept any restitution, and their paranoia has caused the Council to outlaw contact with them. Hence, the Koteem’s efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, are illegal. The Doctor is unhappy with the plan, but can formulate no real objections; and so, with his promise not to talk, the Koteem lets him go, along with Nyssa.
In the end, Gilbrook destroys the manor, but Quain and Forleon escape to new premises to continue the work. The Koteem base is moved as well, leaving Gilbrook back at the beginning. He is undaunted, and swears to continue the fight; he remembers that his great-grandfather was an eyewitness to the explosion of the waste ship over Veln, leaving a story that has been passed down. Against all odds, the light through the clouds of falling toxins was almost beautiful.
One piece of the puzzle remains. As the waste ship runs silently through the system, all is well—until an unexpected object, blue and rectangular, materialises before them. It emits a warp distortion field, forcing them to evade collision. They succeed, as the object dematerializes—but in their hold, toxin containers have been smashed open, where the captain has already ordered the containment fields shut down. The ship explodes, pouring the dyestrial toxins into the atmosphere, dooming the planet. The Doctor and Nyssa will never know the true impact of their brief visit.
What a melancholy story! Although, to be fair, the melancholy tone isn’t obvious at first, largely due to the nonlinear structure. That structure is a double-edged sword here; it’s certainly different from the average story (Big Finish was on a brief experimental kick—see our last entry, regarding the first musical story, Doctor Who and the Pirates). However, there’s reason that non-linear stories are both rare and hard to pull off; they have a tendency to reveal the punchline early, turning the rest of the story into filler. That happens a bit here, though I don’t think it’s particularly gratuitous. More on that topic in a bit.
I call this story melancholy because there’s no happy ending, and indeed little chance at one. Due to an accident and a resulting ecological disaster, the locals—the Veln, on the planet of the same name—have suffered severe mutations, and will die off within a few generations. There is a cure, but it comes at a high price, not for the Veln, but for the race that caused the disaster in the first place. It’s a case of “no good choices”.
More than that, the story represents a rare case of the Doctor’s failure. He is unable to fix the situation, or even to affect it in any positive way. There’s more to it than that—there’s a reason I said “any positive way”—but for the sake of spoilers, I won’t elaborate. Suffice it to say that he ends the story unaware of the magnitude of his failure.
With the exception of one final twist, the bulk of the story has been revealed by the end of part three; most of part four is just filling in details, as I previously mentioned. I do applaud Briggs for managing to string out the discoveries as long as he did, however; it’s not easy to keep details secret when the ending is already known. I will say that the aforementioned final twist was fairly predictable; I had identified it well before I got there. I felt comfortable enough in my understanding of the story to begin working on this review while I was still listening to Part Four, and a look at the Doctor Who Reference Guide’s plot listing for this story bears out that opinion. None of that is to say, however, that it’s a bad story; both story and presentation are interesting, and I enjoyed this story much more than the previous entry.
I’m aware that the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa stories are usually not considered to be among the best, but for the most part I’ve enjoyed them so far. They tend to be quieter, smaller-scale stories; but both actors are usually on point, and these stories allow us to see nuances of the characters that we usually don’t get. Here, for example, the Veln serve as stand-ins for humans, and we get a deeper look at just how alien the Doctor and Nyssa really are—something that is often buried when dealing with these two characters.
Continuity References: Only a few this time. Nyssa mentions having visited Alaska (The Land of the Dead). She mentions the TARDIS’s helmic regulator, first noted in The Ark In Space). The Doctor mentions villains with “Satanic beards” or “black ears”; the “Satanic beards” remark most likely refers to the Master in his early appearances, and the “black ears” may refer to the Cybermen, in which case some notable figures had black handles on their heads. (Credit to the Doctor Who Discontinuity Guide website for the notation about the Cybermen—I heard the line in the story, but would not have made that connection.)
Overall: A good story, perhaps not one of the best, but decent. After Doctor Who and the Pirates, this story seemed to flow very quickly. I’m glad this nonlinear format doesn’t become a staple of the series, but it’s a fun experiment.
Next time: We’ll get a rare (but not too rare) multi-Doctor story, when we join the Sixth and Seventh Doctors in the next entry in the Forge story arc: Project: Lazarus! 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.