The Doctor has just overhauled the TARDIS console room, giving it a complete redesign -- and yet the TARDIS is still misbehaving. The Doctor decides to allow it autonomous control, but it materializes in an unimpressive cityscape of concrete and smog. The Doctor sets off to explore his surroundings, but the citizens ignore him, except for one man who apologizes for bumping into him, believing him to be an inner party member due to his clothing. He’s surprised when the Doctor claims to be a visitor, as no one from abroad is allowed to enter the city-state. The Doctor decides to leave this unpleasant world, but young Mattias points out a warden patrol nearby and offers to take the Doctor to a safe place where the wardens won’t find him.
Elsewhere, Major Brant brings Lord Vaughn Sutton’s latest reports to his uncle, Commissioner Sallis. Sallis still believes that war can be honourable, but the current war is being run by bureaucrats and pen-pushers with no concept of nobility. Brant is bad enough, as he publicly volunteered for the front lines -- and privately pulled strings to ensure that his request was denied. But Sutton is even worse. Brant may consider him a hero and may claim to believe that Sutton’s Elite will put an end to the war, but Sallis knows better; Brant just wants to be associated with the Elite in order to get into the history books, and the Elite are nothing more than butchers and thugs whose involvement with the war will ensure it never ends. Brant refuses to revive this old argument, and Sallis can do nothing while Sutton has the support of the inner party; thus, Brant leaves Sallis to his work and reports to Sutton. As they speak, however, Sutton senses a disturbance in the outer world. Something familiar has returned to Excelis -- and the time has come for the endgame.
Mattias shows the Doctor to an abandoned dormitory block where he lives with others who have realised there’s more to life than endless toil in the munitions factories. The Doctor is appalled by the inhuman living conditions, and is even more appalled when Mattias mentions the war with Gatrecht -- a very familiar name. Once again the Doctor is in Excelis, and it’s now a totalitarian dictatorship with an oppressed underclass who can’t conceive of any other way of life. There are a few small resistance cells in the city, but whenever they seem to be making progress, the wardens move in to arrest them and the members are never seen again. The Doctor realises that something must be done, but before he can question Mattias any further, wardens burst into the block and arrest everyone inside.
The Doctor is knocked unconscious in the scuffle, but Reeve Cless and Warden Baris also note his clothing and conclude that he must be an inner party member. He is thus sent to hospital while Baris takes the other prisoners to Sutton for experimentation. Sutton is enraged when he learns that an inner party member was injured, and when he contacts Brant to learn more, he’s even more infuriated to learn that the stranger has no trace of “treasure” in his bloodstream, proving that he’s from outside the city. But when Brant tells Sutton that the stranger is called “the Doctor,” this changes everything. Sutton orders Brant to search the entire sector of the city where the Doctor was found for a blue box, and to try to befriend the Doctor and find out why he’s returned to Excelis. The Doctor must then be brought to Sutton -- bound and broken, if necessary.
The Doctor isn’t fooled by Brant’s unsubtle interrogation attempt, and easily sees through his jingoistic cant; Brant, for his part, thinks the Doctor a madman. Brant’s housekeeper, Jancis, arrives with food, and Brant leaves the Doctor to eat, telling Jancis to see to his every need. When questioned, Jancis tells the Doctor that she served Brant’s uncle, Commissioner Sallis, for twenty years; she used to work in the munitions factories until Sallis took a fancy to her. After their son Tarven was born, Sallis looked after them both, but he could never admit openly that Tarven was his, for the inner party would have expelled him for having a child by a prole. The Doctor, realising that Jancis no longer believes the cant of Excelis’ supremacy, tells her that he has a long history with the city and vows to put an end to this evil regime. Jancis is afraid even to listen to him, but when he asks her about Tarven she admits that he disappeared after speaking out against the war. Speaking this aloud to a stranger, Jancis finally decides to fight the system after all, and warns the Doctor not to eat the dinner prepared for him; it has been laced with “treasure”, the drug which keeps the proles pacified and content with their miserable lot. The Doctor decides to begin his investigation in Brant’s extensive library of military history, which once used to belong to Commissioner Sallis.
Mattias is dragged into a laboratory by grunting monstrosities, and is shocked to see Sutton, whom the world at large believed dead. Sutton explains that his death was faked to protect him from assassination attempts. He is amused by Mattias’ spirit, and reveals that he intends to take apart Mattias’ soul for his experiments. The soul is tangible and divisible, and here in his laboratory, Sutton harvests souls and uses them to bring the Elite to life. His fighters are “Meat Puppets”, generated from raw biomass and given the barest spark of life; one soul properly divided can bring thousands of the Elite to life. Sutton then turns his machinery on Mattias -- and the extraction process is agonising.
The Doctor leafs through Brant’s library, trying to learn how the city-state evolved from the Imperial court which ruled Excelis on his last visit. History has been suppressed, and all anyone knows is that the change occurred virtually overnight. After some hours of reading, the Doctor concludes that the change was engineered by someone with the authority to manipulate those in power and arrange for the assassination of the imperial family -- in short, a Reeve. He is unsurprised to learn that the inner party regards Lord Grayvorn as a great hero and Reeve Maupassant as the architect of Reason. What is he calling himself this time? The Doctor needs to know more, and perhaps Sallis can help; despite the loss of her son and position, Jancis still believes Sallis to be an honourable man. Facing him again will hurt, but she’ll do it for the sake of all those who have disappeared.
Meanwhile, the man who now calls himself Sutton awaits the culmination of lifetimes of work. Soon he will reach out to the stars and teach the Universe to worship the name of Grayvorn. All he needs is the Doctor -- and as long as he has the TARDIS in his possession, the Doctor will inevitably be drawn to confront him...
Sallis agrees to speak with the Doctor, partly because Jancis vouches for him and partly to annoy his nephew. Nevertheless, the Doctor’s story is unbelievable, and the sceptical Sallis doesn’t believe that the Relic ever really existed. The Doctor insists that the Relic is not a supernatural artefact, but a technological creation of beings far more advanced than the people of Excelis, its arrival on Excelis just another piece of unfinished business in the Doctor’s long life and its destiny intertwined with the destiny of Excelis, the Doctor, and Grayvorn. For the sake of argument, Sallis suggests that the man he is looking for may be Lord Vaughn Sutton, a genetic engineer and scientific advisor to the inner party. His Elite are touted as the means to end the war, but Sallis believes they will cause the war to drag on forever -- and he also suspects that Sutton is responsible for assassinating the signatories to the Artaris Convention, preventing a peace accord. Sallis realises that he’s had enough of this long and pointless conflict, and agrees to direct the Doctor to Sutton’s lair. In passing, he mentions that Sutton calls his Elite “Meat Puppets,” and the appalled Doctor realises the implication. The Elite are golems animated by the souls of the abductees -- including Sallis’ son. Sallis is horrified, and pledges to give the Doctor all the help he needs.
Brant reports the Doctor’s escape to Sutton, and is confused when Sutton insists that this apparent lunatic is in fact capable of destroying all they’ve worked for. He refuses to lend his Elite to the search, as their existence must remain a secret from the proles and the outer party. However, he’s sure that the Doctor will soon arrive of his own accord, and he thus orders Brant to attend him immediately. Brant doesn’t know it, but soon Sutton will have no further need for him.
The Doctor and Jancis find their way through the smog to the ruins of the Imperial Museum, an appropriate lair. They are captured the moment they break in and dragged to Sutton’s laboratory, where the Doctor confronts the man who has engineered a perpetual state of war to reshape Excelis in his own image. The Doctor thought his return to Excelis was an accident -- but perhaps there’s some greater power pulling his strings. Brant, still believing the Doctor to be mad, is stunned when Sutton casually reveals that all the Doctor has said is true; he is the man once known as Grayvorn, and then as Maupassant. The last time they met, his soul was forcibly discorporated, but he survived as a psychic matrix embedded within the building itself, growing in strength until one day he had the power to possess an unfortunate visitor, reshape the body into his own image and grant it immortality -- Grayvorn reborn. The revelations shake Brant to the core, but he’s supremely unimportant right now; he only served Sutton as a repository for the one threat to his rule, Sallis’ library of historical texts. Sutton had tried and failed for years to get the books away from him, and finally succeeded when he learned about Tarven. He used this knowledge to blackmail Sallis and get the dangerous books into the hands of someone he could control, and once this was accomplished, he no longer needed Tarven alive -- at least, not in the ordinary sense of the word. Jancis is horrified when more of the Meat Puppets shamble into the room to take them prisoner -- and one of them begs her for help, calling her mother.
At this moment Sallis bursts in, having fought his way through the Elite to confront Sutton at last and make him pay for Tarven’s death. Sutton admits to surprise that Sallis does care for his son after all -- but Tarven isn’t dead, just divided up into the Elite. And the Elite will fight on forever, destroying all of Excelis’ enemies and then taking their war out into the galaxy itself. Sutton already knows far more than he should about other worlds -- because the Doctor once touched the Relic, and his soul became a part of it. This is why the Doctor keeps returning to Excelis; a part of him is still here. And thanks to Sutton’s link with the Relic, he now shares the Doctor’s understanding of time travel and the weaknesses of other races. He demands the key to the TARDIS, and when the Doctor refuses, Sutton brings out his hostage -- the young man the Doctor knew as Mattias, but whom Sallis and Jancis recognise as Tarven. He is still alive, though weakened by the extraction of his life force -- and Sutton now threatens to bleed out more of his soul and animate more legions of his Elite.
Sallis now realises, too late, just how wrong he was to deny his son. But as Sutton straps Mattias into position, the Doctor studies the equipment and finds the Relic at the centre of it all -- a tattered old handbag with the power to harvest souls. Before Sutton can stop him, the Doctor reaches out and opens the Relic, allowing the rest of his soul to join the fragment in the Relic, and contacting all those lost to it over the millennia. The voice of the old Mother Superior welcomes him, but he isn’t here to stay; since he is a part of the Relic yet still alive, he has the power to offer the souls true peace at last, rather than the limbo of this ersatz afterlife. The Mother Superior knows that this will not be the end of things, for there is another besides the Doctor who has unfinished business with the Relic -- but the sideshow of Grayvorn and his ambitions must be resolved, and the Mother Superior tells the Doctor to do what he must, whatever the consequences.
Sutton is horrified when the Doctor steps away from the Relic; all of the captive souls have been freed, and Sutton can no longer use the Relic to further his petty ambitions. But Sutton refuses to let the Doctor triumph completely, and before anybody can stop him, he activates the orbital defense grid, targeting every city on Artaris with nuclear missiles. If he can’t have Excelis, no one can. Having brought about the end of the world, he hears the voice of his old nemesis the Mother Superior taunting him once again, and flees in terror. Sallis tries to shut down the defense grid, but finds that Sutton has overridden his personal security codes. Brant is gibbering in the corner, his mind completely broken. Despite the Doctor’s attempt to find some way out, it seems nothing can save Excelis now. Sallis and Jancis accept their fate and their responsibility for allowing things to come to this pass, and they order the Doctor to save himself -- and Tarven, who has been separated from them in the confusion. The Doctor has little choice but to go, and as he flees, Sallis admits at last that he loves Jancis. Together at last, the two lovers await the end of the world.
In the corridors, the Doctor finds the terrified Tarven, and tries to lead him to safety -- but just as they reach the Doctor’s ship, Sutton resurfaces and grabs Tarven, demanding that the Doctor rescue him as well. Tarven is unable to escape from Sutton’s hold, and the Doctor can’t let Sutton into the TARDIS, as his link with the Doctor through the Relic means that he knows how to operate it. Thus, the Doctor abandons Tarven, sheltering in the TARDIS as Artaris is devastated by the nuclear holocaust unleashed by Sutton. The Relic, an artefact of advanced technology, will likely survive unscathed, and some of the planet’s population may survive if they managed to reach the shelters in time; but Grayvorn is gone forever, unable to spread his madness across eternity. But at what cost? Hating himself for what he’s done, the Doctor departs, closing this chapter of his life -- and leaving Excelis a blasted, radioactive wasteland, the future which Grayvorn had seen from Iris’ bus so long ago.
Source: Cameron Dixon (with thanks to Craig Hinton)