Long ago, the First Doctor visited a world whose natives believed themselves to be cursed by a fragment of red glass brought to their world by a dying stranger. Dismissing these fears as superstition, the Doctor proved that the sicknesses and crop failures plaguing their community were caused by a radiation leak from the stranger’s damaged spacecraft. He used chemicals from the TARDIS to decontaminate the area, and took the red glass from the grateful villagers, intending to carry out tests upon it to determine its true nature. His visit soon passed into legend. Some time later, the planet was discovered and colonised by the evil human empire of Luminus, and most of the natives were exterminated. The empire itself collapsed soon afterwards, and the human colonists remaining on Olleril picked up on the native superstitions and the stories of a cursed red glass which would one day return to their world. Centuries have passed since the Doctor’s visit, and for all that time, the evil Friars of Pangloss have waited for him to return; now at last his arrival is imminent, and the Friars have despatched assassins to Olleril, to recover the cursed glass and kill the Doctor for his interference.
Although Luminus supposedly fell centuries ago, many inhabitants of Empire City believe that it in fact survived as a secret cult which still controls Olleril behind the scenes. Most intelligent people scoff at these foolish conspiracy theories, all of which are true. The egocentric TV actor Howard Devor, star of the cult sci-fi series Captain Millennium, has been initiated into the cult of Luminus and given a brain implant which he believes increases his intelligence and brainpower. When his producer, George Lipton, refuses to grant Devor yet another holiday from his shooting schedule, Devor uses his new connections to have Lipton fired, beaten by a brutal police gang, and thrown into a native refugee camp. As Devor delights in his new-found power, however, he is being monitored by Luminan scientists, who are only allowing him to indulge himself until the brain implant has done its work…
The TARDIS materialises in the Vijjan refugee camp, and the Doctor, Ace and Benny are appalled by the shocking conditions within. Ace is separated from her friends and, along with the terrified Lipton, is swept up amongst a crowd of refugees and herded onto a transport carrier. Before the Doctor or Benny can intervene they are arrested by security guards, who believe them to be from a liberal protest group and forcibly evict them into the slums of Empire City. The run-down south side has been separated from the affluent central zone by a cordon, and they are unable to get past the gate receptionists to contact any authority figures with the power to help them find Ace. In many ways, Empire City resembles a typical 20th-century Western city, but the Doctor and Benny notice certain examples of advanced technology -- including the use of androids as TV celebrities -- which suggest that a more advanced society is manipulating this civilisation to retard its natural development.
Ace, Lipton and the Vijjan refugees are relocated to the tropical island of Avax, but the beauty of the setting is marred by bleached skulls and expended weapons cartridges on the beach. They have in fact been dropped into a weapons testing zone to act as living targets. On the submarine Gargantuan, the Supreme One of the cult of Luminus orders the next test to begin, and only Ace realises what’s happening when the beach is bombarded with gas bombs. She gets to safety, but Lipton and the Vijjans are slaughtered. The island’s warrior natives then arrive, along with the young human Forgwyn, whom they believe to be a god; however, when they find that the new arrivals are already dead they turn on Forgwyn, angry that they have been cheated of their victory. The Luminans drop gas masks onto the beach as a psychological test, but when Forgwyn urges the now mistrustful natives to wear them, they refuse to do so and are thus wiped out by the second wave of gas bombs. The Supreme One, disappointed by the test’s failure, feeds the head of his research department to the Slaags, genetically engineered bioweapons which eat everything they encounter.
The Doctor and Benny hear rumours about the cult of Luminus and learn that the people of the central zone are preparing for Tragedy Day, the annual carnival at which they assuage their guilt over the less fortunate by donating an insignificant part of their wealth to charity. Unable to get past the cordon, they follow a tip to the home of Madame Guralza, a former movie star who has chosen to live amongst the poor. She realises that her visitors are from another world, and agrees to supply them with forged passes on the condition that they take her with them when they leave Olleril. The Doctor and Benny successfully enter the central zone -- but the passes are detected as forgeries, and they are only allowed to enter because the security scan showed that the Doctor had two hearts. The Supreme One guesses the Doctor’s identity and orders his second-in-command, right-wing political columnist Jeff Shrubb, to keep an eye on the new arrivals. He also orders the police gangs to trace the Doctor’s movements through the south side, and eventually they locate and kill Madame Guralza.
Since he no longer requires Avax as a test site, the Supreme One releases the Slaags upon the island, and they devour the native population. Forgwyn and Ace shelter in Forgwyn’s spaceship, which crashed on the island some days ago. Forgwyn’s mother Meredith is about to give birth, but it turns out to be a breech birth. As Ace searches the ship for medical supplies she finds a surprising number of weapons -- and a pyramid of red glass which gives her a strong impression of the Doctor. Meanwhile, Shrubb confronts the Doctor, hoping to trick him into revealing the location of his TARDIS, but instead the Doctor demands to be reunited with Ace. The Supreme One thus calls off the Slaags and allows the Doctor to travel to Avax, where he delivers Meredith’s baby and thus earns her undying gratitude. But as the Doctor and Ace discuss their situation, Forgwyn hears them mention the TARDIS, and realises that the Doctor is the Time Lord his mother has been sent to kill.
While Meredith and her newborn son recover in Empire TV’s medical facility, the Doctor wanders the streets, trying to learn all he can about this civilisation. Shrubb leaves him to his own devices at first, but when it becomes clear that the Doctor is going to give nothing away, Shrubb has him drugged and taken to the secret Luminus headquarters in the Toplex Sanitation office building. There, the Luminans try to copy his mind into an android double’s body, but he resists, and they are unable to learn the location of the TARDIS. He is therefore sent on to the Gargantuan, where the Supreme One intends to trick him into helping to complete their master plan. Meanwhile, Devor continues to exercise his new power, terrorising his lackeys, rewriting the scripts of Captain Millennium to suit himself, and turning away the child prodigy Crispin without an autograph. Eventually, however, Luminus obtains all that it needs from his implant, and Shrubb has him knocked out and sent to the Gargantuan for the final phase of the plan.
Forgwyn admits to Ace and Benny that the Friars of Pangloss hired his mother to kill the Doctor -- and warns them that even though she now owes her life and her baby’s to the Doctor, this might not be enough to save him. She has never forfeited a contract in her life, and the Friars threatened to take her soul from her body if she failed them. Ace and Benny return to Shrubb’s house, while Forgwyn goes out to a nightclub to unwind. He dances by himself for a while before realising that the dancefloor is a nihilistic game for thrill-seekers, rigged to pulse with anti-matter at random intervals. As he sits at the bar, recovering from the shock, the spider mutant Ernie “Eight-Legs” McCarthy, a feared assassin and bounty hunter, enters the club, and Forgwyn realises that the Friars hired him as backup when Meredith failed to report in on time.
The next morning, the Doctor apparently returns and tells Ace and Benny that it’s time for them to go. He seems to be having trouble with his memory, however, and as Forgwyn accompanies them all back to the refugee camp, Benny becomes suspicious and questions the Doctor about their past adventures. She eventually realises that this is not the real Doctor -- but by this time she and Ace have already mentioned the TARDIS’ location, and the Luminans have seized it and are waiting for them to arrive. As Ace and Benny try to fight them off, Ernie arrives, guns down the android Doctor and pursues the guards taking the TARDIS away from the camp. They manage to get to the docks while Ernie is stuck in traffic, and load the TARDIS onto a sub to be sent on to the Gargantuan. Ernie transforms his car into an underwater craft and sets off in pursuit, determined to complete his mission for the Friars and buy himself a planet with the proceeds. Meanwhile, Meredith checks herself out of the hospital just in time to rescue Forgwyn, Ace and Benny, but when Benny unthinkingly mentions the TARDIS in front of her Meredith realises that the Doctor is her target. After a moment’s reflection, she announces that she owes the Doctor too much to kill him, and agrees to use the red pyramid given to her by the Friars to locate the Doctor and help the others rescue him.
The Doctor awakens in the Gargantuan’s cryogenic facility, where dozens of celebrities are held in suspended animation while Luminus uses their Celebroid doubles to influence the media. The Doctor finds and rescues the child genius Crispin from another malfunctioning chamber, and together they explore the submarine and discover that the Luminans are building a psychotronic generator. The Doctor smugly points out the flaws in the generator’s design to Crispin -- and realises too late that Crispin is in fact the Supreme One of the cult of Luminus. Crispin orders him to complete the generator, with which he will acquire total control over the brainwaves of Empire City’s entire population. The data from Devor’s implant has given the Luminans the insight into arrogance and stupidity which they required to complete their understanding of the human mind; now, with the Stupidity Factor in his grasp, Crispin will be able to generate an enormous psychotronic wave and remake society along the lines of his favourite sitcom. The former cast members of Martha and Arthur, including Howard Devor, have already been installed in the generator, and the Doctor has no choice but to build the missing components. The countdown then begins; total control will be achieved in the middle of the Tragedy Day celebrations.
Ernie arrives on the Gargantuan in search of the TARDIS, but he is unable to fight his way past the guards and is forced to retreat into the service corridors. Crispin sends a Slaag after him and puts the incident out of his mind -- but before he is killed, Ernie damages a vital part of the sub’s infrastructure. The Doctor’s friends then arrive, and Ace and Meredith fight their way to the control centre together, injuring Shrubb in the process; but upon arriving in the control centre, Meredith breaks her earlier promise and prepares to fulfill her contract by killing the Doctor. Before she can do so, Crispin shoots her dead. The countdown then reaches zero, and anyone not protected by an immuniser plate instantly falls under the spell of the psychotronic generator and begins to live out the character roles from Martha and Arthur -- Crispin’s ideal of family perfection. Meanwhile, the Friars detect the deaths of their assassins, and prepare to intervene personally.
The Celebroids stalk the streets of Empire City, killing all whose appearance does not fit in with the new ideal, and sending out excavators to tear down the city and rebuild row upon row of suburban tract houses. In the Gargantuan, the Doctor and his companions are placed under a mind probe, but even under the influence of the psychotronic wave the Doctor is able to shield his mind and prevent Crispin from learning how to operate the TARDIS. Convinced that the Doctor will break eventually, and that everything is going to plan, Crispin retires to bed… but while asleep he has a very interesting dream indeed about the beautiful Bernice, and wakes to find that puberty has at last set in. Suddenly, Crispin has odd feelings he’s never felt before, and is now terribly guilty about what he’s done to the planet in his desire to make a perfect family for himself. Meanwhile, as Shrubb tends to his injuries, he discovers that he too is a Celebroid. The knowledge drives him mad, and he goes to the cryogenics unit to kill his real self, determined to dispose of Crispin and make the Celebroids, “his” people, the dominant life form on Olleril.
Just as the Doctor expected, the psychotronic generator is unable to maintain control over the entire population of the planet, and it overloads and explodes. Due to Ernie’s interference in the infrastructure, the explosion causes a chain reaction which begins to destroy the Gargantuan. Devor is released from the generator in the confusion, but remains disoriented and concludes that Shrubb has been using him in a plot to overthrow the Supreme One. Shrubb catches Devor looking for a gun in the weapons laboratory and shoots him, but in a dying spasm, Devor fires a mezon gun into a pile of compression grenades, and the resulting explosion blows open the Slaag holding tank, setting them free. The panic- and guilt-stricken Crispin releases the Doctor and his friends just to show Bernice what a nice guy he really is, and the Doctor forces him to release the kidnapped celebrities and send them to safety in the sub’s escape pods.
Shrubb finds Crispin and tries to kill him, but Crispin uses a remote control to shut him down, which was the reason he’d replaced the ambitious Shrubb with a Celebroid copy in the first place. He then tries to force the others away at gunpoint so he and Bernice can run away together, but part of the submarine collapses around him, crushing him to death. As the Slaags chew their way through the remaining Luminans, the Doctor, Ace, Benny and Forgwyn escape in Ernie’s car, with the TARDIS still inside. Moments later, the Gargantuan explodes, and the shockwave knocks Ernie’s red pyramid into the Doctor’s hands -- and puts him in direct contact with the Friars. Before his companions can do anything, the Doctor and the TARDIS are transported to the wastes of Pangloss. Benny, Ace and Forgwyn have no choice but to continue on back to the devastated Empire City, where they find the stunned and unquestioning citizens lining up in a queue for disintegration on the antimatter dancefloor. Benny turns them away by telling them that it’s full and they should return tomorrow, and she and her friends set about switching the dancefloor off.
The Friars confront the Doctor and demand the return of the red glass, which none of their subservient followers have realised was stolen centuries ago. The Doctor manages to lock himself in the TARDIS, but the Friars prevent it from dematerialising; however, while trapped inside, he finds an entry on the Friars in the TARDIS data banks and learns how to destroy them. He thus contacts them and offers to surrender his TARDIS to them if they agree to spare his life. The Friars greedily grasp the chance to spread their domain of suffering through all time and space, and allow the Doctor to take them on a “test flight” to Olleril. There, the TARDIS materialises on the dancefloor, and the Friars emerge and prepare to use their psychic powers to transform Olleril into a wasteland of endless doom and despair -- but at the last moment, Forgwyn switches the floor back on, and the antimatter surge banishes the Friars into the Time Vortex for eternity.
Tragedy Day has ended with the central zone of Empire City in ruins, and the divisions between the formerly affluent and the poverty-stricken have been all but completely erased. The Doctor addresses the crowds, telling them that he has finally located and analysed the red glass -- and has found it to have no special properties whatsoever. The Friars merely convinced their followers that they were cursed, and their own fear kept them enslaved. The same happened on Olleril, where the natives and the human colonists who supplanted them were held back from putting their lives right by fear of a non-existent curse. Forgwyn decides to remain on Olleril with his baby brother until a rescue ship arrives to take him home, and the Doctor, Ace and Benny depart, leaving the people of Olleril to a brighter future.
Source: Cameron Dixon