The Doctor’s companions are suddenly expelled from the TARDIS, which materialises on the Summit, a station constructed by the Hollow Gods of the Dagellan Cluster to host peace talks between the Cluster’s three Empires. The savage, barbarian Dakhaari, the militaristic Czhaans and the conniving, conspiratorial Saloi are about to go to war over the planet Moriel, which is located at the exact mid-point between the Empires, and the Hollow Gods -- omnipotent beings who have ruled the Empires since time immemorial -- have summoned the Doctor to arbitrate. The Doctor plays along with the Hollow Gods’ agenda for the moment, and soon realises that the Empires have been stuck in the same behavioural patterns for so long that their cultures have become ritualised, with no depth to them. He decides to open talks by arranging a series of cultural demonstrations, announcing that nobody will be forced to attend if they don’t want to. The representatives are initially reluctant to attend, but eventually do so, and begin to realise that much of their hatred and revulsion towards one another is based upon cultural misunderstandings. As an uneasy peace begins to settle over the Summit, however, nobody realises that three minor functionaries -- one from each Empire -- have been abducted by things living behind the Summit’s walls.
Benny awakens on a distant planet, naked, with no idea how she got there, and unable to speak the local language -- indicating that she is further from the TARDIS then she ever has been since she began travelling with the Doctor. She tries hitching a ride to the local city, and ends up stealing the truck and the owner’s clothing after he makes a brutal pass at her. Unfortunately, she is unable to drive the truck properly, and crashes it upon reaching the city. She is pursued from the wreckage by canine security officers, but escapes from them by taking a ratty little humanoid hostage. She doesn’t realise it yet, but the humanoid is in fact a human, Jason Kane, who’s been stranded in the Dagellan Cluster for fifteen years ever since he was somehow transported away from Earth in 1996. At first, he responds to the arrival of a human female with an atavistic total attraction, but he soon becomes irritated by her condescending attitude. Nevertheless, he leads her to his spaceship, and rigs the launch codes to get away from the planet without paying the docking fees. The police track them down and open fire at the ship to try to stop them from taking off, but two clockwork monsters suddenly appear as if from nowhere and slaughter the police, giving Jason the opportunity to take off. Mortified to realise that Jason has understood every patronising word she’s said to him, Benny inquires about the local politics and demands to be taken to the Summit, certain that the Doctor will be in the thick of it all. Jason flatly refuses, planning instead to drop her on the nearest inhabited planet and let her go the rest of the way by herself.
Roz and Chris have also been transported naked to the planet Czhanos, but they are still within range of the TARDIS’ translation circuits. They steal two soldiers’ uniforms in order to blend in, only to be located by the soldiers’ sergeant and ordered back to their ships for Embarkation. Despite the injunction by the Hollow Gods, the Czhans intend to land on Moriel and capture it before the other Empires realise what they’ve done. Roz and Chris survive their arrival on Moriel in clockwork landing capsules, and emerge to find that Moriel, beneath its perpetual cloud cover, appears to be a sickeningly cute world of rainbows, lush green grass and playful animals, populated by an insanely cheery race called Plobs. Much to their surprise, the Czhans discover that the Dakhaari and Saloi have also landed illegal occupational forces on Moriel, and some minutes of confusion follow as each force finds out that it’s been infiltrated by double-agents from both rivals. Eventually eveybody sorts out who’s supposed to be fighting for whom, and battle is joined. Roz and Chris choose to sit out the battle, and thus are unaware that in the midst of the fighting, horrific beings are bursting up out of the ground and dragging unwary soldiers down with them.
Jason must stop at a refueling station in space, but when he tries to leave his ship he discovers that the hatchway has been welded shut by the gunfire on Jaris. Since he has no spacesuit, he takes the dangerous risk of sealing up his clothing in duct tape and blowing himself out of the cargo bay, hoping to spacewalk across to the station. Against all odds he manages to survive, but when the cargo bay opens his ship begins to lose its atmosphere through its badly maintained decompression seals, and Benny nearly dies of oxygen starvation before Jason can get back in and close the cargo bay doors. He tries to resuscitate her, but when she awakens to find him wrapped around her and breathing into her mouth she instinctively hits him. They depart the station in a furious silence, but as the journey drags on they eventually have little choice but to begin talking each other to pass the time. Jason makes a thoughtless comment about the Daleks before realising that she saw them kill her mother before her eyes, and, mortified, actually listens to the rest of her story. In turn, he tells her that he spent years on the streets of London after running away from his psychotically abusive father, until one night he unexpectedly awoke to find that he had been transported here to the Dagellan Cluster. He has never learned how this happened, and his only companion for the past fifteen years has been a vicious little alien animal, which he found nearby when he awoke, and which he has named Shug.
As the Summit continues, the Doctor senses other forces at work, almost subtle enough to be beyond even his perceptions. The leaders of the three Empires -- Ravla the Warrior Queen of Dakhaar, Koth the Supreme Commander of All Czhanist Forces, and Morweth, the Saloi’s Assistant sub-Administratorial Secretary Without Portfolio for the Pursuance of Imperial and Local Sewerage Regulation and Common Hygiene -- are all being guided towards the same isolated sector of the Summit, in such a way that their mistrust upon finding each other in the same place at the same time blinds them to the real danger. The Doctor arrives just in time to save them from the three kidnapped functionaries, who burst out of hiding and attack without warning. Sareth, Morweth’s bodyguard, is unable to act in time -- but Morweth suddenly flies into a berzerker rage and slaughters the three assassins, although he is himself killed. As he dies, he pledges his loyalty to Sareth, who realises for the first time that he is the true emperor of the Saloi. The Doctor had guessed that some time ago; the Saloi’s culture is based upon bluff and disinformation, and while Sareth thought he was merely Morweth’s bodyguard and advisor, he never realised that all of Morweth’s command decisions were in fact based upon Sareth’s suggestions and advice.
Jason and Benny land on the planet Markath, where Jason makes some much-needed money in the casino with electronic cheating devices; he’d be brutally killed if he used them himeslf, and he therefore sells them to the casino owners, who will in turn sell them on the black market to people who think they can use them to change their luck. Jason and Benny then get drunk and open up to each other even further, telling each other the truly terrible things that have happened in their lives. Eventually, they stagger back to their rented hotel room and make love. Upon awakening, however, Benny shuns Jason, convinced that he’s just used her and will now abandon her. Deeply hurt, and unwilling to show it, Jason drops Benny off on the planet Kalas and sets off without another word. As Benny tries to find another guide, she realises that she can now understand the local language, which means that the TARDIS must be nearby; but before she can do anything, the two clockwork robots which attacked the ship on Jaris reappear, and this time it’s obvious that they are in fact pursuing her. At the last moment, Jason returns and lands his ship on top of the robots, crushing them both; unable to leave Benny, despite her rejection of him, he covers his actions by claiming that he returned because she hadn’t paid him yet. As they set off for the Summit, one of the damaged automatons, its programme hopelessly corrupted, begins to put itself back together again.
The Doctor summons Ravla, Koth, and Sareth back to the TARDIS, announcing that their attempts to negotiate around each other must stop at once. The three assassins’ brains were modified by technology beyond the understanding of the Three Empires; there is a fourth party at work here, and the Empires must work together to defeat it. Thanks to the Doctor’s attempts to guide them into new ways of thinking, they finally realise that the only fourth party present in the Summit are the Hollow Gods’ automaton servitors. They follow one into the Summit’s service tunnels, where they find a temporal manipulation unit, shoddily assembled from junk parts scavenged from throughout the Empires and beyond. When the Doctor operates the device, the Hollow Gods suddenly materialise, and Ravla, Koth, and Sareth realise that their cultures have been engineered by a badly constructed machine which has probably only existed in real time for the past twenty years. Sareth, infuriated, demands that the truth be told. What nobody in the Summit yet realises is that all transmissions from within the Summit ceased as soon as the leaders entered -- and that as all attempts to contact their leaders have failed, the Empires are now entering the initial skirmishes of the war which will destroy them all.
As the battle on Moreth winds down, Roz and Chris begin to realise that there aren’t as many bodies around as there should be, and find a Dakhaari soldier named Makar who has gone into shock after seeing his fellow soldiers being kidnapped by creatures which he couldn’t focus on properly. Roz, Chris and Makar head towards what they thought was the Plob settlement, but the illusion of “Plob-Land” vanishes around them and is replaced by the true landscape of Moriel -- a blasted wasteland. The soldiers kidnapped by the “Plobs” -- who are in fact called the Skrak -- are now being modified in the same way as the assassins from the Summit, and once under the Skrak’s control, they summon down the orbiting spaceships, claiming that Moriel has been seized. As soon as the ships land, however, the Skrak kill all aboard and begin scavenging parts from their ships.
Jason and Benny attempt to clear the air between them as they leave Kalas, but again their conversation degenerates into a vicious argument -- until Shug, Jason’s alien “pet”, pulls a gun on them, psychoanalyses their relationship, reveals that they’re both too terrified of rejection to admit to themselves that they’ve fallen in love, and tells them to shut up about it already. After fifteen years of skulking about on the fringes of the Cluster, unwilling to risk entering the dangerous sector of space controlled by the Three Empires, Jason has finally brought Shug -- who is in fact the leader of the Skrak -- close enough to Moriel for Shug to operate a patchwork teleport unit which he’s assembled from scrap. The unit teleports Jason’s ship directly to Moriel, where Shug is reunited with his fellow Skrak at last. He shoots Jason and throws his body into a pit with Benny, but as Benny weeps, Jason reveals that he’s wearing a protective mesh under his jacket. He and Benny make love again.
Ravla, Koth and Sareth attempt to lead their delegations back to their respective ships, only to find that the Summit is not a space station at all, but a construction on the planet Moriel to which they were all transmatted when they left their ships’ airlocks. The Skrak and their monstrous alien cohorts, the Otherlings, attack the delegates, but the Doctor leads them to shelter in his TARDIS; however, Shug then fetches Benny and forces the Doctor to emerge. The Doctor realises that the Skrak’s life cycle is similar to that of certain species exposed to temporal fallout during the early years of Gallifreyan time experiments; the Skrak and the extra-dimensional Otherlings symbiotically recycle the same few moments of Time, and as such their species may be a self-generated paradox which has only existed for the past twenty years. Shug reveals that his people have assembled the temporal manipulator using technology scavenged from all corners of the galaxy -- but when Shug tried to return from Earth with certain parts he needed, his ambitious subordinate, Gleka, diverted the transmat beam, inadvertently sweeping up Jason in it and stranding Shug in the Cluster for fifteen years. Shug now kills Gleka for his betrayal and prepares to complete his master plan. The temporal manipulation unit has reached back through Time, manipulating the destinies of the Three Empires in order to accelerate their technological development and bring them to the point of war. When the Empires destroy each other, the Skrak will scavenge parts from the wreckage, and become the most powerful empire in the cosmos. The Doctor was summoned here so the Skrak could steal his TARDIS, and his companions were removed from his presence to leave him, at least in theory, helpless.
Chris, Roz and Makar follow the Skrak and the Otherlings to a large building on the landscape, which they conclude correctly is the centre of the Skrak’s activities -- it is, in fact, the Summit. There, they rescue Jason and head for the centre of the Summit to rescue Benny, only to be overpowered by the Otherlings. Just as it appears that Shug has triumphed, however, the damaged automaton finally arrives from Kalas. The Skrak had sent it to kill Benny when they realised that she was still alive -- but due to the damage it suffered when Jason crashed his ship on it, it kills Shug instead of Benny. The leaderless Skrak and Otherlings are then defeated by the combined forces of the Dakhaari, Czhans and Saloi, and the Doctor uses the temporal manipulator to broadcast one last message from the Hollow Gods, announcing that peace has been declared. As Sareth, Koth and Revla begin working together to ensure a truly lasting peace, the Doctor destroys the temporal manipulator and prepares to depart, satisfied that all has been resolved. But Benny then announces that Jason has proposed to her, and she’s accepted.
Source: Cameron Dixon