1 April 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Jonathan Morris

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“A Great Darkness is spreading over E-Space. Entropy increases. In search of a last exit to anywhere, the TARDIS arrives on the power-less planet of Apollyon, where the scientist Pallister guards the only way out – a mysterious portal. But the portal needs power to open, and the only power Pallister can draw on is the energy contained within the molecular bonds of all living tissue...

The Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough soon learn that neither Pallister nor his ally, the space pirate Captain Branarack, will stop at murder to ensure their escape. But they're not the only menace on Apollyon. The Sandmen are coming – creatures that live on the life force; that live on death.

Death is the only way out into N-Space. Death, or sacrifice.

But whose death?

Whose sacrifice?”

***

All good things must come to an end (sometimes; if your name is Hex then god only knows) and so the stories featuring Older/Young/Old-ish Again Nyssa come to an end in this, The Entropy Plague by Jonathan Morris.  In many ways, this feels like not so much a conclusion to the E-Space trilogy which we’ve been experiencing across these past few plays, but a sequel and finale to everything post-Morris’s own Prisoners of Fate.  Nyssa has a family to get back to, and being stuck in E-Space is only hastening the inevitable, despite how much the Doctor would like her to stay.

In keeping with the rest of this trilogy, the story has strong nods to its positional equivalent in Season 18’s original foray into E-Space: Mistfall shared its writer, Marshmen and, erm, Mistfall with Full Circle; Equilibrium and State of Decay have their castles and regal cast; and here in The Entropy Plague, we have Warriors’ Gate’s thresholds and setting as well, this one being set on the other side of the world to Steve Gallagher’s original concept-heavy tale.

Whilst Equilibrium managed to feel very Bidmeadian in its concepts, music and execution, this time we are firmly in Eric Saward’s home ground.  You know how Ressurection of the Daleks has the ethos of ‘Life is Crap and then you Die’? This play makes that look positively life-affirming and comedic.

We start with the Doctor telling Nyssa’s son, Adric, that he will never, ever see his mother ever again, and then we flashback to a point where Tegan is still kidnapped by space pirates (clearly everyone on board forgot how successful space pirates had been on the last attempt) and the TARDIS is crashing (what else?) down on the planet Apollyon.  Devoid of power and borrowing liberally from the sound effects bank (Cloister Bell? Check.  Dwindly-light sound from Death to the Daleks? Present), things are looking dark and bleak for our heroes, which only sets the tone for what is to come across the next 100-odd minutes.

Apollyon is a dying world, the people are celebrating the end of all things, and the only way out— a CVE leading to N-Space— is probably what’s going to kill everyone else, unless entropy does first.  Morris decides to make entropy more of a tangible threat than a few starts being blotted out ala Logopolis though, and so we get the Sandmen, the nipple-tastic monsters which grace the CD cover, who rather nightmarishly are the living embodiment of an old folk tale… or would be if they were nightmarish.  Instead, they mostly growl about dust a lot.  It’s a rare dropping of the ball by Morris, who usually milks his good ideas for all they’re worth, but this monster-of-the-week feels increasingly functional and not much beyond tokenistic.

In fact, The Entropy Plague is a rare case of Morris dropping the ball altogether, and giving us something that is just unremittingly bleak across its duration.  I understand that the collapse of an entire universe is no laughing matter, but there is no glimmer of happiness across the play.  We get pointless sacrifice, torture, threatened executions, families torn apart, separation and selfishness instead, and that’s nearly all in the opening episode.  By the time I reached the point where one of the guest cast is mercilessly put to death only to get a slight reprieve before killing themselves horribly and pointlessly, I found myself having to Google images of kittens to fully recall that not everything in this world is utterly horrendous.

No-one seems happy here.  The Doctor seems quite happy to let a universe die to escape, channelling Hartnell’s incarnation in many ways; Turlough sounds pained as situations confer to make him have to act selfishly; Tegan is placed in danger of death more often than one can count; and Nyssa seems to know that she is never going to see her family again even before the title music has properly faded and the first scene kicked in.

The story is at least open about Nyssa’s fate from the very off (until Big Finish perform a massive u-turn on it in a couple of years’ time, one suspects) and such a scenario warrants a certain gravity, but this goes beyond that, to the point where her departure feels almost by-the-bye in this world of utterly nasty things and occurrences and, despite an attempt at sweetening things with a monologue at the end, you’re left in no doubt that nobody is happy, no-one at all.  And why would they be in a world where everything is bloody awful?

Doctor Who is many things and has many faces, but it has rarely if ever been as grim and so utterly devoid of pleasure as this.  For me, Doctor Who is and always will be a children’s show.  I think there is room for more adult pursuits in these plays and comics and books and suchlike, but if the goalposts are shifted so far as to become unrecognizable as is the case here, and you lose any appeal to children whatsoever, then you can count me out.

There will be many, no doubt, who warm to this nihilistic take on the show and its truly adult no-kids-allowed vision, but I am not among them; it left me thoroughly cold and just wanting it to end from around three episodes in.  It takes more than just a TARDIS to make Doctor Who the show it is; I only hope that’s remembered in the future. 

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