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1 March 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Matt Fitton

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: February 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“Still looking for a way out of E-Space, the TARDIS crashes to Isenfel - a realm of snow and ice. Snarling beasts stalk the frozen plains, a feisty princess leads the hunt, and a queen in an ice palace rules over her loyal subjects.

But this is no fairytale kingdom, and everyone in Isenfel knows the price of survival. While Nyssa and Tegan uncover deadly secrets hidden in the palace, Turlough flees for his life across the tundra.

And as for the Doctor... he only ever wants to change things for the better. But in a world such as Isenfel, such a hope may not even be possible.

***

Welcome to Isenfel.  Weather: cold.  Attitudes: frosty.  Population number: frozen.

The second play in this trilogic romp through E-Space, Equilibrium sees the TARDIS land (well, crash-land) in an ice-clad world of regal charm, barren landscapes, and technological disaster, where very quickly the TARDIS crew find themselves welcomed into the icy faux-mediaeval realm, and the Doctor is lusted after for his knowledge of science whereas Turlough is lusted over for his hair.  All is not as well as it would appear though, and the Balancer is soon on the scene, putting meaning behind the story’s title: Equilibrium is required, and the Doctor isn’t going to like that at all.

Matt Fitton, the script’s writer, does a great job in world building here, painting the scenery and atmosphere in but a few lines, and is aided by some lovely sound design and jovial music by Lauren Yason and Richard Fox.  Even the CD cover shows the TARDIS crew looking a bit blue, with Turlough looking like he’s just got for the last biscuit in the pack but found it empty.

I mention Turlough early on here as it’s him that shone brightest of all the regulars for me in this play.  A lot of attention is paid to Nyssa for how much more development her character has been given by Big Finish over the years, but Turlough has also been afforded plenty of dramatic and humorous moments, and Mark Strickson is a fantastic actor who often gets overlooked, in my opinion unfairly.

You have Adric, who gets attention for very different reasons; Nyssa, so beloved of Big Finish; Tegan, so loud and present; Peri, so fleeting and connected to The Caves of Androzani, that most loved tale; and even Kamelion gets attention through being so poorly used.  Poor Turlough often gets ignored, which is an insult to the character and Strickson, so it’s nice to see that addressed here.  He gets a decent slice of the action, a subplot with the equally interesting Inger.  You know how Big Finish often bring characters back with the line “Well, as soon as s/he was in the studio, we knew we wanted them back!” and a wink to the audience? This is one of those rare cases where it would be both completely welcome and potentially exciting.

Nyssa also gets treated very well, especially in Part Four where her relationship with the Doctor in her older guise is better observed than almost any time else since that particular storyline began.  If the show needed a mission statement, then Nyssa’s words of encouragement provide it.

Overall, Fitton’s script is very, very good.  It fits in perfectly with E-Space as Christopher H Bidmead executed it, and indeed it could quite easily fit into Season Eighteen with little difficulty, with its themes of science vs. regality, entropy, isolation and trying-to-escape, as well as the TARDIS being used as much for its technology as for its ability to take our heroes from A to B.

Where it really excels though is in the final episode (the diametric opposite of nigh-on every other Doctor Who story in existence, then) where the pace slows enough to let tragedy, character and atmosphere really shine.  By the time someone has described death as “an absence and a presence”, you know you’re listening to some of the most affecting drama Big Finish has put out in a while, and some of the deepest.  You care about this world, so neatly built in so short a span of time; you care about the characters, fleeting though they may be.  Fitton has pulled off something remarkable here, and the actors are all game.

Indeed, Equilibrium provides us with the best female guest cast Big Finish have had for absolutely ages, with Ella Kenion doing well in the role of Romy, but Annette Badland, and Joanna Kirkland in particular excelling as Queen Karlina and the aforementioned Inger, respectively.  The only criticism I can really pick (and in all honesty I try not to look for things to pick away at) is that Romy as a character is perhaps a bit more predictable than the others (the kitchen servant with a heart of gold and a family to protect!) and Kenion’s voice is at times rather similar to Janet Fielding’s, which makes one of the cliffhangers a tad tricky to decipher first time around.

It’s a minor thing though, and it’s certainly not enough to not warrant a full ten out of ten score for this play.  It builds in quality as it goes along, showing its cards quickly enough to milk the drama but not so quick as to run out of steam, and in its final throes gives us some of the best acting and dialogue the range has ever offered: Queen Karlina is someone you ache for, Inger is someone you want to see back by Turlough’s side, and the Doctor needs Nyssa in a way that makes complete sense, which only makes you think that the next play, The Entropy Plague, will break a heart (or maybe two hearts) come its conclusion.

With a cliffhanger ending leading into the final play of this trilogy, the appetite is truly whet and I’m certainly ready to see what becomes of E-Space this time around, but I would have gladly lingered longer still in Fitton’s beautiful prose and world.  A magnificent play.

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