Isenfell be constant, says Tony.
E-Space is weird.
The original trilogy of E-Space stories was a dense block of mostly unfathomable malarkey in the run-up to Tom Baker’s farewell from the role of the Doctor.
For reasons mostly of its own devising, Big Finish has now returned to the pocket-universe of E-space for three Fifth Doctor stories. Whether you enjoy the new E-Space adventures really rather depends on whether you enjoyed the original E-Space trilogy with Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Matthew Waterhouse.
What I mean by that is that there’s a very particular ‘vibe’ to E-Space. We’re not in N-Space any more, Toto. E-Space is…well…weird.
E-Space is all about entropy, energy, collapse, decay, cyclic systems, closed systems and what can conceivably be done about the whole wretched ‘rapid collapse of control and matter’ palaver. If you’re not up for that, you should probably skip the new E-Space trilogy altogether. These will not be the stories you’re looking for.
Andrew Smith’s return to Alzarius in Mistfall set the tone by giving us a deeper insight into the world of the Marshmen and its cyclic system. For the second story in the trilogy we’re in closed system territory on the world of Isenfell. If that sounds a little Nordic and Viking, it’s probably deliberate, as Isenfell’s a bit of a snowglobe world – from mists we shift to frozen tundra under a feudal regime that works on the principle that for every addition there must be a subtraction, to ensure that Isenfell remains essentially constant. All sounds very logical, doesn’t it?
Try having children in a place like that.
Or indeed, if you happen to arrive in a big blue box from outer space, try being a visitor to a place like that. There’s a ghastly, proper E-Space barmy horror to the mathematics of survival on Isenfell, and the corollary is that if the inhabitants don’t balance the energies of their world, the world has a way of doing it for itself – the fabulously in-period idea of ‘black snow’ which falls like death until one way or another, Isenfell is damn well constant. Equilibrium will be maintained.
As an idea, the central philosophy of Equilibrium is pretty strong, and while in all fairness it takes significantly less than a genius to work out what’s going on, the episode endings also work well in terms of the Eighties cliff-hanger – the first episode in particular is quite shocking because while you may have guessed the way the world works, to see it played out is still a punch in the face. Episode three has a great cliff-hanger too, because it shifts the blame for the escalation of events on Isenfell from some long-gone civilization squarely onto the Doctor’s shoulders, in a way you’d think he’d be too experienced in the ways of entropy to fall for. For the uninitiated, the more energy you pour into a closed system, the more entropy you create – it’s like running faster to go backwards.
The eventual solution to the issues of Isenfell is provided not by the Doctor, but by a character who doesn’t, at the start, know what they’re capable of, but has it revealed to them by the Fifth Doctor in a moment of what passes, for him, as high dudgeon. It’s a telling metaphor for the tearing down of tradition and getting to the fundamental truths underneath, especially because, as Janet Fielding mentions in the extras, there’s a direct and clever sci-fi parallel between Isenfell in E-Space and the Earth and its real-world ecological strain today. Both are to all intents and purposes closed systems at the mercy of potentially deadly climates. The sobering thought of course is that there’s unlikely to be a one-act-saves-all MacGuffin when it comes to the Earth, but the tearing down of systems that are unsustainable before the tipping point of destruction is reached has a real lesson to teach on a planet where the response to the melting of the ice caps has been to rush through legislation allowing more shipping to go via the Poles.
Characterisation in Equilibrium is pleasingly strong – there’s a limited cast, but each of the characters stands out well. Annette ‘Margaret Slitheen’ Badland delivers a radically different and eventually a deeply effecting vocal performance for Queen Karlina, while Big Finish stalwart Nickolas ‘Straxus’ Grace is more recognizable, but still gives a layered performance as Balancer Skaarsgard. The most fun in the story though is given by Joanna Kirkland as Princess Inger, who appears to be the love-child of Brian Blessed and Rik Mayall, and who looks at the ‘ember-haired’ Turlough and decides she wants him. Sadly for the prospect of lots of little flame-haired Isenfellows, Turlough thinks she’s ‘absolutely barking mad’. To be fair to the moany redheaded git of time travel – ‘Snow, more snow, and oh look over there – mountains of snow!’ he declares on their landing on Isenfell – he has a point about Inger, but her barking mad demeanour does power the story to several of its turning points, and she’s relentlessly invigorating along the way. There’s also especially good work from Sarah Sutton and writer Matt Fitton in developing ‘older Nyssa’ in this story, her strengths as a mother, her balanced admiration for the Doctor and her apparent willingness to give up her life of travel with him coming to the fore at different points in the story to help smooth its flow.
In terms of its place as part two of a trilogy, Equilibrium works well – the thread that leads the Tardis crew to the icy planet is quickly dispensed with, and the thread that takes them through to the next story, The Entropy Plague, is subtly slipped in at the end as a proper companion-kidnap.
As I say, you have to be in a properly E-Space state of mind to really get the most from Equilibrium, so would it be one to buy?
Yes, I’d say so – it does little enough wrong to make a couple of hours slip by reasonably quickly, and the characters are believable enough to make you happy to spend that time with them. The plot circles a fundamentally simple idea with complex consequences, and the amount that each of the companions gets to do is sufficient to keep you interested in each of their threads. If you enjoyed Mistfall, you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Besides, as is the way with trilogies, it’s tricky to listen to any of the parts without listening to all of them, and Fitton’s script meets the quality requirement set by Smith’s re-entry to the E-Space universe, so give it a go – the ball has yet to be dropped so far in the new E-Space arc.