24 February 2015

BF: Equilibrium

If I had to describe Equilibrium in a word, it would be refreshing. Matt Fitton's tale of an ice world of perpetuity and constancy is a welcome change from what has become the norm of late of relatively bland, uninspiring and forgettable main range Fifth Doctor tales. 

Pleasingly, this is also a very strong entry for Mark Strickson's Turlough. He's long been my favourite of Davison's three travelling companions in this ongoing series from Big Finish, and it's nice to hear Fitton agrees with me in the CD extras. It's not just the fact that he's afforded a greater prominence here than in stories like Mistfall; it's everything about the way he's written. Indeed, he's afforded some memorably witty dialogue ("What manner of man are you?"/"A cold one." being a particular favourite of mine) and it's a pleasure to hear Strickson really investing in the character again after he was more or less sidelined last month.

It might be something of a cliché of Big Finish stories, but when you sit down and count them properly, not that many have actually been set in wintry locations. And it's not just a gimmick here; much of Fitton's story stems from the location itself. The entirety of Equilibrium is encapsulated best by the idea of a snowglobe, and this is undoubtedly a story perfect for the Fifth Doctor. Hot on the heels of Solus, who made off with a piece of TARDIS tech that's essential if they ever want to return to N-Space, the TARDIS crash-lands on Isenfel. 

Before long, they become mixed up in the politics of Isenfel, ruled over by Queen Karlina, and discover the horror at the society's core. Although the opening could be accused of being light on incident, it's completely worth it as the scene is set beautifully and it's some of the mostly magnificently atmospheric work we've had in quite a while. But then of course Fitton turns the seemingly benign and really rather charming setup on its head come the end of the first episode.

There's no doubt in my mind that this is one of the highest quality main range stories in quite a while. Not to take anything away from any contributing parties, but I wasn't expecting all that much from this - enjoyable but disposable. I think that's subconsciously become my default highest expectation for monthly Fifth Doctor stories, after the mostly dismal 2014 entries. Although I can't claim to  be any kind of authority on the matter, I rarely see much excitement surrounding announcements of Davison stories on forums or other websites. This story should, pardon the pun, upset the balance somewhat. 

I was blown away in the first episode by the music and sound design, and so it didn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Richard Fox and Lauren Yason were responsible for the post-production. These two have produced some of the finest scores of all Big Finish's catalogue and I'm so glad that - like with Tom Webster - the company are actively re-employing recognisable talent as well as broadening their books - as with Joe Kramer, who'll perform these duties on April's The Defectors.  Overall, I can't fault Fox and Yason's contribution to Equilibrium and think their sound design really is the standard to beat. The icy expanses of Isenfel never fell short of believable, and the accompany score complemented the story perfectly.

It's encouraging to hear how re-invigorated the lead cast can sound when supplied with a high quality script. Although Mistfall may have suffered from being recorded first, their is a tangible additional energy to their performances. Peter Davison clearly relishes getting all manner of Doctory things to do, and the fact that the Second Doctor could also have stepped seamlessly into the Fifth's place should only help things, given the latter's appreciation of the former. Janet Fielding is far less aggravating than usual (and I did love the Doctor's line towards the end that he was 'enjoying the peace', not knowing she'd been kidnapped!) and even Sarah Sutton sounds almost emotional at times. As already noted though, Mark Strickson fairs best of the regulars and I really hope this is a theme that continues through to next month's The Entropy Plague.

Before I go, I must just mention the guest cast. Annette Badland is predictably fantastic as Queen Karlina, and clearly gives her all to the role. I might have liked Karlina's final line to have been edited slightly, to something a little less realistic (!) - my suggestion would be "Why should I change now?" to reflect the serial's overriding themes of change. Elsewhere Nickolas Grace gives a remarkable turn as Balancer Skarsgard (a role far more interesting than the similarly-titled Deciders) and Joanna Kirkland is excellent as love interest Inger.

On paper, this may appear to be something of a traditional Doctor Who story, and in a way I suppose it is. This is a Troughton-esque 'overthrowing the oppressors' tale with a twist. The wolves were extremely well realised, and are a valuable addition. For a story all about showing the Doctor that he does leave things better than he finds them, I hope this upswing in quality can continue in the coming months. After spending a few weeks on the dusty coast of America with Dark Shadows, this was a refreshing change. Perhaps I've got Bloodlust on the brain, but I was convinced for two episodes that Inger must have been played Asta Parry. What impressed me most was how well this fitted not only into the Fifth Doctor's era, but also into this new E-Space trilogy (and I love how closely these three stories are tied together, by the way). This is imaginative, atmospheric and an overall delight. 

In a Nutshell: Well written, acted and produced, Equilibrium is my favourite main range play for some time.

Buy Equilibrium from Big Finish here, or read Joe Ford's review here.

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