08 April 2015

BF: The Entropy Plague

Following the space pirates that have kidnapped Tegan, the Fifth Doctor, Turlough and Nyssa arrive at the end of the universe. However, the demise of E-Space does offer a route back to the foursome's native universe. Every story written by Jonny Morris is undeniably special, but with The Entropy Plague he ramps things up in spectacular, end-of-season style. This feels like a release that will linger among the best-regarded Big Finish serials in years to come, but curiously I feel no compulsion to re-listen to it due to the grim, bleak tone imposed throughout.

Morris explores this end-of-the-universe scenario in intriguing depth. It'll be no spoiler to reveal that this feels reminiscent of both Russell T Davies' Utopia and Matt Fitton's 2014 story Signs and Wonders, which Morris script edited. One aspect carried across from the latter to this story is the party at the end of the universe, though it's depicted much more satisfyingly here. As in Utopia, there's no real antagonist here. Instead we explore the effect the inevitable end of time has on characters. Again as in Utopia, there's thousands of desperate refugees eager to be launched off the planet - this time at the will of scientist Pallister.

Pallister is certainly an interesting character. It's an intriguing arc that his character goes on; as we get closer to the end, he becomes increasingly self-interested and much more willing to sacrifice others to save his own hide. This might sound like a standard, shallow mad-scientist development but for one thing I'm sure I've massively undersold him, and for another, Morris' greatest feat with the character lies in the execution. The mutual respect (to a point) that Pallister and the Doctor share makes the desperation of Part Four even more so, as while the former is soon free of qualms about abandoning the latter, the reverse is of course not true.

Another story this brought to mind was The Caves of Androzani. In Davison's swansong, he spends much of the time trying to escape their situation - a desperate race against time to save himself and Peri. The same tone is present as we get further and further into The Entropy Plague and Davison gives a similarly energetic performance. In fact, this is one of his most impressive performances for some time. Reading along, he sets to match the intentions I took from Morris' script nearly every time and the gravity of his performance really does make this is a nail-biting conclusion to the current Fifth Doctor arc.

Apollyon is another interesting world. A world swarming with various species thanks to the presence of the CVE promising sanctuary in N-Space, it's evocatively crafted and similarly realised by Andy Hardwick. The carnival of death sequence is a powerful image and the refugee populace make for an engaging backdrop. This world couldn't be further from the traditional reservedness of Isenfel in last month's Equilibrium but they're similar in other ways. To start with, both are power-drained settlements where escape requires substantial sacrifice. Personally I prefer Morris' adorably rickety setup - to pass through the CVE, ships are fired along a railway-like ramp, evoking Potts' mad inventions from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - but there's not a lot in it.

There really isn't an aspect of this story that isn't impressive. Pallister's Sentinels, Cherryanne and Branarack - the only pirate given voice, much to my surprise - all add volumes to the release. The Sandmen are perhaps my favourite original characters of the piece, however. Entropy embodied, they stalk the streets with the best new catchphrase I've heard in a while. It's a testament to Morris' skill that they are strong enough to support a story by themselves, but using them simply as a tangible catalyst doesn't reduce their impact at all. He hasn't created that many races on audio, and when he can be as ingenious as this, it feels like a shame. 

The direction and production is also near-flawless. Andy Hardwick provides an accomplished score to accompany such a well-formed package. His sound design is likewise never less than excellent, and it feels like all the stops have been pulled out for such a heart-stopping climax. All the guest cast are suitably remarkable, using markedly different voices for each of their characters. Perhaps standing out in this respect is John Voce, who plays Captain Branarack. It's a distinct accent he adopts, complete with adapting a couple of Morris' lines here and there to complete the image.

I've deliberately avoided mentioning the elephant in the room. The conclusion of this story is built up slowly over the preceding three episodes, and the structure Morris chooses to adopt is shown to be even more clever than you initially think come Part Four. At times, this reminded me of a full-cast Companion Chronicle, which is no bad thing. Peppered with pleasing continuity references (evoking Warriors' Gate and Cobwebs in equal measure) this by no means requires any previous stories, but is probably enhanced by knowledge. This trilogy has been my first experience of this arc, and I've had no problems jumping on here. Although the latter two stories are the strongest, I'd recommend all three for maximum narrative satisfaction. This is an excellent end to this chapter of Big Finish's history, and is presented as a definite conclusion. Jonny Morris is always good value for money, but even he shifts up a gear for such an historic release, often expertly using humour to enhance the production.

In a Nutshell: A high-quality conclusion to one of Big Finish's longest arcs. 

Read Joe Ford's review here.

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