In the remnant of a shattered satellite, far above the ruined planet Earth, Steven Taylor and Oliver Harper are dying. As time runs out, they face their pasts. and a secret long kept is revealed.


The borrowed time is elapsing, and they realiSe they are facing an enemy that cannot be defeated. The cold, hard facts of science. …





The Cold Equations

JUNE 2011







Drafted into the television series to play a dashing “space pilot” substitute for a dashing departing schoolteacher, within just a few weeks Peter Purves found himself playing a strong right-arm without even the merest whiff of a back story, and even less in the way of distinguishing traits. However, Doctor Who’s multifarious spin-off media has been kinder to Steven Taylor, and the Big Finish Companion Chronicles particularly so. It may have taken almost fifty years, but now, at long last, it’s getting a little easier to point towards a story that is about Steven Taylor.


The Cold Equations is the first ‘Steven adventure’ to make uses of his long-forgotten back story; so much so, in fact, that Simon Guerrier built his whole pitch on the idea. This two-part tale allows Steven to utilise the exceptional “six-dimensional” talents that his TARDIS travels had hitherto rendered redundant, and they’re far more impressive than just pulling levers and flicking switches. As Guerrier so magnificently demonstrates in the second episode, Steven is at home in the vacuum of space; he understands the mathematics and mechanics of it in a way that’s almost instinctual. But this story isn’t content just to show off Steven’s long-hidden skills - emotionally he’s at his lowest ebb, having recently lost Sara and Katarina and been burdened with another fellow traveller, whose “borrowed time” might run out at any moment. And where better to explore the man’s inner desolation than in the suitably-romantic freezing vacuity of space, in the remnants of a shattered satellite, far above the ruined Earth, which is all but obscured by space debris?


Guerrier’s script also lifts the veil on Oliver Harper, the Doctor and Steven’s newest travelling companion. The Perpetual Bond left a number of burning questions blazing - why were the police coming to arrest Oliver? What did he do…? – which The Cold Equations definitively answers, and far more audaciously than I had expected it to. Oliver’s “crime”, in the eyes of 1960s British law, was to fall in love with another man (and, presumably, consummate that affection). It’s a bold and interesting move for Big Finish, as the feeling of dipping back into an innocent, bygone era of the show is instantly lost, and instead black and white Who is dragged over fifty years’ worth of cultural progression, leaving it every bit as contemporary as the HD, widescreen spectacle that the nation now laps up on a Saturday night. As such, this could be seen as either the ‘Oliver’ trilogy’s greatest strength or its greatest weakness, depending on what you’re looking for when you buy a Companion Chronicle.


© Big Finish Productions 2011. No copyright infringement is intended.


I think it’s an inspired move, particularly as Oliver is otherwise such a conservative, middle-class professional who wants nothing more than to conform to his haughty peers. He wants to be wheeling and dealing, waving his brolly and doffing his bowler hat, but instead he’s a prisoner of his own heart and the bars that society puts around it. There’s real tragedy in that. And placing him alongside Steven only highlights the injustice further – Steven is, much like Captain Jack, from a future where no-one cares about a person’s orientation. Indeed, those who’ve followed Mr Taylor’s exploits in print will no doubt be familiar with his own homosexual proclivities. And whilst Guerrier doesn’t push that particular idea too forcefully here (though there is at least one duly-veiled gag about it), putting such an oppressed individual beside such a liberated one brings the discrimination into sharp focus.


Peter Purves and Tom Allen are absolutely spellbinding once again in their performances. One can’t hear the years that separate the two actors, and even William Hartnell’s absence is compensated for admirably by way of Purves’ eerie channelling. Much like The Perpetual Bond, this feels much more like an outright audio drama with linking narration than it does an audio book per se. Were it not for the cutting-edge sound design of Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, it could even be taken for one of Purves’ television soundtrack readings for the Beeb.


If The Cold Equations does have a flaw, then it’s one that its author is painfully aware of. The story is bought and sold on the hook that Steven and Oliver “are facing an enemy that cannot be defeated: the cold, hard facts of science,” but by Guerrier’s own admission, wrapping his head around those cold hard facts wasn’t as straightforward as he’d hoped, resulting in an impromptu (and tax deductible!) GCSE course and a script that sounds like a science lesson in parts, yet concludes in an awful deus ex machina that borders on Death Comes to Timey. Ultimately though, a last-minute mystifying swerve doesn’t harm the story too much because The Cold Equations is really about heartache and imagery; not cold, hard science, and I doubt that having the day-saving maths explained to me would have made the drama that preceded them more affecting.


Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this claustrophobic adventure though is that, despite revealing Oliver’s big secret before the final act of his trilogy, it manages to not only maintain the sense of intrigue and expectation but enhance it. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey seeds yet to be sown bear unexpected fruit here, leaving me, and no doubt many other range listeners, anxiously awaiting Oliver’s final turn.


Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2011


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