|Available for download at BigFinish.com|
The Doctor Who Big Finish audios most often aim to capture the feeling of the TV show, and that's just fine. In aping the episode structures and traditional story beats Who fans are familiar with, the audio dramas tend to explore the cinematic possibilities of the medium, seeking to convey action and thrills without visual aid, and they often succeed. But Excelis Dawns is a break from the cliffhanger approach. The first part of a three-story triptych covering the history of a planet over three eons and three different Doctors, this Fifth Doctor story takes a somewhat calmer approach, focusing on the audio debut of the previously book-only character Iris Wildthyme as well as the establishment of at least one character who will be key to the entire trilogy. (Hint: it's the familiar face in the armor.) It's not always successful but it does some interesting things with the format, and that's always worth paying attention to.
Set during a very brief interval in one story when the Doctor (Peter Davison) went off adventuring sans his regular companions, Excelis Dawns finds him on the planet of Artaris, a foreboding world currently going through its own medieval period. Also on Artaris is Iris Wildthyme (Katy Manning), a hard-drinking and hard-living dilettante Time Lady who has joined a convent in what she firmly feels is an attempt to absolve herself of her sinful past (though she's a little unclear as to how she ended up there.) The nuns are working for Lord Grayvorn (wonderfully played by Anthony Stewart Head), a local warlord who is out searching for a mysterious relic, and is accompanied by none other than the Doctor. The nuns seem to have worked out where the relic is, so the Doctor, Iris, Grayvorn, and Sister Jolene (Posy Miller) set out (in Iris' double-decker TARDIS) for the wilds outside the city of Excelis, into a forest and swamp inhabited by an entire tribe of zombies.
With Iris Wildthyme, the makers of this piece are taking a substantial risk. It's easy to imagine a character like this becoming very irritating, very quickly; she's a broad, theatrical type, someone who dominates scenes and storylines, and the term "Mary Sue" often gets thrown around in these sorts of situations (though arguably so often that it's lost most of its meaning.) But Iris is just well drawn enough, with actual flaws instead of excuses for spotlight focus, that her eccentric ramblings never become annoying. In fact she is actually just as charming as she's meant to be, helped along no doubt by Manning's thoroughly believable performance. She makes an excellent foil for the Doctor, being something of the same nature but more of a hedonist than an explorer. Iris manages to demonstrate why she so easily earned her own series of audio adventures alongside an existing book line, without stealing the Doctor's thunder.
The play is surprisingly light on incident. There are no cliffhangers, per se- it's billed as a "two part story" but that's largely because it takes place over 2 CDs, but even that break isn't about putting all the characters in immediate danger or revealing a new monster, it's more a natural pause in the action. But despite this the story doesn't drag; it establishes a good, casual, adventurous pace and breezes through it, buoyed by some strong characterization for the Doctor (who has been thinking a bit on matters supernatural after Adric's death), Iris, and their temporary companions.
Excelis Dawns is caught somewhere between forming the first chapter in a larger story and being a complete adventure in itself. Certainly it's packaged and sold on its own, as with other Big Finish multi-story epics, and it does end with the immediate conflicts resolved. But a number of plot threads are clearly left dangling for subsequent chapters, and the climax is inevitably underwhelming. The whole thing feels a little less gripping than it should be, which is a problem if the intention is to get us buying the next two installments.
But it's definitely pleasant. The world it creates is interesting, the cast is strong, and it's a lot of fun to listen to the Doctor tangling with a Time Lady who's just as eccentric and stubborn. It's definitely a good thing that Big Finish have experimented with the formatting and story structures of their Doctor Who audios rather than sticking to what's familiar to viewers of the TV show. I'll have to listen to more to see if this experiment is really a success, but it's definitely a solid start.
Written by Paul Magrs
Directed by Gary Russell