Monday, 20 September 2010

The Plague Herds of Excelis written by Stephen Cole and directed by John Ainsworth

What’s it about: The once proud city of Excelis is a crumbling ruin in a state of siege, as barbarians catapult pestilent animal corpses into the city to spread disease among those trapped inside. Excelis is a city clinging to life by a thread. But ancient prophecies foretell a final retribution for the past arrogance of its rulers. When the sun is eaten away from the sky, when the ancient relic of Excelis is taken from its rightful resting-place, and when strangers are discovered among the people, then shall the whole world be doomed to die. Today, the sun is a moth-eaten shadow. Plans are afoot to steal the relic. And a very tired and very fraught Professor Bernice Summerfield just stomped into town in the company of a mysterious traveller in space and time known only as Iris Wildthyme. Pitted against a sinister prophet, the machinations of the Imperial court, and hordes of animal undead, Benny finds herself embroiled in the final stages of an aeons-old plan to commit genocide twice over ­ with no way out.

Archaeological Adventuress: This story is set during a particularly turbulent time for Bernice. Her son has recently been born and she is adjusting to the horror of motherhood and taking responsibility of another in her devil may care lifestyle. However she only fell pregnant because a hideous witch took control of her body and got it on with Kiloran builder Adrian. I know, I know, it sounds ridiculous but it was hilarious. So her ex husband and current lover Jason and Adrian are constantly at logger heads, the baby wont stop crying and Irving Braxiatel her employer is scheming and plotting in the background. Whoever said leaving the Doctor lead to a quiet life? Fed up of all this domestic drama Benny has stolen Brax’s executive shuttle (you know, the one with the jacqusi that he denies is there…) and buggered off for a few days to clear her head. She is questioning how good a mother she turned out to be but admits she could handle the baby screaming if everybody wasn’t doing it as well. She describes herself as a shagged out grumpy old archaeologist. Iris sums it up with a little more tact (I know, I was surprised as well) and says she is a bored, frustrated adventuress who could do with her mind taken of things back home. What shocks is that after the initial recriminations and the customary (for both of them) piss up they develop a close, almost aunty/niece bond (‘Our Berneeece’). Benny admits she has been in some demeaning situations in her life but being caged up in the town square and spat at rates up there. All she wants to do is stay alive as she realises she is needed back home. Iris tells her having a child can be an adventure too.

Transtemporal Adventuress: Its interesting to see Iris taken in hand by another writer because although nobody could bring her to life like the masterful Paul Magrs, Steve Cole adds some fascinating new facets to her developing character. In moments of this story she verges on sinister and concerned and not just the reckless adventurer of old. I loved her line that she didn’t spring from nuclear war, she came on the bus. Benny accuses her of having a made up name! Just in case anybody is under delusions that this is a chapter of Bernice’s saga, Iris declares that she is the star! She bluffs her way through explanations about the Relic by saying it matches a simply fabulous outfit she’s bought. She’s such a deluded old beast, the barman has a squint but Iris thinks he is giving her the eye! As things get more dangerous she cackles madly! Iris can stand the pestilential fumes of decayed corpses since her lungs have breathed in a lot worse in their time. It’s her scenes with Snyper that really impressed me as she coaxes information out of him; initially she is quietly menacing, then afraid before she finally assumes a threatening stance. She loves being in the thick of things and couldn’t bear life without melodrama. She knows only too well that the universe is full of old Queens. Iris was called in to broker peace when the Doctor was off sick with an earache! Her bus is built of stern stuff and is equipped with a cloaking device. She is appalled that the Relic has changed colour…its never going to go with her frock now! She realises that she was used as a pawn in a grandiose scheme to bring down the Queen and can only do what she thinks is right. In a rare moment of pathos she refuses to condemn the repentant Queen for her previous acts of destruction and believes in redemption. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the Paul Magrs/Steve Cole collaboration, The Wormery, features Iris at her all time best.

Great Ideas: This story is like The Stolen Earth of Big Finish Audios. Doctor Who (or at least the Excelis storyline), Bernice Summerfield and Iris Wildthyme all have their own individual series and here they are joining forces to end the Excelis run with a bang. Teaming up Benny and Iris is such a delicious idea it’s astonishing that nobody had thought of it before. I have a friend who hates how Bernice is always commenting on the conventions on modern day Doctor Who and he loathes Iris Wildthyme full stop for her audacious attempts to poke fun at and rework established continuity to suit her own adventures. This would be his ultimate nightmare! I take the opposite stance, combining the two maddest old soaks in the Doctor Who universe and unleashing them on an adventure stirred up by various Doctor’s - its one of the few adventures I would love to toss myself into!

Nuclear war destroyed Excelis and now the Empire is no bigger than a city. Progress almost destroyed them completely. The Palace was built on the sight of the nunnery and is besieged by barbarians and a bombardment of diseased animals (phew, try saying that three times fast). Snyder is soon revealed as the villain of the piece and he is dousing the animals with plagues and chucking them over the walls to slowly wipe out the population. Iris tells the story of an old Queen who declared war on many worlds and wrecked havoc and destruction wherever she tread. However she found religion and repented her ways, living her life in a fleet of ships that sweep the oncoming systems with black lightning for advanced technology. Snyder’s people knew that they had to plan something truly audacious to trick and murder the paranoid old Queen. The Relic was fashioned into a handbag and Iris was programmed to steal it and take it to Excelis in its primitive times. The planet is being primed as an organic bomb with the people the fuse and the Relic as the trigger mechanism. Snyder is from the future and so knows that the Queen will be passing through this system at this point and thus they had to make the planet appear technologically backward whilst all the time it was primed and ready to blow and take her fleet of ships with it. The Queen wiped out Snyder’s race. Jolene is put in charge of the Relic to ensure its progress through the years, the waxing and waning of the Excelis Empire. The war in Excelis Decays was the lighting of the fuse.

My initial reaction to these revelations was mirth but when I thought about it I could see how this would be a devious way of managing to pull the wool over the eyes of a mistrustful ex warlord. What doesn’t work quite so well is how it feels that Cole has had to look long and hard at the three preceding stories and tried to pull together some kind of rabbit out of the hat closure to the story. If this story was plotted out from the beginning in a logical way I could see a hundred little hints and clues that could have been scattered through the arc that would have made sense once these surprises hit. Instead it feels as though each writer was allowed to do their own thing and Steve Cole made up an exciting ending to give it all some relevance. Some could find the idea that the manipulation, perversion and destruction of an entire world just to destroy a fleet of ships that happens to pass through the area a plan with an alarming absence of morality. Surely this makes Snyder and Jolene’s people just as evil as anything the Queen ever did. However, despite these misgivings there is something hilariously tragic about the whole scenario that makes me believe it. Go figure.

Standout Performance: We’re missing Anthony Stewart Head completely in this story which is a shame considering his involvement in the rest of the mini series. However when you have the unbeatable (and I mean that) combination of Katy Manning and Lisa Bowerman provide laughs, chills and general sarky comments whose complaining?

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Ooh I’m not having some vampire cow nibbling at my neck!’
‘The animals are taking over the slaughterhouse!’
‘For Artaris to survive they’ll have to go at it like rabbits!’
‘You mean…you know him!’ ‘Know ‘im? I’ve ‘ad ‘im! Ee’s me fancy man…’

Audio Landscape: I’m not sure if it’s the strong direction of John Ainsworth or that David Darlington is getting stronger with each release but I could really visualise this story as it was presented. There are plenty of scenes of screaming, frightened, dying hordes that really helps to sell the scene of pestilence hell. Brax’s shuttle has a very relaxing background hum. Artaris is nothing but a screaming wasteland now on to which the shuttle descends. There is pleasant chatter in the bar. The torn and bloody flesh of the horse, its corpse burning. The coughing victims bathing in trickling water. Snyder’s gurgling voice is horrible as he cleanses everyone in the bathhouse. Iris’s TARDIS grinds, vworps and groans! There is an almighty bolt of black lightning! The bus’ screeching brakes set me teeth on edge. Bernice and Iris walk through rubble and discover the flinging catapult surrounded by animals sets upon by insects, eugh. How scary are the zombie horses and the crazed animals released into the city?

Result: The strongest Excelis segment because it feels like a real event brining Iris and Bernice together and Steve Cole has bothered to whip up a genuine reason for this entire (ill conceived) arc. The script bubbles with wit and amusement, the actors all impress in their small roles and the cover is gorgeous. As usual with John Ainsworth at the helm the story comes alive vividly and within the frolics he never loses sight that this is, at heart, a serious tale. I like the fact that it manages to continue Bernice’s adventures with some aplomb provide the most interesting use of Iris yet and also end a run of Doctor Who stories with some nice surprises. Its manoeuvres arcs like Planet of Fire, only with more style. The best thing about this arc has been the different stages we have visited this planet at, having the stories leap forward in time we have seen the detailed evolution of one of the most vivid worlds our heroes have visited. All in time for Cole to shatter our illusions and make the whole delicious timeline planned. Nice: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:


Dalek Master Planner said...

Iris Wildthyme is the worst character to be added to the Whoniverse since, well, pretty much forever. An atrociously irritating, one-joke character, horribly over-played by the otherwise quite lovely Katy Manning. Absolutely despise the character, and she only gets more irritating with age.

Joe Ford said...

Honestly, don't hold back, you should say what you really feel :-)