Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Exxilons written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Planet E9874 supports a developing civilisation known as the Tarl. The peaceful, technologically advanced Locoyuns are helping the Tarl develop rudimentary technology. What could be more innocent than that? When the Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive, they find the delicate balance in the relationship between the two cultures reaching an unexpected crisis point. The spears are flying and the threat of all-out war is in the air. The Doctor must use all his guile to tread a careful path with Tarl leader Ergu, while Leela and K9 discover an ancient power of unimaginable strength which threatens to tear the minds out of its victims.

Teeth and Curls: An immediate, engaging rapport between Tom Baker and Louise Jameson bourne out of two previous seasons in the studio together. There is a generally uplifting feel to their scenes together that is the actors' chemistry bleeding into the recording booth. The Doctor suggests that interfering with the development of indigenous species is highly unethical but Leela points out that he does that every other week. One rule for one and one rule for the other, he knows what he is doing apparently. I always like it when Tom Baker plays against type and the fourth Doctor is gentle an understanding rather than simply wisecracking his way through a story. It worked wonderfully in The Creature from the Pit when he had to try and communicate with the creature (regardless of the difficulties in the realisation of the creature) and it also works rather charmingly in this story when he tries to have a conversation with the less developed natives. He isn't patronising but brings his idiom down to their level so they can converse. 

Noble Savage: Louise Jameson gets to play the screaming heroine in a way that Leela rarely is...but only because Leela is tortured to an extreme level by the city. Beyond that there is nothing to justify her involvement. Any companion could have slipped into this role.

Standout Performance: It is far from her most impressive performance in a Big Finish production (simply because she isn't even given surface characterisation, Calura is constructed out of pure cardboard) but I have to say I found her unrecognisable with an American accent. Hugh Ross scowls and growls his way through the story, again not an in inspired role as written, but certainly a passionate one.

Great Ideas: The first point where I was properly surprised by The Exxilons was at the cliffhanger. I genuinely believed that the story was leading in the direction of the reveal of the city as the work of the grunting savages and not the humanoids that the Doctor and Leela have teamed up with. That was the last time it surprised me too.

Audio Landscape: I have wonder with this range if the creators sit back and think which Doctor Who stories offer up the best opportunity for a gripping audio landscape first and whether the story actually needs telling second. Death to the Daleks is rife with wonderful sounds that can be nabbed for The Exxilons and Nick Briggs adds some exotic and alien additions of his own. Switching off the critical part of my brain that looks at the construction of the story and merely focussing on the aural atmosphere, this story is first rate. Running footsteps, an arrow screaming through the air, TARDIS bleeps and blurts, K.9's nose laser, a ship landing, the atmosphere of the planet, grunting, beating chests, chanting crowds, banging drums, unsheathing Leela's knife, the city beacon reaching out and screaming, crackling fire.

Musical Cues: Alistair Lock, let me count the ways I love thee. The Exxilons has a gorgeous musical score, a hybrid of the faux Dudley Simpson music that the range excels at mixed with the more controversial saxaphone and glockenspiel madness that Carey Blyton favoured in his infamous Death to the Daleks score. The result is a fusion of the two eras, which is exactly what this story is aiming for.

Isn't it Odd: Whilst the marketing boys go to town with the promise of a sequel to Death to the Daleks (or at least elements of it) I think it would have been quite a nice shock had this been billed as a standalone story with no familiar elements and the Exillons introduced as a surprise. I would still complain that this range is using too many elements of the past but it would at least be doing something engaging with the re-use of old ideas. Instead we are in the know and are waiting for the Doctor and Leela to catch up. With dialogue like 'This your metal thing everywhere man?' from a grunting native you can imagine how demanding this story gets. Wouldn't this have been a good excuse to explore the city some more and get under its skin? It is described as a living creature in Death to the Daleks so surely there is a fascinating psychological to be explored rather than simply focussing on the construction of another city on a primitive planet? 

Result: A love letter to Death to the Daleks might not be on anybody's wish list but I'm not surprised that it exists given the 4DAs penchant for nostalgia trips and Nicholas Briggs waxing lyrical about this serial on the DVD release (while not the best story he admits it is the quintessential Doctor Who story). Bearing in mind it comes after Zygon Hunt, which was a love letter to Terror of the Zygons with a parody score it does tend to suggest that this range is sticking with the same formula that has plagued it from the beginning: imitation not innovation (with a few rare exceptions). If you lower expectations (a hard job given the strength of the recent Gareth Roberts fourth Doctor novels that have been released), this really isn't terrible. The Exxilons has the brio and confidence of a season opener and is fast paced, well performed and blessed with a stunning Alistair Lock score that fuses too eras together beautifully. You cannot have failed to have noticed that I have spent more time in the sections above discussing the stunning sound design rather than the lacklustre storytelling and there is a very good reason for that. This isn't going to challenge you (unless you are really very simple) but it will provide you with a warm glow of Doctor Who gone by and pass an hour amiably. I should be more critical of a story that is this well made but lacking so much ambition (it is devoid of it) but I kind of enjoyed it on its own terms. There were no surprises, everybody behaved as I predicted they would and the story dodged several attempts to give the city or the Exxilons greater meaning...but as a Doctor vs. baddies it trotted along nicely enough. I think it helps that I am a big fan of Death to the Daleks and am on the same page as Nicholas Briggs with how enjoyable the story is. It's easy enough to blow a kiss to a story as popular as Terror of the Zygons because it has many supporters but to get people in the mood to watch Terry Nation's Exxilon based adventure is really rather impressive. Easy to listen to, never inspiring: 5/10


reversed polarities said...

Great review, Joe. I can't find a single thing in it that I disagreed with. Calling the audio play "The Exxilons" and then building to a cliffhanger with who the aliens are is a bit flimsy.

I know Nick Briggs said he wanted to put in a bit of misdirection and make us think the Exxilons were the Tarl. But I had it sussed from the beginning, which isn't much to be proud about really.

I agree with you on wishing that it explored the nature of the City a lot more, and the mention of the symbols appearing in Peru are even more intriguing.

Do you think that the two-part nature of the Fourth Doctor Adventures are hampering the stories?

I've listened to all of the Leela series and the rush to the part 1 cliffhanger and then the rush to wrap everything up in part 2 doesn't leave much room to breath.

David Pirtle said...

"Passing an hour amiably" is really all I've come to expect from the 4DA range after listening to the first few seasons. I'd love to stumble upon one that is really, really good or revelatory in some way, but in the meantime I'm still quite entertained by them.