Monday, 28 September 2015

The Excelis Trilogy (February-July 2002), consisting of Excelis Dawns by Paul Magrs (February 2002), Excelis Rising by David A. McIntee (April 2002), Excelis Decays by Craig Hinton (July 2002)

I’m deliberately reviewing this trio of releases as one continuous work, perhaps a tad unorthodox (given they are by different writers) but I wanted to examine how a closely connected trilogy could work in Doctor Who (I won’t be including The Plague Herds of Excelis as I’m only sticking to explicitly Doctor Who stuff for the moment, as otherwise my listening sequence will get hopelessly convoluted). A trilogy like this is a bit of a novelty, really – sure, there are thematic links between the E-Space stories or the Black Guardian stories or the ‘Thingummy of the Doctor’ triptych, but none have quite the unity of place or principal characters that these three do – explicitly the history of one civilisation and one semi-immortal man. So, without further ado…
The Doctor is initially presented to us from Lord Grayvorn’s point of view, as though Artaris and its key city Excelis forms its own fantasy universe in which the Doctor has unceremoniously been dropped out of the sky. That’s something I particularly enjoy about this off-beat world: it’s like the Excelis concept was invented before the decision to write it as Doctor Who story was made (though I of course know it wasn’t this way round!) Certainly, the setting, the characters and the tone are rather unique, and the conscious decision to explore it in as much detail is a welcome one, even if it means a couple of clunkily expository lines in the first story of the trilogy. It’s well conveyed – all windy heights and whooping birds, tolling bells and evocative music, the yowling of wild animals in the night. Paul Magrs’ lines vividly portray it, as ever: “The villages and ramshackle towns clung to the wet slate slopes and prayed each night that they wouldn’t tumble into the savage valleys far below.” The primitive nature of the planet Artaris is a great concoction: the world as predatory in its lower levels, eating its way upwards. There is a definite sense of world-building and of scale, as we get to explore Excelis and the surroundings in a decent amount of detail. The “steampunk” Artaris of the middle segment is also well-rendered, perhaps akin to our own Victorian age (see the Curator’s reference to “the fairer sex”, “awash with the new science of spiritualism”, “the Eastern Slums prostitute murderer”, etcetera).

The first of these three stories (all three of which are relatively short, less than 90 minutes) is a familiar quest-style narrative: the central characters leave a place of safety (note Iris is in a garden at the start, the classic Eden imagery with which many quest stories, The Lord of the Rings included, begin) and must traverse dangerous terrain (and flesh-eating zombies!) to find some key “beloved”/precious object that everybody (“the fools, the greedy idiots”) in the fantasy world wants. It’s never dark, and, to be honest, as threats go the zombies are rather muted: Iris’ presence keeps the story generally in “romp” territory. The revelation that the all-powerful Relic is one of Iris’ handbags is a subversion of overdone epic; in one sense Excelis Dawns is all about parodying the quest narrative rather than imitating it, but this does mean it ends up feeling quite lightweight and throwaway, and indeed curiously underwhelming from Mr Magrs.

David A. McIntee contributes the middle chapter, which sees the Doctor revisit Excelis many centuries later. The Gothic, echoey museum in the middle of a city at the height of its imperial power is quite a different locale to explore, and the newly established monarchic structures also give Excelis Rising a quite distinctive feel in comparison to the primeval world of the first part. One of the intriguing structures that Doctor Who permits is an examination of how legends are treated – clearly, if we can travel to a time hundreds of years after the first adventure, it is no surprise that such events should have passed into myth, pored over by curators and professors; indeed, that it should be framed as a haunting, as a story which has bled into the bricks and mortar of the museums that contain the old relics. However, the story is curiously lacking and feels rather slender and devoid of incident (it runs to a mere 67 minutes) – I wouldn’t call it anything special.

The depressing post-industrialist concrete world of Excelis Decays is possibly the most bleakly vivid of the three (“I suppose it could be Milton Keynes”), clanking with machinery, war-stricken, mid-experiments, shut off. There’s a semi-Soviet feel to the totalitarian dictatorship, with a dash of Pinochet’s “vanishing” and Nazi book-burnings; and Craig Hinton does a good job of ensuring the grim complexion of society comes to life. It’s one of the more 1984/Brave New World-esque Doctor Who stories of late, and lends the other stories an added oomph when we know quite what a nightmare they are leading to. The addition of the drug, “treasure”, with the added resonance that this sounds like something warlords would have fought over in Excelis Dawns, is another bleak element to the story that works well, as are the disturbing “Meat Puppets” (complete with the touching “mother” moment). The story isn’t ground-breaking in the long line of dystopian literature by any means, but it’s an effective piece. What is a surprise is the downbeat bleakness of the denouement, as Excelis really does become a ravaged wasteland, the one Grayvorn first glimpsed in the first part of the trilogy. I hadn’t expected Hinton to pull such a surprise in the final moments, but he does. The Doctor must leave the whole world behind: Artaris is utterly destroyed. He fails, completely and utterly. This is powerful, to be sure, although it’s not as resonant as it could be, as there is little sense that this trilogy was really about anything – it’s no critique of the Doctor, or discourse on hubris, or particularly engaging with how societies work. I commend Hinton for the bravery, but wish he’d been free to write his own work rather than have to finish off the other two writers’.

With regard to our three leads: in Excelis Dawns, Davison doesn’t sound at his most enthused (in fact, he sounds rather more bemused by the oddness of the story than anything else), and his performance is a quieter, more withdrawn and indeed more mysterious one. The Doctor is as usual the voice of reason, highly sceptical of the arbitrary mysticism of the Relic, imagining it’ll turn out to be a statuette or a vase. He gets a terrific moment in which he reflects on the reckless attitude of his younger incarnations: “I used to be blithe and devil-may-care, putting everyone in danger and charging about the place…I thought the cosmos was like some vast pinball machine and we were whizzing up and down the place causing crashes and bangs just for the fun of it.” And the great dramatic beat is that he has become more “circumspect” because of Adric’s death: it’s a very sweet little scene.

It’s been a long while for the Sixth Doctor by the time he returns to the planet of Artaris. He’s quick to throw himself into the fray, stopping to inform us “I LOVE dinosaurs!” As ever, he wittily quotes Hamlet and confesses he only reads the cartoons and does the crosswords in most newspapers. McIntee writes the Doctor reasonably well, with a good balance of wit, charm, flippancy and gravitas. In Excelis Decays we find the Seventh Doctor at an interesting time in his life – post-Ace, and shortly pre-Grace, a perhaps underexplored area in the show’s history. He’s the perfect Doctor to give the final part of this trilogy to, given that many of his TV stories saw him squaring off against age-old enemies and legends, though he’s hardly his scheming Season 26 self here. The revelation that the Doctor is constantly being drawn back to Excelis because a part of him remains there is a neat little twist. His final scene is beautiful, as he talks with the TARDIS all alone, companionless, with no one to hold him to account but his beloved ship: “heaven or hell – so, which do I deserve?” It’s a nice piece of melancholy on which to end the trilogy.

I must also confess one thing: I have never yet encountered Iris Wildthyme in any media and I’m completely new to her as a character (Benny, at least, I had met in the novel Love and War). Paul Magrs clearly takes a great glee in writing such a fun, rebellious, retrograde character (paralleling Moffat’s love of writing River Song – and given their marriage history, the comparison is apt): the cackling, drinking, smoking Iris. Such a wild figure disrupting a convent is a great culture clash and an engaging way to open the story. I was a tad uncertain about casting Katy Manning, well known to us fans already, and her performance does rather overshadow the rest of the goings-on. Some of the quirky turns of phrase and idiosyncrasies are a bit extreme, and her commentary on her presence in many of the Doctor’s past adventures is a bit over-fannish; she starts to grate a bit & in one sense I was rather glad she was only present in the first adventure, but Manning still has an infectiously joyous sense of fun about her performance and she’s certainly memorable.

Anthony Stewart Head is, as always, a great fit for this kind of post-Middle Earth stuff, and he does suit Who villains so very well. I’m halfway through a Buffy marathon as I write this and enjoying his career-defining turn as Rupert Giles as much as ever; frankly he’s good in pretty much everything he does, and we get three performances from him here. His voice isn’t quite a perfect fit for the boorish, rather hackneyed warlord Grayvorn, but he makes the role engaging enough and is in one sense the central figure (indeed, the partial narrator) of Excelis Dawns. He gets his past rather nicely fleshed out in one of the story’s highlights, a well-done campfire scene – viewing life as “an endless cycle of enslavings and uprisings”. The moment in which Grayvorn views the barren wasteland of his world as it will be in the future is good, too. That he reoccurs as Maupassant and Sutton is a tad reminiscent of Seasons of Fear but I have no idea which was written first, so no accusations of derivativeness will be coming from me. Reeve Maupassant, calm and silky, is a much better fit for Head’s talents, and he puts in a truly sinister performance: it becomes more layered once we learn the Mother Superior has been eating away at his head for ten centuries, without a minute of sleep. Lord Vaughan Sutton is more of a military scientist with a nasty streak (“do you consider me a sadist?” is chillingly delivered), though he does resort to some unfortunately hackneyed ranting before the end.

The trilogy’s greatest strength – the variety of the three stories (subversion of overdone medieval epic, chilling little Gothic ghost story, totalitarian revolution and nuclear crisis) – is also its weakness, as the three parts never really gel as such. There’s some interesting stuff in here, but it ideally needed a much firmer hand on the whole project and a unity of vision among the writers to make the whole thing cohere a little more effectively. It’s less than the sum of its parts, neither as emotional nor as exciting as it could be. It’s no Minuet in Hell, thank goodness, but it’s no Chimes of Midnight either.

Other thoughts:
Magrs’ penchant for interesting vocabulary and floral turns of phrase is evident throughout Excelis Dawns, although the story has none of the narrative weight and beauty of his previous effort, The Stones of Venice.
“Watch your mouth, Doctor. I prefer to work alone.”/“As it happens, so do I. Perhaps we ought to team up.”
I love the way Excelis Dawns takes place mid-Frontios! More of that kind of cheekiness, please: it adds to the mythos rather than detracting.
“He had been transporting a monstrously huge and malevolent slug to a place of safety.”/ “Yes, it’s incredible the kind of things I end up doing. That’s the freelance life for you.”
Great description of the Fifth Doctor: “some foreign sandy-haired devil in striped trousers, who wore some sort of vegetable pinned to his lapel.”
“Civilisations rise and fall…to no avail. They leave nothing behind, nothing to testify to their passing.”/“Except Relics, eh? Powerful and mysterious Relics.” Lines like this speak to the fleetingness of even the most powerful empires, something the story is at pains to show us.
“You still have bottles under your bed.”/“Only empty ones.”
“And so the old hag had us go shopping. I, Lord Grayvorn, was accustomed to foraging and plundering for subsistence; forced to traipse through the market of Excelis as she examines the fruit for bruises and peers into the goggling eyes of fish upon the monger’s slab.”
“We are creating legends here. A thousand years from now, the people of Excelis will remember the adventures we have today in tales and in song. We are heroes.” – Grayvorn’s visions of the future, of great cities and the end of barbarism.
“A soldier from nowhere, imagining the life beyond. But that life is coming for us, is coming to me.”
“That’s you all over in this [fifth] incarnation! Swimming haplessly about in a universe of simplistic moral absolutes.”
“I always drink at the helm; time travel is too bleak otherwise!”
There’s a nice nod to the Doctor’s earlier incarnations living on, interweaving and interacting with past and future selves – referring to the older Doctors in The Five Doctors “as if they’d gone on living longer than the point at which they’d regenerated…my own ghosts of past and future selves.”
The Mechanoids, the Voord and the Zarbi get namechecked by Iris as threats she’s faced in the Death Zone, but easily hand waved away as “luckily only the rubbish monsters!” – pleasingly meta.
“It was almost as if the gates of Hell had opened up and disgorged its furious tenants.”
I’m a bit unsure about David Darlington’s score for Excelis Dawns: it doesn’t really suit the story much. The work he does for Excelis Rising is much more evocative – and it’s a nice touch that the alarms in the Imperial Museum sound like church bells. Similarly the score and post-production for Excelis Decays is very distinctive.
Did Magrs’ Mother Superior influence Tasha Lem as “the Mother Superious” from The Time of the Doctor? Hmm.
“Look, I’m no after-dinner speaker but I know an unsaid “and” when I hear one. Or don’t, as it happens.”
“There’s an object in there which the professor and the Restoration Team simply call the Relic.”/ “Blimey, they must have been all night coming up with that name!”/ “…well, they have a certain economy with their verbiage.”/ “They aren’t that fancy with their words, neither!”
“Another man, who may be some kind of Samaritan.”/“Troubled times seem to bring them out of the woodwork to get in the way.”
Six: “I’m a little uncomfortable with authority these days.”
“When you’ve been falsely accused of as many serious crimes as I have, you learn to recognise the oncoming inevitability of the next one.”
“I just spent an age and a day given you a brand spanking new console room, a complete overhaul, and all you can do is make rude noises…” I hear that Craig Hinton is the king of fanwank, but if this is the kind of fanwank he indulges in, I’m in – I like that this story sees the Seventh Doctor designing the TV movie TARDIS console, even if it reacts somewhat belligerently.
Ian Collier is good as Commissar Sallis, but I’m unsure about Yee Jee Tso as Major Brant: his line readings are peculiarly unengaging.
“What do you call them now, these people who refuse to fight? The ethically challenged? The differently moralled? We used to call them cowards!”
“Even Daleks are more miserable than usual on Monday morning!”
“No one from abroad is allowed in the city state.”/“How wonderfully xenophobic.”
The Doctor introduces himself as “someone who believes in justice – and, more importantly, a friend.”
“The sun will never set on your empire because no one will ever trust you in the dark” (a fantastic line, lifted from Sliders apparently).
“Madness and genius are qualities which are often confused.”
“Scientific advisor, eh? Never trust them.”
“There is a weft and a weave to the fabric of the universe, Doctor, and we are but threads in that tapestry.”
“Go and gibber in the corner, there’s a good boy.”
“I’ve seen civilisations rise and fall that would make your definition of the bigger picture look like a child’s scribblings.”
Sallis and Jancis’ last confession of love before the nuclear apocalypse is rather touching.

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