1 February 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online 

“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.” 

***

Here we go then: another series of adventures for the Fourth Doctor, another old enemy returning to face our foe.  It’s fair to say that I have not been too taken with much of the Fourth Doctor Adventures range thus far, finding it to be the wrong format for this incarnation, as I noted in my review of The Philip Hinchcliffe Box Set.  There have been some good stories and some that really stand out, but for the most part they have merely plodded along for me, doing their best to not stir things and playing things ever so safely, and a lot of them have failed to make much of an impression.

I went into The Exxilons with a certain reluctance: another story in which the Fourth Doctor uncharacteristically encounters something from his past and has to defeat it whilst tiptoeing through a peppered field of continuity references.  John Leeson, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson would all be on fine form (they forever are) but the script would probably just… plod and do little for me.  Each to their own, I realized, but there we were: my expectations were set low.

I realize that complaining about traditional formats is going to make my next declaration of “imagine my surprise, then, when I really enjoyed it!” seem all the more clichéd, predictable and a tad hypocritical, but nonetheless the two episodes of Exxilon fun wowed me in a way that hasn’t happened for quite some time in this range.

Nicholas Briggs is a self-confessed big fan of Death to the Daleks, as his praise for it on the official BBC DVD and in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine will attest to, and quite right he is, too: it’s a marvellous story with a lot to recommend, plus a cliffhanger so utterly absurd that I never fail to burst into laughter when the end of Part Three approaches and the camera dramatically zooms in on some rather incongruous patterned tiling.  I mention Briggs’s love of that story as he has clearly given the Exxilons and their culture a lot of thought before writing this script: it shows in every playful nod to our first encounter with this alien race, every continuity-enhancing titbit concerning the Exxilon City, and oozes through in the Carey Blyton-esque musical score and original sound effects which enrich the atmosphere.  Briggs has managed to skilfully take points from Death which I never considered worthy of addressing, and has given them importance and development, in a way which actually enhances things rather than feel spurious or done for the sake of it.  This is a good case of actually using past stories to a purposeful and good effect, and for once the two-episode format of it really fits the story well and suits the team of K-9, Leela and the Fourth Doctor like a glove.

The story is simple enough but well told: our heroes land on a planet where the Exxilons are present and up to things disturbing the local natives who are unsettled by their presence.  Throw in some murder, maniacal dedication to The Cause, and subtle parallels between the Exxilon presence here and the Daleks’ in Death, and you’ve got enough meat to chew upon for the next hour.

The only minor niggle here is the presence of Hugh Ross in the guest cast: he is brilliant in the role and does it well, but is so associated now with Counter-Measures that it is hard to shake off Sir Toby from the mind’s eye whenever he speaks.  It’s unfair for me to criticize that aspect of the play, really, but here I am.

By the time the play ended, I was won over by it all and smiling at how much I had enjoyed it.  The CD extras show us Tom in a rather reflective and almost sad mood at times, which is notable all the more after such a joyful listen, but it had me rushing over to my DVD collection and grabbing Death to watch afterwards, which is about as good a sign for a play of this ilk as you can get, really.

Do I want more returning to the past time and again as has been the case more often than not with this range? No.  Done well as it is here and you get something good, but it’s all too easy to do it cack-handedly and the range could do with fewer nods and more of an individual identity (as well as a move away from two-episode stories, but that’s a moan for another day).  The trouble with these continual callbacks is that it slowly— slowly but oh-so-surely— squeezes the Universe(s) in which the Doctor travels, making it feel smaller and less spontaneous, which is a pity.  The magic of Doctor Who is its boundlessness, and the moment every third story involves meeting people or enemies or creatures from the past, the moment boundaries appear and that magic starts to ebb away.

Still, it doesn’t stop The Exxilons from being a lot of fun, from proving my fears wrong, and from being a strong start to this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures. 

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