The Plague Herds of Excelis

Posted in Audio by - July 27, 2018
The Plague Herds of Excelis

Released July 2002

Excelis is a city on the verge of collapse, clutching onto the last vestiges of life while under a constant state of siege and the barbarians outside catapulting disease-ridden animal carcasses among those inside. On this day, however, the sun is a moth-eaten shadow and strangers have been found among the people, signifying the arrival of an ancient prophesy foretelling a final retribution with plans afoot to steal the ancient relic of Excelis from its rightful resting place. In the company of the mysterious transtemporal adventuress Iris Wildthyme, Bernice suddenly finds herself involved in an ancient plan to commit genocide twice over as she must navigate a sinister prophet, a righteous Imperial court, and undead animal hordes.

There is simply no denying that ‘The Plague Herds of Excelis’ follows in the aftermath of the Big Finish Excelis saga that featured a story with each of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Writer Stephen Cole does a fairly good job providing the pertinent details of those stories to fill listeners in without becoming overbearing, but the story is unsurprisingly wholly more successful for those who have a working knowledge of those tales to understand just how this culture has progressed since the Doctor left it, especially through the somewhat rushed ending in which a surprising number of references to the likes of Sister Jolene and Mother Superior is thrown in at rapid pace. Indeed, this is a story that works best when it slows down and allows its characters and actions to resonate like when Bernice is introduced to this locale while still trying to adjust to motherhood within her chosen lifestyle and the fact that her ex-husband and her child’s father are constantly fighting. Sadly, these moments are far too few in number, and the plot itself ends up feeling quite rushed as a result.

The prospect of progress and a nuclear war devastating the Empire and leaving it struggling to carry on at the size of a city is a fascinating and resonant one, and developing the prophet Snyder who has foretold everything that is occurring as the true villain of the story is obvious but nonetheless effective. Cole even manages to include a clever temporal twist once Iris describes an ages-old queen who once destroyed every world she came upon but who has since repented through a religious awakening, living her life aboard a fleet of constantly-moving ships that always monitors for advanced technology to ensure she will never be challenged in an act of revenge. Snyder is revealed to be from the future, part of a people so determined to kill the queen that he is part of a long plan to form this planet into a bomb with the handbag-shaped relic that Iris was programmed to bring to this world so long ago the trigger device. This plan to thus make this world seem so technologically-deficient despite the power it holds is quite a strong idea, but Snyder loses much of his effectiveness once he reveals his plans and goes from enigmatic to ranting and frenzied with the barbarian threat from outside the city taking on new meaning but also losing some effectiveness and the massacre that ensues leaving little true impact on the leads.

‘The Plague Herds of Excelis’ must be commended for telling a story with a surprisingly vast scope that both benefits and hinders the overall story that for so much of its length delivers a deeply ominous and mysterious tone anchored by Trevor Littledale’s Snyper. However, personal enjoyment of this story will ultimately come down to personal sentiments regarding Iris Wildthyme, the brash woman who so brazenly flaunts Doctor Who continuity and who loves melodrama with a presence that is so much larger than life. Katy Manning is spectacular as always, and Cole perfectly captures her voice while further developing the character who has such an innate chemistry with Bernice. This tale does offer a few secrets about Excelis that the Doctor never found out and becomes an intriguing addendum in its own right, but the lack of Anthony Stewart Head and the inability to effectively mesh the changing tones and scopes make for a somewhat disjointed affair both within its own running time and within the Excelis saga as a whole.

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