Written by Paul Magrs, directed by Gary Russell
Released February 2002
On the far off planet of Artaris, Warlord Grayvorn embarks on a quest for a holy relic with a strange traveler named the Doctor in tow. Arriving at the convent located atop Mount Excelis, Grayvorn finds the knowledge he seeks but at the cost of gaining two more companions, Sister Jolene and the rambunctious Iris Wildthyme who is unsuccessfully searching for calm in a mad universe of possibilities. Unfortunately, the unruly Iris is a disruptive bad influence on the other sisters and Mother Superior decides to be rid of her problem by saddling her with the treasure and glory hunting warlord. But what is the nature of the relic and what mysteries does it hold? Can the Doctor restrain Wildthyme and prevent the violent Lord Grayvorn from discovering the power he so desperately searches for?
Excelis Dawns is the first of a trilogy that continues with Excelis Rises starring Colin Baker and Excelis Decays starring Sylvester McCoy. Friends have told me that this is one of the stand-out Big Finish audio adventures and fan opinion holds that statement up. However, I have to say that my own reception was mixed. The script from Paul Magrs is inspired and he writes Iris with aplomb worthy of her colorful character in print. The first of many such adventures, Iris is played by Katy Manning who is of course more familiar to fans as the bumbling yet lovable Jo Grant. Here she exudes boisterous charm and comic timing that moves the entire plot through its two discs’ worth of story.
The real downfall for me was Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Anthony Stewart Head as Warlord Grayvorn who sounds downright comical as the gravelly voiced warrior. Parts of the script poke fun at him, so in places this fits, but the role is such a broad caricature that he comes off as annoying and grating. He sounds like he’s wearing underwear that is two sizes too small and speaking through a mouthful of marbles. After ten minutes of his muttering about glory and his army of followers (who are noticeably absent), I was ready for him to drop the act and move on. Unfortunately, it was here to stay and extended into narration (Grodd help us). Not being a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have never understood the appeal of Anthony Stewart Head and this story didn’t help. Knowing that he would feature over the next two installments did not fill me with much excitement.
Aside from Manning’s Wildthyme, the other big appeal for this story is Peter Davison who has mainly been given stories that take his character as written on screen and run with it. Magrs instead chooses to explore the depth of the Fifth Doctor and his maturity in a violent and uncaring galaxy of danger. It has been exciting to hear Davison journey down new avenues with his rendition of the Doctor in audio, but I have to admit that not much had been added to his persona. By matching a somber version of the Fifth Doctor near the end of his incarnation with Wildthyme, it becomes apparent how much his outwardly youthful self has aged and sobered. When Iris points out how he is no longer fun, the Doctor remarks that he used to treat the universe of space and time like a massive pinball game but after the death of Adric all that has changed. Iris refuses to let the moment go and insists that is all the more reason to embrace the wild adventure of life rather. It’s a lovely moment that makes Excelis Dawns a moving story.
A familiar name to Doctor Who fans, Paul Magrs is one of the pearls of Big Finish’s bullpen. He later established an entirely new line of adventures for Tom Baker’s Doctor Who on BBC Audio. In those stories, the wit and humor along with a wildly imaginative plot fully fleshed out that Doctor in a new way. In Excelis Dawns, the goal is much simpler but no less enjoyable. It is essentially a road trip of misfits ending in a cataclysmic battle of wills against an army of the undead over a gold lamé handbag holding the secrets of life and death.
Excelis Dawns is a very enjoyable story full of comedy, continuity and plenty of great character building moments. It’s a running gag that Iris is not only convinced that the Doctor is in love with her but that they had shared several adventures in the past. Hearing Iris retell The Three Doctor and the Web Planet with altered details is hilarious enough, but her version of the Five Doctors with ‘all the rubbish monsters’ is brilliant. It is a marvelous opportunity for Magrs to wave his Whovian flag without losing the integrity of the plot.
I was turned off initially by the silly sounding Anthony Stewart Head and the woeful music (along with the cutaways to the Zombie King who apparently missed out for the role of Gollum in Lord of the Rings) which made this two parter a challenge. But in time, the blend of Manning and Davison won me over.
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