The best I can say is that, for once, it’s not poor Fallible Five having to suffer one of these miserable slogs in which his predecessors’ knack for pulling off miracles has been summarily revoked.
Have a trailer.
I’m not overly fond of totalitarian dystopias with icky genetic experiments. Neither is the Doctor, but this time, there’s only so much he can do. He spends half the story expounding the backstory of Excelis and boning up on what he’s missed since his last visit, and the other half telling the villain he’s a villain. Everyone who’s got any emotional stake in the story stands around politely waiting for him and his enemy to finish expositing.
“The sun will never set on your empire because no one will ever trust you in the dark.” — The Doctor
Anthony Stewart Head is back for another round, but this is the weakest of his Excelis appearances. His previous two incarnations had more gray areas and moments of affable charisma, whereas now he’s just a slightly mad and very sadistic scientist. Yee Jee Tso’s authentically American voice sounds far too ordinary for a ruthless military climber. Thank goodness Ian Collier, playing a crusty but honorable old soldier, is here to entertain us with his gravelly, rolling voice. He and Penelope MacDonald (the old soldier’s “housekeeper”) try their best to inject some human warmth into the story.
There’s rebels somewhere, there’s a Soviet-style “inner party” that never plays a part either, and in the end, a threat that we didn’t even know about turns out to be more dangerous than the one we’ve been hearing about all along. Please don’t show me Chekov’s gun, boomerang and broadsword in Act One and then club me over the head with a brick.
The saving grace (or not) is the prologue, dramatizing Seven’s remodeling of the console room which he bequeaths to Eight. The Doctor and the TARDIS have a whimsical argument in which she seems to be speaking R2-D2 back at him. I don’t recall that happening outside of comics!
I suspect many people coming to Excelis only listen to the audios with the three original Big Finish Doctors. In doing so, they’re missing one of the better installments, Plague Herd of Excelis, which IMO is a better conclusion for the saga than Excelis Decays.
Minor quibble: why does Jancis, who’s kept her head down all these years, blurt out her secrets to the Doctor almost the instant he arrives? For that matter, I’m not sold on the reason that Commissar Sallis, crusty and shrewd soldier that he is,
Despite my quibbles, I’m pleased that Big Finish dared to experiment with classic Who storytelling, even if some of the experiments are more successful than others. I appreciated the basic concept of the Excelis arc: create a world like Peladon with ongoing adventures in the feudal, steampunk, Soviet and post-apocalyptic eras for each of Big Finish’s original three Doctors plus Benny and Iris. I’m intrigued by the choice to tell these more like stage plays than full-scale audio dramas, seventy minutes with no cliffhangers and a small, tight cast. Anthony Stewart Head is a strong anchor for three of the four. It’s worth a listen as you begin to expand your Big Finish experience, but it’s not the top of my Big Finish rec list.