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Previous stories required!
After the rather manic 'otherness' of Excelis Dawns, the second story of the Excelis arc is rather more contained than the grand scope of the preceding story, and, in many ways, it works much better than the previous story. It's far more focused on the story that it's trying to tell, rather than setting up the main storyline that runs throughout these audios. It therefore manages to be a more seperate entity than either Dawns or Decays, and therefore feels more like a normal Doctor Who story, rather than a series of events in which the Doctor is caught up with.
The plot is relatively simple, but, unlike Excelis Dawns, easy to follow. The idea of a burglary being a smokescreen for something else is an excellent, if unoriginal idea, and by setting it in a museum, it keeps it nicely contained. The whole story is set within a few rooms, and by doing that, it means that the tension is kept at a palpable level. It pushes our characters together, and forces them to clash off one another. One thing that is really kept at a high throughout this piece is the mystery. In many ways, it has a Agatha Christie-like level of mystery, and, when people start to die, it becomes even more intune with the genre. Doctor Who certainly likes to do this often, but Excelis Rising does subvert this somewhat by having a sÃ©ance to bring the dead characters back into the story. Using a sÃ©ance as a plot device is rather unique, even after the amount of Big Finish that has been and gone before, and it's nicely used here. It's actually treated as a real concept, rather than something to be scoffed at and ridiculed. It's not really explained how these spirits are summoned, but that doesn't matter, because the idea is so very good that it really works. The use of the Relic is also interesting, especially because it has slipped into legend and myth by this point in Excelis' history, but it seems to have had a massive effect upon their culture. One thing I really like about this story (and this trilogy as a whole), is that it explores the effect that the Doctor has upon the civilisations that he comes across, and, while Excelis may be more advanced than it was in the previous story, it is, in many ways, just as savage as before. David A McIntee has really created a strong and vivid world, despite it being set in only a few rooms.
While the plot is slighter than usual, this allows for some great character moments, especially between the Doctor and Reeve Maupassant. The Reeve is certainly a more interesting character than Grayvorn, mostly because he doesn't really shout, but is more menacing. It's quite interesting that he's also forced to share his mind with the Mother Superior, and some of the discussions that come out of that are novel and original. It also helps that the remaining characters are a diverse and interesting bunch, particularly the kindly professor. McIntee also has a good grasp upon the character of the sixth Doctor, never making him too abrasive or bolshie, but also never too weak or passive. Together with the strong guest cast that director Ed Salt has assembled, they make the material leep off the page. I was particularly impressed with Charles Kay and Anthony Stewart Head out of the guest cast. I'd be shocked if Head turned in a duff performance, and here, he really has a character that is not only facinating, but with some proper villainous moments, despite the madness. As for Kay, he suits the role of the Professor very well. His chemistry with Colin Baker is so terrific that when his character died, I was rather saddened. He would certainly have made for a unique and interesting companion, that good his chemistry was. The rest of the guest cast are also very good, but not on the same level. Colin Baker leads the cast superbly, really getting to grips with the material on the page. This is aided by some wonderful music and sound design, which really allows the soundscapes to come to life. I'd have to say that this disc contains some of the best work by David Darlington in the whole of the Doctor Who range that he has scored. The music in particular is so well done, with little flashes of Excelis Dawns' soundtrack, but still forging it's own identity. Bringing this all together is Ed Salt's direction. As a first start to the range, this remains a confident and slick piece of work. Ed's focus on the actors and the atmosphere really pays dividends, because it gives the story exactly what it needs, rather than wasting time upon trying to fill it with directorial trickery.
Excelis Rising is traditional, but in this trilogy, a bit of traditionalism is exactly what is needed. Excelis Dawns and Decays are rather more concerned with trying to stand out, and that's, prehaps, where there problems lie. Excelis Rising is happy to stand on it's own terms, and, with it's strong acting, excellent post production and clever direction, it's by and far the best of the Excelis trilogy.
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The Maltese Penguin is a true "Doctor Lite" story that serves as a nice send up of hard boiled private detective ala the Cheap Detective. The Doctor's former companion, and shape-changing alien Penguin Frobisher has put out his shingle as a private detective and is determined to make something of himself despite the sixth Doctor's invitation for him to return to the TARDIS. Frobisher has a beautiful dame hire him to shadow her husband and stumbles into a case involving the planet's big man/frog.
Overall, this is a delightful tale that works as a great comedy. It's a fantastic send up with Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet analogs included for good measure. The plot is decent enough and the twist ending is unexpected but makes sense. The dialects aren't great but that's a strength in this story and American accents were still better than other Big Finish stories of the era such as Minuet in Hell and Invaders from Mars.
If I had one complaint, it would be that the actual denouement did stretch the absurd a little bit. In addition, the Doctor showing up three times to get Frobisher back to the TARDIS and even admitting he was lonely stung of desperation. And that's off for the Doctor, particularly old Sixie. Still, this was plenty of fun and would have been a better introduction for Frobisher than Holy Terror.
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Adric attempts to pilot the TARDIS and lands on a mysterious Irish Island with a "haunted house" where a cult that believed God was a number set out to find him and now are all dead. The crew and a few locals find themselves menaced by a psychotic sentient number or more properly a monster that haunts a psychotic number.
This is absolutely fantastic idea by writer John Dorney and one that really seems best-suited to audio. There are some delightfully bad number puns, particularly when the Fifth Doctor examines their dire situation at the end of Part Three and declares, "I'm afraid our number may be up." There are also some lovely Irish accents and it's pretty rare for the show to use Ireland as a setting.
The downside is a rushed conclusion in Part Four with a couple contrivances. Adric' s healing factor is almost at the level of Wolverine. Also Tegan's character is a bit on the annoying side though the Doctor gets in a few nicely sarcastic lines that are pretty fun. As there was at least a plausible enough explanation for everything, so I'll give this one an 8/10.