Tony Fyler feels the call of the city, but somehow resists.
If you’re going to have the whole of Classic Who as your playground, revisiting the Exxilons from Death To The Daleks is at some point inevitable. They have a couple of solid sci-fi ideas in their backstory that make them itchily irresistible – they are creatures who once bestrode the galaxy in starships, bringing civilisations under the thrall of their great city back home, until the city decided they were more trouble than they were worth and turned on them, leaving them a race in a kind of regression. What’s not to love and play with there?
The Exxilons brings the Fourth Doctor and Leela into contact with the Exxilons at the height of their spacefaring power, as they do deals with indigenous cultures to help them build beacons that will, unbeknown to the locals, bring their planet under the influence of the Exxilon city – in a fictional exemplification of real life human exploits, the would-be conquerors get their victims to build the tool of their own subjugation.
The problem is that… that’s pretty much it as far as The Exxilons goes. Big Finish saw a storytelling gap, shoved the Fourth Doctor and Leela into it and then, to be fair, not a lot else happened. There’s a revolution, true, and its success or failure comes down to one of the Exxilons having fellow feelings for one of the locals; what feels like it should be a simple act of rebellious thought rendered massively difficult not only by the social expectations of obedience to the city, but also because of its actual power over the minds and pain thresholds of the Exxilons. So there is a moral here – rebellion against oppression by the State is first and foremost an act of will - but somehow there doesn’t feel like quite enough meat in this story idea to justify even the single hour of its running time.
There are some great elements here: the Doctor getting a new name to add to his collection – here he is The Everywhere Man; Hugh Ross turning in another bravura performance as the genuinely loathesome Gethal; a neatly nuanced performance from Daisy Dunlop as Trexa; and perhaps most especially the background music, which is spot-on perfect as a reference for the sound of the original Exxilon city and civilization from Death To The Daleks, as well as a beautiful salute to the work of Carey Blyton.
But as well as the slightly overstretched storyline, which seems to moderately squander the potential of the Exxilons’ backstory, we have Jacqueline King to contend with. Bear in mind, much of her other Big Finish work has been relatively faultless, and she turned in a particularly fine neurotic Scotswoman in The New Adventures of Charlotte Pollard, Set 1, but here, she plays starship captain Calura with an American accent that has a tendency to wander towards deepest ‘oo ar’ West Country and which actually punctures some of the slim story’s believability.
Ultimately as far as it goes, The Exxilons is fine. It sets out to show the Exxilons at the heart of their spacefaring, empire-building phase, and on that, it delivers. It determines to turn a few of the Death to the Daleks expectational tables, and it does that too – particularly in the first episode, where the Exxilons aren’t actually called the Exxilons at all and we’re kept guessing and second guessing which of the two groups we hear will eventually become the Exxilons we know (it helps in this deception that neither group is played anything like the Exxilons we know, who are clearly a species some way down into their degeneration). It just feels a little underwhelming when you combine the Fourth Doctor, Leela, K9 and the Exxilons and what you actually get for your trouble is a fairly static moment spread across an hour, rather than an opportunity taken to evolve what we know about the Exxilons to any more specific degree. There are parallels here to stories like Robophobia, where we get to see the Robots of Death in only their second mainstream outing, and the whole thing feels as though it’s waiting to really get going and kick our understanding up to another level…and then ends. Similarly in Tom Baker’s outings with the company, the Oseidon Adventure was a chance to deepen what we know about the Kraals, but ended up feeling like a slightly disappointing re-run of all we know, just in a slightly different order. As with Kraals, so with Exxilons here – yes, very nice and all that, but the sense of waiting for it to step on the gas pedal and deliver a new take on them never really leaves the listener, and is never particularly satisfied. This story from Nicholas Briggs feels a little too rooted in what we know, and a little too lacking in imaginative leaps forward to satisfy a fandom that will have seen ‘The Exxilons’ on the cover and begun fan-drooling immediately.
One to buy then?
Not at full price, no. It’s tempting, obviously, because after all, it does throw the Fourth Doctor, Leela and K9 up against the Exxilons, and there’s a potency in that simple equation that makes one’s ‘buy-button finger’ twitch. Sadly in this instance, there’s too much reliance on that potency, and too little in the way of vigorous story development, to justify spending too much cash on it. One very definitely to wait for in the sales.