Listening to Plague Herds if Excelis without having just worked through the preceding Dr Who Excelis adventures is an unusual experience. Although it does have a go at filling you in on the details you can’t get around the fact this is a sequel, and so I am going to assume you have at least a passing idea of what occurred previously. Set ‘after’ the final Excelis trilogy it show the world left in ruins after the Doctor abandoned it. It’s also harks back to the very first play in the series, with the reappearance of Iris Wildthyme and a few other tidbits…
Actually I really like the start of the play. Bernice’s slow introduction to the planet and then quick introduction to Iris works well. Your opinion of the play is probably directly related to your opinion of Katy Manning’s Iris Wildtyme. Yes she’s terribly overacting, and her accent wanders atrociously across the northern half of England, and it’s a terrible excuse for a drinking scene that brings out the worst in Lisa Bowerman as well (case in point, loudly, drunkenly declaring: “All right Iris, I’ll steal the relic for you” in front of a crowd on onlookers) but it somehow works, and for a short one CD play like this the joke doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Trevor Littledale makes a suitable, if not particularly formiddable, villain as Snyper, at least for the first half of the play whilst he keeps an air of mystery about him. He’s a man who knows just a little too much, and his scene with Iris in the plague house in genuinely brilliant. I’m not even too put out by the Aragon and Empress Vitutia scenes with constant back and forth chat about the end of the world. It serves a point, drilling home the impending apocalypse even if it does drag slightly.
Aside from the possibility of Iris’s character grating the reader, it’s a large scale apocalypse setting unlike any we’d scene in the Bernice range so far, and the change is welcome. Unfortunately once Bernice, Iris and Aragon leave the city and enter the barbarian horde, to find out the secret of the ‘plague herds’ outside things get a little pedestrian. The animals arrive too late in the play, and the massacre is so sudden and no ‘real’ characters actually suffer from their arrival, the impact is just a little stilted. Also the moment Snyper reveals his plan, and turns from enigmatic villain to raving fanatic, all tension goes completely.
I still don’t understand the point of making Snyper post insert his character into the plot of Excelis Dawns. That he was the one who originally brought the handbag to Excelis I can understand, but the reinsertion of Sister Jolene (who I can barely remember from Dawns) and the reinterpretation of the Mother Superior’s motives (thus altering her true motivations in Exclis Decays) just gets needlessly confusing. Up till that point the story had tread a fine line between assumed knowledge of the preceding trilogy and giving you the necessary information, but right at the end a dozen references are thrown at you so fast your head feels like its going to explode. It does all make sense when you think about it, but it’s all a bit anticlimactic.
Iris Wildtime thrives on the bizarre, but somehow a ‘herd of zombie farmyard animals’ doesn’t quite cut the mustard as unusual threats go. As the only casualties of the stampede are faceless locals and their charge happens so quickly, there’s no chance for the listener to absorb what’s happening. Combine that with a sudden deluge of information and shape shifting from Snyper there’s too much going on at once and not enough pays off.
And one thing that has (or will) annoy me about the Bernice range is when she meets someone who also knows the Doctor, and they both go ‘You know HIM?????’, but for the first time with Iris it feels natural. It’s not forced, and she only realises when Iris mentions her Tardis. Played just right I think.
Would I recommend this play? It’s got worthy scenes of a dying world, public torture and an ominous monologues, it’s slightly impaired by a rushed ending, but the deciding factor should be your opinion of Iris Wildtyme. If you’ve always secretly longed for her and Bernice to team up then this is what your looking for. If you want the few extra secrets about Excelis that the Doctor never found out, they’re here but buried beneath a fairly pedestrian political drama.
6 / 10