Once upon a time, as hard as it is to imagine from the vantage point of 2011, Doctor Who wasn’t on TV, existing only as a steadily growing series of audio plays, a steadily waning range of original novels, and a steady stream of merchandise related to a TV show that wasn’t there anymore. In 2002, to offset the fact that the regular monthly audio stories would follow the eighth Doctor for half of that year, Big Finish released a quartet of additional stories, chronicling previous Doctors’ sequential encounters with an immortal being named Grayvorn. This kept fans of the earlier Doctors happy, and was an interesting early experiment in story arc plotting for Big Finish.
It also gave resident composer David Darlington a shot at creating a quartet of thematically linked music scores to go with the quartet of linked stories. Each story has overlapping musical ideas, as well as a unique tone suiting the ever-evolving setting of the planet Artaris, from its zombie-infested bronze age, to a Renaissance-like era, to a dystopian dictatorship. A fourth story, featuring not the Doctor but the reckless Time Lady Iris Wildthyme (a character introduced in the BBC’s line of novels), went even further back in time. The material common to all of the scores is a mesmerizing, repeating guitar riff which – uncommonly for synth-dominated early Big Finish – actually sounds like it was played on a guitar. If you can recall the hypnotic quality of the Alan Parsons Project instrumental “Sirius”, it’s sort of like that.
Strangely, a maddening series of equally repetitive drum loops represents the middle ages for the music from Excelis Dawns. This is the least enjoyable element of this series of soundtracks. I’m not completely opposed to the apparent anachronism, but the repetition is maddening – one particular drum loop spans two tracks and just doesn’t let up. By the time the Excelis Dawns music gets interesting, it’s like the drum loop has delivered a dose of a potent mental anesthetic – my ears were desensitized to the more interesting elements.
Excelis Rising continues the guitar riff and adds echoing church bells befitting the story’s reason-vs.-superstition storyline. This story’s soundtrack also includes some attempts to emulate the small acoustic ensemble sound of the Dudley Simpson era of Doctor Who music; it doesn’t quite hit the mark, but the contrast against the other scores on this CD is welcome.
Excelis Decays opens up with a musical suite featuring dialogue from the story in question. I’m not a big fan of that practice, but here it has two interesting twists: Excelis Decays was savagely edited down at the last minute to get it to fit on the single CD that Big Finish had scheduled for it, and the track in question (“There’s More To This Than You Know”) consists largely of dialogue that was edited out of the episode. Slightly less welcome is that the dialogue has been processed to include a layer of dialogue which is slightly auto-tuned to match up with the background music. It’s mixed down behind the spoken version of that dialogue, but it’s a curious – and ultimately distracting – stylistic choice.
The rest of Excelis Decays is much more interesting listening, twisting the church bells of Excelis Rising into dissonant industrial percussion. The composer’s liner notes mention a fixation on Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, and that influence is very evident. The last score, to the Doctor-less Plague Herds Of Excelis, combines elements of all of the previous approaches, with that hypnotic guitar riff still prominent.
Excelis seemed like a bold experiment back in the heady early days of Big Finish-produced Doctor Who (these days, every Doctor gets a thematically-linked three-story “season” every year), and the music helped to cement the connections between the four chapters of this mini-epic in style. I might’ve gone lighter on the drum loops if it was up to me, but overall it’s one of the more cohesive Big Finish music soundtracks.
- Excelis (1:39)
- The Mountain of Adventure (6:26)
- Dawn of the Dead… (2:36)
- …But The Hills Are Alive (1:20)
- Welcome To The Jungle (2:02)
- A Handbag (1:34)
- Vanishing Point (1:46)
- The Sacred Art Of Stealing (2:22)
- Live Forever (1:42)
- Ouija Board, Ouija Board (2:54)
- Burn Off Into The Distance (4:40)
- Hosanna In Excelis Deo (1:51)
- Made of Stone (2:49)
- There’s More To This Than You Know (3:28)
- Oppression (1:54)
- Electric Urban Youth (3:10)
- Lake Of Fire (3:20)
- Propoganda (2:30)
- Time to Die (2:12)
- Two Hearts Under the Skyscrapers (3:35)
- Let the Nuclear Wind Blow Away Our Sins (0:58)
Bernice Summerfield And the Plague Herds Of Excelis
- Panic On The Streets (2:54)
- I’m Under A Cow (1:21)
- Two Tortured Souls (3:19)
- When the Screams Subside (3:43)
- Something Savage and Pure (1:05)
- But Now the Weakness Comes (2:19)
- The Secret (2:03)
- Slight Return (1:19)
Released by: Big Finish Productions
Release date: 2002
Total running time: 72:51