Now this is novel; just last week, I mentioned that there was a slight problem with the Big Finish range in that giving the companion a dangerous cliffhanger wasn’t very effective because we know how all of the companions depart, with the exception of Ace. So how do they overcome such a hurdle? They introduce a new companion, one never seen in the television series before. Welcome to the TARDIS, Dr. Evelyn Smythe. Evelyn, played superbly by Maggie Stables, is a great companion for the sixth Doctor, with her no-nonsense attitude and unwillingness to be spoken to in the manner that this Doctor had become accustomed to with Peri. The Doctor finds himself in a history class tracking what he calls a “nexus point” which almost immediately is identified as Evelyn. The Doctor decides to investigate, as the Doctor is also prone to doing, and ends up almost causing the very thing he is trying to prevent. One would think the TARDIS would not allow devices within her walls if they lead the Doctor to accidentally changing history! The Doctor takes Evelyn back to the court of Queen Elizabeth I to find out just who the mysterious Dr. John Whiteside-Smith is but misses his mark, putting them in the reign of Queen Mary. An oversight that almost gets Evelyn killed… and that was just episode 1.
While historical stories really are not my thing, the cast is so superb that it’s hard to fault the lack of an alien menace. Nicholas Pegg as Rev. Thomas Smith had me fooled for the longest time, making me think he was Arthur Dent (Simon Jones). He plays his part with intelligence while still being one of the main antagonists. Jo Castleton plays Lady Sarah, the Queen’s handmaid, and she is humorous, clever, and just all-around likable. But the Queen herself, played by Anah Ruddin, takes the cake for best performance. (Do they give cakes for that?) She is incredibly intelligent; you can’t help but want the Doctor to spend more time with her even though to some extent she is an antagonist. I guess everyone believed everything they heard back in 1555. (Imagine how well the tabloids would have sold!) The cast carries the story with such skill, not only does the audio fly by, but it totally makes one forget that we like having monsters and aliens as the enemies! Colin Baker, now in his second outing as the Doctor for Big Finish (excluding The Sirens of Time), is proving to be an excellent Doctor for this medium. His elocution is perfect!
That said, there are things upon which I would have liked to see improvement. The Doctor chastises Evelyn for her attire at one point but she says nothing to him of his own until the very end of the story. Why would she not comment on it when he took pleasure in ridiculing hers? Also, The Doctor goes on one of those name-dropping quests, trying to see how many names he can claim to have met. Socrates, Henry VIII, Francis Drake and a few others get mentioned. Frankly, I think it’s a test: see if they walk away and he need never take them to the TARDIS. If they stay, maybe they are companion material after all! And Evelyn seems too quick to forget the one thing that is keeping her alive: her purse, which holds a device of the Doctor’s making. My issue here is that she’s also far to trusting of strangers asking everyone to open the bag for her. It’s partly done for the benefit of the listener, so we can “see” what’s happening, but it comes off as very strange. Where was she laying her purse? Why wouldn’t she keep it with her at all times?
The truth is, all of these are minor issues. The story is too good to really criticize, but it would sound like I just love everything Doctor Who, and that is simply not the case! In fact, next week, I’ll prove it. But for now, know that The Marian Conspiracy is a solid piece of dramatic storytelling, adding a pinch of humor, a touch of historical education and a lot of suspense to an alien-free story. Highly recommended!! ML