“I find that cake is an excellent solution to many of life’s problems”
Tracking a nexus point in time, the Doctor meets Dr Evelyn Smythe, a history lecturer whose own history seems to be rapidly vanishing.
The Doctor must travel back to Tudor times to stabilise the nexus and save Evelyn’s life. But there he meets the Queen of England – and must use all his skills of diplomacy to avoid ending up on the headman’s block…
Back in 1966, The Highlanders was the last purely historical adventure; they were deemed less popular or exciting than the other stories so with the exception of the (rather under-appreciated) two-part Black Orchid in 1981, that was it. There would be many more stories set in the past but they would always have some kind of alien threat to them. I always quite liked the purely historical stories and so I was quite pleased to find that the first one for 19 years was a success. As well as this milestone though, there are two other things of particular interest about this story; a new companion and a new Doctor.
Because Mel appeared as a fully formed, experienced companion with no introduction story, the Sixth Doctor era is perfect for Big Finish because there is an almost endless gap in continuity that allows them to do whatever they like, which is create a new companion. It’s pleasing to hear the instant chemistry between the two leads and it gives you hope that this new companion will turn out to be a successful idea, because if Evelyn fails to work it will cast doubt over any other new companions that Big Finish may create
Maggie Stables (who gave us the unbelievably rubbish Ruthley in The Sirens of Time) plays Evelyn Smythe, a history professor in her late fifties. An older travelling companion is something that the original TV series never had the courage to do and, so far, neither has the new series – something tells me it will never happen. Evelyn has been created as someone who is obviously intelligent, has a sense of humour and is perfectly capable of giving as good as she gets with the Doctor and Maggie Stables really throws herself into the part. Overall it works well, however I haven’t warmed to the character. Evelyn is well played and I can see lots in there to like but given the way she speaks to the Doctor in the lecture hall, shouldn’t she resist his explanation a bit more and not agree to go with him so readily? And, even when presented with the evidence of his ability to travel through time, she’s still willing to argue about whether something happened or not. He’s been there you haven’t, don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs, love. I kind of like her, but at the moment there’s something that I can’t quite place, which is making me wary.
So, onto the Doctor, sorry the New Doctor, sorry the New Old Doctor. Colin Baker and Big Finish both wanted to show the Sixth Doctor in a better light than the TV version managed and this is where it starts. This is the Sixth Doctor that we all know and love but something’s happened to him…he’s mellowed. This is a Sixth Doctor who’s been around a long time, he’s travelled a lot more, experienced a lot more and as a result his character has softened. His arrogant, pompous and abrasive character traits are all still there, as they should be, but they’ve been tempered, refined you could say. He’s more tactful, more diplomatic, even charming. He’s far more likeable than he was on TV.
The rest of the cast aren’t bad at all, but two of the more memorable characters are Mary and Reverend Thomas. Anah Rudin does a nice job as Mary and some of her scenes with Colin Baker are just brilliant. Reverend Thomas is memorable for two reasons, the first is because Barnaby Edwards’ French accent is a bit too stereotypical, bringing to mind berets and onions while the other reason is that, often, a dodgy accent can destroy a character but in this case the actor manages to overcome that handicap and make the character believable, he has some very good scenes
It’s not a particularly fast paced story (the historical ones generally weren’t) but there’s nothing wrong with that at all, a slower pace doesn’t stop you telling a good story. There is an element of humour to The Marian Conspiracy, which thankfully manages to stay as humour and not charge down the ill-advised path of out-and-out comedy. As a whole, I think it manages to keep its balance between drama and humour but there are moments when that doesn’t happen; particularly the Doctor and Evelyn’s incarceration and subsequent escape from the Tower of London. The Tower has been mentioned several times up to this point and it is made abundantly clear that it is not somewhere you want to be sent to yet despite this, and despite the fact that, as a history professor, she ought to know all about the Tower, Evelyn takes it all far too lightly, removing all the tension and making the escape, which was unlikely enough as it was, even less believable.
Whether this was a case of poor storytelling or character traits being tried out for the new companion, I don’t know. But either way, what could have been a tense, dramatic scene…wasn’t. This is clearly a specific complaint, but it’s not the only one and there is a lack of tension all round.
The music is very good with plenty of period specific instruments like shorns, period drums and recorders being used in a deliberate attempt to give the incidental music an authentic feel. It’s a nice bit of attention to detail, which I hope will continue to be used in any future historical adventures.
Not as tense or dramatic as it should have been perhaps, but a promising start for Evelyn, the new Sixth Doctor and a good, not great, effort at a pure historical. I look forward to more of all three.
The Doctor: Colin Baker | Evelyn: Maggie Stables
With: Jo Castleton (Lady Sarah), Barnaby Edwards (Francoise de Noaille), Jez Fielder (William Leaf), Sean Jackson (George Crow), Alistair Lock (Royal Guard), Nicholas Pegg (Reverend Thomas), Anah Ruddin (The Queen), Gary Russell (John Wilson)
Writer: Jacqueline Rayner | Director: Gary Russell | Music: Alistair Lock | Release Date: March 2000 | Running Time: 1 hour 47 mins approx | Number of Episodes: 4
Set Between: The Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani