Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Marian Conspiracy

This is the one. This story is where I discovered that Big Finish was truly doing something extraordinary. For the first time I was told a Doctor Who story and it was as good or better than any of the original series on television. To put it mildly, I adore this story. This is also where the 6th Doctor really began worming his way into my heart. It's also where the wonderful Evelyn Smythe was introduced. It's a simply tremendous story by Jacqueline Rayner (and not her last).

The story begins with history Professor Evelyn Smythe giving a lecture. She is soon to be annoyed by a noisy gadget being used by the Doctor. He's tracking down some sort of nexus point in time, and after interrupting Professor Smythe's class, he quickly realizes that the nexus point is somehow tied to her. The Doctor charms his way into her apartment later. Dr. Smythe is leery and sort of views him as an entertaining lunatic. However, when she pulls out some historical documentation showing a supposed ancestor of hers who was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth, and the words begin fading from the page before her eyes, she begins to take the Doctor more seriously. The Doctor quickly decides that he needs to go back to the court of Queen Elizabeth (the TARDIS has slightly different ideas) to sort things out (and prevent Evelyn from ceasing to exist) and he brings her with him.

Under almost any standard, this story gets off to a slow start. We spend almost the whole of the first episode listening to the meeting between the Doctor and Evelyn, and then listening to him try to convince her that something is wrong with history, and it somehow involves her. However, this episode pretty much flies by, as the Doctor and Evelyn (played by the brilliant Maggie Stables) have tremendous chemistry right from the start. Their interplay is so entertaining, and why it took the series so long to introduce an older companion seems baffling, given it works so well here from the start. The new series played with this idea with an even older Wilfred Mott, and the results were similarly tremendous. It's a whole new dynamic between the Doctor and companion, and this pairing ultimately leads to a such a strong, warm friendship. It's just impossible not to love Evelyn, and after hearing several more stories she became (and remains) my all time favorite Doctor Who companion.

The bulk of the story takes place at the end of the time of Queen (Bloody) Mary and involves a fictional plot to overthrow her in favor of Queen Elizabeth, with some real historical figures involved. It's a pure historical which harkens back to the Hartnell era with the only real sci-fi element being that this plot has to be stopped to prevent history from being changed, and Evelyn being written out of existence. The plot is perfectly fine, with one or two amusing and clever twists, but really in this story, it's not so much about the plot as it is listening to the characters interact with one another. The particularly entertaining interactions are those involving the 6th Doctor.

Colin Baker is just tremendous in this. It's with this story that Gary Russel (the initial head honcho/producer of Big Finish) and writer Jacqueline Rayner really begin to nudge the 6th Doctor into being a much more likeable Doctor. It's with this story that I began to love Colin Baker's interpretation of the Doctor, and he remains my all time favorite Doctor today, solely due to his wonderful performances in Big Finish stories. Yes, the Doctor still wears the ridiculous coat, and he's still at times brash, loud, and arrogant. But, it's tempered with real depth, as he also can be quiet, thoughtful, and empathetic towards other characters. Never is this "new" Doctor more apparent than in this story. The scenes between him and Queen Mary are just tremendous. Mary thinks she's pregnant (she's not) and the Doctor is inadvertently mistaken for a medical Doctor who is allowed to administer to the psychosomatic symptoms of the Queen. Mary instantly trusts and takes a liking to the Doctor and their talk shifts from her well being to her policy of burning Protestant "heretics" to death. This scene is just wonderful. The Doctor tactfully pleads with the Queen to reconsider (seemingly paying no heed to the natural course of history by doing so, but that's not the point). The Queen listens and makes a valid counter-argument, that she is doing what she knows to be the right thing based on her beliefs. The Doctor (almost against his wishes) empathizes greatly with Mary. In fact, he can relate to her. He has also caused the deaths of many people while trying to do what he thought was right. In another scene he expresses his feelings of empathy to the Queen's Lady in Waiting Sarah, in another scene showing the Doctor not as arrogant and loud, but melancholy and a little vulnerable, realizing how much he has in common with "Bloody Mary".

Of course, it's also the scenes with the Doctor and Evelyn that make this play. There is tremendous banter between them when locked in a cell in the Tower of London. They snipe at each other some, but it already feels more relaxed and warm than the constant arguing between the Doctor and Peri on TV. It's quite simply, the start of a beautiful friendship.

One other nice aspect of this story, is that while there are plotters planning to overthrow (and in fact murder) Queen Mary, it's hard to consider anyone a true "villain" of this story. Sure, Reverend Thomas is sinister, and Francois de Noailles is quite an unlikeable, nefarious French conspirator, but they both have clear and justifiable motives for their not quite justifiable actions. Mary herself, is the one burning innocent people alive, but she is also clearly the victim who needs to be saved, and really comes off as a very sympathetic character. Of course the Doctor and Evelyn sort the plot out, and Reverend Thomas shows his mettle by refusing to betray his beliefs, even though doing so would have slightly improved his fate.

Another lovely start to the new friendship between the Doctor and Evelyn, is when she convinces him to save the innocent, but imprisoned William Leaf and George Crow. When Donna convinces the Tenth Doctor in "The Fires of Pompeii" to save Caecilius and his family it harkens back to this moment in this story. Of course, after everything is sorted out, Evelyn has no intention of giving up the chance to see history for herself and convinces the Doctor to let her travel with him in the TARDIS. And, thank goodness for all of us that she did! "The Marian Conspiracy" is a masterpiece and can not be missed. 



  1. Evelyn was one of the best, if not *the* best, companion introduced by Big Finish.

  2. One of my favorites. Evelyn and the Doctor had immediate chemistry. He treated her as an equal in so many ways.