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Twenty-one years ago, in Big Finish‘s sixth ever Doctor Who release, Colin Baker made history by being the first Doctor to get his own audio-exclusive companion. Introduced in The Marian Conspiracy by Jacqueline Rayner, Dr. Evelyn Smythe would go on to star in nineteen audio adventures with the Sixth Doctor, up until actress Maggie Stables‘ very sad passing in 2014. So, today, let’s throw it back to March 2000 (before this reviewer was even born!) and see if Evelyn’s debut story stands up all these years later…
Though it was released some five years before Russell T Davies resurrected Doctor Who in 2005, The Marian Conspiracy has a decidedly ‘new series’ flavour to it, with its heavy focus on both the companion and the Doctor. Granted, Evelyn doesn’t get quite the character-focused introduction that, say, Rose or Martha were given, but her opening scenes are a far cry from the more lackadaisical first stories for some of the classic companions.
Partly thanks to Maggie Stables‘ warm performance, and partly down to Jacqueline Rayner‘s strong scripting, we immediately get a taste for who Evelyn is as a character, as she confronts a strange man who interrupts her lecture about Tudor England to tell her she’s making things up. She soon discovers that she’s caught at the centre of a nexus in spacetime, and that her apparently erroneous knowledge of the Tudor period is as a result of the disappearance of her family from history!
Joining the mysterious man, who is, of course, the Doctor, she travels back to the reign of Queen Mary to find out what’s happened to time. While the Doctor visits Mary herself, Evelyn stops by a local pub, where she becomes embroiled in a Protestant conspiracy to overthrow the Catholic Queen. What follows is a race against time to fix what’s happened to history before Evelyn fades away… but with the sinister insurrectionist Reverend Thomas on the scene, that certainly won’t be an easy feat.
The period of history in which this story is set isn’t something I really knew a whole lot about before listening to this audio, so I was very pleased at how much historical context Rayner manages to include in the script. The way she deftly weaves historical facts in amongst a more traditional Doctor Who plot is commendable, ensuring that the listener learns something without it seeming like a dull history lesson. My interest in the period has certainly been piqued after hearing this, which is always a good thing!
Rayner’s strong script is complemented by the great cast director Gary Russell has assembled to perform it. Aside from the aforementioned brilliance of Maggie Stables, who impresses right from her very first scene as Evelyn, Nicholas Pegg and Barnaby Edwards are the stars of the show as conspirators Reverend Thomas and François de Noailles respectively, while Anah Ruddin and Jo Castleton put in strong performances as Queen Mary and her lady-in-waiting Sarah.
Colin Baker‘s performance should also be praised; he bounces off Maggie Stables exceptionally well, softening somewhat the more brusque tendencies of his tetchier Doctor, while also remaining identifiable as the Old Sixie we know and love. A particular highlight is a scene in Part Three, where he discusses with Lady Sarah the morality of killing in the name of what is good. Both Baker and Castleton bring the profound insight of Rayner’s dialogue to life with flair in what is possibly the best scene in the piece.
All in all, The Marian Conspiracy is an excellent story, with Rayner effortlessly juggling an interesting historical narrative with the introduction of Evelyn as the Doctor’s new companion. The story is very simple and easy to follow, which allows it characters and setting to shine even more, though I would say that I’d have liked a little more time to be given over to Evelyn as she adjusts to this new world of space and time travel. Aside from the scene at the start where she meets the Doctor, you’d almost think she’d been travelling with him for years, what with how unperturbed she is by the whole ordeal. Nevertheless, this is a really strong story, which goes to show that Big Finish have been producing corkers since their earliest days! Highly recommended.
The Marian Conspiracy is available as a download from http://www.bigfinish.com