Well, this ought to be interesting. The introduction of our first companion created exclusively for the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. And she’s going to be an old lady. And played by the person who, for me, gave the absolute stand out worst performance in any of the audio releases prior to this one, to boot. That’s right, my Whovian friends, it appears that they really are determined on making the woman who was the cringe-inducing Ruthley in The Sirens of Time a regular companion to the Sixth Doctor. So, are they crazy? Read on to find out.
“A stitch in time.”
Episode 1: While searching out the source of a temporal nexus, the Sixth Doctor encounters one Evelyn Smythe, a historian whose own history seems to be rapidly disappearing. The only solution, travel into the past and ensure that history unfolds as it should, before Evelyn, too, is erased from time.
So, turns out they’re not crazy. Not even close. And while the idea of a pension aged companion travelling with The Doctor didn’t exactly hit me in my happy place when I first heard about it, turns out not only does it work, but it works damn well. And mostly it works damn well because of just how enjoyable Maggie Stables is in the role, and just how good the rapport is between her and Colin Baker. In truth, I’m less surprised that it works, and more surprised at just how well it works, and how quickly I was drawn into the whole thing.
Almost right from the get-go, this story just feels of a higher standard, and far more assured than any that have come before. It’s hard to put into words, but there is just a feeling of quality that oozes out of every corner of this release. The script, the performances, the pacing, everything just seems spot on here. To hear Colin Baker getting a chance at a story this good, well, the end result literally had me grinning from ear to ear. Yes, literally. And please, no jokes about my abnormally large mouth. I’m very sensitive.
If I had a complaint, as I listened to the first episode, it would be that I often found the music to be somewhat intrusive and overbearing, not to mention overly repetitive. It just had that ‘listen to me‘ quality about it, as if it was deliberately trying to draw attention to itself, rather than melding into the overall soundscape and becoming an organic feeling part of the whole. Something that I find the best supplemental music does. It was more distraction than benefit. Though in fairness it seemed to become less of an issue as the story progressed. Now, whether that was due to me just getting used to it, and blocking it out to a certain extent, or because it actually had been toned back somewhat, I’m not entirely sure, though for the most part it felt like the latter.
One final observation before we move into the next episode, Maggie Stables’ Evelyn must be the most clueless historian ever, given just how little thought she gives to what a walking anachronism that she is, without even the slightest effort made to lessen having such an impact. It is another clear indication of how good the writing and performances are then that not only does this behaviour not grate, even when it is conveniently used as plot device, but it is even a tiny bit endearing.
So, episode one was a bit of a cracker then. Can it sustain this level of quality, though?
“If they can not step from the path of sin, then they will be purified in the flames.”
Episode 2: The Doctor has ingratiated himself into Queen Mary’s court, as elsewhere, Evelyn has uncovered a conspiracy that would seek to remove The Queen from power.
Yes, it can. Very much so. In fact, if anything, this is where things start to get really good, and it soon becomes very clear indeed that this story is setting the new benchmark for quality as far as Doctor Who audio adventures go.
With that said, there is one manner in which the story is ever-so-slightly let down. Barnaby Edwards’ French accent. Which, it must be said, is less believable French accent, and more refugee from a Monty Python sketch that has somehow invaded the Doctor Who set. So much so that I half expected him, when confronted by The Doctor, to proclaim him to be the son of a silly person, and tell him to go and boil his bottom. To be fair, his actual performance is perfectly fine, but that accent is still just a little bit silly. Plus, it turned me into a newt! (I got better)
So, perfection it may not be, but perfection is boring, and some would say, unattainable. What we have here instead is a story blistering with life and energy, style and intelligence. A story not afraid to take risks in terms of content and subject matter, especially in regard to differing religious views, and the dubious morals and fanaticisms that can so easily taint such beliefs. And that it does not present such matters in a clear ‘black and white’ good versus evil fashion is, again, a great credit to all concerned. As are the performances that bring it all so vividly to life.
I must say, it is all going rather well then. But things have suddenly fallen over in episode three before…
“The TARDIS is an exceptionally fine craft.”
Episode 3: As the plot against Queen Mary turns deadly, The Doctor finds himself being granted a particularly unwanted gift.
But this time, in this story, there is no such drop in quality. If anything, again, it actually raises the bar. In fact there is a scene in this episode between The Doctor, and Queen Mary’s Lady in Waiting, Sarah, that is nothing short of amazing. A scene that I will not spoil, but which manages to debate religion and intent, while simultaneously delving into The Doctor’s own character in an unexpectedly powerful and poignant way, and the performances of Jo Castleton, and especially Colin Baker, could not be better. It is truly a moment of absolutely riveting drama, and in fact I’d go so far as to call it amongst Colin Baker’s best ever work as The Doctor. Yes, I was that blown away.
Not only that, but the scene in question also worked as a perfect validation of why The Doctor presented here has softened a bit, and isn’t quite so prickly around the edges. And while I am actually someone who loves the prickly and more belligerent side of The Sixth Doctor’s personality, it is a character progression that not only works and makes sense, but which was always intended to take place as time wore on, in much the same way that William Hartnell’s Doctor also changed and softened somewhat over time. This is an older version of The Sixth Doctor, he carries with him the burden of his past, and it has changed him. But believably so. And probably for the better.
Speaking of the performances, they really are great, right across the board (dodgy French accent not withstanding). As already mentioned, Colin Baker is truly superb, and Maggie Stables helps give Evelyn a very enjoyable audio debut. Of the guest cast, the afore mentioned Jo Castleton is a standout, particularly in her scenes opposite Baker. But one cast member that I have thus far failed to mention, but who is absolutely stellar, and every bit Baker’s equal here, is Anah Ruddin as Queen Mary, who delivers a performance of true grace and complexity. It is a character that would be so easy to turn into a stock standard villain, however Ruddin’s performance, combined with Jacqueline Rayner’s superb script, truly turns Queen Mary into a believable and compelling character. And it is a character and performance that looms large over the story being told here, and does so very much to it’s benefit.
As the third episode winds up, I know already that this is easily my favourite Big Finish Doctor Who audio thus far. And all I really want now is for it to stick the landing, and have a satisfying conclusion…
“Violence is never the answer.”
Episode 4: The Doctor and Evelyn must race against time to uncover the conspirators, and ensure that history unfolds as it should. But at what cost?
And it does, mostly.
To be perfectly honest, the final episode is all a bit routine. Everything story-wise is tied up, there’s a decent twist in the tale, the performances are still great, and the ending is suitable. There’s the odd clunky attempt at humour that doesn’t really play, but nothing too bothersome. And despite lacking the depth or power of previous episodes, it is still a largely satisfying experience. But, much as a final episode has to be, it is all in service to the basic function of ending the story and tying everything together neatly, so there is little room for anything grander. As such it just tends to lack a certain impact. I also found part of the ending to be ever so slightly a cop out, and I think it would have been more powerful and better suited to an even more downbeat finale than the one we are ultimately given. Though at the same time, I understand why that wasn’t done, especially for the first adventure of a brand new companion.
But honestly, this is all nitpicking. The final episode is solidly enjoyable, everything else prior is pretty damn great, and much of it even better than that, thanks in no small part to Jacqueline Rayner’s truly superb scripting, which is easily the best that the Big Finish Doctor Who line has yet seen. Which makes it a great shame that she has done so few Doctor Who audio plays, and sadly it would be another three years or so until her next release in the Big Finish Doctor Who audio range. After her stellar work here with The Marian Conspiracy I definitely look forward to eventually getting to that next one, however, and the fact that it is yet another Sixth Doctor adventure is just the icing on the cake.
So, on reflection, if this had been part of the TV show I believe that I would likely rank it as a classic, and as a personal favourite. And as an audio adventure, I still rank it as a classic. And definitely as my new favourite. I want more like this, please. In fact, when fans rave about Big Finish, I now imagine that it is this level of quality that they are talking about. And as much as I have enjoyed previous audio releases, to varying degrees, this one, right here, is the first one I’d rate as uniformly excellent. Both as a piece of storytelling drama, and as a slice of Doctor Who. So kudos to all concerned.
It also makes me keener than ever for my next Big Finish Doctor Who fix.
Next up: Sylvester McCoy returns in The Genocide Machine