Written By: Jacqueline RaynerDirected By: Gary Russell
Colin Baker (The Doctor); Maggie Stables (Evelyn Smythe); Sean Jackson (George Crow); Gary Russell (John Wilson); Jez Fielder (William Leaf); Jo Castleton (Lady Sarah); Anah Ruddin (The Queen); Nicholas Pegg (Reverend Thomas); Barnaby Edwards (Francois De Noailles); Alistair Lock (Royal Guard)
Originally Released: March 2000
A recurring issue for brave new explorers launching assaults on the vast continent that is Big Finish’s contribution to Doctor Who is that there’s just so MUCH of it. Certainly, as a relative newcomer to their work, who only started dipping into the ranges in 2013, I’m still balancing more current ranges with sifting through the early golden age of the first 50 releases. So maybe it’s worthwhile to look back at some of those formative stories and see which ones are seeking out, and also to see how almost twenty years of the development of Doctor Who (lest we forget, BACK ON TV) casts them in a different light than back in the day.
The Marian Conspiracy itself is a great jumping on point. More than that, it’s practically a soft reboot of the Sixth Doctor. While the Lost Stories range did wonders in improving his problematic TV persona simply by expressing his arrogant, egotistical, hotheaded tendencies through markedly better writing than back in 1985, here it’s like the entire characterization has been scrapped and Colin Baker’s Doctor rebuilt from scratch. The oft mention “Oul’ Sixey” is born here and, even if this story was lacking, it would be worth checking out as a vital bit of Big Finish history.
As it is, the story is anything but lacking. It’s an all time classic.
A rare “pure" historical, it features no aliens or mad scientists whatsoever, but simply concerns itself with the skulduggery and betrayals of Queen Mary’s court in 16th century England. And while contemporary Big Finish historicals like The Church and the Crown simply used history and its dramatis personae as a backdrop to rollicking adventure, this is more akin to early Hartnells – with an apparent mandate to educate the audience on the basics of the period (with added assassination attempts, naturally). This does raise the same question as most of the latter day revivals of the subgenre – how is that the Doctor seems to know he’s in a pure historical? It never even occurs to the Doctor that aliens could be behind events even though, across the whole of his lives, it should be his default assumption. I mean it’s always aliens in his experience. Except, as here, when it isn’t.
The lack of an outside influence does make the entire thing a paradox, of course. The Doctor’s pulled into events when he detects a history professor from the (very) early 21st century, Dr. Evelyn Smythe, is being erased from history from some anomaly in the 16th. But it turns out that she actually shouldn’t exist in the first place and only comes about because the Doctor incidentally saves her ancestor while trying to find the anomaly that only exists because he creates it by saving the ancestor while… you get the idea. From a modern perspective, it feels like this sort of thing would be made a central feature of the story but here it’s sort of tucked in like a slightly untidy bedsheet, in the hopes that nobody notices.
But that’s a quibble, and one beside the point of the story writer Jacqueline Rayner is telling. As an introduction to new companion Evelyn, it ticks all the boxes such debuts need to have. She’s got an immediately strong sense of whom she is as a character – strong willed, and borderline argumentative, but in the charming way that sees people sigh deeply as they give in to the inevitable and let her have her way; yet also deeply maternal and caring and acutely intelligent and insightful. She’s quickly established as a woman you want to spend more time with as a listener. It’s all the more remarkable considering she’s so atypical a companion for the Doctor to invite about the TARDIS. A middle aged academic, she’s less about screaming and swooning over the nearest Thal, and more about an excitement to learn more about the world while maintaining a certain minimum standard of comfort. She’s a cocoa swilling, cardigan cocooned, handbag swinging breath of fresh air. And, sure, the Sixth Doctor seems a completely different man before they’re even introduced properly (her chiding of his interruption of her lecture would have seen TV Six stoked into a petulant rage, surely, followed by a prolonged sulk) but it does feel like Evelyn smooths the transition by credibly bringing out the best in him. He quickly seems to see her as an equal in all but her inexperience of the dangers of time travel, and the easy relationship between them is just nicer to see than his habitual bickering with Peri or Mel.
The exploration of Marian England is well sketched too. Having Evelyn blunder into a bar, believing Elizabeth is already on the throne is a very deft way of illustrating the real depth of passion tearing at the country’s fabric at every level of society. The eponymous conspiracy, joining together Protestant insurgents and agents of Catholic Spain in an unlikely alliance to put a more friendly face on the throne, is likewise a clever illustration of the issues involved. The debates between the Doctor and Queen Mary about the rights and wrongs of religious persecution shouldn’t work, as an epic case of telling, not showing, but the performances and script are so strong they absolutely work. It does push the Doctor into a strangely uncharacteristic tolerance of intolerance though. Really, Mary’s strident belief that all Protestants are marked by God Himself for damnation and that burning them alive and torturing them into converting is actually for their own good, isn’t that far from the stuff a Davros or a Cyberleader would come out with. But the Doctor never musters more than a bittersweet disappointment that he can’t reach her.
Of course, it’s not all talking and there’s a good deal of attempted assassination, framing people as deadly assassins, people threatening to blink out of existence as all of space and time warps around them, and the possibility of an ocassional stabbing. It all feels slightly tacked on but never less than fun and it all moves along at high enough a pace that it never outstays its welcome.
The Marian Conspiracy is an apparently effortless mixture of a very old fashioned view of what Doctor Who can, or should, be with a fresh and innovative companion and a complete rebirth for a classic Doctor. Even for those who think they don’t like pure historicals, this is well worth a listen or even, if it’s been a long time since you’ve heard it, a re-listen.