Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Audio Review 23: The Marian Conspiracy, written by Jacqueline Rayner (2000)

Released: March 2000

Cast:

The Doctor – Colin Baker
Evelyn Smythe – Maggie Stables
Lady Sarah – Jo Castleton
Queen Mary – Anah Ruddin
Reverend Thomas – Nicholas Pegg
Francois de Noailles – Barnaby Edwards
George Crow – Sean Jackson
William Leaf – Jez Fielder
Royal Guard – Alistair Lock
John Wilson – Gary Russell


Main Production Credits

Producers – Gary Russell & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Writer – Jacqueline Rayner
Director – Gary Russell
Incidental Music – Alistair Lock
Recording and Editing – Alistair Lock
Sound Design and Post-Production – Alistair Lock
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Remastered by Mark Ayres)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producer (for BBC Worldwide) – Jacqueline Rayner & Stephen Cole


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

History lecturer Dr. Evelyn Smythe finds herself whisked away by a mysterious stranger into the past, for a hair-raising adventure in Tudor England. The stranger is a loud, flamboyant and ridiculous man calling himself “The Doctor” and identifies Evelyn as a temporal nexus point, an anomaly in the timelines due to some unforeseen event being undone in the past. Evelyn is forced to take his words for granted, when her own family tree begins to literally vanish from history, including herself at one point. The Doctor takes Evelyn back in time in the TARDIS, hoping to put history back on its correct course...

However, instead of the expected arrival in Elizabethan England of the late 1500s, the time travellers find themselves some years out, in the time of the infamous Tudor Queen, Mary. While the Doctor hopes to find potential clues by attending the Queen, Evelyn unwittingly finds herself embroiled with Protestant Christian conspirators, plotting against the Queen, in the hope of crowning Elizabeth early, even if it means murdering Mary herself.

The Doctor meanwhile has worked himself into Mary’s favour, but both he and Evelyn are arrested and locked in the Tower of London after Reverend Thomas Smith, one of the Protestant conspirators, deceitfully implicates them in his plot in order to protect himself from execution, when caught out. The Doctor and Evelyn manage to escape the Tower, and foil the plot to kill Queen Mary, by warning her in time. The Doctor also saves Evelyn too, thereby saving the lives of her descendents, Lady Sarah Whiteside, and her child from near death, thereby restoring history’s true path and repairing the timelines. Evelyn decides to continue travelling with the Doctor on his future travels through time and space, looking forward to the wonders they’ll experience next.


Story Placement

Between The Acheron Pulse (BIG Finish audio) and The Spectre of Lanyon Moor (BIG Finish audio).


Favourite Lines

Evelyn Smythe – “I find that cake is an excellent solution to so many of life’s problems”.

Evelyn Smythe – “Last time I felt like this was the Yard-of-Ale race against the students at the history soc social”.
Doctor – “Really? Who won?”
Evelyn Smythe – “Oh, the Yard of Ale, definitely”.

The Doctor – “What would you say if I were to tell you that I once destroyed an entire race. That I have led friends to their deaths, and caused numerous wars. That my intervention has led to peaceful races taking up arms, and good people having their faith or reason destroyed. That because I failed to act, millions upon millions of people had been enslaved or killed. What if I had done all those things, but had always, always believed I was doing the right thing”.

Evelyn Smythe – “I’m a historian! This is a time machine. You can take me anywhere, and I’ll still be home in time for tea”.


Review:

The Marian Conspiracy represents a landmark audio release for Doctor Who, Big Finish, and perhaps most significantly for the character of the Sixth Doctor himself. Before Big Finish started, both the fans and the writers seemed to have given up on the Sixth Doctor, his character written off as one of the weakest and poorest ideas for a Doctor ever produced. Although writers throughout the 1990s had tried some attempts at rehabilitating the character, they were slight, half-hearted, and completely failed to get to the root of the character, and improve him. There was still a perception that the character’s TV persona was still his default position, and that any portrayal shouldn’t try to break away from it. Enter Big Finish, Gary Russell and Colin Baker, who in 1999, all wanted to bring the Sixth Doctor to audio, but in a way that was different from before.

If I may take you back to 1984, when Doctor Who’s production team were formulating the character of the Sixth Doctor in preparation for his future TV debut, Eric Saward came up with the great and brave idea of making the Doctor unstable, brusque, amoral and untrustworthy, while at the same time being egotistical, intensely passionate, and very assertive. Despite the great dramatic potential of the idea though, it wasn’t entirely well executed. Furthermore, The Twin Dilemma, the Sixth Doctor’s opening TV serial which introduced the concept to the audience, wrapped the idea in one of the weakest scripts and most basic and contrived storylines ever produced for Doctor Who on Television, which ironically Eric Saward was also partly to blame for. The Doctor’s instability was phased out by the end of The Twin Dilemma, but his brusque, amoral and untrustworthiness continued. The original intention of the production team was to gently phase out these elements as the Sixth Doctor gradually became a more balanced, considered and mellow persona, gradually learning to be the caring and compassionate Hero again. However, due to the premature suspension of the series in 1985, and Eric Saward sabotaging the concept by lazily bringing back endless bickering and the Sixth Doctor’s earlier brusque self just to pad out some of the later 1985 serials with false melodrama and senseless arguing, even this part of the original concept failed to be realised. In the end, by the time Trial of the Time Lord entered development, most of any sense of transition or character development had to be dropped completely just so the Sixth Doctor could enjoy a much more happy and amicable relationship with his companion Peri before she was written out mere episodes later. Before the audience knew it, little after that the Sixth Doctor himself was axed from our television screens, so there was no resolution or payoff of any kind for any loyal viewers who had stayed with this character throughout his two troubled years in the spotlight.

Fast-forward back to 1999 then, Colin Baker and Gary Russell agreed that they wanted present the Sixth Doctor in his final settled persona, the one the 1985 and 1986 audiences of Doctor Who on television, should have got to see. Sure, the better parts of his persona would remain, like his intense passion, his flamboyant larger-than-life manner, with a smaller remainder of his entertaining egotistical side, reminding listeners of where the Doctor had come from, and reinforcing that this was a natural evolution of the Sixth Doctor’s character. The main differences were intended to show that this was the Sixth Doctor in his natural default state, away from the turbulent beginnings that occurred in his Television episodes. He was now sensitive, attentive, fiercely loyal and caring of his friends (although there were hints of that in his later TV episodes), with passionately high moral beliefs, although he never sees things in black and white; a true, old-fashioned, idealistic and romantic hero (and a man after my own heart). The impact of this change in Doctor Who fandom was seismic. No longer was the Sixth Doctor a character which you were embarrassed to like or enjoy, now you could even love him, as by removing his toxic traits and moving the character towards being a more moral and romantic character, combined with his determination and passion made him one of the most heroic, likeable, enjoyable and convincing Doctors of all, and is now one of my firm favourite Doctors of all time, and I have Colin Baker and Gary Russell to thank for it.

Of course a fair amount of the credit for the successful realisation of this change also has to go to the writer of The Marian Conspiracy, Jacqueline Rayner. Jacqueline took this new remit for the Sixth Doctor and ran with it, instantly showing the best and improved sides to his nature. Despite the Sixth Doctor knowing someone for only a day or so, already he’s worried intensely about their safety; he can diplomatically empathise with the Queen Mary, despite her strong views; he reflects with strong regret, on his own actions in the past; and he even makes good on one of his old boasts, persuading Mary with a perfectly articulated and powerful plea to spare the life of an unwilling and unknowing co-conspirator, saving her life, which on its own is a huge, terrific and triumphant ‘punch-the-air’ moment for the Sixth Doctor. In fact, he’s even very funny too, which is the perfect icing on the cake. Sure, that was also the intention back in 1984 too, but Jacqueline Rayner clearly has a far wittier and better sense of humour than Eric Saward ever did. Suddenly, the Sixth Doctor’s past persona is blown away, relegated to being a distant memory that can be left behind, while his brand new/current persona can be remembered in its place, and one that in my view, should be greatly celebrated.

If this astoundingly brilliant realisation of the Sixth Doctor wasn’t enough, Jacqueline Rayner also has the opportunity to tackle two further innovations to the Doctor Who franchise in The Marian Conspiracy. The most notable of these is the inclusion and introduction of new companion, Dr. Evelyn Smythe, and it’s one that Rayner tackles equally brilliantly. Gary Russell’s idea of creating a much older female Doctor Who companion is an inspired one, particularly given how both the original and new TV series of Doctor Who have lazily avoided the creative potential for such a direction, choosing to play it safe with their target audience. Although, we did have Wilf during episodes between 2007 and 2010, he didn’t feature much in any stories but The End of Time, so it’s still something the current TV programme is shying away from doing on as large a scale as this. Nevertheless, with Evelyn Smythe, it’s great to have a companion who is wise as well as smart, who is intelligent as well as clever, and is much more thoughtful, considered and sensitive to others, and significantly less self-absorbed, and yet wonderfully still has a bit of ego of her own. In other words, the Doctor’s equal, or at least in different areas to other companions, which makes Evelyn stand out as a very unique and fresh character, that opens the listeners’ proverbial eyes up to new creative and dramatic possibilities, which Big Finish are still having great fun with today.

The other great innovation is the long awaited return of the ‘pure historical’ format, or at least on a medium that can be performed and realised by a cast of actors, and directed, edited and produced by a production and post-production crew of media technicians and professionals. The last Doctor Who story on Television to be focused purely around actual historical events was The Highlanders, starring Patrick Troughton; way back in early 1967. The fact that Big Finish would risk trying out this format again is a testament to their bravery, inventiveness and open-minded attitude to continually experiment with new and old ideas, to never rest on their laurels, and never take anything for granted. Sure Big Finish like to have fun wallowing in nostalgia and bringing back old characters from time to time, just like other Doctor Who fans do, but that is far from what they do the majority of the time. They always endeavour to come up with new variations on this age old classic franchise, and 9 times out of 10 succeed magnificently in doing so.

As the title suggests, Jacqueline Rayner decides to set this particular ‘pure historical’ in Tudor London, during the time of the infamous Queen Mary, and I can partly see why. I myself have a great interest in British history, particularly between 400-1960 AD (with the exception of most of the Georgian Period, plus parts of World War 2 and the Cold War, which thanks to High School and A-Level I have read and re-read so many times I’m a bit fed up of them by now!), and I find medieval and Tudor (and Victorian) history particularly fascinating. Queen Mary’s short reign on the English throne was itself a turbulent time, full of political and religious upheaval. The tragic events surrounding Lady Jane Grey were only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ as it were, and set the tone for the greater momentous events to come. Queen Mary Tudor, is of course now infamous as the Royal ruler that put protestant Christians to death in their thousands, just for not recanting their faith and turning back to the Catholicism, the most prominent form of Christian belief and practices in England, prior to the reign of King Henry VIII, Queen Mary’s father, who first introduced Protestantism to the country. Mary’s strong obsessive views, matched with the cruel, merciless and tragic mass executions that she brought about, ordered and enforced, provide thought-provoking ideas and material that have great creative potential for drama, and Jacqueline Rayner certainly makes good use of it in The Marian Conspiracy. This audio is one of the best dramatic and fictional realisations of Queen Mary Tudor and England during her reign that I’ve ever encountered. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly in-depth, and it certainly doesn’t delve deep into real historical events or people, but it delves deep enough to be able to confront and discuss the moral issues and attitudes of the day without falling into the trap of using crass modern simplicities. Furthermore, the realisation of Marian times is also very convincing and believable. Rayner has clearly worked hard to ensure that all her characters are four-dimensional and yet true to the mindsets and behaviour of the time, while at the same time making sure not to get stuck down in historical minutiae. By doing this, it gives Jacqueline Rayner the artistic licence to let her characters act and develop naturally according to their created or perceived personas, rather than being contrived by the needs of the plot or historical detail, which also helps to support and improve the overall story.

The central storyline to The Marian Conspiracy though is a simple tale, which as the title suggests involves the the Doctor and his new companion becoming entangled in a protestant plot to murder Queen Mary; a plot that they desperately need to prevent in order to keep history on the right track. It’s a great and gripping premise, but it’s sadly not quite fleshed out or complex enough to fill four 25 minute episodes, so some padding does creep in during parts two and three. There’s also the slightly contrived point to the Doctor’s necessary intervention in these matters. If the failed plot was already a part of history, then what happened to suddenly make it a success that need preventing? I suppose it could be answered by saying that perhaps the timelines were always broken prior to the Doctor’s arrival, or that maybe the Doctor turning up to sort it out was always a part of that history. Whatever way you look at it, it appears to me that the threat of Evelyn disappearing from history is something of a cheeky sleight of hand by Jacqueline Rayner to help provide a plot device for the story to occur the way it did. However, it certainly doesn’t lessen what is still an enormously entertaining story and script. The conspiracy of the title may not be complex, but the standout red herrings Rayner puts into the script is enough to keep the listener guessing about the full plot just long enough before the climax arrives. What raises The Marian Conspiracy above just being a good historical caper though is Jacqueline Rayner’s outstanding characterisation.

The standout character in this audio of course is the radical and fresh new companion, Dr. Evelyn Smythe. An academic Doctor and a University lecturer with a strong passionate interest and expertise in Tudor history, Evelyn is a wonderful woman of great spirit and gumption, strong of will, and takes no nonsense off anyone. Her large experience and knowledge, not just of the history of which she loves to teach, but also of life, thanks to dealing with rebellious, temperamental and emotional students, as well as a divorce, makes Evelyn very certain and concrete in her views; and as a result makes her come across as rather opinionated. Evelyn is also a very witty person, and can match the Doctor in her ability to produce withering put downs. Importantly though, underneath her seemingly steely exterior is one of the kindest and gentlest people in existence. Even when faced with the brutalities and tragic events of the history she knows all too well, her conscience cannot help but compel her to fight them in the protection of harmless innocents. Not only does all this make Evelyn the perfect companion and equal to the flamboyant, erudite and egotistical Sixth Doctor, but the character also acts as a great soothing and humbling influence for him, breaking down what’s left of his negative tendencies, and turning him into a nicer and greater person and hero than ever before. Furthermore, to top it all, Evelyn has an adorable penchant for Chocolate, and loves to make Chocolate cake. In short, Evelyn Smythe is the Auntie you wished you had grown up with.

The Sixth Doctor himself is also in better form than ever, thanks to the renovation of the character I mentioned earlier by Colin Baker, Gary Russell and Jacqueline Rayner. He’s far less abrupt than he used to be and nearly all sense of his pomposity is gone, although that doesn’t mean he won’t still try and tease at the expense of others from time to time. The Doctor is still a bit of a proud man, even if it is more for appearances than before, however, it certainly cannot escape the listener to hear how humble and considered he is in his thoughts and actions now. No longer does he just burst into a situation and nonchalantly deal with the resulting consequences. He enters Queen Mary’s court delicately and diplomatically, and as a result is able to directly engage and listen to the Queen herself. Despite his bluster, one also cannot help but notice that deep down he really likes having Evelyn around, and that his vocal protests against Evelyn’s teasing are a pretence hiding how glad he is to have a friend to accompany him on his travels. This is no more evident than when the Doctor allows Evelyn to persuade him to save Leaf, Crow and their families. The Sixth Doctor and Evelyn Smythe is one of the most perfect Doctor and companion matches ever written. Evelyn’s wit and teasing pairs up wonderfully with the Doctor’s ego and sarcasm, and her big heart and gentle kindness helps to smooth over the Doctor’s remaining aloofness and rough edges to his personality.

Furthermore, the Doctor saving Lady Sarah’s life, just by the power of his persuasive argument is a glorious heroic moment to behold. In fact, it’s my favourite scene in the whole audio; such is the sheer power and outstanding writing and characterisation of Jacqueline Rayner’s script, particularly during that moment. I don’t mind telling you that listening to the pleading of Lady Sarah, and the Doctor’s desperate protestations to Queen Mary moved me to tears. Maybe I’m going soft in my gradual build-up to middle age, but in this case, I think I’m right in saying it’s a superb example of Doctor Who at its best. It was during my original listen back in 2000, that and in the space of this one very scene, the Sixth Doctor went from being a middling incarnation to being one of my top three favourite Doctors of all time, and Jacqueline Rayner certainly played a sizeable part in that for me.

Outside of that stellar moment, Lady Sarah Whiteside is a fairly shy and unassuming character. Despite having the appearance of a simple and naive woman, in reality Sarah possesses a quiet intelligence that she keeps to herself, as much for her own safety as it is for the sake of politeness. In fact, Lady Sarah is one of the most loyal, innocent, kind-hearted and gentle people you could ever hope to meet. Her loyalty to the Queen is as much out of love and respect as it is out of duty, just as it is for her husband. However, her deceitful, selfish and manipulative husband, the Reverend Thomas, repugnantly uses her to further his own political conspiracy and plot; while the Queen has Sarah living in fear of her life, due to her marriage to the Protestant Thomas. A rose between two thorns indeed, which the Doctor and Evelyn happily saved her from in the end.

Queen Mary Tudor herself meanwhile, is a fascinating and captivating interpretation of the English monarch by Jacqueline Rayner. Mary is still the devout Catholic Queen that is obsessed with removing the whole of Protestantism from England, as confirmed by all the history books, but importantly here she is still a person who can be reasoned with. Despite her strong religious loyalties and beliefs, Mary is determined to do the best for her people, and do right by them. Even when her religious teachings say differently, deep down Mary still has a moral consciousness that calls on her to listen, forgive and even help those who have been good and kind to her. Mary is also a very intelligent woman, and far from just politically as her past experiences has taught her to be. The Tudor Queen is more than willing to hear the thoughts and opinions of others, especially if they’re intelligent people also, who’ve given her the due respect she deserves, not just for her position, but also as a person. Mary even takes time to visit the traitor Reverend Thomas, to hear his reasons for treason, and to see if he’s the kind of person who’ll listen to her words. It’s not something that Mary had to do, particularly given Thomas was already a proved and convicted traitor, but her interest and willingness to hear the views of others show Mary to be a far more rounded, human and kinder woman than many lazy documentaries, history books and period dramas have portrayed her being.

Despite this still being a fictional portrayal of the English monarch, I still find Rayner’s Mary far more convincing and believable than the pantomime villain that other writers have written her to be. Having said that though, even in The Marian Conspiracy, Mary is still clearly partly insane (which was probably still true of her real life persona). Her fear of Protestantism is comparable to that of uncontrollable disease, and Mary’s vision of it as a plague upon humanity, certainly impacts upon her warped and extreme reaction to it. In her eyes, the only way Protests can be saved is through death, which Mary describes as ‘purification’, almost just the culling of diseased animals, or the burning of plague victims. Even Protestants recanting their religious beliefs isn’t enough for Mary, as in her mind, their souls have already been forever tainted. I suppose at this point it’s worth remembering, that even during the 1500s, medicine and the common practices of health and cleanliness as we know it was still centuries away, and that illness was either seen as entirely incurable, or could only be only cured by religious faith, practices, or even prayer. In those days, religion was directly linked to one’s perception of wellbeing, even despite the greed and depravity of men, accentuated by money. Also worth noting is that I’m sure there were many fanatical Protestants who would have happily burned Catholic Christians for their beliefs. However, even at the time Mary’s actions to burn, or effectively execute thousands of Protestants was on the whole, still considered extreme. Today we would undoubtedly call such actions to be government-sanctioned mass murder, or even attempted genocide, but back in the 1500s, murder, even in the name of religion would still be something most people would avoid or refuse to do, either in fear of the consequences, or because they could never bring themselves to commit such an evil destructive act. Sadly, Mary was far beyond mere fanaticism, but I still believe that she had a conscience deep down, even if it was overcome by her obsessive religious beliefs to understand the enormous wrongs she was doing.

Moving onto the lesser Tudor characters, while they’re not as complex or vividly portrayed as the other characters, they’re still well-rounded, and for the most part convincing. George Crow is an everyday working class Tudor Protestant type, who merely wants to peacefully help the cause of his fellow Protestant believers. He also in turn takes care of William Leaf, a much younger, innocent and naive friend, who is merely just trying to get through life, and through Crow accidentally becomes involved in the Protestant conspiracy plot, masterminded by the Reverend Thomas. Reverend Thomas Smith meanwhile is a fanatical Protestant priest who is determined to overthrow Queen Mary from the throne. He only attempts her assassination through poisoning as a last resort, when the Doctor inadvertently foils his earlier plans. I find the Reverend Thomas to be a bit of a basic character in truth. There’s never really any depth to him, and he also never develops beyond the role of incompetent villain, and a fairly one-note one at that. His French Catholic accomplice, Francois de Noailles isn’t much better either. A slimy villain that is almost pantomime in his level of menace and faux objections, de Noailles is a mildly annoying character who’s only saving grace is that Jacqueline Rayner intelligently used a far more subtle choice to be the mysterious assassin, although the obvious headlining by the script as to de Noailles’ villainy, practically screamed out ‘red herring’ to me. Any such deficiencies in the characters though, are often easily overcome by the strength of the cast performances.

As much as I want to say Maggie Stables, the real star of The Marian Conspiracy is undoubtedly ol’ Sixie himself, the legendary Colin Baker. Along with his large part in rejuvenating his Doctor’s character, Baker goes further and delivers what is definitely one of his best performances in the role. All hints of pomposity and acidity that could previously be heard in the Sixth Doctor’s voice have entirely disappeared overnight. In its place is gentleness, unassuming subtle witticisms, sincerity and humility. Even the Doctor’s trademark sharp sarcastic wit has no trace of meanness, unless it’s against those he despises and mistrusts. Colin Baker portrays the Doctor's changed and evolved personality both effortlessly and powerfully. He channels the character’s passion into the care and affection the Doctor has for others, as well as those he vows to defend and protect, and the fight against the forces of malevolence and injustice in general. Colin Baker has literally turned the Sixth Doctor into the hero he always should have been, and furthermore one of the most heroic Doctors ever come to that, and one that from this point on, I’ve cheered on all the way (well mostly in my head anyway). I salute you sir!

Even with this magnificent new rebranded Sixth Doctor however, that doesn’t lessen Maggie Stables’ achievement of establishing Evelyn within moments as one of the best and most enjoyable companions ever created for Doctor Who. One of the key parts of this is Maggie Stables’ effortlessly naturalistic performance, one of the best that I can remember in fact. Stables gives Evelyn a subtle crabby and cynical edge that wonderfully melts away as she first finds herself back in Tudor times, and then works out how true and good a person the Doctor really is, trusting him properly for the first time as well as having her old views and way of life blown away by travelling in the TARDIS. Maggie Stables also expertly reflects Evelyn’s age and years by conveying her vulnerability, through slight nervousness, and making her worries and pleas honest, and genuinely heartfelt. Furthermore, I love how, even when far away from her everyday life, she still maintains Evelyn with the manner of a lecturer or protective grandparent from time to time; whether its sternly standing up to Reverend Thomas’ petty paranoia or her passionate pleas to the Doctor to save George Crow and William Leaf from execution. Maggie Stables’ Evelyn is one of the elite number of companions who are not just convincing and loveable, but also someone who you’d like to meet and know in real life if they existed. In my mind that’s more than a successful companion debut, it’s an absolutely outstanding one, and a revelation at that.

The supporting cast is fantastic too. Anah Ruddin brilliantly underplays such a key and daunting a role as Queen Mary, delivering dialogue calmly with authority, expressing enthusiasm without emotive excitement. When the script calls for it though, Ruddin still superbly portrays Mary as the steely stern and outraged Queen that History remembers, without feeling the need to fall into melodrama, as many actors in period drama have unwittingly done excessively in the past. Jo Castleton is another actor who employs subtlety to great effect. Her Lady Sarah is quiet, calm and collected, but also fairly timid, cleverly hiding the character’s true intelligence and feelings till much later in the audio. This isn’t just so the listener can be pleasantly surprised later, and experience her character growing as the story progresses, but also to equally cleverly hide Sarah’s real loyalties and her actual part as an unknowing assassin in the Protestant murder plot against Mary. Once the character’s secrets and feelings are revealed, Jo Castleton beautifully and astutely opens up Sarah’s heart and character for all to see, her good nature and conscience naked to the World, showing us how great, innocent, kind and giving a person she has been all along. Castleton’s performance of Sarah’s heartfelt breakdown into despair, and her passionate cries for help and mercy, are an acting tour de force that moved me to tears, and definitely made that scene the moment of the audio for me. Jo Castleton’s performance as Sarah was a big part of how I had taken this Tudor character into my own heart, but then so is Jacqueline Rayner’s characterisation. However, this is certainly not a guest performance I will forget in a long, long time.

Sadly, the performances of Barnaby Edwards as Francois de Noailles, and Nicholas Pegg as Reverend Thomas, while being perfectly decent, are perhaps brought down by weaknesses in their respective characters and dialogue. Both performances have convincing moments, but Edwards’ French accent is perhaps a bit too close to the stereotype than is ideal, and Pegg’s Reverend Thomas has more than the occasional air of a pantomime villain, which combined with a similar style character, is a feeling that is difficult to shake off. Meanwhile, Sean Jackson and Jez Fielder, as George Crow and William Leaf respectively, fair a lot better rounding off their more down-to-earth working class characters, who are easily alarmed by the Reverend’s murder plot, and who have strong consciences. There’s also a nice double act going on between the two actors. Sean Jackson makes George as the older, gruff sounding everyman, who has a soft spot and paternal streak towards his younger friend William, whom Jez Fielder plays as naive, innocent and vulnerable, but also fairly simple and essentially upbeat in his attitude to life. Both performances wonderfully complement each other, and while the two characters are very much kept in the background of the story, the performances of both Jackson and Fielder are so delightful that it’s a treat to hear them return, in a coda scene after the main story is over.

While the performances are a sizeable part of what makes The Marian Conspiracy such a joy to listen to, it’s clear that a lot of good audio production has taken place as well. They say that good direction can be invisible at times, and while on audio it sometimes feels that way, the level of subtlety and technical precision across the majority of performances, as well as how brilliantly some scenes flow and are set up, shows that Gary Russell has clearly been tirelessly working wonders behind the scenes, and it shows. I keep coming back to that scene where the Doctor persuades Mary to spare Sarah’s life once the whole plot has been revealed, but it’s so beautifully done, that I would call it an audio work of art if it’s possible to say such a thing. The post production impresses too. The sound design may be light for this production, considering how light the story is on plot or action, but it’s still very effective nonetheless, with the sounds of splashing in the Thames, horses trotting on roads of stone, as well as the creative audio reverb of both a large modern space and an old confined one to convincingly reflect both a lecture hall and a prison cell within the Tower of London respectively. The Marian Conspiracy also has a very good soundtrack, courtesy of Alistair Lock, one of Big Finish’s first stalwart composers. The listener is swept into a period mood, thanks to the use of Medieval-esque instruments, which act as a wonderful base for rather more modern, but subtle strings, which never dominate or hijack the great Tudor/early Baroque sound that Lock is clearly aiming for. The melodies are kept wonderfully simple, even they’re still more complex than what music was being made at the time, but a good composer has to draw the line somewhere. Why sacrifice good music entirely for the sake of absolute historical accuracy. Anyway, I’m drifting from the point. The music itself beautifully and gently underscores the story develops while also giving the story, and perhaps also by association, Evelyn, a musical theme of its own that weaves in and around the plot as it develops. Lock also notes the various plot climaxes in the music superbly, but wisely never allows the music to take over and dominate the listening experience. The Marian Conspiracy score is one of the small number Big Finish soundtracks I’m glad was given a CD release, along with some of Alistair Lock’s other Big Finish work, and it’s still a CD I enjoy delving back into from time to time.

The Marian Conspiracy is undoubtedly one of the all-time highlights of Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio range. So many fantastic elements came together and performed wonderfully, whether it be Jacqueline Rayner’s script-writing and characterisation, the superlative cast, Gary Russell’s great direction, or Alistair Lock’s erudite music composition. The story of Evelyn Smythe, who travelled back in time to foil a plot to kill Queen Mary, has been one of the most memorable productions Big Finish have ever made. Being one of their very first audios, as well as one of the first Big Finish I ever heard myself after Sirens of Time, Whispers of Terror and The Genocide Machine, it is an audio that I’ve become very fond of over the years. I can hardly believe it’s nearly 13 years old; such is the originality and freshness of it that still remains to be the case today. You could remake it for TV today, and it would still feel as brand new as the day it was first released on audio. Then there’s the introduction of Evelyn Smythe, a Doctor Who companion unlike any other, and very possibly one of the very best companions ever invented. A much older companion with great heart, but also great intelligence, who can equal the Doctor for wit and cunning, compassion and intellect, effortlessly winning a place both in his hearts, and over time, in ours too. The only things which stop The Marian Conspiracy from being a fully fledged classic to me is the simplicity of the overall storyline, the amount of padding that creeps into the script, and perhaps also the slight one dimensionality of the male villains, but it’s definitely still the best audio production Big Finish had ever done up to that point, and it’s a fantastic one at that.

So the landmarks of The Marian Conspiracy that I referred to at the start of the review were that the audio was the strongest, most original and creative Big Finish Doctor Who release so far, and marked the beginning of an early golden period for the audio company that helped make it the fearless artistic force it is today. For Doctor Who itself, The Marian Conspiracy features the introduction of the first fully developed and fully fledged elderly companion, and a rather wonderful and super one at that; as well as the reintroduction and updating of the 'pure historical' story format. I suspect though that The Marian Conspiracy’s biggest legacy will be the complete reinvention and renovation of the character of the Sixth Doctor himself. The work done in this audio alone by all concerned completely transformed him into one of the best ever Doctors he was always meant to be. Fans who liked him before, loved him overnight. Fans who hated the character on TV were persuaded to reconsider and re-evaluate his true and proper worth, with many liking him properly for the first time. Many of those who had meanly slurred and scoffed at Colin Baker’s talents before were resolutely and definitively proven wrong beyond all doubt, and humbled. For this we have Colin Baker himself, as well as Gary Russell and Jacqueline Rayner to thank. So while the Virgin Missing Adventure novel Time of Your Life posed the question of what if something else happened to the Sixth Doctor after Trial of a Time Lord, then The Marian Conspiracy asks the question of what should have happened to the Sixth Doctor, as well as the wider point of how the TV Series should have continued before the mean, cynical, clueless and devastating hands of Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell wrecked all chance of future life and success for the show in the following years and decade. So now the problems of Doctor Who’s past are now well and truly consigned to the past, let the revolution continue, and great new original adventures begin!


Score: 9/10

(Illustration by Lee Sullivan)

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