We’re back, with another Big Finish Doctor Who audio drama review! This week, we’re listening to The Marian Conspiracy, the sixth in the Main Range of audios. Let’s get started!
Spoilers ahead for anyone who has not listened to this audio drama!
We open with the Sixth Doctor, companion-free for the moment, visiting a university history lecture in the year 2000. Or rather, he’s disrupting the lecture; upon dismissal of the class, he is called down by the instructor, one Dr. Evelyn Smythe. Evelyn claims to trace her lineage back to a Tudor-era courtier named John Whiteside-Smith. The Doctor makes a rather radical claim that Evelyn is at the center of a temporal nexus, but she rejects him, though with some humor. She isn’t laughing, however, when he meets her at her home and persuades her to review her family history—and finds that half her family tree is vanishing from the records. In fact, she herself is at risk of vanishing, because history has been changed.
Recovering quickly enough, Evelyn goes with the Doctor to 1558, to the royal court. Unfortunately—and unknown to them at first—they land three years earlier than planned, in 1555. This mistake nearly costs Evelyn her life; for Queen Elizabeth I is not yet on the throne, which is held by her sister Mary. Toasting Elizabeth’s reign, Evelyn is taken for a traitor. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds himself attending Mary, who believes she is pregnant.
Evelyn is rescued by a group of conspirators, who secretly support Elizabeth and want to put her on the throne. She finds she is in over her head, however, when they reveal they intend to depose and kill Mary to achieve their goals. This contrasts with established history; and yet it is possible—and Evelyn unintentionally encourages them, by revealing that Mary’s pregnancy is not real, but psychosomatic. The Doctor finds himself confronting another conspirator, the Bishop Francois de Noallies of Aix, and making the situation worse. The time travelers are reunited in Mary’s presence, only to find that Evelyn has been set up; de Noallies rushes in and accuses her of attempting to poison the queen with painkillers (which are unknown in this period). He does this to deflect attention from his group’s own plot, but fails when the Doctor demonstrates that the pills are a medicine, and in fact gives some to Mary, winning her favor. However, Mary shows her favor by declaring that the Doctor will be married—to her handmaiden, Sarah. Putting the names together (the Doctor’s John Smith alias, combined with Sarah’s last name of Whiteside), she suggests that her ancestor is in fact the son of the Doctor and Sarah—making him her ancestor! He counters that history also attests that John Whiteside-Smith’s father was executed at the order of Mary.
Immediately thereafter, the Doctor and Evelyn are arrested, accused of heresy, and locked in the Tower of London. This happens because they were implicated by the Reverend Thomas Smith (small world, that last name), one of the conspirators, who has since been captured. While there, they determine what was changed to create the temporal nexus: Mary is due to die of natural causes in 1558, but if unimpeded, de Noallies will poison the sacrament at her next mass, causing her to die three years early. They escape the Tower—no thanks to the Doctor, with his current lack of a sonic screwdriver—and make their way to where the queen is taking mass. There they are prevented from entering by Sarah.
Suddenly things fall into place for the Doctor. He realizes that de Noallies—who, despite his conspiratorial leanings, is quite devoted to his faith—would never pollute the sacrament, considering it a sin. Rather, Sarah is the true co-conspirator; and now it comes out why. She was married to Thomas Smith, but Mary’s recent edicts have disqualified her marriage to the Protestant reverend. Therefore she was going to poison Mary, and see Elizabeth onto the throne. Mary is of a mind to execute both of them; but the Doctor reveals that Sarah is pregnant with Smith’s child, and therefore persuades Mary to spare her. Instead she sends Sarah away into Elizabeth’s service. In gratitude, Sarah tells the Doctor she will name her child after him. Thomas, however, declines to recant his Protestant faith, and is burned at the stake. And thus, history is restored—and so is Evelyn, who now knows the truth about her ancestors.
In a final act, Evelyn insists on saving the other two conspirators, Leaf and Crow, who have since also been imprisoned in the tower. Using the TARDIS, they rescue them and place them in a Protestant city, where they will be safe. Afterward, Evelyn insists on traveling with the Doctor; she has a chance to see history with her own eyes, and will not turn it down.
This serial was, in my opinion, the best Sixth Doctor outing so far. It’s a pure historical, complete with established historical characters (as opposed to, say, Black Orchid, which just includes the historical setting); these were increasingly rare in the later classic series, and I usually don’t find them to be particularly engaging, but in this case I’m making an exception. It’s a bit of a revision of history; Mary was historically not a well-regarded queen, but this story gives her a human side that history usually disregards. She has her positives—in her human affection—and her negatives. It says something about the Doctor that he treats her just as favorably as he later will do for her rival, Elizabeth; he has nothing personally against her, and even makes a brief attempt to show her the error of her ways, although he knows that history will be unchanged. Still, the story doesn’t gloss over her cruelty and dogmatism, either.
Evelyn Smythe is the real gem here. I had heard of her, but only in the most basic sense; she’s a refreshingly different companion (mostly due to her age—there, I said it; you may commence throwing stones now). The Doctor has been running around with young women for quite some time; Evelyn confounds him, I think, but at the same time they make a good team. I’m looking forward to more appearances from her.
Placing this story in the Doctor’s timeline is a bit difficult. He is traveling alone; but the television series affords a few times that that is possible, if we extrapolate a little. It could occur between Peri’s death and the beginning of Trial of a Time Lord; though I find that less likely, as the episodes seem to imply that not much time passed in between. More likely, it occurs after Trial—and in fact, Big Finish states that this is the case—but to allow this we have to assume that he was able to take Melanie Bush home as planned and wait to meet her in the proper order. This was hinted onscreen, but never established. In that case, Evelyn’s adventures would occur in the gap between Mel’s arrivals. Certainly once Mel becomes his regular companion, there is no room for any more independent adventures (or at least, without creating some unusual circumstances to justify it), as Mel remains until Ace joins the Seventh Doctor.
Quite a few references occur in this story, although some of them refer to things that wouldn’t be established until some years later. The queen asks the Doctor about marriage, and he remarks that he has “not attained that happy state”; it plays perfectly as an allusion to his later marriage to Elizabeth I (and also to River Song), although that would not be fully established until The Day of the Doctor. There’s a reference back to the Great Fire of London, which makes the Doctor uncomfortable; and well it should, as his fifth incarnation was partly responsible for the fire (The Visitation). There are several references to events which at this point had not been established, but would later be fleshed out in other audios. The Doctor mentions other imprisonments in the Tower of London; though not seen onscreen, these were also referenced in The Sensorites by the First Doctor, and The Mind of Evil by the Third Doctor. He would later be imprisoned in three incarnations at once in The Day of the Doctor, and have a similar conversation about the sturdiness of the cell door. He refers to having killed an entire race, which occurred in Terror of the Vervoids; and he mentions the deaths of other companions, though not by name (The Daleks’ Master Plan, Earthshock, and—though it hasn’t been established yet—the audio The First Wave).
The scenes in which Evelyn briefly vanishes are reminiscent to me of the Doctor in The Name of the Doctor, when the Great Intelligence enters his timeline and causes it to “burn from the inside”. Although the Doctor doesn’t vanish outright, it seems to be that the cumulative effect, if unchecked, would be that he would cease to exist. It’s an effective cliffhanger in part three when Evelyn vanishes just before the closing; even knowing she will survive, it’s very well-played.
Overall, I feel that the main range is beginning to pick up well at this point. The first few audios were a bit rough, having just gotten started; now they are flowing smoothly, and the actors seem more comfortable in their roles. It’s a good time to be the Sixth Doctor, as Colin Baker seems to be getting more stories than any of the others; and it’s about time, as well. Had his television episodes been like this, perhaps the series’ history would have been very different.
Next time: On Friday, we’ll look at Immortal Beloved, the next in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, Series One; and Monday, we’re listening to Main Range seven, The Genocide Machine, starring the Seventh Doctor and Ace, which begins the Dalek Empire arc! See you there.
All audios reviewed in this series can be purchased here from Big Finish Productions; link to this story is below. This and many other audio dramas are also available on Spotify and Google Play.