Released May 2013
Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor seems to be Big Finish’s favoured choice for their attempts at keeping the historical or pseudo-historical genre alive, having previously starred in main range tales such as ‘The Eye of the Scorpion,’ ‘The Council of Nicaea,’ ‘The Church and the Crown,’ and ‘The Kingmaker.’ ‘The Lady of Mercia’ finds the Doctor, Nyssa, Turlough, and Tegan brought to the University of Frodsham, the site of Queen Aethelfrid’s battle against the Danes a thousand years in the past and the site of student protests over budget cuts and allocations to the physics department in 1983.
Indeed, ‘The Lady of Mercia’ sets itself apart from its historical peers by employing a time travel element quite effectively. Although having events of two timeframes directly relate to and coincide with each other is a rather common technique, it’s one rarely used in Doctor Who. Fortunately, that facet of the script along with the general action and dialogue helps to create a very fluid and brisk pace across both eras, beginning first with the University in which writer Paul Magrs presents a somewhat piercing disdain for the academic and undergraduate life. In a rather unique relationship for Doctor Who as well, a married historian and physicist on staff are both engaged in extramarital affairs, one with a student who is engaging in the protests against the physics department as well.
When the secret projects of the University result in Tegan being taken back to the time of Aethelfrid, ‘The Lady of Mercia’ quickly shifts from a comedy of faults to a rather more serious and potentially deadly affair, though still not one that takes itself too incredibly seriously. With everyone from 1983 unable to interfere with the natural progression of history as is the tradition of historical adventures, Tegan finds herself constantly on the defensive as she becomes entwined in the dangerous political intrigue of 10th century Mercia and forms very personal relationships with several key characters, having to adopt different personas and visages to have any chance at survival. However, though Aethelfrid and her daughter and even the University staff members are entertaining enough, not enough work is done to establish anyone as atruly engaging and sympathetic character, resulting in a somewhat whimpering and lacklustre climax that does not fully pay off everything that has come before it.
While Tegan is obviously the character of focus here, and Janet Fielding does marvellous work through all phases of the story, Nyssa and Turlough have very little to do and are very much secondary characters of little consequence here regardless of the strength of acting on display. The Doctor is at least used to good effect as he tries to piece the temporal puzzle together, and Peter Davison does well in portraying a more exasperated and somewhat flustered version of his Time Lord. Magrs has a very unique voice that easily translates to the audio medium wonderfully, and the fantastic direction and sound design help flesh out his script. Unfortunately, the events and characters portrayed simply lack the requisite depth to elevate this competent and entertaining story to the next level, and the near omission of two companions is unfortunate even if necessary to make the tale effectively work.