Released March 2000
Doctor Who was originally a show about history, and while most historical plotline have added some sort of science fiction twist for storytelling purposes, ‘The Marian Conspiracy’ harkens back to the Hartnell days and provides a sensational story with just the Doctor and his companion interacting with historical figures. Nowhere to be seen is an alien menace, any malfunctioning technology, or any supernatural elements.
The story opens with the Sixth Doctor tracking a nexus point in time landing him in the lecture hall of Evelyn Smythe, PhD. Evelyn’s family tree is disappearing, and the two travel back to Elizabethan England, the Doctor to explore and repair the nexus point and Evelyn to experience living history, one under the rule of a Queen she is not expecting.
This Big Finish pairing of Colin Baker and Maggie Stables is a masterstroke. Baker continues to rehabilitate his Sixth Doctor and, while he still has his moments of bravado and pride, he is much less argumentative and instead is much more considerate and devoted to his companion. Stables instantly instills Evelyn with a sense of self-confidence and liveliness, proving herself to be a formidable match for the Doctor. In quick succession, she chides the Doctor when he approaches her in her classroom, gets into an argument about history with him when he shows up at her home, demands to travel in time with him when he explains that her family tree is disappearing, and calmly throws herself into that period when she arrives. The two characters instantly mesh, and even though it is an introductory episode, it sounds as if the two have known each other for ages.
Fortunately, given the absence of any otherworldly threat in this exciting mystery, the supporting cast making up the historical population is very strong as well. The Queen of England, portrayed both compassionately and callously by Anah Ruddin, provides another good foil for the Doctor as he argues with and consoles her in equal measure. Sarah, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting played by Jo Castleton, is very calm and another good talking partner with the Doctor even as her true motivations remain hidden. In fact, there are a lot of lengthy dialogue scenes throughout the tale; while that often is a recipe for disaster for audios, the script and Colin Baker specifically always manage to keep the pace quick and the intrigue high.
Several other characters are around as well, and writer Jacqueline Rayner does a superb job in bringing them all to life while also offering an interesting dichotomy between the upper and lower classes. Unsurprisingly, Evelyn finds out that time travel is not quite so simple as just walking around, finding herself in the middle of many misunderstandings with cocoa and pain killers, but she proves adept at being able to think quickly on her feet and, more importantly, to be able to simply talk to people regardless of their place in society. There is already no doubt that Evelyn will become a steallar companion for Colin Baker, and Stables could not have asked for a better first adventure for her character since so many facets are explored so successfully right from the start.
Big Finish has always has very good production values, but special note must be given to the musical score here since it sounds like it could have easily come out of a BBC historical piece. Overall, then, ‘The Marian Conspiracy’ is a superb entry in Big Finish’s main range, simultaneously offering the best presentation of the Sixth Doctor yet as well as an incredibly strong first impression of Dr Smythe. At this point in time, it remains a bold choice to tell a Doctor Who tale without any sort of alien or technological menace, but this story proves that format can succeed extremely well given the right script and cast. Perhaps everything gets wrapped up a little too neatly in the end, but every action and consequence from beginning to end makes perfect sense as the Smythe family tree is explored and repaired.