Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 006. The Marian Conspiracy by Jacqueline Rayner (March 2000)

The thought of exploring the Sixth Doctor’s “lost years” post-Trial of a Time Lord is really rather appealing, and this story by Jacqueline Rayner does a fine job of continuing Six’s strong characterisation on audio. That it does so whilst delivering a well-paced adventure with some interesting themes, a brilliant new companion, and the first pure historical in 18 years is very much to her credit. The Marian Conspiracy is an excellent piece of work, replete with wit and erudition.

What an opening! Colin Baker and Maggie Stables have immediate chemistry, and a 55-year-old history lecturer in the TARDIS is such a wonderful idea. Rayner writes these opening scenes so well – not only the degree to which the plot is later (and rather cleverly) informed by all the various tidbits of information we get in Evelyn Smythe’s lecture, but also the initial scenes between Six and Evelyn. That the lecture should be interrupted by the Doctor’s gizmo is hilarious (how very Sixth Doctor!), and their interaction puts me in a very positive frame of mind for her future stories. She is a triumph of a character – witty and knowing, academic, resourceful, with an edge of steel that means she won’t take any rubbish from this most pompous of incarnations. She’s Barbara amped up several notches, and I love her unreservedly already. Her scenes with Baker in the Tower, trying to work out Thomas/de Noailles’ plan, are a highlight – and ‘You are without a doubt one of the most well-prepared and useful companions with whom I have ever travelled’ is a lovely compliment, even if said sweetness doesn’t last long. I also greatly enjoyed the fact that Evelyn suggests whacking the guard over the chair before the Doctor thinks of anything else. Her smugness that her plan worked is a delightful dressing-down for the Doctor (incidentally, anyone else think Gatiss is echoing this scene in Robot of Sherwood?) But whatever she’s doing, whether she’s falling in with the Protestant underground movement, or confronting the Reverend Thomas Smith, exclaiming “Boys!” or trying to explain analgesics, she is an absolute treasure. I can’t think of many classic series episodes in which a companion is quite so memorably introduced – and with strong thematic resonance for her personally, too. Bravo to all concerned.

She really helps Colin to up his game, too. The Sixth Doctor is a triumph here once again, warm and likeable however much his excess. He name-drops like no one else, he quips, he boasts, just as we all know. But we also get quite possibly my favourite Sixth Doctor moment so far: Oh my oh my the Six/Sarah stuff at the start of Part 3 is some of Baker’s finest. Not only her flirting with him, and his complete obliviousness, but also his world-weary demeanour. This is a time traveller who under the poetic, passionate bluster can be compassionately mournful of the universe he voyages in. “The public perception of what is a sin changes from day to day with or without laws”. And indeed, his great speech, worth quoting fully: “I’m asking, if you do what you firmly believe is good and right, however much it hurts you and others, and no matter what happens as a consequence, does what’s in your heart’s heart make you a good person?...Oh, Sarah. If only you knew. 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? Because I failed to act, millions upon millions of people have been enslaved or killed. What if I had done all those things, but had always, always believed I was doing the right thing?” – and this is only topped by the icing on the cake – his sad, grateful ‘Thank you’ to the consoling Sarah.

The story is soundly, entertainingly, memorably plotted, with lots of clever Douglas Adams-esque twists thanks to the time anomaly. It also bears in mind the show’s original remit to educate, too, and gives us a pleasingly sympathetic revisionist portrayal of Queen Mary. The story’s central theme (when it isn’t fleshing out Evelyn as a character) – the freedom of religious expression – makes for a very good backbone to the classic Doctor Who mould of opposing factions entangled in some political intrigue or other, making for no easy goodies or baddies. The moral relativism here is reasonably sophisticated, and Mary gets a wonderfully sympathetic final line on the subject. In fact, the whole of the story’s second half is very, very strong: despite the ugliness of this world, the story ends convincingly on a series of compassionate gestures in the face of xenophobia and antagonism: Six defending Sarah, Mary sparing Sarah’s life for the sake of their unborn children, the Doctor’s rescue of Leaf and Crow. Even Thomas’ refusal to recant his faith is touchingly done.

All this in a solid production, too. Sixteenth century London is brought memorably to life, whether it’s the raucous roar of taverners, the guitar-plucking, the flutes, and the lovely choral moments on the soundtrack. Sure, the lines may have had more flair in Phantasmagoria, but this feels like it really engages with the world in the way Gatiss’ script didn’t. Leaf and Crow might be a bit under-developed, but they’re pleasant enough, and Thomas and de Noailles are good characters. Sarah might get a bit of a drubbing from Evelyn at the end, but she’s sympathetically drawn too, in a story that’s distinctly strong on the female character front. It’s two classics out of two for Baker’s Doctor on Big Finish.

Other things:
“I wonder if you’d mind accompanying me back to my ship for a few tests?”
“Smythe. Evelyn. Doctor.”/“So you know my name? I’m the Doctor.”
“Francis Drake used to say the same thing. “May I be struck down by dysentery if you’re a day over 350, Doctor!” he once said. I was so overcome I let him beat me at bowls” – fantastic name-drop.
“No wonder [Socrates] was so willing to drink the cup of hemlock!”
“I always find that mixing romance with study is a terrible mistake.” Love Evelyn’s backstory.
The relish with which Crow and Leaf talk about burning of heretics is great.
I can’t express how much I LOVE the Serbo-Croat in-joke (cf. Dalek being a word in said language). Jacqueline Rayner, I salute you.
“No sense of style!” – rich coming from the Sixth Doctor’s mouth
“I never get into trouble. The message must have been garbled.”
Perhaps Evelyn takes time travel a little too much in her stride, given she teaches history. But I guess it’s needed after 17 minutes to get them back to the 16th century.
The Six splash across the bank is hilarious – Evelyn really shows up this most pompous incarnation.
“I’m extremely good at short hops” – this is going to change!
“’That Protestant stuff must be really good stuff if people are burned for it’, they’ll say.”
“Oh Doctor, what is to become of me? Am I truly doing the right thing?” Mary’s inner anguish.
“I’ve caused people to die. I like to think that isn’t the same thing [as killing].”
“I never believed that for a second…I could never be related to someone with your dress sense.” Neither did we, Evelyn, neither did we (that said, it’s a decent cliff-hanger).
Re: taking Evelyn on board – “I do hope I won’t regret this” – I really don’t think you will, Doctor. I really don’t think you will.

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