If you wanted to dip your toes in Big Finish, The Marian Conspiracy is a fine place to start: a straight historical with a great new companion.
An inconvenient grandfather paradox forces the Doctor to seek out an elderly history professor and take her back in time to hunt for a temporal glitch that’s erasing her own ancestry. Actually, he’s not planning to take her with him, but Dr. Smythe hardly going to miss the research opportunity of a lifetime. They quickly find themselves embroiled in the court politics and religious squabbles of Tudor England, where Catholics and Protestants are taking turns burning one another at the stake. If the Doctor and Evelyn aren’t careful, they’ll wind up getting labeled heretics themselves.
“If you think I’m going to sit around here waiting to fade away, you’re very much mistaken. Could you pass me that tin of cocoa?” — Dr. Evelyn Smythe
Evelyn is an utter delight: a frumpy historian dispensing hot cocoa, intelligence, dry sarcasm and motherly compassion with a stubbornness to match the Doctor’s. It’s television’s loss that it would never dare a 55-year-old companion. Quite apart from Evelyn, ably voiced by Maggie Stables, this is the second solo Sixth Doctor story since Colin Baker’s ignominious firing by Michael Grade. It shows how excellent Colin can be if only he’s given a script that blends the Doctor’s abrasiveness and arrogance with an inner ethical core.
Have a trailer:
The secondary characters in this vary in quality and depth, but the Queen carries the story. Once again, I have to give a shout-out to Jeremy James/Jez Fielder, a Big Finish stalwart who keeps playing likeable minor characters. This time he’s a puppyish young man who tags after “Mistress Evelyn” like one of her students.
For the most part, The Marian Conspiracy is a fairly lighthearted Big Finish, but it does delve into clashes of conflicting faith in a way that I don’t think classic Who would have tried. More importantly, there’s a memorable exchange addressing the ethical ambiguities of the Doctor’s actions. Colin Baker pulls it off with aching subtlety over a decade before Twelve asks whether he’s a Good Man.
This is the first Doctor Who story (for audio or TV, at least) written by a woman since Barbara Clegg. So I can’t help noticing how women are presented in this audio. Queen Mary and even her servant Lady Sarah are both fully three-dimensional characters, with complex motivations, feelings and agency.
I’ve already said plenty about Evelyn, but I also note she has a few things to say about the lives of women. She admires “Queen Bess” as a strong leader and politician. Evelyn has a maternal streak towards her students, but she’s also a stalwart scholar for whom romance is secondary to work. She left a husband who couldn’t comprehend that. She has no patience or sympathy for Lady Sarah, whom she characterises as a “wimp” for being subservient to her man. Nor is she particularly kind towards Queen Mary, although there her beef is unassailable; she cannot condone someone who would burn others for their beliefs. The Doctor is more understanding of Lady Sarah and Queen Mary than Evelyn is, seeing the nuances of their situations. Meanwhile, Evelyn winds up taking a couple of young men under her wing because they remind her of her students.
On another topic entirely, I’m pleased to hit a rare historical without any aliens apart from the Doctor himself. No Mandragora Helix or fish convicts to blame for this mess; the only hazards are fallible humans. I think the last time Doctor Who did that was Black Orchid, and before that, one would have to go all the way back to the One era.
First Evelyn Smythe audio. Production code 7C/A. The Behind the Scenes notes aren’t very specific with this or any other Sixth Doctor story: “This story takes place between the television adventures, The Trial of a Time Lord and Time and the Rani.” The Doctor alludes to the Vervoids when talking about his sins to Lady Sarah.
Various fan–researched timelines suggest that after the trial, the Doctor travels solo or with Frobisher for a while, bumps into Iris in The Wormery and Peri in Peri and the Piscon Paradox, and then meets Evelyn.
The point is, this audio introduces Evelyn. The next Evelyn audio after this one is The Spectre of Lanyon Moor.