Doctor Who Audio Book Review: #6 – The Marian Conspiracy

Written By: Jacqueline Rayner
Featuring: Sixth Doctor and Evelyn
Released: March 2000

A great debut performance by The Doctor’s latest companion and a solid accompanying musical score helps to transform this Big Finish story’s just ordinary narrative into a good listen.

The best aspect of this story is the new companion figure introduced. Maggie Stables does a brilliant job as Dr Evelyn Smythe, a history lecturer who is literally fading from existence. What makes her such a success is that she is so different from anyone The Doctor has travelled with in the past. She has a very keen interest in the Elizabethan era, yet during her visit she offers a group of men a cup of cocoa (something that wouldn’t be known for another hundred years or so) and ignores The Doctor’s suggestion to take off a bright orange cardigan. She also shows herself to be a bit dim when it comes to the laws of time travel, accidentally trying to help a group who are keen to displace the current Tudor royal and coming close to being the reason why her whole lineage (and herself) are fading from history. I think that the audio book medium really works to make this character pop out, as the character’s prim and proper voice is instantly memorable.

Another strength of this story is the musical score and sounds that accompany the change in setting or pace. This aspect is much improved upon the previous attempt by Big Finish to recreate a Doctor Who atmosphere from several centuries ago (Phantasmagoria, which you can read my thoughts on here). The indoor scenes, such as one that takes place in a tavern, is still largely unchanged in terms of content. However, stepping foot onto the streets of historic London brings a score that instantly makes you think of this period. When the music and sound effects do become a bit too typical, the references to other figures of the time in the script help to make the setting feel more rounded and alive. The decision to focus on the historical above the science-fiction in this story is fully reflected in the world that Jacqueline Rayner and the sound team have created.

This focus can also be seen within the narrative of the story itself but, unlike with other elements on show, it doesn’t completely land. The Marian Conspiracy seems to be aiming for early Doctor Who vibes in the vein of the early years with William Hartnell, when storytelling and a history lesson were used in favour of science-fiction elements. But, unlike these classic stories, I don’t think that there is enough material to be stretched across four episodes. The cliff-hanger at the end of Episode 1 was the strongest individual moment. Sadly, it is followed by an episode where The Doctor literally spends its entirety talking to the governing royal. The court scheming and plotting has a lot of potential attached to it, but it was never taken far enough to warrant the focus of the story being on it. A late visit to the Tower of London merely felt like a delay to the proceedings. The science-fiction elements came in and out of the picture but I’m not sure some of it was necessary; I would have given more of the story attributed to these to the historical threats. Despite all I have said about these shortcomings, I did enjoy parts of the story, mostly due to the strength of Evelyn Smythe’s character more than anything else.

The Marian Conspiracy has several main strengths, most notably in the audio departments and thanks to a terrific debut performance by Maggie Stables. I look forward to seeing more of her in future stories now she has been established as a bona fide companion. On the flip side, the combination of science-fiction and historical elements occasionally feels slightly unbalanced and the narrative could have been taken so much further with the threat of the uprising against the ruling Tudor royal; on occasions it felt like not much was happening. Still, this is an improvement over Phantasmagoria and I hope that Big Finish will continue this trend with future historical episodes.

Star Rating: ★ ★ ★

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