As we continue to delve into the back catalogue of Big Finish review’s its time for another couple of re-introductions. This time making their audio-debut is the Seventh Doctor and Ace in The Fearmonger and in The Marian Conspiracy we meet not only one of the best audio-companions but best Sixth Doctor companions to ever have existed, the indomitable Evelyn Smythe.
Written by: Jonathan Blum
Given how following the cancellation of the series in 1989, the Seventh Doctor’s era continued in the form of the New Adventures range of books, it’s perhaps to be expected that the first proper Seventh Doctor audio adventure would follow the same format. The Fearmonger is as dark and gritty as any book from the New Adventures line while managing to be more entertaining than some of them I’ve read and it remains surprisingly topical and up-to-date, despite having been released in 2000.
Twenty years later, the idea of where does fear come from, are the politicians making the decisions, the media spinning stories to their agenda, protests that get out of hand or the police who have no one to govern them, remains topical, just look at the world outside today, the only difference is that the Doctor and Ace aren’t around to save us. In many ways, this is a story where the titular villain, The Fearmonger is as much a metaphor as anything else.
The late-great Jaqueline Pierce puts in a brilliant performance as Sherilyn Harper a political candidate who runs the group New Britannia, whose ideal sound like the basis of UKIP, before UKIP existed. She’s opposed by people who seem to be just as bad as she is, and while the Fearmonger is a real villain, before the time it appears, Blum does keep you wondering who the real villain is here.
For listeners expecting this to be a near-perfect continuation of the tone of the series before it was cancelled will be disappointed, like I said above, this audio can thank the New Adventures for its darker tone, but it’s a story that has a lot of undertones, messages and psychological depth. Blum’s plotting is excellent too, nothing here feels too long or too short and we spend enough time with each of the characters to really get a feel for what they are like.
And what about the two main characters? Sophie Aldred slips effortlessly back into the role of Ace and it feels like she’s time travelled from the end of the making of Ghost Light, the last story to be recorded in the original run, right into the audio recording, she sounds like she’s never been away. This is the Ace we came to know and love on screen, with some of the character development she got in the New Adventures books behind her. It’s a much stronger take on an already amazing companion.
Sylvester McCoy though doesn’t feel as strong. It feels like he wasn’t certain about the audio format and like Sarah Sutton in Land of the Dead, you get the sense of him getting used to things by the time the story rattles to its conclusion. However, this is still the Seventh Doctor we all know and love, he’s still mysterious and manipulative and it poses the question of whether he is a good man, long before Steven Moffat used the Twelfth Doctor to ask the same question.
The Fearmonger is another early hit. It might not stand up to some of the audios we’ve come to love since then but as only the fifth release in 2000, it does little wrong. And the fact that it still topical twenty years after its initial release shows how strong a story it really was.
The Marian Conspiracy
Written By: Jacqueline Raynor
It seems that even in its early days, fans had no idea where to start with Big Finish’s output. For fans who are still wondering now, I would highly recommend The Marian Conspiracy is a great place to start. It’s a historical adventure with a few timey-wimey elements thrown in and has the introduction of a great companion.
I love history and I love it when Doctor Who does fairly straightforward historical adventures. I also find the Tudor era very interesting, despite never having really learnt much about Mary the 1st at school. It was really nice to hear a little about her time on the throne. Following a problem in time, the story wastes no time in bringing the Doctor and Evelyn together. The Doctor quickly discovers that it is something in Evelyn’s past that is going wrong and they both follow the problem back to Tudor England.
Raynor handles the story brilliantly, mixing dark history like Mary’s habit of burning people at stakes as heretics with Evelyn humorously introducing cocoa to Tudor times. Raynor keeps things going nicely, never resting on her laurels and keeps the action moving. It’s funny to hear the Doctor fall into the Queen’s favour and then manage to become a relative of Evelyn’s. Luckily for Evelyn though, the marriage doesn’t go through and she doesn’t find herself related to the Doctor but its a humorous moment and performed excellently by Maggie Stables and Colin Baker.
You might have guessed that I loved Evelyn and its such a shame that the actress, Maggie Stables passed away a few years ago. Here, she gets a strong introduction, she’s intelligent, full of sarcasm and yet comes across quite motherly. She’s a history professor and likes to form motherly bonds with her students. In many ways she’s the Doctor’s equal and had they given her a television appearance, I wouldn’t be surprised if she could have stood up to some of the best onscreen companions.
Set after The Trial of a Timelord, this story sees the Sixth Doctor a lot calmer and as the second Sixth Doctor audio story, Raynor manages to blend his characteristics of being abrasive and a little arrogant with the strong moral centre that the Doctor has always had. Colin Baker also rises to the occasion nicely, clearly enjoying the script and loving the fact he has a new companion in tow, the Sixth Doctor is at his best here.
In typical Raynor style, The Marian Conspiracy is a fairly light Big Finish audio. However, it does delve into some darker elements of history, in this case, the clashing of faiths and the battles fought because of that. That’s a theme that’s nice to see here as the television series would never have touched that subject. From the storytelling to the acting, to the introduction of Evelyn, The Marian Conspiracy is still a fantastic story to listen too and still a great jumping-on point for new listeners.
Next Time: The Genocide Machine and Red Dawn