If The Fearmonger is the story that put Big Finish Productions on a solid footing to continue to be great, The Marian Conspiracy is the story that truly began the redemption of the Sixth Doctor from what we got on television to the character fans know and love today. Yes Colin Baker’s Doctor was a bit softer in The Sirens of Time, but when Whispers of Terror was released it was straight back to bickering with Peri throughout the story. Here he does try to bicker but the introduction of the new companion Evelyn Smythe stops any of that from happening. Evelyn right off the bat is one of the most inventive companion characters Doctor Who has ever had. She is a woman from present day Earth yet instead of being young she is a fifty something year old history lecturer. She has a bad knee and has a family history dating back to the rule of Queen Elizabeth I. She gives her students chocolate cake for succeeding in class and has a penchant for hot cocoa. Evelyn is masterfully portrayed by the late great Maggie Stables who hits it off immediately with Colin Baker’s Doctor. This first play they have together shows just how great the relationship would become and how dynamic her character would be. She also jumps at the chance to see history and ends up tricking the Doctor into taking her along as her family history is being unraveled leading us right into what this story is about.
The Marian Conspiracy’s plot is a purely historical one as it sees the Doctor and new companion Evelyn Smythe thrust back into the reign of Queen Mary to make sure history stays on its correct course. Really the story is a character piece analyzing the reign of Queen Mary and public opinion on her stance on the split between Catholicism and Anglicanism. In actual history Mary had a very narrow-minded view on the issue, choosing to burn at the stake anyone who thought differently to her Catholic views. Yet Rayner’s script doesn’t portray the Queen as a complete and total monster, but as misguided into putting things in the wrong and causing countless deaths. You can’t help sympathize with her as she tries her hardest to convince herself she’s pregnant, but history dictates that she isn’t. She eventually suffers a breakdown. This is all helped by the way the Doctor is able to change Evelyn’s views on the Queen as Evelyn believes Mary was weak as she only relied on her husband to make any real decisions. You also have a flavor for the citizens of London and how much fear they’re under from the threat of being burned at the stake.
There are three main parties of the supporting characters. First you have the Protestant peasants who are just as bad as Mary in they want to see all Catholics burned at the stake. They allow for some great debate with Evelyn who has her views challenged throughout the audio. You have the French ambassadors who want to wage war on England to take the crown of course. You also have the Queen’s Lady in Waiting who just wants to be with the man she married as a Protestant when it was still legal.
Colin Baker’s Doctor also gets to develop his Doctor really far throughout this audio play as he is able to soften his portrayal and peel back a few layers. It hasn’t been very long since his Trial and he’s trying to continue on. While it doesn’t come out much you can tell the Doctor is trying to find a new companion even though he is initially aversive to the thought of Evelyn in the TARDIS with him. By the end he gives in to her desires to see the universe and it looks like it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The pacing of the audio is also great as it doesn’t play out as one four part story but more like four one part stories. It really allows the characters to flesh themselves out and not fall into the Hartnell trap of starting out really promising then getting really boring by Part Two.
To summarize, The Marian Conspiracy is a flawless story that holds up remarkably well after all these years. The beginnings of Evelyn and the Softer Six really makes this a necessary audio for anyone to pick up. It also holds to my theory that women can write the best Doctor Who. 100/100