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The Marian Conspiracy

Reviewed by Peter Adamson

Spoiler alert! The illustration on the cover of Jacqueline Rayner's The Marian Conspiracy, doesn't happen! Far from a raging inferno, The Marian Conspiracy is a crackling hearth fire - bright and cheery, but with some intriguing coals burning beneath.

This is an unusual outing for the most tempestuous incarnation of the Doctor. Here, tempered by new companion Evelyn Smythe, and caught in an historical intrigue of which the only recourse to SF is a book-end temporal disruption, Colin Baker's usually brash and obtuse Doctor is honed to inquisitive curiosity and courtly charm. It's a departure whose time has come, and thankfully, doesn't come across as mere shoe-horning. This is due in no small part to the chemistry that Baker and Maggie Stables display on audio, and of course to Rayner's attentive script. Here is a Doctor mellowed by time and trial, but with no outward angst or fear of his future. By his side is a 65 year old lecturer and baker of cakes, champion of cocoa. The obvious comparison to The Aztecs' Cameca is surely intentional, but here the relationship is more professional, less coy, and irresistibly domestic, especially in Part One. It still seems odd to hear the usually far-flung sixth Doctor answer a phone and take a message. Such departures are refreshing.

No less surprising is the focal character of the tale, Queen Mary, traditionally demonised by history books and popular media, but here treated as fallible and human, even conscientious. Of the two Marys in the story's title Anah Ruddin's Queen is the catalyst that allows the Doctor to give pause and consider his own past actions and their consequences. His surprise at the human he discovers beneath the apparent monster is, one imagines, what Jacqueline Rayner intends to provoke in her listeners. Evelyn meanwhile immerses herself in the local culture and is embroiled in the titular conspiracy. In this respect perhaps Marian is more formulaic in its latter half, but even so, it is the dialogue which is the main feature, and it shines. Credit is also due to Gary Russell's studied production, which allows subtle changes of period incidental music in contrary modern day settings, and effectively paints the world of expansive, busy lecture halls and narrow horse and cart London streets around the story's characters. Listen out too for Nicholas Pegg, interviewer of the Big Finish team on the recent special DWM promotional CD, unmistakable here as the Reverend Thomas, and Auton 2 and 3's Jo Castleton as the Queen's attendant.

Most importantly, The Marian Conspiracy is about renewed life in maturity. Mary, childless and nearing the end of her reign, learns the price of her faith and that of her subjects. Evelyn, presumably also childless, nearing retirement but mother to her students, discovers there's more to history than in her textbooks. Chiefly, this story seems to be about coming to terms with age and loss, and getting on with life, and 37 years or so since Doctor Who's inception, and ten years since its cancellation, that's a very fine thing indeed.

This item appeared in TSV 60 (June 2000).