People who aren’t actually fans of Doctor Who are invariably the people who tell you that Colin Baker was rubbish. It’s an assessment that is usually based on his first episode, which is admittedly one of the periods in the history of the show that we generally don’t talk about if we can possibly help it. In defence of those who would criticise the Sixth Doctor, it’s fair to say that his run of TV stories was patchy to say the least, ranging as it did from dreadful (‘The Twin Dilemma’, ‘The Two Doctors’) through to overrated (‘Revelation of the Daleks’) with the odd classic thrown in (‘Vengeance on Varos’, which even now is lamentably most famous for the controversial acid bath scene and the image of Nicola Bryant auditioning for Teen Wolf. Never mind the fact that Moffat seems to be spinning the ‘Did he fall, or was he pushed?’ mystery out for an entire series).
However, within the confines of spoken word, the Sixth Doctor has gained a new lease of life. I don’t care what Ian Levine says (although I do hope he’s feeling better) – Big Finish kept the Doctor Who fires burning long after the show was cancelled, refreshing the parts even the Past Doctor Adventures novels cannot reach, and continues to do great things today, even though they really ought to ease up on the release schedule and prioritise quality over quantity. There are dodgy narratives, a fair amount of blandness and an occasional over-reliance on gimmicks that you can only get away with in an audio drama – and Briggs, like Moffat, needs to stop hogging all the best story ideas and then phoning in the scripts – but I’d take even the interminably dull ‘Creed of the Kromon’ over another viewing of ‘Daleks in Manhattan’. As far as the (ongoing) tenure of the Sixth is concerned, there is much to be loved here. The Doctor has lost much of his arrogance, although the blustering pomp remains. The stories are interesting and varied. And the companions, with one or two exceptions, are great fun, even if it’s frankly criminal that Frobisher is so drastically under-used. Even Melanie Bush is fun these days. If there’s anything that’s going to make you love CB, it’s BF.
If you read this blog regularly you won’t be surprised to learn that it was Gareth who persuaded me that Big Finish was worth my time, and given my River Song-esque approach to experiencing these things out of order, we started with ‘Spare Parts’ and ‘Jubilee’. The former is the definitive origin story, telling of the Cybermen’s rise to prominence with a chilling brutality that deserves its own blog post, so we won’t waste time on it for now. ‘Jubilee’, on the other hand, is the story that gradually evolved into ‘Dalek’, only told better. It features the Sixth Doctor, alongside a companion I’d never heard of, Dr Evelyn Smythe.
Fans of Big Finish will know why I’m writing this today – Maggie Stables, we are sadly informed, has passed away in her sleep after a long illness. She stepped down as Evelyn some time ago, and retired from acting last year, citing ill health. Acting was, according to Big Finish, a second career, her recordings for Doctor Who following her earlier time as a French teacher. Life, it seems, will always imitate art.
And in turn, art imitates life – within the Whoniverse, Maggie played a historian who left the lecture theatre in order to go travelling with the Doctor, just for the fun of it. After an initial companion-centred story, in which the Doctor travels back to Elizabethan England to discover why she is being mysteriously erased from history (more or less what happened with Clara, but in reverse), the two set off on various journeys that see them encounter Daleks, Silurians and vampires – this last providing the backdrop for a game-changing adventure that alters the dynamic between the two characters permanently, or at least for a story or two.
The lovely thing about Evelyn is her constancy. Not for her the complicated tangling of Doctorish dependence and admiration with pangs of eros. Any sort of infatuation with the Time Lord was completely off the books – she’s a middle-aged woman who thinks of him as a young man, even though she knows that he is not. That needn’t be any sort of barrier, but the impression you get is that it was never even a consideration. Evelyn treats the Doctor as if he were a haphazard, eccentric academic with whom she shared an office and research fellowship – and in a way, that’s exactly what he is.
Character embellishments enhanced the stories, while seldom actually becoming the focal points of the narrative. Evelyn has a love of chocolate in all its forms, along with dodgy knees that slowed her down, leading the Doctor to remark “Yes, it’s usually ankles“. Terry Nation jokes aside, the heart condition that became apparent later on – and which Evelyn intentionally concealed from the Doctor under the assumption that he would no longer allow her to travel with him – led her stories into darker waters, even though she never lost her charm. Only a misguided love story, in the dark and moving ‘Arrangements For War’, failed to hit the mark, although this was partly because the scenes with Evelyn and Rossiter took place on a windswept beach accompanied by the sort of dialogue that would make even Mills & Boon readers cringe. It’s unfair to single out ‘Arrangements’ alone for this, of course – the same sort of thing marred the otherwise brilliant ‘Scherzo’, and there must come a point, surely, when we acknowledge that by and large love scenes in Doctor Who simply don’t work very well.
“It’s also a shame,” says Gareth, “that Evelyn’s chronologically last story isn’t her last release. There’s a really good story with ‘Older Evelyn’, which would have been a very good way to finish. But then there are some more later which aren’t so good (because of a certain terrible character). A bit like how episode 14 of Trial of a Time Lord spoils Peri’s departure earlier.”
It is a shame, but part of the joy behind Doctor Who is its tendency to do things in the wrong order. Having an incomplete, tangled chronology may be structurally inadequate but it does seem to fit the Doctor’s own universe. If the future is an undiscovered country, the past is surely not without its own joys and wonders, provided that you do not languish there too long.
Myself, I am off to listen once again to ‘Doctor Who and the Pirates‘. Maggie sings in it – not for very long, and not terribly well, but I’d be willing to accept that this is the fault of Evelyn, and that Maggie herself may well have had a lovely voice. We may never know. It is one of her sillier stories, with as much of its humour coming from the nature of storytelling as it does from the story that is being told, but like the best Big Finish narratives, it juxtaposes comedy and pathos in the most effective way. Maggie herself is on top form throughout, compassionate and cynical by turns, and the sort of voice of experience and wisdom that has been sorely lacking in the televisual TARDIS in recent years, where it’s often felt like we were watching two students backpacking.
Big Finish have lost a person of wit and warmth, by all accounts, but Maggie’s legacy lives on, both in the many recordings she made and in the hope that we may one day have an older companion back in the TARDIS, just as we now have an older Doctor. And as for us…well, we’ll always have ‘Pirates’.