It was announced today that the actor Maggie Stables died on Friday night after a long illness.
She was not a household name — she was only ever really known for one part — but she was wonderful in that one role. Between 2000 and 2011 she played Dr. Evelyn Smythe, the Sixth Doctor’s companion, in twenty-one Doctor Who audio dramas and one webcast cartoon, all produced by Big Finish.
Evelyn is my very favourite Doctor Who companion, and not just mine — she’s the favourite, it seems, of almost everyone who’s familiar with the audios in which she appears. And while much of that is, of course, down to the writers of the stories (and while there are some clunkers, the quality of the writing on the stories she’s in, particularly those before about 2006, is very strong, with people like Jacqueline Rayner, Rob Shearman, and Steven Hall, all among Big Finish’s better writers), a lot of it is down to Stables’ performance.
The character of Evelyn is interesting enough in conception — she’s an elderly lecturer, more at home wearing a cardigan and drinking cocoa while marking her students’ essays than running from Daleks in a miniskirt, which is a welcome change from almost every other companion the Doctor has had, and she’s clearly positioned as the Doctor’s intellectual match (she is, after all, Doctor Evelyn Smythe) and in some ways his moral superior. But all too often a Doctor Who companion that’s looked good on paper has been let down by sub-par performances — especially in Big Finish, who are not always able to cast the very best actors.
Stables, on the other hand, lifted even weaker scripts (and there were a few, in her later years in the role, which coincided with a dip in the general quality of their output) with her gentle, wise, funny performance. In her hands, Evelyn Smythe, with her no-nonsense attitude, strong moral centre, wit, and basic human decency, became the perfect foil for Colin Baker’s bumptious, loud, obnoxious, Sixth Doctor, slowly rounding off his sharp edges until in their later stories they sound like an old married couple, with a huge amount of affection for each other. The Sixth Doctor is a better person for knowing her.
Evelyn is one of a very, very small number of fictional characters for whom I feel something akin to the affection I feel for real people (the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Jill Swinburne from the Beiderbecke trilogy) — it’s probably no coincidence that I have such an affection for the character, since her relationship with the Doctor seems rather like my relationship with my own wife (I often joke that she’s Peri, because she’s American, but we both know she’s really Evelyn — and I am DEFINITELY the Sixth Doctor; Colin Baker’s performance in my favourite programme as a very small child clearly influenced me in more ways than I’d like to admit). Evelyn is a real person, thanks to Stables’ portrayal, and while the character already died, in 2010’s A Death In The Family, I feel in many ways like I’ve lost a friend, even though I never met Stables herself.
If you’ve never heard Stables’ performances as Evelyn Smythe, here are her five best stories — and the first three in the list are only £2.99.
The Marian Conspiracy, by Jac Rayner, is Big Finish’s first pure historical story, and Evelyn’s debut. It was the first sign that Big Finish were going to do more than just pastiche the TV show, and is a hugely enjoyable story of political and religious in-fighting in Tudor England.
Jubilee, by Rob Shearman, is often thought of as the single best Big Finish story ever (I’d put it third, myself). It was the basis of the TV story Dalek, but is infinitely more complex and rewarding, with a lot to say about nostalgia, royalism, the place of World War II in Britain’s national myth, the place of nostalgia in Doctor Who fandom, and systems of control. It’s also both hilariously funny and bitterly sad, and has wonderful performances from Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres as well as the two central performers.
Doctor Who And The Pirates, by Jac Rayner is the actual best Big Finish story ever. A musical, in which Evelyn has the central role, playing Scheharazade to a student whose suicide note she’d received, this also has Bill Oddie as a pirate, the second-best cliffhanger in all of Big Finish’s history, and great songs.
A Death In The Family by Steven Hall is one of the two or three best stories Big Finish have done in the last five years, and is the story in which Evelyn dies, saving reality, and reconciles with the Doctor after their estrangement. Sadly, it requires having heard a number of other audios to get the full effect, but if you’re up on Big Finish continuity, it’s definitely worth it.
And A Town Called Fortune by Paul Sutton is not one of her best stories, but it’s a near-solo performance by Stables from her last sessions with Big Finish, before she became too ill to continue in the part. It possibly gives the best idea of her skills as a pure performer.
Maggie Stables never had the recognition she deserved — she was good enough to be a major star, but other than her Big Finish performances mostly appeared in theatrical rep. In playing Evelyn, though, she managed to create something truly great. She’ll be missed.
Several people have said to me over the years that they wished they knew where to start with Big Finish’s Doctor Who stories and spin-off ranges. Big Finish have a page themselves with some suggestions of where to start, but I thought I’d make a few suggestions myself.
Big Finish have put out a lot of Doctor Who and related stories — I haven’t counted them all, but it must be around five hundred by now, if not more — and no-one can be expected to listen to them all, so we need rules of thumb to go on.
The first of these is that stories from Big Finish’s first six years tend to be much better than the later ones. Once Doctor Who returned to the TV, a combination of factors including personnel changes at Big Finish, stricter licensing requirements, and overexpansion conspired to make Big Finish’s output slowly decline from its 2003-2004 peak. They have still put out good material in the years since — some of which I’ll be listing here — but in 2003 and 2004 one could expect that everything in their main Doctor Who range would be excitingly different, whereas now there is more of a sense of consistent competence.
Handily, the first fifty Doctor Who main range stories, which include much of the best material, are also much, much cheaper than the later ones.
The second rule of thumb is that some writers are much, much better than others. Pretty much anything by Rob Shearman, Jac Rayner, Nev Fountain, Paul Magrs, Stephen Hall, or Lance Parkin is going to be extremely good. Other writers, such as Gareth Roberts or Jonathan Morris, are usually pretty good but occasionally have lapses. And others are less good.
And the third rule I’d advise using is that story arcs are a bad idea. Big Finish are as susceptible as anyone to the lure of the big story arc, and in some cases this can reach silly proportions — A Death In The Family, for example, a story which I would say is one of the best things Big Finish have put out in the last five years, requires having heard at least ten other stories, released over a period of about ten years, to get the full effect. So here I’m choosing only stories which don’t require knowing anything other than what’s been on the TV show.
So with those factors in mind, here are ten Big Finish stories to check out.
Peri And The Piscon Paradox is the best of the “Companion Chronicles” line. These are not full-cast plays, like most of Big Finish’s stuff, but are stories read by an actor who played a companion, with one other actor adding a voice. Here, Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker perform a story by Nev Fountain which combines two Doctors, a fish monster, and the Peris of two very different time periods, to tell a story which manages to be both hilariously funny and heartbreakingly moving.
Shada is a story that Douglas Adams wrote for the TV during the Tom Baker years, but which was abandoned about three-quarters of the way through filming due to strike action. Big Finish remade it with Paul McGann’s Doctor, and it’s as good as you’d expect from Adams.
Deadline isn’t a Doctor Who story at all, but a touching play by Rob Shearman about the absence of Doctor Who. An elderly, dying, writer, played by Derek Jacobi, who received great acclaim in his youth but spent most of his life doing hack work on bad TV shows, slowly retreats into a fantasy life based around a TV show he once wrote for, but which was cancelled straight away, and wonders how much better his life would have been if Doctor Who had been a success…
Jubilee is another Shearman story, a viciously funny black comedy satirising nostalgia for Empire, with marvellously strong central performances from Colin Baker (who really shines in the early Big Finish stories, finally given consistently good scripts), Maggie Stables (as Evelyn Smythe, the best companion ever), Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres.
Three of my choices feature members of the Goodies. The Zygon Who Fell To Earth by Paul Magrs is a sequel to Magrs’ earlier The Horror of Glam Rock, but doesn’t require you to have heard the earlier piece. It’s a clever, funny, moving story, as one would expect from Magrs, and has Tim Brooke-Taylor as a Zygon.
Bang Bang A Boom! is the lightest and frothiest of all these stories, an outright farce parodying Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and similarly po-faced USian SF, featuring a lovely deadpan performance from Graeme Garden as the science officer on the space station.
And Doctor Who And The Pirates by Jac Rayner is just about the best thing ever. A clever, metafictional, musical comedy (featuring parodies of many Gilbert and Sullivan songs) that turns in the last part to something more serious, and featuring a perfectly-pitched over-the-top performance from Bill Oddie as the psychopathic pirate Red Jasper, this may be my favourite Doctor Who story in any medium.
The Kingmaker by Nev Fountain is another out-and-out comedy — the genre that Big Finish seem to do best. Here the Doctor goes back to the time of Richard III, to investigate what happened to the princes in the Tower, in order to write the latest of his Doctor Who Investigates series of children’s books to mollify a violent robot sent by his publisher. The cliffhanger at the end of episode three may be the best cliffhanger in all of Doctor Who.
And finally, two of the “villain trilogy” that Big Finish did to celebrate the show’s fortieth anniversary. All of those stories were based around the Doctor coming into conflict with a villain in his present, with flashbacks filling in back-story about that villain’s childhood and early life. Omega by Nev Fountain is, as all Fountain’s work is, funny, but it’s not the outright farce that some of his other work is, and features a very strong performance by Peter Davison (and another great cliffhanger, though one that those who are familiar with the TV series during Davison’s time on the show might see coming), while Davros by Lance Parkin is to all intents and purposes a two-hander — there are other actors, and a plot, and all the other things you’d expect, but really Parkin is just giving Colin Baker and Terry Molloy lines that allow them to constantly try to out-ham each other, and when given the witty, bitchy, dialogue Parkin writes for them they both turn in wonderfully overblown performances that are a delight to listen to.
There are many, many good stories I’ve left off this list — I could easily make good cases for Spare Parts, The Holy Terror, The Council of Nicaea, The Marian Conspiracy, Scherzo, …Ish, and more — but that should be enough to keep the curious happy for now.
Or “Which episode of Doctor Who by Steven Moffat will win this year?”
Of the six nominees in this category, four are Doctor Who or Doctor Who-related. This is simply ridiculous. Even as a Doctor Who fan (albeit not much of a fan of the post-2005 series) the way it dominates the discourse around SF TV makes me feel a little queasy. Surely — surely — there must be other good SF TV?
However, this also means that, despite not having a TV and not really being at all interested in TV made after about 1992 (with the exception of Hannibal, which is wonderful), I’ve seen the majority of the candidates for this because I spent much of last year writing a book about Doctor Who. I won’t be trying to watch the episode of Game of Thrones, not having watched the previous twelve million episodes and thus having no idea what was going on.
Incidentally, trying to get to watch Orphan Black just shows how ridiculous DRM, regional restrictions, and platform-exclusivity actually are for users. I’m a subscriber to Netflix, but it’s not on Netflix, because it’s Amazon-exclusive. Fine, I’m also signed up (without asking) to Amazon Prime Video, since I’m on Amazon Prime and they “upgraded” me without any option. So I check there — it’s watchable on Prime Video in the US, but not in the UK.
However, it is watchable on Amazon Instant Video in the UK, but that costs £1.89 to “buy” a DRM-encumbered version I can only watch on Amazon’s site. Annoying, since I have two separate video streaming services I’m paying for (one of which I don’t even use) but OK. I pay the £1.89. The video won’t play on GNU/Linux (and of course I don’t have a machine with any other OS). However, I do have WiNE set up in the tweaked way you need in order to watch Netflix on this machine, so I try it with Amazon. No luck — it just hangs.
So I end up torrenting a copy. It takes three minutes including time to search for it. The torrent is from a site that is supposedly “blocked” by my ISP, but it was still much, much easier to do than watching a legal copy.
(Note that I did in fact *pay* for a legal copy, before torrenting).
Ranked from top to bottom:
The Five(ish) Doctors Rebooted – Peter Davison’s lovely comedy about the efforts of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the 1963-89 Doctor Who is the single best thing to have come out of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations. It’s packed full of fannish in-jokes, but accessible enough that my wife, who is someone who quite likes some of the Big Finish audios and a couple of the stories she’s seen on DVD, but certainly wouldn’t know, say, The Seeds of Doom from The Seeds of Death, watched it multiple times. It’s genuinely funny, and suggests that the next Doctor Who spin-off should be Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy starring in a rebooted Last of the Summer Wine.
The Day of the Doctor — This had almost all Steven Moffat’s usual faults, and is in a genre I dislike — the “turn your brain off and look at the pretty explosions” action movie — but thanks largely to the cast (David Tennant did a far better job here than in any episode during his time on the show, and Hurt was as good as one would imagine) managed to just about do the series justice. The fact that this was just voted Best Episode EVAH! in Doctor Who Magazine‘s readers’ poll ranking every episode is an utter joke, of course — it’s a light piece of froth with less actual substance even than the other anniversary specials — but it was fun, and it will win.
Orphan Black episode 6 — this is a perfectly decent programme, as far as I can tell. It’s a series about a group of women who’ve discovered they’re clones of each other (probably connected in some way to a character who appears in this one who is Definitely Not Ray Kurzweil Honest). This episode is a mistaken-identity farce, involving one (with an accent that I think was meant to be English, though it kept going into New Zealand or somewhere) desperately having to cover for another (Generic Midwestern US), along with a subplot involving a third (in Minnesota but sounding just like the other generic midwesterner) meeting NotKurzweil. A perfectly reasonable way to spend forty-five minutes, I suppose, but certainly not deserving of a major award.
An Adventure In Space And Time — this was Mark Gatiss’ attempt at telling the story of the first few years of Doctor Who. Leaving aside the historical inaccuracies, both about Who itself and in general (the dialogue was tin-eared — nobody in the 60s spoke anything like the way these characters did), which are fair enough in something not billing itself as actual fact, the fact remains that this just takes a bunch of situations from the first few years of the show and then sticks them into the exact same template we’ve seen a million times before for this kind of “docu-drama”. It’s a perfectly competent representation of its type, but that’s all it is, no better or worse than all the other BBC3 filler punched out of the same mould, and not deserving of any kind of award.
The Name of the Doctor — Lawrence Miles’ review of this, which consisted of a photo of a naked bottom (presumably his own) was, if anything, a little kind. An incoherent mess.
The only one of the long-form dramas on the ballot that I’ve seen is Gravity, which I thought was pretty good, so that will be the only one I rank.
My friend Mike, who blogs at The Reinvigorated Programmer and Sauropod Vertebra Picture Of The Week, asked me if he could do a guest post. All opinions expressed below, especially those regarding the relative qualities of the new and old series of Doctor Who, are the responsibility of Mike…
A tale of two titles: eleven vs. fifty
These are good days for Doctor Who books.
In November last year, Andrew Rilstone raised £2,411 via Kickstarter (pretty amazingly, to me) to write his book The Viewer’s Complete Tale. He seems to be well on the way to completing it. (I’m signed up to get a copy as soon as it’s out, even though I already have the original Viewer’s Tale and the second volume, Fish Custard.)
The big news in November, of course, was the 50th Anniversary special. On the same day that it was broadcast, our blog-host Andrew Hickey released his book Fifty Stories for Fifty Years.
And then at the start of January — as soon as possible after Matt Smith’s final episode, the Christmas special, in fact — I released my own book, The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.
I’ve asked for this guest post for two reasons. The first is to publicly thank Andrew for his help in getting this book done. Two of his blog-posts were extremely helpful with the sordid details (Some Tips For Self-Publishers and How To Get Your Books On Sale), and I’d heartily recommend them to anyone who’s self-publishing for the first time. Beyond writing those posts, Andrew was very helpful in answering my specific questions, and I owe him far more gratitude than I squeezed into the acknowledgements (which were written before I really got into the production phase).
The second reason is because my book is the opposite of Andrew’s — or perhaps I should say, its complement.
Fifty Stories book was one of my favourite Christmas presents. I’d read a fair bit of it in the original blog-posts over at Mindless Ones; but it’s much more compelling as a coherent narrative, each story’s analysis leading into the next, and with a strong sense of each era emerging. It was an education to me, especially regarding the interregnum between Survival and Rose.
But Andrew’s distaste for the new series is very evident in the final stretch. He declines even to review any episode of the revived series 2 or 6 (preferring Big Finish audios), and this feels like a finely calculated snub — one that looks casual, but is definitely meant. Even the final entry in Fifty Stories for Fifty Years, nominally about The Snowmen, is really a shrug of the shoulders and a half-formed wish that Doctor Who will evolve into something quite different.
Whereas I love the new series. I’m on record as saying that “New Who is better in every single way than the original: acting, ideas, music (oh my, the music!) and, yes, even stories”.
Not that it’s my goal here to argue for the 2005 series and against the original. When I wrote what I quoted above, it was in reaction to a very dismissive review rather than a considered position. As always, comparisons are invidious, and building up one version of Doctor Who by running down another is not fruitful. But what I want is for the new series to get a fair crack of whip — which I’m not convinced Andrew has given it.
Here’s the biggest reason why I love New Who: because so much stands and falls on the Doctor himself. The most admired stories are usually those that explore an aspect of the Doctor’s character or nature (Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature, Vincent and the Doctor). The way it looks to me, anyone can save the world — as comparatively dull a character as James Bond does it every year or so. But the Doctor is more interesting than that, and I like to see that interesting character explored: he’s similar enough to us that we can relate to him, but different enough to cast a different light on what it is to be a sentient, moral being. And, after all, we know what Doctor Who without the Doctor looks like: it’s Torchwood. No-one wants that.
And the post-2005 Doctors — especially Smith and Eccleston — are just superb: they give rich, detailed performances with levels of nuance that simply don’t come across in the older series (nor, to be fair, in the later David Tennant episodes).
To be fair to the pre-1989 Doctors, I suspect much of the difference is in how the show has been made in the two eras. The classic show was essentially filmed theatre, and the delivery and gestures reflect that: they’re designed to be heard and seen from the back of the hall — or perhaps on a blurry twelve-inch black-and-white TV. The intimacy that the new show allows gives the actors opportunity to dial back the theatrics, to convey complexities and subtleties that simply don’t fit into the older style.
So when Doctor Tom asks “Do I have the right?” — a sequence that reads well on paper, deserving of its iconic status — the actual delivery is rather scenery-chewing and unpersuasive. Whereas when Doctor Matt says “I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart”, which is rather less well written (by the dreadful Chris Chibnall), Smith is able to invest it with about a dozen layers of meaning and create one of the most powerful moment in the series’ history.
(Andrew’s right about The End of Time, though.)
Anyway, for those who’ve read Andrew’s book (as everyone should) and who want to balance it with a more positive perspective on the new show — and particularly the Matt Smith era — I do recommend my own book [Kindle at amazon.com, Kindle at amazon.co.uk, Paperback at Lulu]. It walks through every Matt Smith episode, commenting and discussing, reviewing and digessing, and hopefully drawing out some of themes that tie it all together and make the best moments of Doctor Who the best moments on TV. I hope it starts some interesting discussions — as Doctor Who so often does!
Fifty Stories for Fifty Years gave me a new appreciation for Classic Who. I hope The Eleventh Doctor can give people a new appreciation for New Who.
Tonight at 8PM on Resonance FM — Clear Spot:Novelising Doctor Who
I did an interview with Lawrence Miles for this show, on at 8PM today. About ten minutes of the programme, starting at the half-hourish mark, is the interview segment. An hour-long podcast version of just the interview will be available next week.
The podcast, like the radio show, will contain bits of the interview I did along with the interview that producer/presenter Alex Fitch did afterwards — he had stuff he’d wanted covered that didn’t get covered in the initial hour-long conversation. It’ll still be edited to remove off-the-record remarks, me messing with my mic, and that sort of thing, but it should be a very, very interesting listen.
The radio show also has interviews with Terrance Dicks, Marc Platt, and other Who novelists.
I apologise for the fact that I sound like a stammering, obsequious, half-wit on the interview. This is only because that is, in fact, what I am.
(Also, the plug for my work at the end of the interview was Alex Fitch’s idea, not something I asked for.)