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.
Sigh – if NuWho had pulled just one move half as great as Evelyn Smythe during it’s nine shameful years on screen I’d probably still be watching. A great pity.
By the way, have you noticed this weird pattern of persons such as ourselves married to American women, given that I believe we have a mutual friend in the same situation?
Even decent Who has fallen a little way below my radar in recent years, so I tend to joke that my wife is Holly because she’s American and I’m Andrew Hickey. Not really.
I have noticed the pattern — in fact Tilt, who comments below, is also married to an American (and like yourself, he moved there).
And yes, while Big Finish only rarely touched the heights of the better books, they still had infinitely more imagination than pretty much anything in the post-2005 TV series.
Can you just plunge in with no previous with The Pirates? Like making it someone’s first 6th Doctor story ever?
Absolutely. It’s completely stand-alone. There are a couple of jokey references to old stories in one of the songs, but frankly you get more out of a familiarity with Gilbert and Sullivan than a familiarity with the Sixth Doctor.