❉ Audio in black and white, as Big Finish revisit the classic era of the 1960s with the latest Doctor Who – The Early Adventures release.
Florence, Italy in 1514. The city rings with plot and counter-plot, betrayal and lies. The Doctor and his friends mus use all their ingenuity not to be swept away by history.
Those of us from the 1980s generation of Who fandom were taught several incontrovertible truths by fandom oracles such as Bentham and Levine. Primary among these truths was how dull the Doctor’s ventures into history were compared to the awe and wonder of his journeys to the future and far-off worlds. This probably remains true if you were there at the time; monsters and ray guns are far more exciting to pre-teen minds than characters out of dusty old books.
Unfortunately this doesn’t apply to those of us born too late to encounter the era first hand. Nothing dates so fast as a low budget future and nothing ages quite as well as a well-written piece of drama. So where The Web Planet creaks and groans beneath the weight of the gap between ambition and realisation stories like The Aztecs and The Romans have aged comparatively well; there’s a lot of truth to the Doctor Who production office adage that the BBC’s strength was in period drama rather than bringing the future to life.
Similarly, the pure drama of historicals has frequently been one of the strengths of Big Finish’s output; taking ray guns, spaceships and aliens away has forced writers to concentrate on drama rather than falling back on Daleks or other familiar monsters. From The Marian Conspiracy to this year’s The Peterloo Massacre it’s brought out the best in the company.
The Ravelli Conspiracy wisely doesn’t stray too far from onscreen templates in recreating the Hartnell era. We get the religious intrigues of The Massacre (including one of the Medicis), the heightened language of The Crusade, Donald Cotton’s interest in the gap between reputation and reality and Dennis Spooner’s broad comedy. Indeed, if there’s any direct template it’s Spooner’s The Romans where a story of plot and counterplot builds into a broad farce to emphasise the how mad it looks to outsiders. It’s a fine example to take; it’s easily one of the best Hartnell stories and the turn to comedy at the halfway point solves the eternal Doctor Who problem of the story having to stand still for the third episode. As a result the story flows nicely; the two hours of the story paced to allow the court intrigues to unfold naturally and unforcedly, working with the more leisurely feel of the monochrome era rather than against it.
But what of the celebrity at the heart of this? Like Nero or Richard Nixon Machiavelli’s a man with a bad reputation; the lesson everyone seems to take from his best known work is that being a bit of a bastard’s absolutely essential if you’ve got a little power. His name’s not only been nicked for an alias by Tupac but also become a synonym for underhanded cunning. And yet a book with so many lessons about power is pure theory from a man who barely got a sniff of authority in his lifetime; it’s basically a self-help book that went viral. The contradiction is something co-writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky play up beautifully, showing that his grasp of the theories of power is far better than his actual practice of it. Mark Frost’s central performance helps enormously, bringing out Machiavelli’s pride, frustrations and misplaced confidence in his own abilities. It’s a fine performance in a very well cast play.
Talking of the cast; a special mention for regulars is warranted; Maureen O’Brien is obviously well beyond her teens but faithfully recreates Vicki as the ingenue she was. Purves is, as ever, excellent in the demanding triple role of Steven, Doctor and narrator. His Hartnell is particularly wonderful, capturing the both the lawyerly advocate and mischievous child of the original performance.
All in all, one of the highlights of the Early Adventures range; an object lesson in giving a modern feeling story an authentic Sixties atmosphere.
❉ ‘Doctor Who – The Early Adventures: The Ravelli Conspiracy’ was released on 10 November 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until December 31st 2016, and on general sale after this date.