Blurb: When the TARDIS lands in a house in Florence, Italy in 1514, it isn’t long before the guards of Guiliano de Medici arrest Steven and Vicki. To rescue them, the Doctor has to employ the help of the house’s owner – one Niccolo Machiavelli. But can he be completely trusted?
Guiliano confesses to his brother Pope Leo X that he has angered the wealthy family of Ravelli and believes the newcomers may be part of an assassination plot. But when the Doctor arrives an already tricky situation starts to spiral out of control.
As the city rings with plot and counter-plot, betrayal and lies abound. The Doctor and his friends must use all their ingenuity if they’re not to be swept away by history.
This conspiracy is about to get complicated…
Review: Big Finish pulled a surprising turn with their latest installment of The Early Adventures. In the past, the Companion Chronicles, Early Adventures, and Lost Stories had always treated stories in history as dramatic tales that were taken fairly seriously. Yet, in William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor that often wasn’t the case. The second script writer for the series, Dennis Spooner, loved comedy as did Hartnell. Quite a few of the best remembered stories in William’s Hartnell’s time as the Doctor were comedies or at least had fairly sizable comic content. The Ravelli Conspiracy belongs to that line of story. It was, perhaps, a tad mischievous on Big Finish’s part not to hint that this would be something different from the typical, dramatic stoyline that one had come to expect from their historicals, but it certainly made for a nice surprise and allowed Big Finish to try it’s capable hand at recreating another style of story from the classic era in audio.
For those familiar with the classic era, The Ravelli Conspiracy‘s closest spiritual analog is The Time Meddler rather than The Romans. It’s not an outright farce, but it does contain a lot of comedic elements balanced against true peril to the characters. Writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky admit that they were strongly influenced by Dennis Spooner’s work on Doctor Who, and this story certain bears it out. The Doctor comes face-to-face with Niccolo Machiavelli, a man whose name is synonymous with sinister schemes and plots. It’s the Doctor’s wit against Machiavelli’s, and it’s a joy to watch the wheels turn as the two not only try to outplot the other, but also seem to take so much joy in facing off against another worthy intellect. Added to this mix are characters like Guiliano de Medici who brings the peril as the tyrannical ruler of Florence, a man satisfied to exterminate whole families if it will prevent a single dissenter to his rule from being allowed to go free. His brother, Pope Leo X, is an effete patron of the arts. The humor arises from his level head matched against his brother’s impulsiveness, and the fact that Leo’s hedonistic lifestyle is at odds with his position as Pope. The references are subtle and well in-keeping with the sensibilities of sixties television, but funny because they’re so irreverent. Carla is a revolutionary, keen to get the Medicis out of Florence. She’s strong-willed and dedicated to her cause and makes a great foil for Steven’s straight-forwardness and morality.
Fittingly, this story seems to be a commentary on the Doctor Who trope of the overly elaborate villain’s scheme. Khan and Salinsky realized that Machiavelli’s reputation far outstripped his actual historical accomplishments, and this story explores that as well as Machiavelli weaves plots within plots to put himself in a position of power. The humor derives from the absurdity of how elaborate the plots are. At one point a character exclaims that they’ve been “quadruple crossed”. For the listener this could get tedious if done poorly, but the characters are used so well that it becomes hilarious to watch as each wheel within a wheel is exposed during the course of the plot.
If there’s one negative thing that can be said about the story, it’s that it’s a slow burn. While that isn’t uncommon in a sixties Doctor Who story, it does make it slightly more difficult to enjoy a story on audio. The first episode doesn’t seem particularly funny and what humor there is seems out of place. It almost seems like the story becomes more comfortable with itself as it progresses and the actors, director, and even the script warm to the tone. Of course, it’s possible that this is deliberate and the point is that the absurdity becomes more funny if it only becomes apparent further along in the story. Either way, this doesn’t detract to much from enjoying the play. By episodes three and four, it’s clear what the story is, and it begins to invite the chuckles and guffaws at a fairly steady pace.
Vicki and Steven are not idle in all of this. They’re both captured early on, but Vicki is freed by the Pope who takes a real shine to her. As a patron of the arts, he’s intrigued by her knowledge of styles and places that he’s never heard of, and he takes quite a shine to her. At one point Guiliano accuses him of having a crush, which is funny because of how human and ordinary it makes these larger-than-life characters. Guiliano is convinced that she’s part of the conspiracy against his family, but won’t dare to move against his brother. This leads to a series of confrontations as the two brothers work against each other. It also gives Vicki a chance to shine in the center stage of a story as she uses her forthrightness and mischievousness to keep herself alive as well as to keep the status quo from being upset until she can find her friends and get them to the TARDIS.
Steven, on the other hand, finds himself in the middle of a plan to assassinate the Medicis. As is usual in a comedy story, Steven comes off as a tad thick, although it’s nowhere near as bad as he comes off in his debut story. His foil is Carla, a fanatic willing to do anything for her cause. Her stubbornness clashes with Steven’s as she won’t back down and he won’t be either threatened or bribed into doing something against his conscience. The two give tit for tat over the course of the story as Steven and Carla each end up subverting the efforts of the other, but is Steven really helping or just falling prey to an even greater plot?
Of course, Vicki and Steven would be nothing without the actors playing them. This time Maureen O’Brien really steals the show as Vicki. She seems two steps ahead of everyone and O’Brien just has the girl ooze charisma with her playful sarcasm and quick thinking. It’s almost magical how she can recreate that voice from fifty years ago and give Vicki that mad, youthful energy that she always had. Peter Purves is always a joy to listen to as Steven. Purves has been blessed with a voice that hasn’t aged much in fifty years, so even when he’s not playing Steven he doesn’t sound all that different from when he is. Purves plays Steven as a man of deep conviction and unwavering principles giving him more of a leading-man feel, even though Steven is somewhat marginalized by the story. Still, Purves gets plenty to do, since he also plays the Doctor and narrates the story. His Doctor seems to be getting higher in pitch as he gets older, and it’s starting to sound less and less like Hartnell and more and more like Yoda. It’s a bit of a shame, since Purves used to be almost as good as William Russell at portraying Hartnell, but with the actors getting on in years it’s only realistic to consider that their performances will weaken as the years progress. Still, the character is still fun as Purves focuses more on the light and comedic side of Hartnell, which fits better in tone with the story. As someone who’s been a presenter for decades, it doesn’t come as any shock that Purves is excellent as the narrator. He has a natural voice for radio presentation and makes a straight reading compelling to listen to.
This story also boasts a pretty stellar guest cast. Mark Frost’s Machiavelli is perfect for the role. He has a velvety, understated voice that’s perfect for a character that likes to influence and plan from the shadows rather than being the central figure of authority. Frost plays him a tad on the smug side, as if he’s thrilled with his own intelligence. He enjoys showing off how well he’s planned events, which is why he displays a certain joy when confronting the Doctor. That makes him an interesting and different kind of villain from the usual Doctor Who standard. Jamie Ballard’s Guiliano is a paranoid and sadistic tyrant and Ballard relishes the role as he rants and rages about the plots around him. Robert Hands’ Leo X exudes a polite diffidence. He is troubled by his brothers’ actions not because he has any concern for the individuals that he might have harmed, but because he fears that it will turn the people against the Medicis. He seems more put out by his brother’s bloodlust than morally outraged. It makes him a dangerous character in his own right, if not a threatening one. Hands does the job well and comes off as an extremely likable man until one is confronted by the fact that what he says shows what he’s willing to tolerate, which makes him far less likable than how he would seem from his manner. Olivia Poulet turns in a capable performance as Carla. She portrays a headstrong, single-minded character well. Carla isn’t given an incredible amount to do, but she does a decent job with what she’s given. The final character is Joe Bor’s Guard Captain. He’s an anachronism in that he has an estuary (urban English) accent. He plays the part as a put-upon blue-collar worker. At one point he worries that if there’s another prisoner escape that he’ll be forced to fill out more forms and may even be put to death, but Bor plays it as if he’s more concerned by the forms than the thought of death. It makes the character incredibly sympathetic and a fun, comic influence in the story.
It almost seems like it should go without saying at this point, but the sound design on this story is excellent. The music is all made with renaissance instruments. If you’re a fan of the harpsichord you’ll absolutely adore this musical suite. The complete soundtrack is even provided as an extra, meaning that it’s something that can be enjoyed over and over again on its own merit. The soundscape is also well done. There’s the clanking of cell doors, keys jangling, wine jugs smashing, the sounds of struggle, a floorboard being pulled up, and so much more. There’s no need for pictures, because Big Finish knows how create enough sound that your imagination fills in the rest. It’s yet another fantastic production from that standpoint.
Recommendation: It’s a welcome change of pace and another feather in Big Finish’s cap as Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky revive the Hartnell historical comedy. The plot may leave you breathless with all its twistings and turnings, but the acting, direction, and script all combine together to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts and creates a fun, slightly comic adventure. It may not be the funniest story ever done in Doctor Who, but it’s got a charm and sincerity to it that makes it both enjoyable and compelling. I recommend giving it a try.
Big Finish Productions
Directed by Lisa Bowerman
Produced by David Richardson
Written by Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky
Runtime Approx 120 min.