Ever since Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor met Beatrix Lehmann’s Professor Amelia Rumford in 1978’s The Stones of Blood, Doctor Who fans have been speculating about the potential of an ‘older lady’ companion for the Doctor.
We still have never seen this in the show itself, the closest examples being one off “companions”/guest stars Adelaide Brooke (Lindsey Duncan) and Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins) in the 2010 specials.
Big Finish, however, spent their early years experimenting with many of those long-lived fannish wish lists. So, Peri got to wear trousers and talk about botany more often, Mel got entire stories where she didn’t have to scream once (and/or her computer programmer skills were relevant), the Sixth Doctor got a new coat and some manners, we were treated to historical stories and companions aplenty, and everyone who had not yet met the Brigadier got their chance.
Oh, and Dr Evelyn Smythe stepped aboard the TARDIS.
Maggie Stables is an excellent actress who gives a great performance in every one of her stories, able to play all manner of facets of the character including ‘huffy professor,’ ‘endearing substitute granny,’ ‘sarcastic academic,’ ‘soppy romantic’ and ‘slightly scared but ever so brave in the face of aliens and being stranded in the cold of space and Axons and that sort of thing.’I have to say, I was alarmed to listen to her first story, The Marian Conspiracy (after I’d listened to several of her later adventures) and discover that the self-identifying ‘old lady’ history lecturer is actually only 55 when she meets the Doctor for the first time. She’s practically a spring chicken! She’s in academia, 55 is hardly ripe for retirement.
I do really enjoy the idea of bringing in a history professor as the Doctor’s companion, and writer Jacqueline Rayner sends Evelyn back in time to one of her specialty periods (Elizabethan) straight away to explore the possibilities of that. It’s an opportunity to look at the ways in which History The Discipline is very different to ‘actual’ history (as was used to great effect when teacher Barbara was resident in the TARDIS). Evelyn’s overconfidence at striding around post-Tudor London is immediately punctured as she discovers too late that it’s not Good Queen Bess on the throne as she expected!
Evelyn is an excellent match for the Sixth Doctor. She has her own pompous streak to counterbalance his, leading to the kind of one-upmanship and banter-between-equals dynamic that worked so well on the TV when Colin Baker’s Doctor was up against characters like Glitz, the Valeyard, the Rani, the Master and the Inquisitor.
What Evelyn doesn’t do (as is sometimes suggested) is ‘tame’ or ‘soften’ the Sixth Doctor by her presence, though he certainly does become far less abrasive in her company. Her willingness to call him on his bullshit from time to time is deeply refreshing.
The second of their adventures in 2000, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor by Nicholas Pegg, is another excellent introduction/establishing story for Evelyn, though it’s probably best remembered as ‘the one where Six and the Brig first meet if you don’t count Dimensions in Time.’
This creepy story of science, moors and mysterious happenings in Cornwall feels very much like a 70’s adventure – it’s probably most comparable in tone at least to New Who’s “Hide” and has some lovely character moments for all three of the lead actors as well as James Bolam and Susan Jameson (whose portrayal of Mrs Wibbsey is easily the best thing about the Hornet’s Nest etc. series of BBC Audios that brought Tom Baker back to the role of the Doctor – indeed, she certainly should count as the second ‘old lady’ companion in the ever stretchable Doctor Who canon).
The third and final Evelyn story of 2000, Dalek Empire: The Apocalypse Element by Stephen Cole, is not one of my favourites – it’s notable for introducing Evelyn to the Daleks if you care about that sort of thing, and especially notable for bringing Lalla Ward’s Romana into the Big Finish Doctor Who universe (the New Adventures pulled her out of E-Space) and establishing her as the President of Gallifrey. This would be quite important in many of the Big Finish storylines, apart from being only right and proper.
Dr Evelyn Smythe would go on to be an important figure in the life of the Sixth Doctor for the next decade – leaving him more than once and returning, meeting his Seventh persona once or twice (though he was of course not HER Doctor), and even managed to have a few adventures in entirely the wrong order.
A marvellous, sneaky subplot that began in Project: Twilight in 2001 would not only weave in and out through Evelyn’s adventures with the Sixth Doctor, but also the Seventh Doctor’s adventures with new companion Hex from 2004 onwards, until finally being resolved in the spectacular Project: Destiny and A Death in the Family in 2010.
My favourite and most highly recommended Evelyn adventures are:
The Marian Conspiracy“>The Marian Conspiracy
Doctor Who and the Pirates
Project: Lazarus (sequel to P:T)
Arrangements for War
Thicker Than Water (sequel to AfW)
A Death in the Family
The Feast of Axos
ELSEWHERE ON 2000
Evelyn Smythe tea blend [Adagio.com]
Episode 07 – To Old Soldiers: Nicholas Courtney Special (reviewing his Big Finish appearances including The Spectre of Lanyon Moor) [Little Finish]
Independence Day, by Peter Darvill-Evans [Doctor Who Book Club Podcast]