Big Finish Folly, Part 28b – The Lady of Mercia, by Paul Magrs
Staying with the Peter Davison triptych, here’s a twist on the traditional historical adventure. Scientists at the University of Frodsham have discovered a crude method of time travel and plan to use it to bring historical artifacts into the present day to study them close up. Such vortex-meddling of course alerts the Doctor who, under the pretence of attending a symposium on 11th century English queens, moves in to investigate. But if the audience is shown a rogue time machine in the first act, it must neccessarily be fired by the third act – and suddenly Tegan is in mortal danger…..
I think I’ve said before that I’m not the biggest fan of Paul Magrs. He has a tendency to make things far too arch and put Iris Wildthyme where she probably shouldn’t be. But The Lady of Mercia is not only relatively restrained, it’s positively good. Splitting the Tardis crew between 20th and 11th century England is an obvious plot device – but sending Princess Ælfwynn back into the future in place of Tegan is an inspired, chaotic move. Tegan’s travails as Ælfwynn’s replacement are funny, but also quite touching as she realises just how beleaguered Queen Æthelfrid is and how tenuous her grip on power has become.
Paul Magrs definitely writes decent female characters, and in this play there’s a proper surfeit of them: Tegan, Ælfwynn, Æthelfrid, Professor Stone – only Nyssa suffers by virtue of the fact that it isn’t her turn for the spotlight. Turlough meanwhile, is the properly sarcastic alien boy of the TV show, dismissive of all this primitiveness. As for Anthony Howell, guesting as the slightly obsessive John Bleak, he manages to give just the right note of academic uselessness to the role, his character feeble and irresolute next to Tegan’s never-say-die attitude.
The overall plot is slender – put the historical characters back in the correct slots – but the incidental moments and the gems in the dialogue (see the continual baiting of Turlough by the sarky activist student) help to flesh it out. You’d perhaps expect a “Time’s Champion”-style story (which this becomes at moments) to belong to the Seventh Doctor, but Davison’s Fifth Doctor handles the requisite “don’t do it again” speech with aplomb. If there’s one down point, it’s that there’s rather too much “shouting with swords” by Ælfwynn, threatening to descend into piratey “argh!”-ness, and the journey from Derby to York is done rather faster than even I can manage it, but overall, a very nice piece of historical whatnot from the whole team.