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...
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Peter Purves and Maureen O'Brien published by Big Finish Productions and released November 2016.
Setting: Florence, Italy, Earth in the summer of 1514 AD.
Continuity: This story takes place between The Time Meddler and Galaxy Four and sometime after the audio story, The Bounty of Ceres, but before the novel, The Empire of Glass.
Canonicity Quotient: It's clear in this story that Steven and Vicki have never been to renaissance Italy, so it clearly takes place before The Empire of Glass. However, it seems strange to set a story so close in time and space to that story. Although neither Steven nor Vicki says that they've never been to renaissance Italy in The Empire of Glass, they also don't say that they have, makes this an awkward story to put in. The other issue is that this story asserts that Steven is from the 28th century, when The County of Ceres clearly established that he's from before Vicki's time of the 25th century. It's a huge discrepancy that makes this story hard to reconcile with the existing canon. 0.80
Discussion: A lot of people nowadays don't dip back all of the way in the series to the Hartnell era. Those who do, generally seem to watch An Unearthly Child to see where it all started and then decide that they understand what the show was like back then. Therefore, a general narrative has grown up around the series that Troughton introduced humor to the show. This of course ignores the comedic touches that Hartnell added to his character, which is evident as early as The Daleks. The humor really got ratcheted up when Dennis Spooner joined the series. As a writer, The Reign of Terror combined serious tension and drama with humorous situations. Then, he took over as script editor and the humor became far more overt. It's clear that The Romans was written as a comedy, and The Time Meddler is only slightly more serious. The Ravelli Conspiracy belongs in that august assemblage of stories.
Here's the thing that I absolutely love, there was no hint at all that The Ravelli Conspiracy was going to be anything more than a standard historical. Generally, the expanded universe has taken historicals seriously, with only Gareth Roberts' The Plotters going for an out-and-out pure comedy ala The Romans. The Ravelli Conspiracy seems to fall more in the middle, tonally sharing more in common with The Time Meddler than any other Hartnell stories. There's real danger present, but nothing about this ever seems tense or menacing because the main players all seem "in on the act" and are prevented from ever being truly scary. There's also a parallel between The Doctor's relationship with The Monk and how he interacts with Machiavelli. Both times they're two men that recognize the intelligence of the other and enjoy scoring points against each other. It's fun to watch and the central question of both stories is if the Doctor will give his foil their comeuppance and how that will come about.
One of the interesting byproducts of the story is the examination of something that's central to Doctor Who lore, the overly elaborate plot. Whether it's the Master or just a mad scientist, Doctor Who villains seem to revel in plans that seem raving mad to anyone viewing the story. In The Ravelli Conspiracy that's the point. At one point someone asserts that they've been "quadruple-crossed" and at that point in the story the assertion makes total sense. It's mad, but it's meant to be mad and in such a way that the madness makes sense. Kahn and Salinsky were cognizant of the fact that Machiavelli always craved real power, but never really achieved it. That not only supplies the historical educational element that Hartnell stories are supposed to have, but also gives the dramatic thrust and reason for the story.
The characters are just the right mix to bring about the humor in the story. Machiavelli takes the central stage as the weaver of plots as he schemes to get into a position of power. Mark Frost does a wonderful job in the role, having a velvety voice that seems made for convincing others to do what he says and playing such an over-the-top role so seriously that it can't help but be funny. Equally important is the double act of Jamie Ballard's Guiliano and Robert Hands' Pope Leo X. The two brothers have opposite temperaments with Guiliano being a murderous tyrant with paranoid delusions of plots against his family while the Pope is a hedonist, more interested in the arts and fine dining than in listening to his brother talk about conspiracies. Ballard plays Guiliano with the gusto that a role like that requires, able to unleash the frenzied tirades when they're required. He's capably foiled by his brother. Hands plays the pope with an effete sensibility. Although he disapproves of his brothers' tyrannical nature he acts more like someone who's just bored with hearing the same speech over and over again rather than someone who'd disgusted by brutality. He is quick to point out that his power supersedes' his brother's authority as Captain-General of Florence when it's a matter that effects his own interests, but he doesn't interfere beyond that. His fascination with the TARDIS as a work of art is reminiscent of the famous John Cleese scene from City of Death as he attributes all manor of virtues to its design. It made me laugh because it sounds so much like the kinds of commentary that I hear from art aficionados that seem more about justifying their own interests than in pointing out anything that anyone would actually enjoy in viewing a work. With the two brothers so polarized, many of their interactions become incredibly funny as each undercuts the other and each has plans to make his brother see his point of view.
The regulars are still bringing the same energy to their roles as they were fifty years ago. Honorable mentions goes to Maureen O'Brien this time as Vicki becomes centrally embroiled in the plot. She catches the Pope's sympathies as well as his eye, his brother accusing him of having a "crush". O'Brien plays Vicki with the gusto that she did on TV. This is the same Vicki that tried to poison the Emperor Nero, and Vicki doesn't mind getting embroiled in the center of the plots if she effect a good outcome and find Steven and the Doctor. Although I've never had much time for Vicki, here she's charming, willful, and fun. Peter Purves is still amazing as Steven. Steven doesn't get a very good showing here, but that's typical for the early point in Steven's time on the TARDIS when he was basically a headstrong thug. His Steven doesn't sound all that different from when he did fifty years ago, though, and it's always a joy to hear him play the part. His narration is always top notch as well, his skills as a presenter preparing him for making the straight reading of lines sound interesting. My one issue is with his Doctor. As time moves on he seems to be making the man more impish. While the Hartnell Doctor certainly did have his Yoda-like side, it was one of many facets. When it's time for him to get assertive or serious, Purves' Doctor falls apart. He sounds weak and ineffectual, and it seems to be going further in that direction as time wends on. Hartnell's Doctor could turn on a dime, going from the delightful old scamp to a force of nature, and it always disappoints me that with Purves we only get half of that character recreated.
The cast is rounded out Olivia Poulet's Carla and John Bar's Guard Captain. Carla's a fanatical true believer that the Medici's are a scourge on Florence and will stop at nothing to see them ousted from power. Poulet certainly gives a capable performance. She's fierce, headstrong, and single-minded. Her penchant for talking to people with their full names is reminiscent of Leela and tends to give more weight to her conversation as her dialog sounds more like a series of pronouncements than a discussion. The Guard Captain is a hilarious anachronism. While most everyone in the story speaks a very precise form of English known in British acting circles as "RP", the guard captain speaks with an estuary (lower-class urban English) accent. For a story taking place in England, that accent would be fitting for any kind of a blue-collar role. For this, it automatically makes the guard captain sound funny. Even better, the character seems so put-upon by all the goings-on around him. He worries about escapes from the prisons because of all the forms he may have to fill out, and of course there's the threat of death for letting a prisoner escape. Yet, he's more concerned about the forms than the death. He makes for a lovely diversion and while his accent makes him feel out of place the delivery and writing is so well done that it somehow works.
From the production standpoint, it's Big Finish as always. The music is beautiful. Some have mentioned that it's overused, and that's probably fair, although certainly not as overused as the music on Domain of the Voord. Yet, the faithful reproduction of renaissance era music with the use of harpsichords, harps, viols, flutes, trumpets, and probably a half dozen instruments that I can't identify is wonderful to listen to for its own sake. It also helps add feeling to scenes as the music varies from playful in the light-hearted scenes to elegiac as things get darker and more serious. Thankfully, they do provide a music suite as an extra at the end of the first disc that allows you to enjoy this music. On the sound side Big Finish creates a full reality with sound. There's the clanking of keys, the crash of a wine jug, the footfall of horses, the sounds of a fight and struggle and many more that aid the listener's imagination in creating the world of the play. It's incredibly well done and it makes it a joy to listen to the production.
Final Rating: 8/10
Recommendation: Reveling in Hartnell's comedic legacy, The Ravelli Conspiracy is a throwback to the days when Dennis Spooner ran the series but falling short of an outright farce. Machiavelli's reputation and legacy are examined, and the series' penchant for overly elaborate plots is poked at in a way that makes the story both fun and informative. Viewed independently, several of the story elements don't work, but the whole thing hangs together because of some fantastic performances, direction, and music elevating the material to a truly fun, comedic romp. I definitely recommend listening to it.