Doctor Who: Short Trips: The Astrea Conspiracy

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Doctor Who: Short Trips: The Astrea Conspiracy – Performed & Narrated by Neve McIntosh & written Lizbeth Myles. Directed by Nicholas Briggs – Download  (Big Finish)

Halloo, hooray! It’s Twelfth Doctor Day!

Despite in some respects feeling like only yesterday that he let the Doctor go with imprecations to always be kind, the time has come for Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor to join the audio universe of ongoing Doctor Who stories at Big Finish.

Well, not quite Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. His Doctor, but rendered here in the voice of Madame Vastra actress Neve McIntosh, who after all helped to usher him into our presence in Deep Breath. Here, she does the same again, ushering him into his audio age by giving us the story of the Astrea Conspiracy, by Lizbeth Myles.

The Astrea Conspiracy is an interesting pure historical with a bit of a wibbly-wobbly twist. It shows us a meeting between the Man With The Eyebrows of Death and Aphra Behn, the first female playwright to make it big in the world of English literature.

Oh, and spy. Did we mention that? S’kind of a big deal.

It’s especially a big deal because when we meet Aphra she’s in her pre-playwright days, double-dealing with skulduggerous buggers to try and foil a plot to assassinate King Charles II. A former lover and co-conspirator, William Scott, appears to be the key – if she can turn him away from regicidal gittery, then all will be well.

Or will it?

It all very much depends what you feel about kings, queens, the web of time and the fabric of causality, really. When it turns out Scott’s not coming to the rendezvous, and some long Scottish loon with weaponised eyebrows is there instead, Aphra’s life gets even more complicated than it already was.

Without giving too much away, The Astrea Conspiracy is what happens when these two forceful personalities meet, at a critical juncture in not only Aphra Behn’s life, but a point from which the whole of what we think of as established history from the 17th century onward could melt away like sugar in the rain. Lizbeth Myles picks her crisis point with a gorgeous attention to detail that makes us want to hear more Who from her, and introduces the whys and the wherefores of her historical characters with the kind of richness you’ll find in the best of the black-and-white era’s explorations into the past – this has a Highlanders/Smugglers feel to it, where you’d certainly benefit from knowing something about the period before you go in, but the history and its weight is dealt with as a fact of storytelling life, rather than overlaboured, meaning you can just get in and get on with it. That’s a style to which Neve McIntosh turns her narration with apparent ease, so you get the nuts and bolts of the thing while still allowing the characters to feel real, and bright, and witty, without ever veering into sounding forced.

The most interesting thing, from a motivation point of view, is that the Doctor has rather tripped over his own trans-temporal feet in this story – there’s a certain amount of recursive logic at play, in that he only realises he needs to go and see Aphra because of a thing he experiences in her future and his past, and then – well, then, cue the Back To The Future shenanigans, because once he’s a part of events, he alters things that perhaps could have done without being altered, and has to play the timeline out in such a way as to set it to rights.

Between the modern pacing and temporal twistedness and the old-fashioned character quality and involving storyline, you get a lot of Doctor Who goodness for your money with The Astrea Conspiracy, and while in terms of universal threats it’s distinctly on the lighter end (as every pure historical is likely to be), the sense of enlightening a particular era and a specific historical person for the audience feels like a definite nod to the original remit of the show, and you come away with an appreciation that everything we think of as inevitable history is actually a web of such crisis points, from which things could have unfolded in entirely different ways.

Get involved in The Astrea Conspiracy – it’ll hook you quickly, whisk you along, educate you gently and leave you smiling as you enjoy an adventure with Aphra Behn, and welcome the Twelfth Doctor to the audio universe of Big Finish. Tony Fyler

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