‘Turlough was just helping me realign the thermocouples.’Ah, they don’t write them like that anymore.
‘I’ll bet he was.’
Oh wait – actually, they do. What we mean is, they never used to write them like that in the old days. The cheeky double entrendre would never have got past the BBC censor or Mary Whitehouse’s disapproving eyebrows in the 80s. So from the outset, The Lady of Mercia is very much 80s Who, but it’s written with a modernity and a reality of human relationships of which the likes of Amy Pond and Clara Oswald would thoroughly approve. While the double entendre is an unfair representation of the story as a whole, there’s an emotional depth to the storytelling here that feels very New Who, while the setting and the characters are pure 1983.
There are some stories that bend the minds of the actors and the listeners both, to the point where they’re hanging on by their fingernails. Then there are stories that everyone can follow and that really should be relatively simple to solve, but turn out not to be. We’re very firmly in that second category for The Lady of Mercia, writer Paul Magrs keeping the essential twists and turns reasonably logical despite a story that involves not just the Tardis we’re used to, but another time machine to essentially complicate the easy ‘Let’s just nip back and sort this out’ solution that, to be fair, screams at the reader from very early on.
Tegan was always a very strong feminist character (at least as much as she was allowed to be while written and dressed by men in 80s Doctor Who), so it’s an intrinsically delicious idea to throw her into the dark age world of warrior queens and see how she does. That’s the central premise we’re dealing with here – Tegan, Warrior Princess.
The way we get there is a little convoluted, and references one of the fantasy genre’s most delightful tropes – swords having a kind of memory of the battles they’ve fought – as well as developing the idea of scientists in the 80s having built a deeply primitive form of time machine. The idea of a pair of married professors, one of history, the other of physics, with the history professor being a weak man, doing everything he can to further the research of his cleverer wife with catastrophic consequences is fairly straightforward. The fact that the research lands Tegan in the court of Queen Æthelfrid, dark age warrior queen of Mercia, pretending to be her daughter Ælfwynn to ensure the ageing queen can face down acquisitive Danes and her own brother in a struggle for the throne of Mercia is bizarrely, mercifully understandable – you don’t need a PhD in history to follow the story at any point, and an understanding of physics would probably actively hamper your enjoyment of the story. Essentially, The Lady of
Mercia is a straightforward story, though not by any means a particularly light one – the consequences of the displacement of Ælfwynn by Tegan are real and potentially catastrophic, and there will be blood, death and glory by teatime, though not necessarily those of the people you imagine.
The flipside of the coin of Tegan’s dark age adventure of course involves Ælfwynn being transported to 1983 – accusations of sorcery abound, there’s much swinging of swords, and secrets are uncovered that will impact the people at the heart of the story going forward. Not everyone will survive the events that follow. Dreams will die, hopes will be dashed, love will sort of triumph and sort of specifically won’t.
But the main thrust of the story lies with Janet Fielding as Tegan, stretching herself here to more than rise to the challenges of the script. It’s a good story for Tegan fans, showing some of the best elements of her character – compassion for Queen Æthelfrid, determination to fulfill her promises, no matter what the cost, the learned ability to tiptoe through the minefield of trips to the past, and yet at the same time, occasionally ‘blow the bleedin’ doors off’ with behavior that the Doctor would find utterly irresponsible. There’s a sense of the essential Tegan here – the girl who grew up on an Australian farm, knowing that how you behave in times of crisis can make the difference between success and failure. Throughout the story, she’s resourceful, funny, compassionate and supportive, trying to do the right thing no matter what gets thrown at her. Sometimes, she knows, that means doing things the Doctor couldn’t condone, and sometimes she knows she’s learned enough from his example to choose what she says and how she acts carefully, allowing her to succeed where others – in this instance particularly the weak Professor Bleak – would blunder in and almost certainly get their heads cut off.
Magrs allows Tegan to shine in a way the full Tardis rarely did, and which even in the Big Finish universe has been only occasionally possible simply by virtue of the storytelling arc. Where Nyssa has had lots of time travelling alone with the Doctor, it’s a blue moon that sees Tegan forced to fend for herself. What Magrs does with this script by the simple expedient of separating Tegan from the other time travelers is show some love to the mouth on legs, and also show us exactly how she’s grown to be much more than that since she first stumbled aboard the Tardis.
He also manages to have his ‘pure historical’ cake and eat it here, given that he’s able to drop Tegan into the affairs of dark age Mercia, and still have the 1983 setting relevant as a cut-away from the purely historical action to deliver the ‘time travel – and how to stop it’ plotline which allows for levity, secrets, a different note of emotional strain, and the solution to very practical problems, which otherwise could be cut through with the simple ‘back to the Tardis’ expedient which, always being there, is not particularly ignored, and is eventually used, to help put everything right.
The Lady of Mercia is a must-listen for Tegan fans, and an interesting companion piece for anyone who enjoyed the Fourth Doctor story Wrath of the Iceni by John Dorney, which thrust Leela into battle alongside Queen Boudica. Here the dilemmas are similar – when and when not to intervene with the destiny of a warrior queen. But while the contrast, not only between Boudica and Æthelfrid but also between Leela and Tegan, gives a fascinating perspective to both stories, the strength of Tegan’s charactersisation here makes The Lady of Mercia a deeply involving listen in its own right, and one to add to your collection at the earliest opportunity.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk