The Ravelli Conspiracy
Tony’s a Renaissance man.
When you think about Hartnellian pure historical stories, there are two distinct trends that come to mind. There’s the fairly po-faced, educational, intriguing stories that throw the Tardis team in to increasingly complex situations and challenge them mostly with the business of staying alive long enough to get back to the Tardis and let history ignore them as much as possible. Annnnnd then there’s Dennis Spooner and Donald Cotton, who treated history as an enormous gag-reel, albeit one with plenty of realistic peril along the way. From The Myth Makers, where the Doctor gives the Greeks the idea for the Trojan Horse, to The Romans, which is basically one long Benny Hill runaround with a slavering Nero, and the Doctor (yes, the same Doctor who said in the more po-faced Aztecs that time travellers couldn’t re-write a single line of history) gives the demented mother-murderer the idea to burn Rome to the ground, to The Gunfighters, in which the Tardis team go in search of a dentist, get mixed up in the gunfight at the OK Corral, and yet no one thinks to shoot whoever wrote the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon stone dead, Spooner and Cotton gave the show a different way to do the pure historical.
That’s a name.
It’s a twinkling, quick-eyed, computer-brained by-word for convoluted, spiral-spined plotting and chicanery. The man gave his name to a particular brand of two, three and four-faced deception in the pursuit of a given goal.
In a way, that’s justifiable – his most famous book, The Prince, is actually nothing but a set of political logic-gates, imagining various scenarios one after the other and explaining how, if you are Prince A, with Objective B in any of those situations, you can reach it. What it absolutely doesn’t do is scruple about the niceties of what might be considered good behaviour. If Objective B is most easily achieved by slaughtering Persons C, D, E and F, that’s what The Prince advises you to do. Seriously, it could have been written by a computer (note to self for future fan audio story).
Clearly then, Niccolo Machiavelli is a character reaching out from history and simply begging to be at the centre of a Doctor Who story. He could work in either of the two purely historical ways – you could make him big and dark and deeply dangerous…or you could stick rather more closely to historical fact and make him a pretty tangential figure, infuriated at his house arrest and scheming to find a way back into favour with the big cheeses of Italian politics. That leads you down the Spooner-Cotton pathway of history as fun.
All of which is a suitably convoluted and Machiavellian way of saying that Ravelli Conspiracy writers Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky have done a Spooner-Cotton – and it works faaaaaabulously.
Renaissance Italian politics has found a new fan-base recently thanks to series like The Borgias. This is very much Big Finish Does The Medicis (a rival family of big cheeses), giving us lots of rich atmosphere, stinky peasants, revolutionary kitchen maids, and a simmering quarrel between two of the Medici Boys – Guillamo (Jamie Ballard), the bloodthirsty, carnage-hungry, paranoid ruler of Florence, and his brother Giovanni, better known to history as Pope Leo X (Robert Hands), (incredibly vain, incredibly rich man buys his way to most powerful position in the world…ha. Who’d have thought it…?), who finds his brother’s warlike attitude an awful distraction from the cartloads of peacock breasts he could be chomping through and the fine fabrics he could be wearing, and – ahem – the altar boys he could be ravishing.
In the middle of these two bickering rich boys, you have Machiavelli, played by the claret-and-shot-silk-voiced Mark Frost, under house arrest for his sympathies to the previous regime, striving assiduously to get out from under and win the favour of one or both of the Medicis.
And then, just for added fun, you bring in the First Doctor, Steven Taylor and Vicki, to spin the action of plots, counter-plots, counter-counter-plots, sub-plots and counter-sub-plots. To cut a long but fast moving story short, what you have is somewhere between English drawing-room farce and genuine Italian renaissance comedy (you may not have a vicar in his vestments, but you do have a Pope in his pomposities). There’s perhaps not quite enough cross dressing or blatant vulgarity for either form of theatrical entertainment, though there is plenty of nudge nudge wink wink humour wrung out of Vicki catching the Pope’s eye as a companion, if not so much a consort. There are mass poisonings – or are there? – a bit of dress-up for the Doctor, dungeons, dungeons and…erm…more dungeons for Steven, and in her trademark way, there’s poncing about the place as the special friend of the person in charge for Vicki. There’s a scheming scullery maid in the person of Carla (Olivia Poulet giving a performance positively brimming with brio – add a bit of thigh-slapping and she could be Principal Boy in a pantomime). And, borrowing more from Spooner and Cotton’s inheritor, Douglas Adams, and particularly from City of Death, there’s a Guard Captain of positively glorious, almost fourth wall-breaking boredom and cheesed-offness, played by Joe Bor. Honestly, he’s almost Red Dwarfian – when commanded to make sure the prisoners are kept under lock and key, he raises the not-inconsiderable point that they’re having quite a bad time recently in the ‘prisoners not escaping’ department. If nothing else were perfect in this audio story, it’d be worth listening to for Bor’s Guard Captain alone.
Plenty else about this story’s perfect though – the brotherly one-upmanship between the Medici Boys is delicately played and distinctively voiced by Hands and Ballard. Maureen O’Brien too pitches her performance finely, to tease out the comedy in the script. Frost, in the pivotal role of Machiavelli, is exactly what you hope Machiavelli would be – slick, smooth, calculating, and ever-revolving, trying to keep his favour constant, or advance it, depending on the prevailing political wind, till in the end, neither we, nor anyone else, nor even, it’s suggested, Machiavelli himself really knows quite whose side he’s on, which is a fitting tribute to the man who wrote The Prince – the point being of course, he’s on his own side, and only his own side, always. Lisa Bowerman, directing, moves the whole thing along with a pace that serves both the comedy and the drama, so you spin your way through the maze of Italian politics and find yourself at the end of the story in what seems like barely a handful of heartbeats. And pity poor Peter Purves, playing the First Doctor, Steven, and doing half of the narration too. One can only assume the recording of this story must have been a fairly schizophrenic business for him, but he delivers every beat you need, every tone that’s there for the taking.
The pure historical in the first series of Early Adventures, The Doctor’s Tale, was very much one of the po-faced school of educational adventures, in the grand tradition of The Aztecs, The Crusades and Marco Polo – and it did everything you’d expect of such a story. By going the Spooner-Cotton route though, Khan and Salinsky have delivered above and beyond, by painting Renaissance Italian politics as exactly slippery, as exactly comical, as exactly treacherous and loose-footed as they actually were, nailing the character of Machiavelli into Doctor Who legend, and having tremendous fun into the bargain. The result is a story that feels fast and funny, but that uses its complications and machinations and laughs to give a solidly historical glimpse into a dark but glittering period of European history. Top marks for this one, Big Finish. More from this duo would be warmly welcomed.