Any Doctor Who story that begins with a bunch of students chanting the mantra ‘down, down, down, down, down with the laws of physics’ is going to be an interesting one and that’s exactly how Paul Magrs gets things going with The Lady of Mercia.
Arriving at the University of Frodsham in 1983, the Doctor, Tegan, Nyssa and Turlough are soon caught up in battles between student activists and a physics department that has secretly discovered the key to time travel. As you can imagine, all will not end well.
Doctor Philippa Stone and her husband Professor John Bleak (this story is all about powerful and headstrong women, Doctor Stone chose to keep her own name) long to find out more about the mysterious Queen Æthelfrid (pronounced Ethel-Fred) and her mighty past. Whilst holding a major conference on the Queen and her rich history, Professor Bleak and Tegan find themselves transported back to the past by mistake where they start to learn firsthand exactly what the Queen was like. Of course, things are not exactly smooth sailing for those left in 1983 as Queen Æthelfrid’s daughter, Princess Ælfwynn (pronounced Elf-Winn), is dragged into the future, much to her dismay and ultimately, anger.
The Lady of Mercia is a pseudo historical tale of sorts; this is an historical story with sci-fi elements but Magrs’ telling of the tale is very much split down the middle. There’s a story set in 1983 and another one being told in parallel set over 1000 years in the past. The two intertwine, of course they do, but this adventure feels like it’s written: both stories happening at exactly the same time but so far apart. To be more concise, you could easily unravel the two separate stories that are taking place and release those several months apart yet thanks to Magrs’s straightforward writing style for this story, you would still be able to make sense of events.
The story itself is a fun romp with plenty to do for Tegan, Ælfwynn, Æthelfrid, Doctor Stone and the Doctor but the rest of the cast gets sidelined somewhat, that’s alright however, as this is a story that’s about the strength of its supporting cast rather than the series regulars such as the Doctor. Queen Æthelfrid is dealing with ill health and constant battles, Princess Ælfwynn is not only fighting off the violent and romantic advances from an enemy and waiting to claim the throne from her mother but also finds herself in 1983 where she has to quickly adapt, Doctor Stone is fighting her own inner demons including an obsessed husband and an infidelity that she’s regretting more and more and the Doctor himself is trying to sort out Tegan’s disappearance as well as the arrival of the Princess.
Top marks this month go to Janet Fielding as Tegan; it’s about time that she was introduced to a strong historical, female figure and both fielding and Rachel Atkins as Æthelfrid do not disappoint. Their scenes together are the most powerful as well as the most engaging. Tegan’s strength of character as well as Fielding’s own natural ferocity work well alongside Æthelfrid’s demanding and determined nature. The two form a sort of bond along the story, more of a mutual respect that unfolds organically and doesn’t fell forced at all.
The Lady of Mercia is a strong story, one that doesn’t necessarily know if it wants to be a full on drama or a lighter piece of entertainment but is worth your time for Fielding’s performance as well as her attempt at a Northern accent.
The Lady of Mercia is available from www.bigfinish.com now.