Big Finish‘s 200th main range adventure sees the merging of two eras of Doctor Who. The Secret History sees Steven (Peter Purves) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) team up with the fith incarnation of the Doctor (Peter Davison).
The first episode opens with a magical scene, the type that we watch these “anniversary” stories for. Steven and Vicki are being chased by some alien creatures intent on enacting their vengeance on the Doctor (for reasons unknown). They take flight towards the TARDIS, knowing that the Doctor will be ready to dematerialise and, indeed, he is. Except, that some blond hair young man is now claiming to be the Doctor. Surely that can’t be right?
Following the opening credits, the 5th Doctor tries to work out why he’s in the TARDIS of his first incarnation. They have apparently swapped bodies, for reasons unclear but, first things first, they must take off and escape their pursuers.
They land on Earth in 540, in the Italian city of Ravenna which is about to be laid siege to by Byzantine General Belisarius, who has a unique way of ensuring victory without bloodshed.
It isn’t long before Steven is lost, on a boat bound for Constantinople. The Doctor and Vicki follow him to the heart of the Roman Empire, having to leave the TARDIS behind when there’s no space on the troop boat they hitch a lift on.
In Constantinople, Steven gets caught up in a deadly chariot game whilst the Doctor and Vicki discover a rampant plague that’s begun a year earlier than history states. It isn’t long before they uncover the plot of a meddling rogue Time Lord. The Doctor has his chance at curing the plague using future technology but knows that, in so doing, he’ll affect the future and everything will change.
Vicki is beset upon by strange medusa-like creatures, intent on taking over the Emperor and Empress. The Doctor tries to stop them, until he learns that they’re actually healers who want to cure humanity of the plague. The Doctor hesitates again. If he stops them, thousands of people will die from the plague. If he doesn’t stop them, the plague will end and the Roman Empire may last for thousands of more years – changing history.
In that brief moment of hesitation, the healers escape and cure the plague. The massive change to the timelines alerts the Time Lords, who extract the Doctor from his time stream. Due to the machinations of the meddlesome rogue Time Lord, the Doctor is replaced in history by — the Meddling Monk!
In the final episode, Steven and Vicki are travelling with the Doctor, not knowing that he’s really the Meddling Monk (Graeme Garden). The Monk intends to use his “being the Doctor” to right many of the wrongs in time and space, changing things to suit his own intentions. And, if he makes a mistake, why he’ll just go back and change it again.
Without the real Doctor to stop him, the Monk-Doctor is free to cause havoc without obstruction.
The Secret History is an intriguing adventure. It begins in “anniversary” mode, with past companions meeting a different Doctor, complete with all the usual “you’re not my Doctor” arguments.
Within a short time, we have a typically historical “Roman” adventure playing out like a slightly more serious version of the TV story The Romans. The usual staples are here, of the Doctor being separated from his companions, and the three regulars feeding the story threads in their own ways.
At this point, you could be forgiven for wondering why the 5th Doctor is in this story at all. He plays the part much like a surrogate for the absent William Hartnell. To all intents, it’s a first Doctor story except for Peter Davison’s voice.
However, as soon as the Meddling Monk is revealed, the adventure immediately ties into the First Doctor’s era. It’s not like the Monk meeting the 5th Doctor in a 5th Doctor adventure, because he’s arranged the whole thing for his purpose of taking the Doctor’s place and he knows that, in his first incarnation, the Doctor would not have been so easy to manipulate. Only in his more amenable fifth incarnation would the Doctor have been predictable enough to trick in this way.
The final episode, particularly in the first half when the story effectively begins again except with the Monk as the Doctor, feels a little bit like one of Big Finish‘s “Unbound” stories. The “different” Doctor leading the adventure, in a way that could be considered Doctor-ish except for his ultimate motives. Steven and Vicki believe that he’s the Doctor due to the way history has been changed (there was no Hartnell-Doctor for them to meet at this point).
Listen out for sparkling little cameos from the 6th & 7th Doctors, too.
It’s only in the relatively rapid way the adventure is cleared up, and how Vicki and Steven so quickly forget everything (including meeting the 5th Doctor) that disappoints, but this is probably a necessity for this type of story. It would have been nice, though, for the Monk to have enacted his plan in episode 2 so that we could experience him changing other adventures, with the real Doctor trying to sort things out. The relative ease at which the Monk is thwarted is a little unfulfilling.
That said, for the majority of the adventure, The Secret History is an excellent two-hour story. It has everything from anniversary crossovers, to returning villain, to alien creatures, to Time Lords. You couldn’t get more in the pot.