A Whology: Maggie Stables
Gustaff Behr pays tribute to the late Maggie Stables who played 6th Doctor companion Evelyn Smythe in the Big Finish audios.
Most Doctor Who fans would probably not have heard of Maggie Stables. You might not have known that Maggie died peacefully in her sleep on the night of Friday the 26th of September after a long illness. You will not have seen her with that same dumbfounded look that every companion has on their face when they enter the TARDIS for the first time. You will not have seen the influence she has had on the Sixth Doctor. You will not have seen all the character development she has brought to one of the most underrated Doctors out there. You will not have seen any of this – but you might have heard it though.
Maggie Stables is more commonly known as Evelyn Smythe in the Expanded Universe, more specifically companion to the Sixth Doctor in the Big Finish audio dramas and she is the person who saved the Sixth Doctor for a new generation of fans, as well as an old one.
A silly old history professor who met the Sixth Doctor by chance while he tracking a nexus point distortion Sheffield Hallam University, the Doctor saw something remarkable in Evelyn and took her back in time to stabilize the nexus point, saving her life. That is how the journey began for Evelyn, but not for Maggie. Stables portrayed the character Ruthley in Big Finish’s first Doctor Who production The Sirens of Time in 1999 some years prior. Like others involved in Who, Stables is one of those rare examples of an actor/actress being promoted to companion after proving themselves in another role on the show. This alone should speak volumes about the late actress.
Before the Doctor met Evelyn, he was either travelling with Peri or alone. It’s common knowledge in today’s world that the Sixth Doctor is sometimes branded as the ‘unlikable Doctor’. This has been going on ever since Colin portrayed him onscreen in 1985. Six’s persona – his attitude towards Peri and most within earshot alienated fans at the time. Even though today there exists a debate on whether Colin Baker simply sucked at the role or whether he was perfect for it and his scripts simply led him down. Regardless of your stance on the matter, Big Finish stepped in to set things straight when they started doing Sixth Doctor audio dramas by introducing a companion who would do exactly what Colin Baker wanted to do to his character all those years ago. Maggie Stables was given the job of ‘taming’ the Sixth Doctor, a feat not easily accomplished given the character in question. Nevertheless, partnering Six with Evelyn, Colin with Maggie ended up creating one of the best Doctor/Companion dynamics out there.
Considered the first ‘elderly’ companion of the Doctor (sorry Wilf), Evelyn’s persona was that of a silly old granny who often treated the Doctor like her own grandchild, telling him off and calling him out in ways Peri never dared to. She brought him back down to earth whenever his ego was just about to break through the atmosphere. And at the same time, it felt like you were listening to an old elderly couple who genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and who’d been married fifty odd years. With an assembly of stories together, there was plenty of time to slowly peel away the layers of the Sixth Doctor. Maggie’s effect on the Sixth Doctor even has a term in fandom now. Any Colin Baker story prior to meeting Smythe involves Six, but every post-meeting story involves the ‘Softer Six’.
In fact, Maggie’s work as Evelyn is even given a stealthy reference in one of my all-time favorite stories: The Wrong Doctors. The Doctor, left alone after travelling with Evelyn and deciding to ‘officially’ meet Mel, goes to Peas Pottage and meets another Doctor – a younger Sixth Doctor dropping off Mel after his trial – and comments on how annoying he finds his earlier self. Doctors not liking each other isn’t exactly a new notion in Doctor Who, but very infrequently – almost never actually – will you see a Doctor show exasperation or frustration by the outlook/antics of the same incarnation. It’s almost as if the Doctor is saying: “I can’t wait until I meet Evelyn Smythe”. He recognizes her guidance in his life and approves that meeting her was the best thing that could’ve happened to him. In fact, it is so easy to distinguish which version of the Sixth Doctor Colin Baker is voicing in scenes. He may as well be playing two different Doctors. You could say that he is doing just that.
I would’ve included a top five Evelyn stories to entice fans, but I couldn’t choose any favorites. Every Six/Evelyn, even Seven/Evelyn story is cut from the same cloth and features the same consistent significance of dialogue and storytelling that such a list would have to stretch from The Marian Conspiracy all the way to Thicker Than Water. When Colin Baker was partnered with Maggie Stables, the Sixth Doctor enjoyed an era that – had it been shown on television back in the day – would have blown Tom Baker’s right out of the water. Capaldi wouldn’t be the Twelfth Doctor, he’d be somewhere near the Sixteenth or Seventeenth.
She may not have had any ‘screen time’, but Maggie Stables should be considered a hero in Doctor Who. She helped turn the Sixth Doctor into a character people – who didn’t before – could enjoy again. In my view, regaining the public’s trust in the sixth incarnation of the Doctor was 30% on Colin Baker and 30% on Big Finish, but the last 40% is on Maggie Stables bringing to life a character that will be remembered as one of the very best in a long list of individuals that is ever expanding.
Maggie Stables, you will be missed…