With the February 2019 Doctor Who Short Trips: The Astrea Conspiracy, Big Finish takes its licence into the Peter Capaldi twelfth Doctor era for the first time. There’s no Peter Capaldi, but we do have Neve McIntosh (known for playing Madame Vastra on-screen). Unusually for the Short Trips range, Neve McIntosh isn’t performing as an established character but as the historical figure Aphra Benn, a seventeenth century playwright and one of the first women to earn her living from her trade, writing under the pseudonym Astrea (hence the title).
Writer Lizbeth Myles gives a pure historical (from Aphra’s perspective) story in which the annoying Doctor interferes with her life before she becomes famous. It’s a clever tale, with the Doctor focused on Aphra becoming a playwright but at the time he meets her, she is working as a spy in Holland, deeply embroiled in machinations surrounding the English throne. It’s a cunning approach and puts Aphra firmly (almost) out of line with the Doctor and a great example of non-aligned agendas. As a part of history people may be less familiar with than others, it intrigues and informs without forgetting to entertain. There’s the usual number of prison breaks, deceptions, betrayals and annoying Time Lord behaviour and a direct, non-patronising glimpse of the life of a female spy in 1660s Antwerp.
What’s refreshing is a chance to see the twelfth Doctor without a companion, and in some ways his more scheming side gets to dominate, without any loss of a certain charm. While the narrative is Aphra’s (and her friend Nell Gwynn gets to play a part near the end), there’s enough of the Doctor putting history on the correct track for small reasons, not involving invasions or the fate of the universe.
Neve McIntosh is a good performer of a strong story and many fans will come away wishing the know more of Aphra Benn and wishing she could spend time in the TARDIS. This is the mark of a good story – leave the audience wanting more. Running at just over 36 minutes, for not much more than the price of a cup of coffee it’s highly recommended, and even better value if you subscribe to the 2019 season.