You know it’s going to be at least a little emotionally tough when you come a story that takes place on the days leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. You know it’s going to be even tougher (on us and on the Doctor and his companion) when John Wilkes Booth apparently dies, and our protagonists have to figure out how to get history back on track… and make sure the President is going to die. And Assassin in the Limelight really delivers, on that front.
What’s interesting is that this sort of situation has come up before quite recently for this pair. In the four-single-stories release, 100, the Doctor and Evelyn met the parents of Julius Caesar, and had a tussle over whether they should allow Julia Caesar survive to become the Empress of Rome and revolutionize gender politics in the 1st century BC or correct history to make sure Julius is born instead. This time, Evelyn understands that editing history to make a better outcome is neither so simple nor so wise an idea.
“Well, you’re the Time Lord.” – Dr. Evelyn Smythe
“Yes. And you know, sometimes I wish I wasn’t.” – The 6th Doctor
They come across a time-traveling meddler masquerading as Oscar Wilde (some thirty years before that writer’s time), known previously to them as John Knox. It has been some time since I listened to Medicinal Purposes, his previous appearance. It has also been some time since I listened to Pier Pressure, in which another creature in this story (an Indo) was introduced; so that made it a little tricky for me to appreciate this story to the full. But you don’t really have to have heard those stories to understand this one; Assassin in the Limelight is a self-contained story which introduces its ideas and characters on its own.
Meeting “Oscar Wilde” is the first clue that something is amiss at the Ford Theatre in Washington DC, 1865. The stakes are raised when John Wilkes Booth is poisoned and his body hidden under the stage. The stakes are raised yet again when a further alien presence is discovered to be at work, possessing people and feeding on their negative feelings and suffering, and scheming to propagate its kind on Earth. Even into the third episode more revelations of plots behind plots are discovered as Oscar Wilde (or John Knox, or whatever his real name is) seems to die, and the Doctor has to deal with the Indo on his own in Knox’s TARDIS.
Of course, history is restored at the end: Booth is discovered to have survived the poisoning attempt, and the other complications that come up along the way are sidelined as Knox, the Doctor, and Evelyn get out of the way. But a lot of painful twists and turns leave one rather ragged by the end: an innocent woman’s fate is sealed that night, a corrupt policeman goes unchecked, a stage hand is killed and possessed by the consciousness of Dr. Knox.
“Don’t worry Mr. Ford; tonight will go like a bang.” – The Doctor
I felt like Evelyn ultimately didn’t have much to do in this story. She contributed a lot to the goings-on, her sense of humor (which I’ve commented on before) shows up again, but her impact didn’t strike me as particularly consequential. I guess, every now and then, the Doctor is right and the companion is wrong, and it’s inordinately on him to save the day. In the final act of this story, the Doctor spends an indefinite amount of time trapped in Knox’s TARDIS (it could have been years for him, judging by Evelyn’s grey hairs comment), ensuring that the Indo remain trapped while he figured out a way for himself to escape. All Evelyn had to do was wait for him, at that point.
At this point in the Big Finish franchise, though, Evelyn’s storyline with the 6th Doctor has apparently been finished. We know she eventually leaves the Doctor and marries Rossiter. So stories like this one are kind of like bonus material. From what I’ve seen online, she has four more appearances in the Big Finish monthly stories after this story, and I know that at least one of them is a major plot arc resolution story that ties together several threads that had been woven over the past few years.
Anyway, the relationship between Evelyn and the Doctor is definitely mature in this late stage. They don’t squabble over what to do or not do with the timeline, they’re generally on the same moral page, and although they do have one argument fairly early in the story, it gets resolved pretty quickly, rather than getting drawn out across the whole story as an ongoing point of conflict. Assassin in the Limelight fits right in with what one could call the classic era of this Doctor-companion combination.
Overall, there’s a lot going on in this story, and you kind of need to pay attention to make sure you keep up with it all. The characters aren’t complicated, but they are believable. As long as you can keep track of the several incidental characters along the way, you’re in good shape to enjoy this story. Due to all this, I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point for anyone. But if you’re invested in the Doctor & Evelyn stories, this is certainly one to enjoy.