Yesterday Big Finish released the news that actress Maggie Stables had died. Stables had been a regular on their Doctor Who range as Sixth Doctor companion Dr. Evelyn Smythe from 2000 to 2011 as well as various parts elsewhere, including playing a minor villain in their first Doctor Who release The Sirens Of Time. Now, I never met the woman and had very little exposure to her work outside of Big Finish so all I can really say in tribute to her is this:
She can never be given enough credit for how her work changed the role of the companion.
Evelyn was the first of Big Finish's original companions and what was striking about her was how different she was: a middle-aged history lecturer who took no nonsense whatever, especially from the Doctor. And not just any Doctor, either, but the most notoriously acerbic and obnoxious of all Doctors: Colin Baker. She was a mature, intelligent, professional woman who the Doctor had to take seriously as an equal. Yes, Evelyn was very much in the tradition of the novel companions like Bernice and Roz but, crucially, she came with an actress attached.
Stables' fantastic and seemingly effortless chemistry with Colin Baker in those early audios not only transformed the Sixth Doctor into a fan favourite but showed that the series format could support the kind of companions the novels had introduced. Evelyn could stand up to the Doctor, tell him when he was wrong and sweet talk him when she needed to, usually using her famous chocolate cakes to do so. As a consequence the ascerbic and much-loathed Sixth Doctor became a much more likeable character because he was no longer just bullying his way across the universe but sharing his travels with a real friend.
In fact, probably Baker's most touching scene in the audios is in The Wrong Doctors as he comfort eats the last chocolate cake Evelyn made before leaving the TARDIS. Its a moment that would have been completely unbelievable from the Sixth Doctor as seen on television but summed up the relationship he had with Evelyn perfectly.
My point is that the mature, professional, no-nonsense Evelyn is as much a template for companions like Donna Noble and River Song as Bernice Summerfield ever was. Sadly, playing the role in a niche corner of the series as she did, Maggie Stables will never get the credit she deserved. In my view she's up there with the other great actresses who transformed what the companion role was during their tenures, right there with the likes of Maureen O'Brien, Katy Manning, Lis Sladen, Sophie Aldred and Billie Piper.