Roman Week: Big Finish - Doctor Who THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA Review

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Andrew East holds council.

Another visit to the Roman Empire sees the 5th Doctor, Peri and Erimem arrive in Nicaea at the time of a council meeting to thrash out two opposing views of Jesus’ divinity. Erimem meets Arius, a presbyter whose views on Christ are being called heretical and are the main reason the council has been called by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Erimem feels that Arius is not being given a fair chance to have his views heard, and, despite the Doctor’s protestations, plans to aid Arius’ cause and give him a voice at the council. This threatens to derail the course of history and the Doctor and Peri do their best to convince Erimem she is wrong to interfere. With much coming and going and falling in and out of favour with the Emperor, Erimem is at last able to see she may have misjudged the situation, but her actions allow Arius some exposure. Ultimately, though, history returns to it’s normal course which will see Arius exiled when his views are decreed as heretical.

This is an interesting story and one which seems both typical and atypical of the series at the same time. A story involving characters wishing to change the course of history is nothing new. Nor, for that matter is a period of history which, despite its far reaching consequences, is little known. Doctor Who had already visited a similarly obscure period in The Massacre. But the subject matter of this story feels atypical as it explores a very definite history of Christianity. Religion – at least real life religion – has been, understandably shied away from in the main series. To have the Doctor so obviously knowledgeable in the Bible and of Christianity’s torturous history seems slightly out of place for an alien Time Lord – although if any Doctor was going to be chosen for this story, the 5th definitely fits.

Conversely, I also found it odd that Erimem was described as ‘not religious’ by Peri coming from a world where religion would have been a cornerstone of the culture. Interesting, though, are Peri’s reminisces of being ‘dragged’ to church by her mum. All of this adds up to an examination of a subject which Doctor Who is rarely brave enough to explore. It’s something I welcome, as a Christian myself, and I am aware that Caroline Symcox, the writer, is a student of theology and, I believe, an ordained minister. With the overt Buddhism of Barry Lett’s penned stories, it is a welcome balance of the religious playing field.

However, the debate about Christ’s divinity is played out quite matter-of-factly and the real core of this adventure is the dissent amongst the TARDIS crew and Erimem’s determination to do what she feels is right. This is a real character piece for Erimem and Caroline Morris is excellent in the role.

The Council of Nicaea is another strong audio for this TARDIS team and they are supported by a very good guest cast, particularly David Bamber as Constantine. Neither a hero or a villain, he behaves as a reasonable, yet ruthless, Emperor should. It is stated that he has killed in the past (or at least had killings ordered) and that he is not afraid to do away with people who betray his trust or threaten his position. But equally, as the climax shows, he is a brilliant orator who is able to command attention with his words alone and, ultimately, just wants a peaceful resolution to the argument that is dividing the church.

All told, however, this is a well paced if simple tale which makes a pivotal historical event the backdrop to a involving exploration of Erimem’s character.

In terms of history we have the usual centurions and swords present and correct in all Roman Empire stories, we have the Emperor and a variety of other real historical figures, including Constantine’s wife, Fausta (including mention of her eventual murder at the hands of Constantine when he steams her to death in her bath!), the aforementioned Arius and his main opponent (and ultimate victor) Athanasius. There are references to Christianity’s position in the world at this time and Erimem makes the observation that this is the closest they’ve ever been to her time (although they are still nearly 2000 years out!). That said, though, her Egyptian heritage is perfectly common in the cosmopolitan society hinted at here – at least with the variety of countries and cities represented at the council. There is good sound design depicting wooden doors with latches and the sounds of mobs tearing through the streets of Nicaea but, aside from this, there is little other detail of Roman times with the story far more focussed on the religious argument and Erimem’s ‘crusade’.

What makes a refreshing change, though, is that the hoary old chestnut of ‘slavery is bad’ doesn’t even sniff around the heels of this story.

Looking back at what I’ve written here, I realise I’ve rambled slightly more than usual! I think it’s because The Council of Nicaea is both simple and unusual, complex and straightforward; depending from what angle you look at it. Without doubt though it is one of Big Finish’s best scripts, contains some of Big Finish’s best performances and is easily one of this TARDIS team’s best adventures – which is a closely fought contest.

A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.

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