I know I must sound like a bit of a broken record, but when I’m impressed by something, I’m often quite vocal about it. Actually that happens when I’m annoyed too… I guess I’m just someone who talks a lot! But I think that’s ok, because when I’m complaining, I’m trying to come up with ways to improve the thing I’m complaining about. When I’m praising, it’s to talk about how good a given thing is. In this case, I have to again praise Big Finish. Typically it’s the creativity that wins me over but this time I’d say it’s the bravery that gets me. To take on a subject such as The Council of Nicaea, where it is said the Emperor Constantine voted on the divinity of Christ, takes some confidence, especially for a show like Doctor Who. Get it wrong and you could potentially alienate people by attacking their religion. Luckily, I think it’s safe to say that the writers at Big Finish pulled off a successful adventure without hurting anyone’s feelings. Whether that was skillful storytelling or forgetting to give us the whole story is open to debate. Perhaps we’ll form The Council for the Council of Nicaea! No?…
This story features the excellent team-up of the Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem; a trio I have come to truly admire. They arrive in 4th century Nicaea, though I can’t help but wonder what would possess the Doctor to take his companions there of all places. Be that as it may, it’s actually Peri who let me down a little bit at the start of this story. She’s a bit too whiney and her desire to sleep in the TARDIS rather than go out really felt forced to me. Since when was the local hotel so unappealing that she’d rather stay in? On top of that, she laughs at local custom, like some newbie traveler who doesn’t understand that other cultures have different customs. Come on, that’s not the Peri we’ve been given in the recent stories! By contrast, Erimem was a pharaoh when the Doctor met her and she acts every bit the ruler she is. She is far more on form in this story than Peri. Even though she doubts Peri and the Doctor at one point, she realizes the error of her ways on her own, again making me more impressed with her. (I mean, based on how Peri was acting, maybe I can cut her some slack!)
While I might have laughed at the Cockney Romans, I was impressed by the Doctor explaining what the rebooted series calls Fixed Points in history. Davison never uses that phrase, but the irony is that this CD was released in July of 2005, just a few months after Chris Eccleston took the world by storm bringing the Doctor back to our televisions. It was interesting hearing the Doctor explaining why some things can’t be changed. Of course, that means this story puts the Doctor firmly in observation-only mode. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means there’s only so much that can be done here and that ends up being the bane of the story. The episode is all about dialogue, trying to make peace between two warring factions: Emperor Constantine and his key rival, Arius. There’s debate on the whole “who’s right and who’s wrong” bit but there’s rarely a moment where we get into the actual debate. The idea is discussed early on: God is unique and therefore could not create a split off version of himself (Christ) so there is strong opposition to the idea that Jesus was really the Son of God. Ok, cool, but let’s debate that more, not just a debate about someone being allowed to debate! And that’s the problem: the story lingers on giving Arius a fair trial for being against Constantine. Well, great but we could have done that in any time and place without it having to be focused on this pivotal historical event. What’s the point digging into real history if we weren’t going to really think about it?
Then there’s the Doctor’s approach that bothered me when he’s trying to make a point to Erimem. Erimem does what she does as a leader and stands up for a man who is unable to defend himself but the Doctor wants her to stop yet he never really explains the real ramifications of what she’s doing and why she needs to stop. He never actually explains that the events they are experiencing in the 4th century will lead to a massive faith that will go on for hundreds and hundreds of years. He basically tells her to trust him which is short form for “do as I say” when what she really needed was context! She has proven to be a very intelligent companion and had the Doctor treated her as one, it would have improved the story for me. Sometimes these things could be so easily resolved with this little thing called “words”.
Despite those complaints, it was an entertaining and even exciting episode. A cliffhanger that would never fly for the main TV cast, actually works for Erimem who threatens to leave the Doctor if she doesn’t get to defend Arius. Actually, Erimem really is the star of this story when I think about it because she makes a comment that she doesn’t “know Nicaea well enough” to make a judgement on something. That small comment alone gives loads of value to her words; she recognizes her own limitations.
“It all comes down to faith,” should sum up the story in a nutshell. In the end, we shouldn’t be told what the “right answer” is. We should be given just enough of both sides to make a judgement and leave us wondering. This is hardly a Doctor Who story, in that there are no monsters, no evil entities, not even a villain; it’s a story that focuses on two sides of the faith coin without ever forcing those sides; it tells us there are sides and lets us debate about them. If we want to! Otherwise, we are left with a good adventure with some old friends. Certainly something I can live with. ML