Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Main Range 071. The Council of Nicaea by Caroline Symcox (July 2005)

I’d bet that practically zero Doctor Who fans have an inside-out knowledge of the First Council of Nicaea, or at least not one as thorough as Caroline Symcox’s, given she was completing a doctorate on the subject at Keble College, Oxford, whilst she was writing this audio. Unsurprisingly, then, Symcox does a very thorough job of bringing 4th-century Nicaea (in modern-day Anatolia/Turkey) to life, ensuring that an audience unfamiliar with the political tensions of the day understand the principal arguments of the opposing factions. It’s rather fascinating that a familiar Who trope – two ‘warring’ sides, with the Doctor and his friends in the middle of it – is removed from the more standard arena of intergalactic war and re-formatted as a debate over theological semantics. It is to Symcox’s credit, then, that The Council of Nicaea is one of the more interesting audios in some time – in part, perhaps, due to the relatively underexplored nature of the setting and the historical personages, but also the means by which they are presented; the case that the Council of Nicaea was so utterly significant in world history is convincingly done, and the complexity of the situation (about which I knew precious little, but am now better informed) well-drawn.

David Bamber is this audio’s big-name guest star, playing Emperor Constantine I (the Great), the man who, so the history books tell us, officially brought Christianity to the Roman Empire. I have always understood Constantine as a very sympathetic figure, a reformer and a devout man (which is certainly what the medieval church would have us believe); but this audio isn’t afraid to display some of his more tyrannical, power-hungry qualities, those of a man obsessed with holding the Roman Empire together, alongside depicting the quandary in which he finds himself. He’s a man who sees the potential for this new religion to satisfy his people, but is not a passionate martyr for the cause himself. Bamber is more than up to the job – his vocal work flipping between the measured tones of the council address and his sudden outbursts of rage or instances where he threatens his wife – and the end result is a reasonably nuanced and complex version of Constantine. Claire Carroll is similarly great as the cunning Fausta; I was very glad of her inclusion, as part of Symcox’s mission statement in this audio seems to be challenging preconceived notions about history, and so it is only natural to undo the ‘Great Man’ narrative of history’s arc and give voice to the voiceless, the women of the day (cf. “Constantine tells me so little”, and her off-stage fate). For his part, Steve Kynman makes a sage, compassionate and sympathetic Arius (and rather neat that Erimem should align with him against Constantine, given where Arius hails from).

Much like Mel in The Fires of Vulcan, Peri represents our modern Western sensibilities, although in this instance that takes the form much less of a crusade for fairness, but rather of finding a debate about whether or not Christ was technically divine rather petty and certainly not earth-shattering. Erimem, of course, denizen of the ancient world, makes a very effective contrast, and is in one sense vital to this story’s drive, having an emotional investment in the goings-on that is stronger even than the Doctor’s (his being more of an intellectual awareness of the events and outcome of history): these events, so far in the murky past for us, are of course a distant future for her. In his turn, Davison seems genuinely enthused by his material, and consequently gives a great performance (particularly when he’s angry! He’s always good at angry). One particular highlight is the scene between the Doctor and Erimem towards the end of Part One, in which the Doctor feebly brings up the historical, academic accounts of what happened at the Council of Nicaea, and Erimem challenges the written version of history (“you haven’t actually been here! You have told me before that history is written by the victors. Those documents you studied do not contain the truth!”). Their quarrel at the end of Part Two is great too. As has become the norm over the last few releases, Erimem is something of the outsider of the trio; the schism between the three of them unfolds organically and effectively, as Peri ends up in something of a desperate middle but gets accusations of being a mere puppet of the Doctor’s thrown at her by the ex-pharaoh. And Erimem’s head-strong, impetuous belief in her own significance and abilities, coupled with her lashing out when others dispute her views, strike me as highly believable coming from someone who was once heir to the throne of Egypt.

Erimem has varied in quite a lot of her other stories, but one area is now starting to leap out at me as well-developed. Her angst and difficulty with TARDIS life in The Roof of the World spilled over into Three’s a Crowd, and that rather nicely spills over into this. Some might find it clunky that she threatens to leave twice in the space of two audios, but it’s actually rather realistic; the internal dynamics of the TARDIS trio were only shallowly patched-up at the end of Brake’s audio (something I felt was rather twee back then), as though the tension would threaten to rear its ugly head again before too long, and that really bubbles to the surface here, as Erimem goes hammer-and-tongs against the party line of non-interference. But it’s still not perfect – while she takes on the mantle of a regal leader figure (just as she did in Scott and Wright’s capable hands), attempting to alter the course of civilisation in the name of justice, she comes across as both a little too naïve (trying to alter the entire arc of history?) and yet a little too enlightened (I know her mind has been broadened by her travels, but even so). Caroline Morris isn’t a bad performer, if a tad simplistic in her line readings at times – but she has a tough character to work with, and she doesn’t quite make it all succeed. The bleeding heart idealism of the young is one key ‘hook’ for a character, but the bleeding heart idealism of a young Egyptian royal from thousands of years ago who shouldn’t really be this liberal yet is a bit too knotty a character formation. That said, I did like the acknowledgement that her familiarity with Christianity’s 17th-century abuses (Cardinal Richelieu in The Church and the Crown) informs her judgment here. Perhaps it is my mind that is closed, and time travel simply leads to characters with slightly frayed, confused beliefs and traits; I might have to ponder a bit more on her arc to decide if I think it all completely works or not.

Very few Doctor Who stories explore early Christianity (the last story even partially set during this era was probably, ooh, Seasons of Fear), or indeed any rather neglected period of history, and so it’s refreshing to see one that does. Caroline Symcox pens a well-researched (well, you’d hope so) and detailed evocation of 325 A.D., and dramatizes the central debates of the day without tedium. This is firmly in The Aztecs’ school of historical – where the status quo must be restored and history must carry on as it always has. It’s a grounded, gritty story, devoid of supernatural and indeed overly mythological undertones. In many respects, I think The Council of Nicaea is rather more impressive than her co-authored credit with her husband; that was full of jaunty changes of tone as we leapt from one setting to another in a sugar-rush romp, but this is a more sweepingly mature exploration of notions about the arc of history and whether things are predestined; about how, where and why one should intervene; and about religion’s status in people’s lives, as a force so powerful that it can move many types of people, from the meanest beggar to the wealthiest emperor, to act, sometimes at the expense of others' lives, but even at the expense of their own.

Other things:                                                                                              
“Are you telling me we’ve come all this way and you don’t even have an invitation?”/“It’s never caused problems before…”
“In this time, theology is something of a spectator sport.” (A line that’s embodied by Clement’s role in proceedings – right down to the local shopkeepers, everyone has a voice).
“You’ll just have to have faith,” says Arius to Peri, and suddenly those words have a touch more weight.
“What argument could be so serious that it would cause so much harm?” Indeed.
ERS do a marvellous job on sound design; the faint, ubiquitous buzz of chirping cicadas stands out. Stone’s score is exciting and dramatic.
“It is a rare thing in the Empire: a man who wants to stop violence, not add to it.”
The Doctor, having been taken from a cell to Constantine’s throne room: “I must say, much as I admired your previous hospitality, I do like the upgrade.”
“There are worse things than bishops.”
“What is history? This is my future, Doctor! We change things everywhere we go, why not here?”
“We’ve changed some huge things before – things that must have changed the future for someone, somewhere!”
“Is it a good thing: the power of the church? That it is a religion does not keep it from being a tyranny!”/“It’s human, Erimem. The church was never going to be perfect. Good or bad, though, it’s part of history.”
In the more sci-fi version of this story, the Alexandrian clerk Athanasius would quite likely be a moustache-twirling villain aligned with some villainous species or other; it’s much more effective that he isn’t, although both he and Julius are hardly this story’s more subtle characters.
I love the Doctor quoting Paul’s Letter to the Romans at the centurion. A very helpful talent, as he points out.
Constantine’s opening speech at the council is pretty much word-for-word how it is reported in the history books.
“Companion? You mean…”/“He means assistant.”
“Are you one of those people who thinks everything that happens is because of the will of the gods?”/“Gods?”/“Of the will of God, then. Old phrases die hard.”
Fausta: “My husband is a wise man and a strong leader. But he has this tendency to go a little too far. He would use a hammer to crack a nut.”
The shopkeeper the Doctor bribes for information: “Hey, I can’t use this! What the blazes is a “euro” anyway?! Charlatan…”
Tipsy Peri is hilarious.
The climax outside the Emperor’s balcony is a triumph.
“After all that, Erimem, are you satisfied?”/“Honestly? No.” (Love her sincerity here.)
“Nothing was even changed? I was a fool to try.”
“Constantine does a U-turn? Is he allowed to do that?”
I’m not a Christian, but I’m pleased the Doctor has an open mind about Christianity. It’s the way I prefer him.
Thank whatever gods may be they didn’t use Scaroth as was planned, as that would have been far too crowd-pleasing and would have distracted from the story’s meat.

2 comments:

  1. Many thanks for your review. I think this is a pretty good Big Finish story, and impressive in its ambition in tackling something rather complex. I must admit that I struggle a bit with Davison's audios because his voice is so clearly different from his 80s voice, unlike Colin Baker's, say. I was also annoyed by the American pronunciation, ConstantEEn throughout when it's a British production.

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  2. Thanks for commenting! I agree Davison's voice has probably changed the most, although in a weird way it also benefits him in certain areas - it's fuller, richer, rounder, as though he's grown into his own voice a bit more. This gives him a certain wiser and more authoritative edge, but yeah it does come at the expense of that 80s authenticity.

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