Doctor Who – “The Council of Nicaea”

The year is 325AD. In the city of Nicaea, the first great Church council, called by the Roman Emperor Constantine, is due to begin. Here theology, philosophy and politics will be brought together for millennia to come.

The Doctor, Peri and Erimem are there simply to watch events unfold. Gaps remain in the history books, and the Doctor has come to satisfy his curiosity. But none of them are ready for what greets them in Nicaea. Intrigue within the Imperial Palace has become violence on the streets. Mobs roam the alleyways and blood is spilt in the name of faith. Even in the face of murder and injustice though, the time travellers must force themselves to stay aloof. This is history, after all.

Yet what is history to one person is the future to another. Is it possible for history to be rewritten? And if it can, can the Doctor afford to let it?

Peter Davison is the Doctor in The Council of Nicaea

X X X X X

Cast
Peter Davison (The Doctor )
Nicola Bryant (Peri)
Caroline Morris (Erimem)
David Bamber (Emperor Constantine)
Claire Carroll (Fausta)
Steve Kynman (Arius)
Martin Parsons (Athanasius)
Michael Garland (Clement)
Sean Carlsen (Centurion Gaius)
Stephan Bessant (Julius)
Jason Stevens (Clothing Stallholder)

Written By: Caroline Symcox
Directed By: Gary Russell

Trailer – http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/the-council-of-nicaea-237

X X X X X

And I really wanted to like this story too…

Well, that’s not quite fair. The Council of Nicaea is a perfectly passable serial, but it had the potential to be a great one. While technically sound and enjoyable, many concepts and ideas within the story come off as the opposite of what they should have been. A pivotal moment in Western history is barely utilized beyond its introduction. Story driving events aren’t so much plot points as they are convenient moments. Two opposing clerics with staunch viewpoints don’t get a chance to confront one another or get any real characterization. And while one companion is completely superfluous to the story, the other one considers standing up for the oppressed to mean a lot of shouting, pouting, and accusing her friends of trying to betray her. When bound together in a single gospel, The Council of Nicaea barely secures a passing motion.

Nicaea, Anatolia, the Roman Empire, 325 AD. As the young Christian church struggles to define its central doctrine, violent clashes have occurred between followers of differing theologies. In an attempt to end the bloodshed and bring peace to the Empire, the Roman Emperor Constantine convenes the Council of Nicaea. Here, the bishops of the church, under the eye of the Emperor and his legions, will settle questions of philosophy, theology, and politics once and for all. The Doctor, always keen to fill in the gaps in his historical knowledge, has brought Peri and Erimem to Nicaea to watch the Council debate and establish canonical law that will endure for centuries. Along the way, Erimem meets the cleric Arius, whose argument with fellow cleric Athanasius over the very nature of Jesus Christ is at the core of the debate rocking the church. When Erimem realizes that Arius will not be allowed to speak in his own defense and that the bishops will decide the fate of his creed, she decides to bring his case to bear in the council chambers herself. Her words set off conflict across Nicaea, not only between rival sects, but between herself and the Doctor…and all the while, Constantine himself wonders what he must do to silence this young woman and keep the peace…

For a canon that’s been everywhere and used every single setting and genre one could possibly think of, Doctor Who rarely touches upon religion. On television, the idea of the Devil was discussed in the serials The Daemons and The Beast Below/The Satan Pit. On the audio side, there have been Charles Darwin’s sudden disregard of the notion of God in Bloodtide and the pure-farce-turned-chilling-nightmare that was The Holy Terror, mixed in with Faith Stealer’s respectful look at extremism. The First Council of Nicaea attempted to establish a universal consensus across the fledgling Christian church, making it a major moment in Western history, both in a religious and a secular sense. Writing about religion in any sense runs the risk of being inflammatory or controversial, no matter how much care is taken by the author. For The Council of Nicaea, however, the writing appears to be in good hands. Caroline Symcox, wife of prolific Who writer Paul Cornell, is many things. She’s an Oxford graduate, a minister in the Church of England, and writer of one of the Eighth Doctor’s best stories, Seasons of Fear, where the Doctor chases a foe across three different historical eras. With both historical and theological knowledge on hand, Symcox’s script should be respectful and educational. Sadly, for a story set during the Council of Nicaea, Symcox barely mentions the synod outside of using it as an historical setting and giving Erimem a chance to shout about injustice. It’s easy to understand Symcox wanting to not make waves or stir up any sort of debate, but the actual meat of the Council and the controversy it was supposed to address (Athansius believed that the Son of God was just as divine as the Father, while Arius believed that the Son was OF God, so therefore God must have more divinity than the Son) is briefly outlined by Arius…and dismissed by Peri, giggling, with a simple “that’s it?!? You’re fighting each other over the divinity of Jesus Christ?” The controversy itself is never mentioned again outside of Arius and Athansius’s supporters clashing in the streets (and even then the actual schism isn’t brought up outside of repeated cries of “heretic!”), putting the bulk of Erimem’s story as a crusade for “justice.” We’re told repeatedly just how important the debate is…indeed, the ruling in favor of Anthansuis is the basis for the first paragraph of the Nicine Creed, which is still repeated in church services today…but we’re never told just WHY the debate is important, other than “my side is right, but if we keep fighting, Constantine will kill us all.”

I got the impression during The Council of Nicaea that this was supposed to be Erimem’s “big” audio as a companion, the story that firmly planted her on the map as a force to be reckoned with. As a female Pharaoh whose views were downplayed or ignored solely because she was a woman, it makes sense for Erimem to want to be “the voice of the voiceless.” Instead of a proud, vital leader, what Caroline Morris gives us is a whiny, petulant young woman simply pretending to be a leader for most of the story. The bold, confident “out of my way” Erimem that we saw in Three’s a Crowd has given way to someone who doesn’t hear both sides of the story before making her decision, speaks up on a whim to a room full of powerful strangers, condemns people without knowing them, and claims that her closest travelling companions betrayed her to the Romans. Erimem isn’t bold or clever in this story. In fact, she comes off as stubborn and dumb for most of it. Morris falls into the “shouting is emotion” school of acting during The Council of Nicaea, flinging what could have been valid points with hot venom. It felt incredibly “rebelling against parents,” very “I won’t do what you tell me because I think I’m right,” with all of Erimem’s youth on display and NONE of the wisdom one would think she absorbed during her time as rule of Egypt. What makes it a bit sad is how some of that wisdom DOES shine through, especially during the climax of the story where she organizes a peaceful demonstration of protestors and manage to keep them peaceful in the face of armed legionaries. A little finesse, a softer touch, some more wisdom and characterization from previous serials is what Erimem could have used in this story.

Peri? Well, aside from dismissing the whole argument as “silly”…maybe in the 20th century, but this is the 4th century…Peri’s presence is this story is solely as a plot device, to get yelled at by Erimem, to get asked questions by and give answers to the supporting players, and to cause conveniences to move the story along. Nicola Bryant gives us the Peri we’ve come to expect from Big Finish – sarcastic, a bit dour, a bit cheerful, but NOT a bit direct, which is exactly what was needed in this story. A few direct questions or explanations would have done wonders for moving the story along, but doing so would have cleared up messy situations or actually solved problems. Instead, we get Peri being chirpy, childish, and a bit whiny.

Luckily, Peter Davison carries the day for the TARDIS crew. This is the kind of dramatic material Davison excels at, where his character is firm, but flexible when the situation calls for it. He tells Erimem they’re leaving, but when she threatens to stay behind and abandon him, he adapts to the situation and tries to work with what he’s got. The Doctor’s scenes with Constantine where he convinces the Emperor to trust him are some of the best in the story, equaled by his determination in stressing that history can’t be rewritten, no matter how badly Erimem wants to wield the pen. I swear, Davison was channeling William Hartnell from The Aztecs in his story, save for the fact that the First Doctor would have probably tapped Erimem on the forehead with his cane and called her a stupid child before dragging her back to thr TARDIS. This is easily Davison’s best all-around performance since Omega, and it shows that the problems with The Council of Nicaea might not be coming from Symcox’s script, but from the performances of its other two leads.

The Emperor and his wife are the standouts of the supporting cast. History has shown that Constantine was pragmatic and ruthless, whose reforms led Rome into its last great age, while maintaining a tyrannical grip to uphold law and order. David Bamber, before he was Captain Quell in Mummy on the Orient Express, Cicero in HBO’s Rome ,and Hitler in the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie, was Emperor Constantine. Bamber’s vast experience allows him to play the Emperor dedicated to a peaceful empire by any means necessary. If it means giving a speech to the crowd, so be it. If it means exiling one of the two clerics, so be it. If it means sending out the legions, so be it. One senses the strength behind the Emperor through Bamber’s performance, that instead of coming off as a one-note, mustache-twirling villain, he’s a complex man who wants to hold the Roman Empire together. Bamber’s performance is balanced nicely by his wife Fausta, played by Claire Carroll. Sometimes Lady Macbeth, sometimes nice and kind, Carroll shows the balance Fausta walked as she lived with Constantine, both sharing in his power while also bowing to the might of the Emperor. Knowing that 13 years down the line Constantine would steam her to death, suspecting she would betray him, the Doctor’s revelation of her fate explains Fausta’s actions (and Carroll’s performance) very nicely.

But the central conflict isn’t about Constantine and Fausta. It’s about Arius (played by Steven Kynman, who’s largely been involved in children’s television and movies such as Muppet Treasure Island) and Athanasius (Martin Parsons). And frankly, their characterization boils down to “I’m right, my opponent is a heretical IDIOT.” Arius gets a bit more development, stating that he believes in his creed, no matter what the bishops decide. The Doctor lays out their final fates to Peri and Erimem, and they also draw back into the performances of Kynman and Parsons, but still, I was expecting a bit of theological debate between the pair, especially with Symcox’s background. It wouldn’t have to be anything in depth or controversial, just having the two men, whose thoughts are ripping the world’s most powerful empire in half, actually argue directly with one another for a few moments over matters of faith. It would have added more weight to the story’s proceedings along with a sense of…not urgency, but meaning to everything.

Where the story truly loses me is the central argument between the Doctor and Erimem. The Doctor insists that time can’t be rewritten. Not one line. And considering he’s a Time Lord, wouldn’t he know best? But Erimem stresses that this is HER future, and therefore she can change history. This is supposed to be Erimem standing up to the Doctor. This is supposed to be the “pump the air” moment where Erimem implies that the Doctor isn’t Time’s Champion, but Time’s Bitch. But really, this moment should be followed by the Doctor going “yes, and I know what happens. Peri knows what happens. Nearly 1800 years of human history knows what happens. You change this, and those 1800 years of religious history, not just for Christians both Catholic and Orthodox but for Jews and Muslims, will be undone, all because you’re throwing a temper tantrum. That will have immense consequences for the Web of Time.” But this isn’t mentioned at all, because mentioning it during the climax of the first or second episode would cause the rest of the serial to become moot. There is the core of a great story here, but Symcox focuses on the wrong ideas, or on the mirror image of the right ideas to instead just put forth a story about standing up for “justice” by stomping your feet and yelling a lot.

It’s a bit of a bummer how the overall story turns out, especially since the audio work is amazing. Crickets, taverns, barracks, the marble floors of the Emperor’s palace in Nicaea, the sounds of debate, rioting, and peaceful demonstration…the atmosphere and sound effects are so good in bringing 4th century Nicaea to life that I reloaded Total War: Rome II on my computer solely to play as Rome, and I may or may not yell out “THIRTEEN” during a stressful situation. But the story isn’t itself has little to do with Rome, or Christianity, or the Council of Nicaea. It could have been set anywhere, at any time, when two groups were arguing about a volatile topic. It’s a tale about rebelling against authority, of standing against injustice, of giving people a voice, and it does none of these things very well. The Council of Nicaea gives us great performances by Peter Davison and David Bamber, but beyond that, there’s little in this story to make it a lasting standout.

Synopsis – Neither Roman, nor Christian, nor about the synod itself, The Council of Nicaea succeeds in placing the listener in the heart of the Empire, but fails to make use of the setting, giving listeners “loud and shouty” in place of “bold and proud.” 3/5.

Next up – “Welcome back, Doctor…”

Paul McGann is the Doctor in…Terror Firma

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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