THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
The Council of Nicaea

Written by Caroline Symcox Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Released 2005
Continuity Between Planet of Fire and
The Caves of Androzani

Starring Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and Caroline Morris

Synopsis: 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?


Reviews

It All Comes Down to Faith by Mekel Rogers 29/8/05

I began listening to this adventure on my trusty iPod while lying in bed, intending to enjoy only the first episode and then drift off into sleep.? Before I knew it, I was wide awake well past midnight enjoying part four and completely willing to sacrifice a good night's sleep for Doctor Who.

It's that good.

The Council of Nicaea is a pure historical written by Caroline Symcox, an Oxford University Doctor of Theology student.? Her script is historically accurate and engaging without being wordy or preachy.? What is really refreshing is that there is actual character development between the three regulars, and ironically, their faith in each other is repeatedly tested.

The whole "You can't change history!/Oh yes I can!" debate is instigated by Erimem.? Her idealism goes head to head with the Doctor's detached objectivity and their rows get very emotional.? Caught in the middle is Peri, who sympathizes with Erimem's feelings but knows nothing good can come from her interference.? The various scenes between the three are well executed by Davison, Bryant, and Morris, and there is a genuine conflict between them rather than just petty bickering.

The supporting characters work rather well, in particular David Bamber as the Emperor Constantine.? I would have liked to have explored the character of Fausta further.? She is well played by Claire Carroll but the character is rather underused.? It would have been nice to delve into her motives a bit deeper.

As with many Doctor Who stories, it's the little things that make an adventure fun.? The tone is serious but there are some splashes of humor such as Fausta getting Peri tipsy to gain information and the Doctor tipping an informant with a Euro.

My only complaint about the adventure is that this is now the third Peter Davison audio to concentrate strongly on Erimem's character and Peri is starting to seem a bit slighted.? With no disrespect to either Erimem or Caroline Morris, who does a marvelous job, I would love to see Nicola Bryant take the focus of an adventure in the near future.

Bottom Line: It's a great story.? Have faith.


Erimem's beliefs... by Joe Ford 9/9/05

Astonishingly good, not only the best Big Finish release in a year but so good it gives me some faith that 2005 might see a swing of fortune for the company's Doctor Who releases. Only The Game has come this close to perfection, every other release this years has been either average (Catch-1782, The Juggernauts) or poor (Three's a Crowd, Dreamtime, Unregenerate!). It would appear that the fifth Doctor releases are slipping ahead of the sixth as the most fulfilling in recent times.

This is going to sound bizarre but this is the first release in ages that I have genuinely wanted to see through to the end, such was my interest in what was going on. I had forgotten how nice that can feel! Usually I plod through the episodes wondering when it will get better but The Council of Nicaea had the opposite reaction, I was waiting for it to plummet downhill such was the levels of drama achieved but it never, ever happened, this is a story which sees its striking ideas through to a satisfying climax.

Bless Caroline Symcox, one of the few writers who has bothered to remember that Erimem is not your regular companion but an ex-Pharaoh, a leader, a woman who controlled the whole of Egypt. Too many writers have tried to shoe-horn Erimem into a generic companion role, one which does not suit her which Three's a Crowd has proven. But like her stunning exploration in the otherwise average Roof of the World, The Council of Nicaea places this unusual companion in the limelight and forces her to make some extremely difficult decisions. I can imagine people were appalled that she would turn her back on the Doctor and Peri so severely for a cause she has only just heard about, but I found her strength of character and morals extremely impressive, a far cry from your average "Yes Doctor" companions. She has a mind of her own, a personality strong enough to stand up and shout down bullies and liars. I was convinced she would be persuaded to change her mind but she held strong to her ideals and come episode four she is leading groups to the Palace to have their say. This is a fabulous experience for Caroline Morris who gives her best performance ever as Erimem. Look at the pictures in the inside sleeve, she is a small, cute-looking woman but judging by the strength of her voice and the power behind her dialogue you could never tell that. This is the sort of material Maggie Stables gets in every story which explains why Evelyn is so much more popular than Erimem but had Morris received scripts of this strength more often I could imagine her matching that popularity.

There seems to be a pattern emerging with Big Finish, their historical adventures are so much stronger than their science-fiction adventures that it astonishes me that they haven't produced a pure historical in two and half years! Audio is the ideal medium to explore historical periods, a media that champions language and writing rather than visuals, focussing on strong characterisation and performances. Remember the striking Vesuvius-themed drama The Fires of Vulcan? Or the charming Marian Conspiracy, which explored courtly politics? The Council of Nicaea does not quite reach the heights of those two gems but it does concentrate on a period that I knew very little of and dramatizes it in a way that made it easy to understand and even easier to enjoy. Even better, I left the story having learnt something, which is always a plus (obviously) and makes the experience worthwhile.

The problem is simple, the church is divided over a simple case of Christ's origins, one faction believing he was delivered naturally and the other convinced it was divinity that brought him to us. It is a fascinating, simple argument, which Peri understandably has a shocking reaction to (brilliantly she bursts into laughter), unable to comprehend how such hatred and violence could spring from such a minor detail. But, as we all know, it is the minor details that make the world go round and the rift between the two factions grows wider as street riots erupt, people are murdered and a young Egyptian stands up and speaks out for the minority group. Religious-themed stories are working a treat these days, with Faith Stealer pleasingly poking fun at its diversity and now The Council of Nicaea beautifully exploring the consequences of differences of opinion in the church. Faith is a deadly thing to question as we all cling dearly to our individual beliefs and will do almost anything to save others from leading their lives by opposing ideals, which this story brings up in a powerful fashion.

I have to admit I was scared that this would turn into a rehash of The Aztecs especially with the familiar arguments of changing history cropping up in episode one but my fears was immediately allayed when the girls bring up the fact that they change history all the time in future events (a point which I have often thought about and felt should be said to the Doctor when he gets on his moral high horse in these historical stories). Instead of focussing on the terrible damage Erimem's actions could do to the timelines the story instead focuses on what damage changing the timelines could do to Erimem, which is a far more interesting idea. The Doctor's concern for his companion is keenly felt, even when he is frustrated at her lack of self-control with her beliefs, there is always the feeling that he is looking out for her, trying to protect her from her own actions. The story provokes some electric moments between the Doctor and Erimem, a far cry from the tedious tension between the fifth Doctor and Tegan, this spanking new audio fifth Doctor clashes with his companions in genuinely dramatic, well-written scenes.

There is often a feeling that the Doctor and Peri are closer than the Doctor and Erimem and it is spelt out in black and white here when he threatens to leave Erimem behind in the TARDIS at the end of episode one. Peri is shown to be the adhesive force between these two characters, gelling them into a family unit and reminding the pair of them how out of hand things are getting. Nicola Bryant is on form here and the bond between Peri and Erimem is tested to breaking point in several tense scenes and for a while I genuinely believed the three of them would not be travelling together at the end of the story. It is so good that we have Symcox around to remind us that you can drive some startling drama between the regulars and it takes particularly good writing to suggest a split and convincingly reunite them at the climax. Needless to say, their reunion is very touching.

The story is boosted by several strong performances from the best guest cast assembled in AGES. Historical characters often talk in a florid, melodramatic fashion and it is easy to overplay such roles but the actors in this tale acquit themselves superbly. David Bamber provides a complex Constantine, cherishing the difficult task of acting out this multi-faceted character, neither entirely good or bad but exhibiting signs of both. Steve Kynman is equally good as Arius, convincing as an outcast voice in the political church. It was hard not to sympathise with his cause, especially when he wasn't even allowed to defend himself to the council. Although she was mainly a background character I thought Claire Carroll was also very memorable as Constantine's wily missus, Faustus. I especially enjoyed her scenes with Peri, getting the young American hammered so she could discover more information about the Doctor and Erimem.

There was a little touch of The Unquiet Dead to the climax which sees the Doctor telling his companions the fates of the people they have been around for the past few days but considering the complexity of the characterisation even this was much needed, a pleasing reminder that their lives will continue long after the Doctor has vanished.

On the Outpost Gallifrey forum there is an excellent review thread in the Big Finish section run by a bloke who goes under the name of Styre. It is well worth taking a look if you are thinking of dipping into Big Finish as he has review every single story from The Sirens of Time to The Natural History of Fear (which is as far as I have read). The reason I bring this up is that Styre made an extremely astute observation the other day about Gary Russell's direction. It all goes with the quality of the script, if he gets a good one his direction is usually smashing but if he gets a duffer... well, you know. This is fantastic script so can you imagine what the direction is like? Moody, atmospheric, dramatic and exciting... this is the Gary Russell who introduced us to the delights of audio Doctor Who. A big, big thumbs up.

What else is there to say? I can almost imagine people failing to enjoy this because it is so much more complex and thoughtful than the Big Finish norm, but if you can forgive the historical genre (which I personally love but some people really avoid), there is an absolute winner to be found here. It has certainly boosted Caroline Symcox as one of the top Big Finish writers and I would snap her up again quick before the new series peeps over at her stunning work and thieves another of BF's best writers!

Challenging and rewarding.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 28/9/05

When I heard the subject matter of this audio, many months before its release - I figured it was cashing in on the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Certainly more people these days are interested in the early days of Christianity than they used to be - and this is in large measure because of Dan Brown's bestseller. But Big Finish isn't a jumper onto of bandwagons - and this drama proves it. This is not another spinoff from the Da Vinci Code - a series of books that is threatening to fill libraries all by themselves. It stands on its own. It certainly doesn't hinder the listener if you are familiar with that conspiracy-strewn, but page-turning, read.

The reason for the subject matter lies squarely at the door of Caroline Symcox. This is a classic case of writing about something you are familiar with, and as a theological student Mrs Cornell has studied this period in great detail. However, no matter how much you know about your subject matter, it takes a great deal of skill to turn something as dry as the philosophical/doctrinal intrigues of early Christianity into a well-structured audio play that interests and entertains.

Caroline Symcox focuses on the common interest, yet mixes it with court intrigue too. The facts are there about the Council, but it is how it affected the rank and file - the common man - that the main interest lies.

I'm also glad that she was persuaded to write a pure historical, as opposed to the Scaroth-infested synopses that was originally planned. There's not a very high percentage of Doctor Who stories that are pure historicals, yet time and time again they produce some of the best Doctor Who Tales (whether audio, TV or book). Great decision, Gary Russell and co.

The 5th Doctor, Peri and Erimem have been quietly forming a strong bond. It's an intriguing TARDIS team too, with all bringing much to the table. They have now clocked up seven stories together - and the trio is clearly working very well. I would argue that this is their finest story together - it's also their most testing - and there are plenty of disagreements along the way. The rather large cast are excellent. There is no weak link. Three particularly stand out:

Peter Davison - The 5th Doctor. It's a splendid turn from this brilliant actor portraying a brilliant Doctor. In Peri and Erimem he has found companions so much more suited to his personality than their TV counterparts. He leads the lines in this audio, and the importance of the situation is never above or beyond him.

Caroline Morris - Erimem. The script demands a lot from this lovely actress, and she is equal to it. I wouldn't hesitate to state as well that this is one of the most intelligent roles that any companion has ever had. This play highlights how different she is from the vast majority of the Doctor's companions. Her character is more in tune with the times, and takes the lack of justice evident in Nicaea personally. It's a real action-heroine role, yet full of subtlety as well. It's stressed that her bugbear is not with any particular philosophy, but with honour, or justice. She positively demands that all sides be heard, without prejudice. It's a wonderful role - and Caroline Morris is brilliant at it.

David Bamber - Emperor Constantine. He's the special guest star here - and his turn as the leader of this world is as strong as it should be. Thriving on the script, he grabs the reigns of this hugely significant world leader - and really dominates. Terrific.

Everyone else is very good, including Nicola Bryant as Peri. Her problem here, and it's not really a problem, is that there are three roles stronger. Peri is rather anachronistic, taking a back seat to her friend Erimem. Yet ultimately she becomes central to the plot. Another example of Caroline Symcox's mastery of the key players of the drama.

Council of Nicaea is a mightily intriguing story. The way this massively significant event affected all is superbly depicted. From philosophers, to soldiers, to the common man, to Emperors. It affected them all - and all are on show here. That's the greatness of this audio - it's sheer breadth. The events of history can be approached from so many different ways - but the paramount interest for me has always been how it affects the people living at that time.

One of the best historical dramas in Doctor Who's illustrious history. 9/10


Council taxes by Phil Ince 26/3/06

The Council of Nicaea - hmm. I hated it.

I really didn't want to but I did. It struck me as formless. Who the hell was the intended focus? What on Earth was the plot? The Doctor and Peri are entirely marginal and Erimem is (astonishingly!) even worse than ever. Not thick this time but with all her accusations of disloyalty towards her companions she is herself entirely disloyal. I'd have been quite happy to have her stabbed. She comes across as repulsively priggish, abusive and treacherous to her friends and, fundamentally, an ignorant hypocrite; espousing a cause she had neither understanding of nor connection to. We've wound the clock backward to Adric. But - with the crutial exception of Eric Saward's appalling writing whose only aspiration is banality - even Watertrouser's seasons were largely better written than this.

The idea that Constantine - Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire - a man who murders his own wife in a very nasty way, would have the trust, the patience and, crucially, the time to allow strangers and plotters to dash into and out of his palace and go running about the streets of the city, is absurd. This incompetent play was farce without the gags and more dependent on the ancient Hartnell story, The Romans, than one might have cause to expect.

Full of trite lines, what happened? A few streets were run up, a few houses run into, a few repeated exchanges decalimed - "Don't betray me!", "You betrayed me!", "Give me one more chance!" By the time of the part 3 cliffhanger - "Ooh, she's got a bruise!" - I was just bored, restless, inattentive, tired.

The one hope for poor staggering Bog Flush is that someone like Nigel Fairs - who did such a great job at BBV with the Faction audios - may yet give The Flushings a lift. Isn't he doing some 8th Doctor stories soon? Christ almighty, roll 'em on.


A Doctor Who story about Christian theology! by Matthew Clarke 21/5/13

Caroline Symcox, wife of Paul Cornell, did a great job collaborating with her husband on Seasons of Fear. In this audio, she outdoes their joint effort by great lengths. The Council of Nicaea is a beautifully crafted historical drama and one of the finest Big Finish releases.

Mrs. Cornell holds a doctorate in theology and is in Anglican ministry. Proving that it is always a good idea to write about what you know, she gives us a story about one of the most important moments in the history of Christianity, the Council of Nicaea. For those unfamiliar with church history, it was at the Council of Nicaea that the divinity of our Lord became the official teaching of Christianity and those who rejected it were condemned. Christ was declared to be of 'the same substance as the Father'.

Religion tends to get looked at in a negative light in Doctor Who. High priests and other religious leaders frequently tend to be used as baddies and supporting characters who question religious dogma are often portrayed heroically. The Council of Nicaea departs from this tendency quite radically. First, while the religious conflict is shown to be fearful and menacing, the issues are not dismissed by the Doctor as unimportant. The Doctor says that he 'keeps an open mind' on the question of the divinity of Christ. It is almost as though the Doctor allows the possibility of Christianity and the divinity of Christ to be true. The whole subject of Christian belief is treated as something worthy of respect. Secondly, for once we find out the religious background of a companion. Peri turns out to have been raised a Baptist and refers to her pastor back home (though I despair at the thought that somebody raised as a Baptist would be unaware of the Nicene Creed and the importance of the divinity of Christ!). Religion is seen as something that plays a meaningful part in peoples' lives. We have moved a long way from The Face of Evil and St. Anthony's Fire. That said, I am uncomfortable with the portrayal of Athanasius as the bad guy and all the sympathy being given to the heretic Arius. As an orthodox Protestant, I regard Athanasius as one of the great heroes of the Christian faith who defended and established the doctrine of the Trinity. I suspect that Caroline Symcox is a little more liberal in her theology than I am.

The Council of Nicaea is very thankfully a pure historical. No alien monsters or interfering time travellers. The new series has shown the limitations of the pseudo-historical genre. I think a lot of fans would agree with me that the demise of pure historicals in the Sixties was a great loss for the show. While I hold a doctorate in theology, like the writer, I am sure a lot of listeners came to this story with very little knowledge of the Council of Nicaea or Constantine. Pure historicals have a wonderful potential to educate.

This audio takes us back to that thorny old question of 'Can you change history?' that was first explored in The Aztecs, all those years ago. Once again, the answer is 'oh no you can't'. It's good to be reminded of this. While I adore the timeline-hopping Klein trilogy, I think Big Finish have gone rather too far with stories about alternate timelines. Colditz makes it look as though you can alter history just by getting out of the TARDIS, a notion that would shake apart many past Doctor Who serials. I am much more comfortable with the Sixties Doctor Who premise that history is immutable. In this story, Erimem makes the old mistake of Barbara in thinking that she can rewrite history to a fashion that suits her taste. Like her, she fails spectacularly.

The Council of Nicaea does a great job of portraying a society in which every citizen is caught up in theological disputes and riots occur over such matters. Symcox avoids it all getting dry by showing its relation to the Machiavellian politics of the Roman court. This is helped by some strong guest performances. David Bamber is wonderful as the Emperor Constantine. I love the way his character is explored, with Erimem condemning him as a tyrant and the Doctor defending the integrity of his character. Constantine is very much shown to be a 'grey' character, a man who must be harsh, but not necessarily for the wrong reasons. Claire Carroll is also great as the camp and bitchy Fausta. The scene where she gets Peri drunk is delightful. We could perhaps have done with a little more exploration of her character.

I am convinced that the Fifth Doctor, Peri and Erimem are the best TARDIS crew in Big Finish - and arguably the best TARDIS crew since Season 1. Peri and Erimem have such a beautifully strong bond that its fracturing in this story works incredibly well dramatically. Nicola Bryant powerfully portrays a young woman torn between what she knows is right and the emotional appeal of her best friend. Caroline Morris is so powerful in the role of a passionate and idealistic girl. This is perhaps her strongest performance in the role of Erimem. I have some doubts whether this character would identify Constantine as a tyrant (would that concept be all that meaningful to a Pharaoh of Egypt?) and I might expect her to be more sympathetic to the need to exercise restraint over religious divisions, but it still comes across well dramatically. Peter Davison does not disappoint at all as the Doctor. He seems so much stronger when placed in an historical story than he does when on alien planets or Blake's 7 space stories.

The Council of Nicaea is in my judgement one of the finest Big Finish stories and I especially recommend it to Doctor Who fans who are Christians.