I mentioned during the summer that I had become aware of the Big Finish Doctor Who audiobook, Doctor Who: The Council of Nicaea. I finished listening to it not that long ago, and I must say that I am even more impressed than I thought I would be. First, the story features the Fifth Doctor and Peri, and their voices are provided by Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant themselves, giving the experience an authenticity that it might otherwise have lacked, or at least left entirely up to the imagination. Having the familiar voices in these roles, and indeed having the parts played by different voice actors rather than (as some audiobooks have) merely letting a narrator tell the story, and dividing the story into episodes with beginning and ending music, allows one to feel as though this is “just another episode of Doctor Who.”
The story also features another companion who is only encountered in some audiobooks, Erimem, who is an Egyptian princess. Her presence becomes extremely important to the story, and her character, even though new to me, was persuasively portrayed by Caroline Morris.
If you plan on listening to the audiobook, and wish to do so spoiler free, then stop reading here.
The Doctor is depicted as someone who is neither hostile to religion nor opposed to it, but interested and trying to keep an open mind. When he needs to, he can quote Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Doctor explains to his companions that, in that era, theology is a “spectator sport.” Erimem finds the situation puzzlingly different from her own time, and so too does Peri. She says that she didn’t learn about the creed that supposedly resulted from the council in her church, and when the Doctor says that she must not be an Episcopalian then, Peri replies that she was raised Baptist. She laughs when she hears what people are rioting about, and asks why, if people agree that Jesus saved them, they are fighting over what he was made of.
The story takes the interesting approach of making Athanasius essentially the villain of the story, and Arius something of the hero, who just wants to get a hearing for his views. Erimem, an Egyptian ruler who has joined the Doctor and Peri traveling in the TARDIS, is moved by what she hears of the situation and vows to help Arius get a hearing from the emperor.
Everyone except for Athanasius and his cronies comes across as multifaceted and at least somewhat sympathetic, including Emperor Constantine himself. When Constantine eventually addresses Arius and his followers directly, it is not merely as a statesman but as someone concerned about the church and its well-being.
The episode nicely embraces direct challenges to the Doctor’s statements about not changing history. Everything they do in time and space affects someone’s history. Nevertheless, in the end, the Doctor says that the timeline has not been altered, mentioning that eventually Constantine would welcome Arius back and exile Athanasius.
When the travelers depart in the TARDIS, Arius sees it disappear and concludes that Erimem was an angel sent to help him.
This story is arguably the most direct intersection of Christianity and Doctor Who in a story. If you have listened to the audiobook, what did you think of it? If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so!