One style of story that I am very glad Big Finish have revived is the ‘historical’. In the early days of Doctor Who the show was meant, at least in part, to be educational (or so the received wisdom about the show goes), alternating between ‘science-based’ stories and historical ones.
In truth, there was very little educational about the historicals, which owed more to 1066 And All That and Boys-Own adventures than to actual history, but they were fun, and an obvious thing for Doctor Who to do really – after all, the show is about someone who can travel anywhere in time and space.
However, it was perceived that the historicals were unpopular, so they were phased out relatively early on, and never reappeared in the series. Instead, pseudo-historicals took their place, starting from the last Pertwee series, with stories set in the past but the addition of some form of bug-eyed monster (the first of these was The Invasion Of Time which I watched recently after getting the Sontaran box set for my birthday – incidentally, Jennie, you were right, Pertwee *could* be a good Doctor when he was given a good script).
To my mind this was a great loss, as my interest in Doctor Who is not primarily in the genre trappings (although I do like those) but in the character of the Doctor himself. Doctor Who is a uniquely flexible concept for a show and I think it’s a shame that for much of its history there have been a very limited number of plotlines (alien invasion, base under siege, evil mastermind has built a sinister macguffin) recycled over and over.
Thankfully, the people at Big Finish have as good as stated that one of their intentions is to give the later Doctors the scripts they *should* have had (many of the scripts in the last few years of the show were very poor), and so all the audio Doctors, but especially the Fifth, have been given ‘proper’ historicals, usually with specially-created companions. The Sixth Doctor’s companion Evelyn seems to have been created for this purpose, but she’s since become a much more general-purpose companion, but Erimem, the Ancient Egyptian pharaoh played by Caroline Morris who journeys with the Fifth Doctor and Peri, has been used almost exclusively for historical stories.
The Church And The Crown by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright is the first of those (other than Erimem’s introduction in The Eye Of The Scorpion, set in Pharaonic Egypt) and sets up the pattern for most of the other stories featuring her, in that it’s essentially a story of conspiracy, with a few Boys’ Own style rescues thrown in.
The interesting thing about these stories is that while they’re all runaround pulp adventures, with our heroes getting split up and ending up working for different factions, and usually with some evil conspirator planning the whole thing, they’re not afraid to have the characters be motivated by differing ideas along with their desires for personal ambition or revenge on their enemies. This shows most obviously in The Council Of Nicea, which is a rip-roaring theological adventure, but is also apparent here.
The central conflict in The Church And The Crown is that of secular and religious authority, in this case personified by Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu – the story is loosely patterned after The Three Musketeers, but with the added complication of Peri resembling the Queen and being kidnapped in her place by the Queen’s lover, the Duke of Buckingham.
Of course, the ideological conflict isn’t particularly well integrated into the pulp plot – the Duke of Buckingham is plotting a secret invasion of France, which is foiled by the Doctor with the help of Erimem, who persuades the king and the Cardinal’s warring forces to work together. Which would tend to suggest that the authors are advocates of theocracy, if you think about it too much…
But the conflict between Richelieu and Louis is very well-drawn, and we actually have characters whose motives are based on ideological differences rather than personal antipathy – a relatively rare thing in popular fiction of any type.
The performances are less good – this sounds like the actors weren’t given quite enough time to prepare. I usually expect a few dodgy performances from minor characters in Big Finish audio, but even Peter Davison, who usually gives absolutely perfect performances, lets through a couple of line reads that are slightly off (the stresses on the line “I sometimes think that at my age there’s nothing left to discover” don’t quite work in context – I only noticed though because he’s usually so good) in an otherwise good performance. Nicola Bryant is more impressive than normal here, though – playing two roles, she can drop the fake American accent that mars her otherwise good performances as Peri for the role of Queen Anne, and so her actual ability isn’t let down by the accent she’s forced to put on.
The Church And The Crown offers fewer opportunities for discussion than many of the other stories I’ve talked about here, but it’s a very good start to a whole series of historical adventures that are all worth a listen.