OFFICIAL BBC PAPERBACK (ISBN 0-563-53836-8) RELEASED IN JULY 2001.
Byzantium. The imperial city
- rising dramatically, as if by a trick of the light, from the peninsula
of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Its domes and towers and minarets
overlook a place of intrigue, lust, power, oppression, resistance and
Romans, Greeks, Zealots,
Pharisees ... all meet in the market squares of the great city, but mutual
loathing and suspicion are rife.
Into this cauldron, the
Doctor and his companions arrive, expecting to view the splendour and
civilisation of the Roman empire. But events cast them into a deadly
maelstrom of social and political upheaval. In the eye of the hurricane
they must each face the possibility of being stranded, alone and far from
their own times, in an alien culture bunker.
Byzantium. The imperial city - rising dramatically, as if by a trick of the light, from the peninsula of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Its domes and towers and minarets overlook a place of intrigue, lust, power, oppression, resistance and murder.
Romans, Greeks, Zealots, Pharisees ... all meet in the market squares of the great city, but mutual loathing and suspicion are rife.
Into this cauldron, the Doctor and his companions arrive, expecting to view the splendour and civilisation of the Roman empire. But events cast them into a deadly maelstrom of social and political upheaval. In the eye of the hurricane they must each face the possibility of being stranded, alone and far from their own times, in an alien culture bunker.
There are a lot of Doctor Who books out there on the market, but as a general rule it isn’t difficult for me to gauge which I will like and which I won’t just from a summary assessment of the cover and blurb. Every so often though, a story will really take me by surprise - one of my favourite authors will unexpectedly drop the ball or, as was the case here, a lifeless blurb will give rise to an absolute prize of a novel.
”What have the Romans ever done for us?“
By all rights, Byzantium! should have been a real stinker. The title’s exclamation mark will no doubt have deterred many readers, conjuring up images of old Frankie Howerd and his Ludicrus Sextus ensemble sending up Pompeii, and the story’s gimmicky setting (between the TARDIS falling from a cliff top at the end of The Rescue, and the opening scene of The Romans) will almost certainly have irked the anti-fanwank brigade.
However, the first few chapters of the novel swiftly put paid to any preconceptions that I was harbouring. Horrid in the extreme, author Keith Topping’s opening scenes of crucifixion and torture are about as far from the buoyancy of Up Pompeii! as you can get. And even once the story settles into its groove, it is by no means played for laughs. Though silly and lewd at times (as to which, see below), Byzantium! is for the most part a pragmatic political thriller. Topping’s four-fold plot encompasses the everyday life of a Greek family living under Roman rule; a Zealot rebellion; the dawn of Christianity; and, most interestingly of all, the manoeuvrings of the Roman praefectus and tribunes. Of course, adhering as it does to the Hartnell historical format, there is little more to the plot than our four separated heroes trying to stay alive, but even so Byzantium! remains a remarkably gripping tale throughout; a real testament to Topping’s refreshing style and wonderful characterisation.
”Stop procrastinating or I’ll give the pair of you a ruddy good biff on the conk!“
That much said, the narrative is punctuated with the occasional bout of unabashed frivolity, the preponderance of which involves an implausibly wholesome Ian Chesterton trying to spurn the advances of a veritable legion of promiscuous Roman socialites. Such scenes are fun to begin with, but after the third or fourth pass I was starting to believe that Ian was some sort of monk. I mean, how many times can one man say ‘no’? It’s a shame really, as otherwise Topping’s depiction of Ian is probably the most arresting that I’ve come across to date (the odd line of peculiar dialogue notwithstanding – “biff on the conk” et al!)
Ian’s risibly sordid adventures are pulled into sharp focus though by his three comrades’ thoroughly grim escapades. Barbara is really put through the mill, taken in by a high-ranking Pharisee and then unwittingly drawn into a bloody Zealot uprising, and wilful neophyte Vicki faces an even grizzlier fate, taken in by a Greek family who – admittedly with the best will in the world – take it upon themselves to beat her obstinacy out of her. It’s for her own good, see.
Most notably of all though, the Doctor finds himself dispossessed and in the company of an assemblage of early Christians. A sure-fire recipe for disaster and outrage in the hands of a less talented writer, here Topping uses this combination to truly wonderful effect. Without passing judgement on Christianity or its ideals, Topping shows us a Doctor that is just as prepared to take an active (but naturally anonymous) hand in the development of the movement as he is to interfere with development of an alien culture on a far-flung world. In one glorious scene he even suggests some rewrites to an early draft of the New Testament that would give more weight to “inspiration” than “accuracy”.
”Dear, dear, dear, I can see I’m going to have to go back through all of the work you’ve already done and double-check it.“
What I like so much about the Doctor’s role in Byzantium! is that it really emphasises his alienness. To him, “improving upon” the Holy Text of what he sees as a “minor sub-cult of Judaism” is no different to searching for the Keys of Marinus or freeing the Savages from the oppression of their Elders. And what’s more, Topping offers us a rare insight into the Doctor’s innermost thoughts: for instance, he sees himself as a “redwood tree” surrounded by “dragonflies”, yet he still finds himself affected by the plight of his “insect” friends. His reaction to Hebron’s demise towards the end of the story is particularly enlightening, as are his ruminations on the prospect of spending a couple of thousand years stranded on Earth.
And so a few absurd flaws aside, Byzantium! is one hell of a read, and I dare say one of the finest of BBC Books’ past Doctor adventures published to date. If you are looking for a book engorged with “loose morality, sexual perversion and an unhealthy disregard for the sanctity of human life”, yet somehow irrefutably Doctor Who, then this one is for you.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006
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