city of Byzantium in AD64 is a cosmopolitan combination of
cultures with Romans, Greeks, Jewish Pharisees and Zealots,
and Christians all co-existing, but often uneasily. Shortly
after the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki arrive, the political
tensions erupt into violence...
set in between the TV serials The Rescue and The
Romans, picking up the story at the point where the TARDIS
topples over the mountainside, this is a fascinating historical
tour of the city that would later become known as Constantinople
and Instanbul. Although the book is not without plenty of
humour (witness the numerous quotations from Monty Python's
The Life of Brian), it depicts the Roman Empire in gritty
and often brutal detail, which is in stark contrast to the
comedic style of The Romans.
TARDIS crew are separated for much of the story, with each
one fearing that their three friends have been killed in a
street brawl. Ian, who poses as a Roman citizen, has to contend
with the unwanted attentions of lusty females and the threat
of quite literal back-stabbing from jealous political rivals.
Meanwhile, Barbara witnesses the descent of an open-minded
Jewish priest into hostility against heretics. Vicki, whose
characterisation vividly conveys how unused she is to space-
and time-travelling, experiences the hardships of Greek family
life under Roman rule. The Doctor is sheltered by a group
of persecuted Christians, who are forced to hide away in fear
of violent opposition from extremist Zealots.
just three decades after the death of Christ, the novel reveals
how remarkably quickly Christianity spread, providing as fascinating
a historical context as Jeremy Bowen's recent documentary
series Son of God. It's also good, for a change, to
see the positive aspects of faith being reflected in a science-fiction
novel, instead of the usual case of religion being depicted
as mere superstition. For instance, the Doctor shows great
respect for Christian values, even though (like me) he doesn't
share the followers' beliefs. Topping doesn't shy away from
the negative aspects of religion, however. Apart from the
violence committed in its name, both Ian and Barbara bemoan
those who recite the text of the Bible parrot-fashion without
ever embracing its meaning.
sheer number of characters and factions involved amid all
the political intrigue is at times bewildering, but Byzantium!
remains an extremely thought-provoking work. I'm not sure
it needs that exclamation mark, though.