Doctor Who

Author: Keith Topping
BBC Books
5.99, US $6.95, Cdn $8.99
ISBN 0 563 53836 8
Available now

The 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...

Cunningly 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.

The 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.

Set 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.

The 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.

Richard McGinlay