The Phoenicians

Posted in Audio by - January 30, 2019
The Phoenicians

Released January 2019

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Big Finish’s reimagination of the First Doctor era with stars David Bradley, Jamie Glover, Jemma Powell, and Claudia Grant  has instantly become one of the company’s more fascinating offerings, perfectly recapturing the tone and spirit of the 1960s serials while also incorporating a modern element that boldly celebrates the differences these actors bring to the their respective roles. To begin the third series, the TARDIS once more travels back into Earth’s history to a time when the Phoenician civilisation ruled the seas and their advanced alphabet began to spread. As royal tensions continue to escalate and schemes become ever more dangerous, the Doctor and his companions soon find themselves in the midst of a power struggle that encompasses much more than just ancient Tyre as legendary tales seem to have foundations in the truths around them in Marc Platt’s ‘The Phoenicians.’

Spreading across the Mediterranean between approximately 1500 BC and 300 BC, the Phoenicians and their immense sea power are understandably a force that doesn’t pervade the public consciousness as much as more recent and celebrated ancient powers like that of Rome. Accordingly, a bit of quite overt exposition is needed to set the scene and allow both the TARDIS team and the audience to understand the fundamentals of this adventure, but events quite quickly turn from broad generalisations to a much more personal and emotional affair as King Pygmalion and Princess Elissa come to dominate proceedings. Naturally, the little information of this time that exists tends to come from fragments of tales that were passed down and included as parts of other works, leading of course to tentative and tenuous dating and relations, but the narrative here stems from the fact that the public recognised Pygmalion as leader despite the former king naming both his children as joint heirs.

Aijaz Awad and Jo Ben Ayed each give a commanding performance as the equally proud Elissa and Pygmalion, respectively, but the story and presentation do little inspire any sort of sympathy for the King looking to eliminate any potential threat to his rule now that his sister has learned through a dream that he murdered her husband who was second in power to him some six years ago. In fact, little definition is given to Pygmalion, and his every action here is driven by an escalating sense of indignant anger that loudly perpetuates itself. Still, this murder was just as much in hopes of acquiring Acerbas’s rumoured wealth, and Elissa’s resulting plan to flee Tyre and escape her brother’s wrath after devising a plan to make it seem as though that wealth has been given to the sea as an offering to Acerbas’s spirit proves the resourcefulness and guile of this woman while also tying into the more sacrificial nature of this society in a whole. Indeed, with the blood of slaves running to bless a new ship and Elissa wondering just how much she will need to sacrifice for favourable winds or to atone for a possible accidental death of her brother, no life is inherently safe from the whims of those in command who are always seeking the upper hand.

For characters who have become so well-known over the past fifty-five years, it’s amazing just how much nuance can still be afforded them, and the fact that Ian has kept a watch on Coal Hill time throughout all of these adventures offers a touching reminder that Barbara and he seek a return to home above all else. Of course, after surviving a close encounter with being sacrificed himself, he quickly finds himself in Elissa’s good graces and- much to Barbara’s chagrin- eventually named as her consort due to his dogged determination to do right and stick up for others who have been wronged. The simmering romance of these two colleagues has never been far from the surface, and this development again forces them to internally confront their true emotions brilliantly. And as the group comes to realise that Elissa just may also be Queen Dido, the founder and first ruler of Carthage, history itself seems to be coalescing around them as a famous name very similar to Ian hints at a possible legacy and the hide of a bull becomes an unexpectedly important means of marking and measuring. The Doctor is one to be wary of books in certain circumstances since they can often make history worse when they get it wrong, but there’s no denying how powerful the material contained within proves to be here.

Wisely, ‘The Phoenicians’ does not simply present a deadly sibling rivalry and chase across the sea, and the incorporation of the more religious side of this society gives the Doctor a few glorious moments in the spotlight as the guardian god of Tyre, Melqart, is never far removed from events. It is surely not an easy task to develop an entire civilisation in general terms while also telling an intriguing personal story, but although Pygmalion does become quite one-dimensional and the politics of Tyre outside of the royal family do not gain prominence, Platt has managed to tell a tale steeped in legend that is thrilling from beginning to end, and the lead performances and strong sound design are never anything less than entrancing in support of the strongly detailed material and evocative atmosphere at hand.

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