In The Rescue, the writers slipped in some mild and subtle humour to nice effect. Maybe it was coincidence or possibly it testing the waters for the next story – The Romans – in which humour becomes a major factor. Presumably because it’s set in Ancient Rome, the writers decided to make the story – and Episode 3 in particular – part serious/part farce.
At the time this wasn’t a popular move among viewers, with BBC Test Audiences giving feedback such as it being ‘unrealistic’, ‘suitable only for morons’ and ‘so ridiculous that it’s a bore’ . In contract to that, The Times described it as ‘flawless’ and in the years that followed, it has come to be considered as one of the underrated classics.
So with that in mind…
Doctor Who – The Romans Review: What’s This One About?
This is the one set in – as I’m sure you’ve guessed – Ancient Rome.
There are three separate threads to the story.
- Comedy: With Vicki in tow, the Doctor visits the palace of the Emperor Nero, pretending to be the recently murdered Lyre Player from Corinth, Maximus Pettulian. What the Doctor doesn’t realise is that not only is he there to play a concert for Nero (and he’s never player the lyre in his life) but that Pettulian’s real motivation for going there was to murder the Roman Emperor. Vicki also has her own sub-plot where she befriends the Palace poisoner.
- Serious Drama: Having been captured by Slave Traders passing through on their way to Rome, Ian & Barbara are separated before they reach the capital, with Ian being bought by the owner of a Roman Galley. Eventually thanks to a fierce storm that saw the ship sink off the coast near Rome, Ian and his friend-for-the-story Delos make their way to Rome to try and find Barbara.
- Somewhere in the Middle: Barbara meanwhile has been bought by Tavius – the head of Nero’s household and the man who had arranged for Pettulian to commit the murder – and becomes a servant to Nero’s wife. She also becomes the object of the Emperor’s affections
Throughout episodes 2-4, the Doctor & Vicki narrowly miss seeing Barbara numerous times. Just as they exit a scene, she enters it – and vice verca.
As I mention above, the main thing that strikes you about the Romans is the comedy, and that could be a good or a bad thing. Thankfully in this case, it’s a good thing. Assuming you take the Romans in the spirit it was intended then it’s a
very enjoyable story. Sure, for a story that falls under the ‘historical’ bracket, some of the things are a bit silly (such as the way Nero comes to the idea to burn down Rome) and so the people who think the ideal Doctor Who story is The Massacre might frown upon it, but it’s certainly no less silly than some of the stuff that happens in Doctor Who today. And it’s positively straight laced compared to stories like Creature from the Pit and the Horns of Nimon in which Tom Baker appears to be trying to turn Doctor Who into The Tom Baker Comedy Show.
No, the comedy in this story is mostly good. William Hartnell once again appears to be having a great time acting his part and shines in his scenes with Tavius and Nero himself. He especially seems to enjoy the scene where he gets to beat up the mute assassin Ascaras. Incidentally, if that scene had been transmitted in the 1980s, I’m sure if would be used as evidence that the show was becoming too violent – he gives the poor sod one hell of a thrashing.
The humour is also pretty clever at times, such as the scene where he ‘plays’ the lyre.
My only criticism of the ‘comedy’ involved was the inclusion of Nero’s servant Tigellinus. Some of the stuff made me chuckle (such as the way he ended up poisoned) but the scene where he just comes into the sauna and throws a bucket of water over Nero made no sense. A scene like that makes you understand why people were critical of the story at the time.
The Romans isn’t all about comedy though. Poor old Ian doesn’t get involved in anything even remotely comical. From the off he’s smashed over the head by a vase, made to work as a slave rowing on a galley, nearly drowned, captured again in Rome, made to fight to the death and given the job of rescuing Barbara from under Nero’s nose. Indeed, it could be said that his ordeal is probably the worst he has to face while travelling with the Doctor.
What that does is work as a counterbalance to the light-hearted nature of the other sub-plots and it gives the whole thing a better sense of proportion.
As we all know, Doctor Who in the 1960s had a shoe string budget to begin with, and this was no doubt stretched further by the spend on stories like the Daleks Invasion of Earth and the Web Planet. So when you ally that with the problems of two completely different styles of plot happening in the same story, it does have an affect.
In this case, some of the guest characters act completely different depending on which regular they are in a scene with. Tavius (Michael Peake) for example doubles up as a noble and serious Christian who is filled with compassion for Barbara’s plight, yet acts like something out of ‘Allo ‘Allo around the Doctor. In one scene he manages to do both.
Like Tavius, Ner0 has a bit of a split personality too. Around Barbara, his wife, the Doctor & Vicki he’s portrayed like something out of a Carry On film (Derek Francis, who played the part, went on to be a Carry On regular, so go figure). Around Ian, he’s dangerous and insane.
That’s not to say that Francis or Peake do a bad job. On the contrary, they both manage to alter their performances very well when needed. With Francis, you can tell he’s more of a comedy actor at heart and no doubt he was cast because of that, but Peake seems to play both serious and humorous equally well. It’s just that it appears a bit confusing.
Then of course there is the ultimate Jack of All Trades, Sevcheria (played by Derek Sydney). In episodes 1 and 2, he’s a down-on-his-luck slave trader. In episode 3, he’s in charge of the prison where slaves are kept and arranges fights for Nero’s amusement. By episode 4, he’s turned into the Captain of Nero’s guard. That’s some career progression in such a short space of time. Presumably they just decided to use Sydney
again in the later episodes rather than casting and paying a different actor. It’s not a big deal, but I remember it confused me as a child.
On the subject of budget constraints, one of my all time favourite ‘My God, that looks cheap’ moments in Dr Who history is the hastily put together stock footage of lions that Ian is supposedly seeing out of the window of his cell. In among clips of varying quality is a quick glimpse of a friendly looking lioness eating a turkey leg in a zoo. Brilliant.
Here’s an observation; a few reviews back, I mentioned how old William Hartnell looked for a man in his 50s, even without the old-man wig he used in Doctor Who. Well he looks like a vibrant thirty-something compared to Bart Allison, who plays Maximus Pettulian. I can’t imagine Hartnell would have been too chuffed at them hiring him as someone who is supposed to look like the Doctor. How an old man like Pettulian planned to assassinate Nero, I have absolutely no idea.
Another observation; when Ian and Barbara first appeared in An Unearthly Child they were no more than co-workers – you got the impression they weren’t even friends. Well, by the Romans the characterisation of their relationship indicates they are clearly (to use a term from The Big Bang Theory, which I’m currently watching) engaging in ‘coitus’. I was just
going to write ‘By now, Ian and Barbara are definitely shagging’ but it felt a bit crude. For anyone who thinks that Doctor Who is exploring new avenues by having a married couple like Rory and Amy together in the TARDIS, just watch the interaction between those at the start of episode 1 and the end of episode 4. It’s blatant.
In terms of whether or not the story is historically accurate, I’m sure the kids will have learned a little bit about Roman times, but they won’t have learned how history unfolded. Unlike in the previous three historicals, the Doctor actively (but inadvertently) influences history by accidentally burning Nero’s map and giving him the idea to burn down Rome. He hasn’t changed history, so it doesn’t go against the message expressed in The Aztecs, but instead he becomes responsible for history turning out as it did. We’ll see this more than a few times in later Doctor Who, but for this era it’s a departure from the norm.
Of course, one thing they didn’t get right was the whole ‘Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down’ thing. It’s a popular misconception that Thumbs Up meant ‘Save him’ and Thumbs down meant ‘Kill him’, but in truth, Thumbs Up meant to unsheathe one’s sword and kill the fallen gladiator, while Thumbs Pressed was an indication to put one’s sword away and let the man live. Thumbs Down had no meaning at all. So there you go…you’ve possibly learned something.
Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning the comparison between this story and the early Peter Davison era. Davison’s Doctor started out with 3 different companions, but in almost every story they appeared in, one was given little-or-nothing to do (usually it was Nyssa). If you ever watch the commentaries or documentaries that come with the DVDs, you’ll notice how they blame that on Doctor Who being unable to support such a large cast. In their opinion, they didn’t think it was possible to give a sub-plot to each of the characters and so by default one had to be sidelined. I would suggest they watch The Romans. Every character is given something to do and plenty of scenes on their own. While Vicki does spend a
lot of time in the scenes with the Doctor, she is relevant to the plot and also given time on her own with the Palace poisoner.
It just shows how well written it is compared to some of the stuff that followed it.
Doctor Who – The Romans Review: Should You Watch The Romans?
Once again, I’m going to say yes. In terms of ‘historical’ stories, this is up there as one of the very best. It’s also a great example of how to create an effective balance between humour and serious drama. Everything about the story flows, there are never any lulls in the plot and the writing is, on the whole, of a very high standard.
As I said above, at the time, the public didn’t think too highly of this story, but over the years, people have come to appreciate it. Many say it is one of the most underrated stories, but when the common consensus is that it’s good, surely that’s no longer the case?
In any event, this is a very enjoyable Doctor Who story and I highly recommend it.