Understanding what we are watching when we view the Romans depends on a lot of context. Here are the two most important factors to bear in mind:
- This is Vicki’s first adventure with the Doctor, and she is the first new companion since Doctor Who began.
- This is the middle story in a trilogy of historicals written by Dennis Spooner, which started with The Reign of Terror and will end with The Time Meddler.
Just to be timey-wimey, I’ll deal with those in reverse order. Across his three historical stories you can see Spooner grappling with the problems of the format and trying to find a way to do them successfully. We have already seen that the Doctor Who’s original approach to history has become unsustainable almost before it has even begun. If the Doctor can’t change anything then the only drama can come from being captured and escaping, or a companion that doesn’t know the rules and fights against the tide. The latter was done once in The Aztecs but isn’t really a repeatable plotline.
So in The Reign of Terror Spooner went with the get-captured-and-escape format but tried to avoid the whole issue of changing history by placing the Doctor and his companions at the fringes of the French Revolution. He will eventually hit upon the perfect formula with The Time Meddler (which will then get bizarrely ignored for years) but before that he has a go at a couple of different things with The Romans. Firstly he makes it a comedy, and secondly he ret-cons the Doctor into history. These are both interesting approaches.
The comedy for the most part works well, and Nero is an ideal target as long as you can set aside concerns about a thoroughly nasty figure from history being played for laughs. The reason I say he is an ideal target is that a lot of what we see here is based on (probably) facts: the poisoning intrigue, the egotistical self-promotion as a talented musician, the moral bankruptcy. All the chasing around of Barbara gets a bit wearing, and it is uncomfortable viewing from a modern perspective seeing unwanted sexual advances being played for laughs, but it is sadly in keeping with the contemporary television landscape. The idea of Barbara and the Doctor having different but connected adventures in the same location, while always missing each other, is much more effective, and a very clever way to utilise the regulars.
Most interesting of all, though, is that bit of ret-conning of history, making the Doctor responsible for the Great Fire of Rome. This is far from being the last time this will be done, but it is very different from anything else because the Doctor actually causes a very nasty moment in history and then finds it all hilarious. Bearing in mind that the fire was used as an excuse to massacre Christians, that’s hard to get on board with. We could be charitable and say that he knows it was destined to happen anyway as the approach to history is still completely fatalistic at this point in Doctor Who’s history, but even so you would have thought the consequences would prick his conscience a little. The reason it doesn’t is that he is having far too much fun impressing a girl, which brings us round in a circle to my original point #1 above.
So the Doctor takes Vicki off on her first adventure, merrily ditching his other
gooseberries companions. The next four episodes are all about him showing off and never acting his age. We could view this in terms of the Doctor actually being very young in reality because he is in his first body, but that was obviously not Spooner’s intention – it was all about feeling and acting younger when you are in the company of youth – which is a very real thing that happens in real life. At last we have a companion that works perfectly with the Doctor. He thrives on youthful company and it brings out his young outlook on life. Without knowing his origins yet, he is after all somebody who has left his own people for whatever the reason may be and gone off exploring the universe. And now he has somebody to have a blast with, without feeling the burden of grandparental responsibility and the need to set any kind of stuffy example. Here is a young woman who, in the Doctor’s eyes, doesn’t need to be put in her place. She’s just a friend he can have a laugh with. That allows us to start seeing the Doctor in a very different light… RP
The view from across the pond:
My focus for the month of October has been those frightening stories and ideas in Doctor Who. This week has been more conceptual than monster-filled. Abuse of power, corporate greed, and a question of age have all been discussed. With The Romans we should look at some other scary concepts. Kidnapping, being sold into slavery, murderous highwaymen, madness… these are all explored to some degree. Madness is most evident in Emperor Nero, who is a few garlic cloves short of a pasta dish. The notion of madness is genuinely scary; to be under the rule of a madman is utterly horrifying because one never knows what will come out of that ruler’s whimsy. Woe unto those who allow that to ever happen again! (Um… about that…)
The Doctor is attacked in his room (although the conflict is handled extremely comically with Vicki ultimately pushing the would-be assassin from the window). Barbara and Ian are abducted; Barbara is jailed and sold as a slave and Ian finds himself on a slave ship and eventually thrown into the gladiatorial ring for a fight to the death with his friend. Barbara’s affections are even aggressively sought by the mad emperor leading to her being targeted for poisoning by Nero’s wife. And an old musician, Maximus Pettulian, is brutally murdered on the road. The Doctor even directly affects history by inadvertently giving Nero the idea to burn down Rome. Not to burn this one to the ground, but there are a lot of heavy ideas in this story.
But to talk about The Romans as a scary story, even with all of these nerve-shattering ideas, would not do the story justice. In fact, The Romans is a complete failure as a scary story. But don’t throw this story to the lions yet because what it is instead, is an outstanding success for sheer enjoyment. I’ll admit it: this is, hands-down, one of my favorite stories of the Hartnell Era. William Hartnell is utterly brilliant. From his “gentle art of fisticuffs”, his confusion over finding himself in the role of Maximus Pettulian and his “quiet” lyre playing in court; his “don’t make that funny noise” to the sound of “psst”, his assumptions about what his companions got up to at the end of the story… it all adds up to a marvelously enjoyable performance. His affection for Vicki is lovely too. I can’t help but think he expected too much from his granddaughter Susan and finds Vicki a surrogate that he can restart his relationship with, unencumbered by any preconceived notions or expectations.
The rest of the TARDIS crew are great as well. Vicki redeems herself from her not-so-bright introduction by spurring the Doctor into action when she gets bored just sitting around. In many ways, she’s the catalyst for all the action that befalls the crew. She seems to take it all in stride. She is a welcome addition to the crew and adds something pleasant that was stagnating during Susan’s time on board. Ian and Barbara have a closeness that makes it easy to accept that they could eventually settle down together. Ian promising to come back for Barbara is perfect. What Ian and Barbara go through is harrowing. Let’s not forget, they know the history of Rome – they know about slavery, gladiators, highwaymen, Nero. They know that life expectancy during this period was not long. This may be ancient history but now these school teachers are struggling to survive it.
Then there’s the supporting cast. For me, Michael Peake as Tavius, our hissing friend, really steals the show. “Must you hiss my name from all corners?!” As minor as this was for the episode, I loved it. Nero, played by Derek Francis, is not unlike Napoleon Dynamite – he’s a train wreck that we are compelled to watch. He plays the role brilliantly. His shenanigans are funny, even though the actions themselves are far from comical. Without being graphic, his pursuit of Barbara would not have ended well for her should he have caught her. It’s a brutal time told in a way that is comical; it works well offering a glimpse of life in Roman times in the mellow way that 60s TV could, but make no mistake: these events are not funny on their own merit!
The Romans also posits what happens when the Doctor and his friends become part of history. This will happen again to much more devastating effect, also on Roman soil, in The Fires of Pompeii.
So I’ll take the advice so often quoted, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Thus, like the emperor in the Colosseum, I give this one a solid thumbs up! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Web Planet