The Romans is a courageous episode, for a number of reasons – principally, it is a comedy. It works solely based on the idea that humour is milked out of every possible scene. Added to this the rather grim subplots involving Ian and Barbara, and it is tremendously brave – balancing humour with such gritty realism is a hard task, but Spooner does it with aplomb. As prompted by Verity Lambert, who wished for the series to broaden its dramatic range further still, she approached Spooner to write an overtly comical story. What is so magnificent about the comedy in this serial is the very “Carry On...”ness of it all. From the cast, most had since, or had before, appeared in the infamous series of British films, and much of the humour and performances would be right at home in Carry On Cleo or the like. The combination of visual gags and word play, mixed with some slapstick physical comedy, all combine to make this a very successful comedy.
From the opening of the first episode, the tempo has changed enormously, and we can see the disappointment in Vicki’s face from the outset – following on from her joining the TARDIS crew in the previous serial, she has been presented with a month of relaxation in ancient Rome instead. The scenes of the crew nonchalantly lying around, quaffing wine and grapes is brilliant. What this rather effectively does, though, is to cement Vicki’s place with the crew – we haven’t had adventures where they have bonded, but rather they have become a united front – that family group again, by simply enjoying each others’ company. Soon, though, the Doctor has decided to take Vicki on a little adventure, leaving Ian and Barbara to continue their relaxation, and outrageous flirting. The action starts almost immediately, of course, as the Doctor and Vicki discover the body of murdered Maximus Pettulian, and the Doctor very quickly adopts his guise to ensure adventure in the city of Rome. Maximus had been assassinated by a mute killer on the road to Rome, due to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Nero himself. The Doctor does not realise that yet, and so it inevitably leads to many instances of humour arising from mistaken identities.
Whilst the Doctor and Vicki are given the humorous storyline, though, Ian and Barbara’s subplot about slavers and court intrigue is gritty and grim – kidnapped from the villa, they are forced to walk towards Rome before being separated and sold to different groups; Ian is sent to work on a galley ship whilst Barbara is bought for 10,000 sestertia and sent to Nero’s court to be a handmaiden for his wife Poppaea. Despite the grimness of this storyline, there is still the occasional chance for humour – the fight sequence leading to their kidnap includes Barbara accidentally smashing a jug over Ian’s head, rendering him unconscious.
Education is once again in the forefront here, but subtly dropped in – the scenes with Barbara and Vicki discussing bartering, as well as the Doctor’s discussions of pipes and aqueducts, all provide ample educational stimuli without feeling awkwardly shoehorned into the dialogue, and the entire serial, with its presentation of ancient Rome, the burning of the city for rebuilding purposes, and the discussions about court conventions are all accurately discussed.
The first ends with the Doctor, now pretending to be Maximus, and escorted by Vicki who “watches all the lyres”, being taken to Rome with a Centurion. The wordplay in this scene is exquisitely constructed, and it is almost impossible not to cackle with glee at the dialogue. Once in Rome, the mute assassin is seen to be creeping up on the Doctor, alone in his room, vulnerable. Barry Jackson is not given a great deal to do in this serial, merely grunting and weaselling his way around the cast – yet he obviously impressed enough to be later recast as the principal actor in Mission to the Unknown, as well as the Time Lord Drax in The Armageddon Factor.
Episode 2 opens with the Doctor dealing with Ascaris, promptly beating him in a physical fight, before he jumps out of a window to his death. It is fantastic to see Hartnell enjoying himself so much – not only does he get to thrive on the sumptuous dialogue, he also gets to get his hands dirty bashing the assassin around.
Whilst the Doctor is having a whale of a time, showing off to Vicki, Ian is getting a far rougher deal – William Russell’s performance is admirable as an exhausted slave, and his friendship with Peter Diamond’s Delos is lovely. Diamond isn’t the greatest actor in the world by any means – as a stunt coordinator by trade he is far better suited to the fight sequences in episodes 3 and 4 – but the balance is perfect between the modern day man and the ancient Roman. When they are saved, washed away by water as the ship is torn in two, it is genuinely nerve-racking – not for Ian, but for sweet innocent Delos. We know that Ian will be alright; companions are always safe, aren’t they?
Barbara has once again pulled the short straw though, and once more the threat of sexual assault dangles over her – frequently a victim of the threat of rape, Barbara is pursued endlessly throughout this serial, desperately fighting off the advances of friends, Romans and countrymen alike. The ultimate pursuer, of course, is Nero himself – and when he is first introduced in a scene with Hartnell, the pair sparkle. Derek Francis is phenomenal, trudging though and burping with disdain at the musician, before elatedly being told that he is a man of genius; the scene where he calls for a stool to rest his foot on, but Hartnell misinterprets is magnificent, as is the moment Nero calls forward a slave with a ledger, apparently ready to take a note, but instead simply uses him as a walking napkin. His childish strops are spectacular. Unlike in earlier serials where genuine Historical characters have been treated with a solemn and dignified respect – as Spooner himself had to do with Robespierre in The Reign of Terror, here Nero is presented as a buffoon, distasteful and sullen when he isn’t getting his own way, and delightfully camp and overt when he is.
The rape subplot of episode 3 is horrific and wonderful at the same time – Nero’s pursuit of Barbara through the corridors of his palace are almost Benny Hill in presentation, casually covering up the serious physical threat to Barbara. What is fantastic about this serial is the use of separate plot threads – where the crew are often separated, they do not tend to meet up again until the very end of the serial, as in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Here, though, they are always a few feet from each other, yet always unaware. Hartnell tries to walk in on Nero with Barbara, and even stands outside the room in which he can hear her screaming, but does not interfere. Likewise, by chance Vicki saves Barbara’s life, unaware that it is her that she is protecting. In episode 4, Barbara likewise inadvertently saves the Doctor from being mauled by lions in the gladiatorial arena, unaware that he is pretending to be the musician Maximus. They are always so close to each other, yet oblivious – which is what makes the final scenes of episode 4 so brilliant.
The banquet, and the Doctor’s performance on the lyre, are magnificently scripted and shot, with just the right length of silence during the Doctor’s “Emperor’s New Tune” routine, interrupted by Tavius’ sneezing fit. Nero’s retort to Poppaea that “He’s alright, but he’s not all that good” is hilarious, as is his soliloquy direct to camera as he plots the Doctor’s fate. When he takes Barbara to the gladiatorial arena, inadvertently reuniting Ian and Barbara, the sword fight is magnificent – Diamond’s choreography is spectacular, and the struggle between his Delos and Russell’s Ian is great to watch. Ian’s character is a fascinating one – having grown up during the wars, becoming a teacher in the 60s, he is an educated man always willing to fight – from his battle with Ixta in The Aztecs to this struggle with Delos, he is a smart and cunning fighter.
The fourth episode is predominantly about the Doctor and his dangerous relationship with Nero though – with Hartnell still mining some comedy gold out of the dialogue and performance. Derek Francis’ elaborate over-acting, threatening to throw the Doctor and Vicki onto an island surround by alligators, is fantastic, and the dawning realisation in his eyes as he rants, before proclaiming them geniuses for the idea of burning Rome to the ground. And this is one of the most interesting moments in Doctor Who’s history. Vicki’s comment that the Doctor has interfered with history is a valid one, and supports his arguments with Barbara and the Aztecs, for one thing. However, it begs the question of whether the Doctor has actually interfered – in July 64AD, it is a known fact that Rome was burnt to the ground. So, maybe – just maybe – the Doctor had always been predestined to prompt Nero to burn the city. Had he not accidentally set fire to the plans, could history have been altered forever? The moment in which he maniacally cackles to himself, cross-faded to Nero playing his lyre surrounded by the burning city, is brilliant.
Of course, Ian and Barbara are saved thanks to the courage of Delos and the assistance of Tavius, and return to the villa to eat, drink and rest after their exhausting few days. When the Doctor and Vicki arrive home, their presumption that Ian and Barbara have simply been lying around, flirting outrageously for the entire duration of their adventure, is marvellous.
My only criticism of this serial, if there was one to be had, is the relatively small role that Vicki plays in the whole thing – whilst she is evidently an established cohort of the TARDIS crew now, she seems mildly underused in these episodes; strange, considering that it was written by the incoming script editor to ensure some consistency with her character. What Maureen O’Brien’s character is able to do, though, is to look at the story from a different perspective – changing history isn’t such a bad thing after all, and involvement can be fun as well as risky. It’s a mantra which the series will follow for years afterwards.