The Romans [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Romans

Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor.
Companions:  William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright and Maureen O’Brien as Vicki.
Written by Dennis Spooner.  Directed by Christopher Barry. Produced by Verity Lambert. Script Edited by Dennis Spooner.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January – February 1965 (Episodes 12-15 of Season 2).

The Romans was a purely historical story, which used to be a regular part of the Doctor Who format back in the old old days. It’s quite the comedic tale, and the first instance that a prominent actor actually requested to be on Doctor Who–in this case, Derek Francis, well known for his role in the Carry On films, guest starring as Nero.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Romans is as about as far removed a story as one could get from modern Doctor Who. To begin with, all of Doctor Who from that era would probably strike the casual modern audience as bizarrely old-fashioned, with it’s black & white storytelling, limited budget, and tightly confined sets. Then on top of that, it’s a purely historical drama, which is something that televised Doctor Who hasn’t delivered for years: there are no monsters, no extra-terrestrial threats, and decidedly “costume drama” feel to things.

But even then, The Romans is a strange story, even when compared to the other historical adventures that still exist from the era, because it’s so overtly comical.

It’s not just that there is a fair amount of humor sprinkled into the adventure–it’s more that the whole thing is like an extended sit-com dressed up as a science fiction-historical-adventure-drama. This is most notable in every moment with Derek Francis, whether he is plotting intrigue against the Doctor (who he believes is a musician threatening his stature as a performer) or chasing after Barbara (who has been made into his wife’s new handmaiden, and is seen by him as nothing more than a sexual conquest-in-waiting).

Nero is not the most ridiculous figure to appear on Doctor Who, but might have been the most ridiculous up to that point.

The serial is intentionally structured for comedic effect. It’s not uncommon for the cast of Doctor Who to get split up over the course of things, especially back in the days when there were four regular characters in the TARDIS, but in The Romans the travelers are separated into two groups who each make their way from a village to Rome itself, each having their own adventures, but never knowing that they are within a hair’s breadth of each other. Moments where they almost bump into each other but just barely miss each other instead, turning their head in just the wrong direction, seem like they could have directly lifted from a sit-com.

Surprisingly, these stories never come together. Though they interact with many of the same supporting characters, both groups are able to resolve their plots completely independently, and are able to make their way back to their starting point without ever knowing how close they were. It’s pretty funny, but also highlights a feeling of irrelevance to the serial, as if none it really mattered. There seems there is nothing of any significance that is learned, lost, gained, wrestled with, or discovered with the events–as if it were all simply an anomaly in the characters’ lives which is quickly forgotten as they head off to more meaningful things.

Now, with all that said, I still liked The Romans and had a good time watching it (a better time than I suspect I’ll have re-viewing the “more dramatic” story that followed, complete it’s giant ants and butterflies). The storytelling is breezy and fun, with some clever ideas and amusing moments–like how the Doctor gets away with the moment where he is supposed to impress everyone with his musical skills, or like when he defends himself against a would-be assassin. There are some effects that are pretty good considering the obvious limitations of the production (I was impressed, for example, by the flooding of the galley that Ian was enslaved into). Most interesting to me are a couple of character points that are notable when looked at in the context of the broader series.

First off, if I needed any convincing, this serial makes it clear to me that Ian and Barbara are basically in love with each other and are destined for matrimony. I mean, I don’t need any convincing because I feel like that has always been an obvious (though never directly addressed) part of their characters, but here it’s even more blatant.

They certainly don’t seem put out by being left alone in the Roman villa at the start of the story, and the sequences with them there prior to being captured are extremely flirty and frolicsome (at least, relatively so for the show at that time).

Secondly, the way the Doctor interacts with Vicki is in some ways the first real example of the Doctor-Companion relationship, as we will come to know it, that the series has presented. With Susan, the Doctor was obviously her guardian. With Ian and Barbara, there is an intimacy but always a sense of distance established by the fact that they are never genuinely happy to be traveling in the TARDIS. With Vicki, however, we have a character who wants to be with the Doctor–a figure she views with a kind of awe–and who the Doctor seems really excited to travel with.

We got a sense of this in the previous story, The Rescue (which introduced Vicki), but it’s even more obvious here. When the Doctor and Vicki leave the others behind for their own bit of exploration, it really feels like the Doctor is showing his cards a bit: this is how he’d actually like it.

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3 thoughts on “The Romans [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Romans is another strong example of how uniquely different Doctor Who was for the 60s as an SF show before all the following decades would inevitably change so much. Hartnell of course is at his best and Derek Francis made a great impression on me as Nero. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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