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Classic Who: The Romans

I'm finding it rather hard to concentrate on article-writing this weekend, because the deadline is too far away, and I already know my basic arguments for most of the bit I'm writing up at the moment. In some ideal academic world, I would be writing like a demon anyway, getting it finished so I can get on to the next thing, and maybe even enjoy some free weekends later this month. As it is, I'm having to chivvy myself along using the promise of little breaks to motivate myself. So it's all, 'If you can get this paragraph done by X o'clock, then you may break up boxes for recycling / email so-and-so / cut your toe-nails'. This break, I get to write up another Doctor Who story. Woot!

First Doctor: The Romans
Fairly unsurprisingly, I loved this! Doctor Who + Romans = love.

Of course, it is really a response to the slough of '50s and '60s Classical epics which were just drawing to a close when this was broadcast in 1965, rather than to the ancient world directly. And since most of its influences were themselves re-workings of earlier films, plays and novels, the chain of links between this story and the actual past is a pretty long one. Above all, it serves as a sort of check-list of the things people considered 'ought' to go in a Roman story at the time when it was made - some of which can be attributed to specific films, and some of which are more generic:
  • Romans as decadent lovers of luxury - the opening shot gives us Ian lying on a couch eating a bunch of grapes; later Barbara serves up a dinner featuring breast of peacock, the famous larks' tongues and, er, ants' eggs; and that is of course nothing compared to what goes in at Nero's palace in Rome.
  • Romans as brutal and militaristic - harsh treatment of slaves, enjoyment of gladiatorial spectacles, multiple murders, Nero punishing people on a whim, Nero's employment of an imperial poisoner, lots of stomping guards and centurions.
  • Sekrit Christians (Tavius) helping the good guys escape.
  • Neronian setting, including extravagant banquets, lyre-playing, Nero's plans for a new Rome, and the Plastico - Quo Vadis (1951)
  • Ian being forced to serve as a rowing-slave in a galley, and escaping when it is wrecked in a storm - Ben Hur (1959)
  • Ian and Delos being condemned to the arena, and made to fight one another - Spartacus (1960)
That's not entirely to say it doesn't have its own original elements, though. The production team must have done some of their own research to come up with Locusta, who crops up in both Suetonius and Tacitus, while the idea of slave-traders going around capturing people and assassins lurking at the roadside makes me think above all of Greek and Roman novels - although it's probably somewhere I've forgotten in the epic films, too. But it would be surprising in a context such as this if that research had been entirely rigorous and robust, too. So there's plenty of fun to be had asking questions like: where the hell are the household slaves the owner of the villa they're 'borrowing' would have left around to run it while he was away? What is the Doctor on about when he says the Romans didn't know about pipes but did know about aqueducts? Don't they know the difference between a circus and an amphitheatre? And how come at least one of Barbara's dresses has a zip up the back? 'Accuracy' (if such a thing exists) is hardly the point here, though. It's all about having a jolly good romp in the playground of popular notions of the past.

The story must have been a pretty big-budget number, as there are a lot of different sets involved, to say nothing of costumes, props and a pretty large cast (alas, not quite a Cast of Thousands, though). It's also quite obviously a break from normal Who routine as it had been established by the time. The first episode begins with the same sort of 'holiday mood' feel that I noticed when watching City of Death, and indeed the TARDIS crew explicitly talk of it as such. A lot of the story (though by no means all) is also played for laughs: so we have Nero chasing Barbara around his palace in what's practically Benny Hill style, the Doctor wriggling out of his inability to play the lyre by using the old emperor's new clothes trick, and some great lines, such as Nero's enraged "I'll have you both killed over and over again!" And I even noticed one point at which Nero appears to break the fourth wall, by delivering the comment "He was right" directly to camera after testing the Doctor's assertion that his cup of wine is poisoned on an unfortunate Tigellinus.

We learn some interesting new things about the Doctor and his world as the story unfolds. There are no less than three references to his past travels, all apparently on the Earth - he's been to Rome before, he claims to have taught someone called the Mountain Mauler of Montana to fight, and he also says after his lyre performance that he gave Hans Anderson the idea for the story the trick comes from. Whether these travels pre- or post-date the arrival of Ian and Barbara is hard to say, though, since (with the possible exception of the first), the references are all delivered to Vicki alone, so there's no chance for them to comment on whether they were there too or not. There's also a fairly clear statement of the Doctor's position on changing history when he and Vicki go to Rome, as he explicitly warns her that they mustn't interfere. Implicitly, it's also suggested that being involved without a deliberate agenda in mind is in fact all part of history in itself, since it is the Doctor who indirectly prompts the burning of Rome (as well as being responsible for the composition of a Hans Anderson story).

Another issue that's raised but not addressed is languages - Barbara insists that Vicki say 'Londinium' rather than 'London' in the market place, while at another point the team joke that they shouldn't speak French, since it hasn't been invented yet. Meanwhile, though, they're merrily conversing with the Romans in RP English. I don't know when the hand-wave that the TARDIS translates for its crew was invented, but I'm guessing it's unlikely to have come up this early, and it seemed rather odd to me to draw such attention to the issue without offering any explanation for it.

In terms of characterisation, there's plenty of meat. The plot very neatly divides up the Doctor and Vicki from Ian and Barbara, so that each pair have their own parallel adventures, never realising how close they come to one another in Nero's palace. This is particularly important for the Doctor and Vicki, who get to consolidate the relationship they'd begun in the previous story, but nice for Ian and Barbara, too, who get plenty of very intimate 'alone time' together, not to mention sharing trials, tribulations and an eventual escape. We learn more about Vicki - for example, that she's eager for adventure, and finds the quiet life of the Roman villa at the start of the story boring. Barbara's maternal side is very clearly delineated, especially in relation to Vicki, while she also transpires to be frankly drop-dead gorgeous once she's put in a bouncing hair-piece and a floaty dress rather than her usual sixties bob and polo-neck. Ian really shows himself as a man of action through a whole series of dangers, fights and daring rescues, while even the Doctor turns out to be quite the nimble little sprite, seeing off an assassin with great gusto and enjoyment. As for the Romans, the real star of the show is of course Nero (Derek Francis), who is beautifully cast and costumed as the later, plumper, 'artistic' Nero (although I know swisstone will feel obliged to step in here and point out that, strictly speaking, he's a little too old). He lives up the decadent emperor image to the nines, from his opening burp to his gold toe-nails, and could give Peter Ustinov a run for his money.

The only character moment I really didn't like was at the end of the story, when the Doctor and Vicki look back from the road-way at the burning of Rome. They're both thrilled and delighted to be seeing it, practically drawing up pop-corn and settling down in their comfy chairs, while the Doctor laughs proudly when Vicki points out that he had given Nero the idea in the first place. It's one thing to accept that a time-traveller's actions may set off historic events, good or bad - but it seems a bit much to actively revel in the process when it's causing the deaths of thousands of people. Seven's reaction to the destruction of Pompeii was quite different - and as for Ten, I'm sure he'll take it to a whole new level.

Still, on the whole, a fantastic little story, and I'm thoroughly glad I've finally got to see it.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 27th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen this one in absolutely aaaaaages! I think this was one of the ones they were able to cut corners on, budget-wise, by re-using huge stage floors, costumes and props from earlier BBC dramas. As you say, the accuracy in some of the costumes seems closer to the SCA 10-foot rule* than the hardcore re-enactment 10-inch rule*, but even so it all adds to what was, by any account, a rather sumptuous little production at (comparatively) very little cost. :)

And I know exactly what you mean about Barbara in this. It's such a huge change from her normal frumpy-and-not-in-the-interesting-way schoolmistress look. And, let's be honest, the costumes in this were rather stunning! :)

* - these are the ideas that for SCA and similar groups, if a piece of costume looks authentic at 10 feet away then it's good enough, whereas for hard-core reenactors it would have to look perfect 10 inches away - neither is a hard and fast rule, but both are decent enough guidelines.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:06 pm (UTC)
I've just been reading About Time on this story (writing up article, late, usual story), and it makes the very interesting point that it's not the nubile young Vicki that Nero lists after in this story, but Barbara. (And much the same happens in The Crusade as well.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:12 pm (UTC)
I've noticed with both Vicki and Susan that, although to our eyes they don't look it, both of them are very explicitly and consistently played as children, rather than young women - a bit like Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, or many other similar examples from the time. I think the idea of having Nero chasing her just wouldn't have occurred to the production team as appropriate.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
Yup, the borrowing thing is certainly common, and is kind of what's happening with the up-coming Pompeii episode in New season 4. I wonder if the availability of suitable sets was the entire reason why this story got made in the first place?

I want Barbara's costumes from this story! And her hair!
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC)
The idea of doing a Roman-based story had been mooted the year before, and came up again in early discussions for the second season. Verity Lambert then pushed for it to be a more comedic story, and Dennis Spooner was commissioned. Spooner was influenced by A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, and the knowledge that his neighbour Jim Dale was appearing in Carry on Cleo at the time. I'm sure that once it was underway, they went through the drama department's stores for suitable costumes and props, but I don't think awareness of the availability of these prompted the story in the first place.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:31 pm (UTC)
Ah, thanks for that background. Interesting to know.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you for that, you have saved me from making a dumb mistake.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:09 pm (UTC)
Have I? What was it?
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)
For some reason I had got the impression that the only historical characters in the story are Nero, Poppaea, and Locusta (assuming she wasn't made up by Tacitus). You've reminded me that Tigellinus is in it as well.
Jan. 27th, 2008 08:29 pm (UTC)
Not that he's much like the real Tigellinus - in fact, his name is spelt Tigilinus in the credits. He's more of a kind of scribe / secretary, and also of course dies during the unfolding of the story. But I think you're right that he is meant to be based on the historical figure - insofar as any of them are!
Feb. 4th, 2008 12:23 pm (UTC)
Having reviewed my notes, I can see why I thought the wasn't hsistorical!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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