In fact, The Romans marks a number of firsts for Doctor Who, and even a couple of one-offs. From the start, the story doesn’t even attempt to tie up its literal cliffhanger from the conclusion of The Rescue. Instead, we fade up on the Doctor and his three friends enjoying a meal in a luxury Roman habitat. It’s a refreshing change of tack to see the Doctor appear so unconcerned about the preceding week’s peril, and is the first story to suggest that the TARDIS is a lot stronger than it looks. Stories like The Curse Of Peladon and Frontios would build on this. Who would have thought that a rickety old Police Box could stand up to a fall down a whacking great chasm?
Another first is the unusual story structure, which comprises multiple stories in one. The Doctor and Vicki get their own adventure, as do Ian (who ends up with new buddy Delos) and Barbara (who becomes entangled in the amorous pursuits of Nero himself). What’s more, Barbara is in exactly the same place as the Doctor and Vicki, but amazingly, the two parties never meet. This is one of the very few stories to try such a trick, and in fact, it works brilliantly. Imagine the viewers screaming to their TV sets to urge Barbara or the Doctor just to stick around that little bit longer to meet up. By the end of the story, both parties have reunited, blissfully unaware of each others’ adventures.
The main first is, of course, the humour, and while The Reign Of Terror attempted this genre with mixed results, The Romans gets it spot on. While John Lucarotti or David Whitaker may have depicted Nero in a more serious light, Dennis Spooner does the opposite and presents him as a bumbling, sexist old fool. He thinks nothing of going behind his wife Poppaea’s back and attempting (in vain) to seduce Barbara, is perfectly happy to throw the Doctor into the lion’s den after the Time Lord makes a fool of him at a banquet, and also gleefully casts Rome into a fiery inferno. Credit should also be given to Derek Francis for his amusing portrayal of the emperor, and while it’s all obvious farce, it’s still never less than enjoyable.
This story works because of William Hartnell’s performance. Hartnell, in fact, had been long associated with comedy – for example, he had played Sgt Bullimore in The Army Game and had also appeared in Carry On Sergeant. Up to now in Doctor Who though, Hartnell had never really got the chance to show his talents for comedy. In The Romans, he’s on top form, whether he’s all too aware of what Nero has in store for him in the lion’s den (and producing some all-too obvious puns in the bargain) or when he’s hilariously playing the lyre (in a neat homage to The Emperor’s New Clothes). While there are one or two obvious fluffs (“Impossibissity” or the scene when he intrudes on Michael Peake’s cue after missing his own), all in all, The Romans proves to be a great showcase for the main man, and manages to steer the character of the first Doctor into previously uncharted territory.
Interestingly, the humour works in context, because there are enough serious moments to balance out the comedy. What’s more, it’s subtly done too, for example when Tavius reveals himself to be a Christian, after he helps Ian and Barbara to escape from the clutches of Nero. Ian’s storyline is also pretty gruelling after he is bought as a slave, and forced to deal with the prospect of fighting for his life or becoming lion food. The Romans never goes overboard with the serious tone, but manages to keep it in the background.
Talking of Ian, the relationship between himself and Barbara has never been more apparent. Looking at the two in The Romans, you’d think that they were a married couple, joking to each other about non-existent fridges and experiencing Roman combovers. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill are at their best, and give Ian and Barbara refreshingly natural characterisation that always feels real. Even Vicki works in this story, since she’s not written as a screamer: more a comedic foil for the Doctor, and so, is less irritating than in other stories.
Production wise, this story looks fantastic. It’s a cliché of course, but put the BBC in charge of a historical production, and they turn up trumps. Raymond Cusick’s designs are marvellous, richly detailed and very convincing for the time. It’s too bad that these historicals weren’t produced in colour, since we’re missing out on all the subtleties of the sets. Christopher Barry, too, handles the action and the comedy very well indeed. The superimposed map locations are very effective, and like Marco Polo, are quite ahead of their time. The fight sequences are well done (and nicely set up by stunt man and Delos, Peter Diamond), and form a good counterpart to the humour of the piece.
There’s a refreshing holiday feel to The Romans. It’s nice to see the Doctor and co indulge in a bit of chilled out downtime, and taking a break from saving the universe. If only taking a holiday was as simple as going by TARDIS. No long aeroplane queues. No painstaking security searches at the airport. No yobs on the aeroplane, swilling beer and leering at the stewardess. And best of all, it’s absolutely free. I’d bet that Doctor Who Tours would pull in a fair bit of custom, and if the experience is half as fun as The Romans, then I’d sign up straight away.
* Friends, Romans, Countrymen! My Doctor Who ebook guides for the 3rd Doctor and the first half of the 4th Doctor years are out now at Amazon for very affordable prices!