Blurb: Italy, 64 AD. Enjoying a rare holiday with his companions, the Doctor takes Vicki to Rome, where he is mistaken for the musician Maximus Pettulian. He finds himself obliged to perform for Nero, or risk incurring the Emperor's wrath. In his absence, Ian and Barbara have been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Can they escape and find the Doctor before Rome is consumed by fire?
Format: Television drama transmitted from January 16, 1965 - February 6, 1965. Bundled with The Rescue and released on DVD on July 7, 2009.
Setting: Earth: Rome and its environs over about one month in June/July of 64 AD.
Continuity: Ian and Barbara tell Vicki that the Doctor doesn't know how to steer the TARDIS (see every story to date). There are two mutually exclusive accounts of how the TARDIS crew end up taking care of the villa in this story. The first is that they met the caretaker of the villa who had been fatally wounded by a lion and he asks them to take care of the place until the owner returns. (See the short story Romans Cutaway from the anthology More Short Trips). The other is that when the TARDIS falls at the beginning of this story it is actually in Byzantium and while the travelers are caught up in an adventure in that city a Roman Senator takes an interest in it and has it sent to his Villa and the Doctor and company go to fetch it (see Byzantium!).
DVD: In addition to the usual commentary there's a "making of" that also touches on how historically accurate the story is. The odd thing is that it takes comments about Rome under Nero from people involved in the making of other films set in the time period who had nothing to do with Doctor Who. There are also comments from a new series writer, which I find somewhat intrusive, since even though his story references this one he had nothing to do with the making of this story itself. There's also a feature on how set models worked, using the one for The Romans as an example. There's also a documentary on Roman dining habits and a retrospective on the 60's female Doctor Who companions.
Discussion: If there's one story that shows the evolution of Doctor Who behind the scenes it's The Romans. David Whitaker commissioned this story from Dennis Spooner just before he stepped down as script editor and Spooner took over the position. Previously, Spooner had written Reign of Terror in the first season. That story had comedic elements but they never seemed to gel correctly with the narrative. It's always been my opinion that Whitaker may not have been comfortable with the humor and ended up toning it down, which is why Reign appears to have such an uneven tone. That isn't a problem in the Romans, which is the first Doctor Who story to be an unabashed comedy.
Funny enough, with Doctor Who at its new headquarters even a four-part comedy story is allowed to feel like an epic. The sets and Christopher Barry's direction allows just about every scene to feel as if they're in genuinely large spaces. The villa, Nero's palace, the public square, and the trireme all seem to be as large as we'd expect. The only problem is the gladiatorial fight, which happens in such a small location that it's almost unbelievable. Barry even shows a bit of innovation by doing a sideways wipe to change scenes in episode four, which helps to give it that cinematic feel. The gladiatorial fight is actually quite well done and feels more like a real fight than anything that we've seen in the series so far. I also really like Raymond Jones' score, which is also calling to those older Hollywood Roman epics and gives Rome that large and grand feeling of a powerful empire. I do have to mention that the one downside of the DVD and the digital restoration process is that it's clear where the corners of the studio walls are in the outdoor scenes during the day. The painted backdrop has also been scuffed or dirtied in some way, so it ruins the illusion that they're actually outside. Thankfully there are very few outside shots in the daytime and those are limited to episode one, but it was glaringly obvious during my viewing of the story.
I really love how much this story devotes to the characters. The Doctor and Vicki leaving gives Ian and Barbara time together. After Barbara's infatuation with Leon Colbert and her argument with Ian about his death one might have doubted that they loved each other but this story puts paid to that. The two lounge around the villa by themselves, getting a little tipsy on wine and playing little jokes on each other. Barbara even combs Ian's hair to make him look more like a Roman. The joke that Barbara plays on Ian and then later he on her about the food being in the fridge and having them go to get it only to stop short is great. You can believe two time travelers might do something like that and that someone might fall for it. If ever two people felt like a couple who weren't one officially it's these two and I do think that if the slave traders hadn't shown up when they did that the two of them would have almost certainly consummated the arrangement. The rest of the story is about how strongly Ian and Barbara feel for each other. She never gives up that he'll come and rescue her and Ian is constantly thinking of how he can get to her, even when it means going to Rome and into greater danger. For someone who is a huge fan of the Ian and Barbara relationship as I am there's nothing better than that. I really think that this may be when they start to realize that each of them has feelings for the other.
The Doctor and Vicki aren't left out. There storyline takes them into Rome and the court of Caesar. I absolutely adore watching William Hartnell who is clearly enjoying playing a more comedic story. His use of puns is tremendous. Vicki travels with him and "watches all the liars" being a pun on the word "lyre". How he constantly outwits Nero is hilarious first playing to the other's vanity and then the sheer audacity as he pulls off the plot of the Emperor's New Clothes except with music. You can just about believe that the pompous aristocrats of Nero's court might just be unable to admit that they can't hear anything because doing so would admit that their own inadequacies. I also love how it so shows the Doctor trait of just acting with such conviction that everyone around you believes exactly what you're saying. I also love the scenes between he and Ian before he leaves and Ian is bewildered as the Doctor leaves from one place and comes up behind him from another location. There's also the beautiful scene with Nero after the Doctor discovers what the emperor has in store for him and he suggests that his concert might be a "roaring success" amongst other double entendres that is just split your sides funny. I also love that the Doctor proclaims his love for the gentle art of fisticuffs and his declaration that he is so used to outwitting his opponents that he forgets the joys of overcoming them physically is just such a wonderful idea that puts all kinds of images in your mind's eye that it's just wonderful. The only odd thing is at the end of the story where after Vicki has convinced him that he causes the Great Fire of Rome that he begins giggling like a madman. The first Doctor has always been a bit of a pyromaniac and has always seemed to appreciate some petty vandalism but some commentators have been upset at this apparent lack of concern over the lives lost in the fire. I really don't think that's the implication of the scene though. I think that the Doctor is laughing at the sheer notion that he caused a major historical event that he already knew about rather than that he thinks that the fire itself is funny.
Spooner continues to develop Vicki here. She comes off as extremely naive and excitable, which makes her seem very immature. As I've said before if they were going for something younger like 13 or 14 it might just work but Maureen O'Brien doesn't look like a child that young. She also seems to think that killing Nero isn't that big of a deal and seems to feel that it's intrinsically superior to letting a slave die even though she knows nothing of the situation. The fact that she doesn't even seem to consider the damage to history nor the fact that Locusta herself would likely get killed for her seem either fanatical or naive. Indeed, this story has me wonder about her father and the group the colonists that were going to Astra. Her assumption that those in power must necessarily be evil makes me wonder if they weren't part of some terrorist group that was escaping the empire. It would explain some of Mr Bennett's abilities in the previous story. I do rather like how Vicki plays off the Doctor though. She seems to very easily adapt to his lead and they make a wonderful double act as the Doctor tries to sell his bluff that he's Maximus Pettulian.
The guest cast is fantastic and that's mainly down to one man. Derek Francis' portrayal of Nero as an overgrown child who no one had ever said "no" to is fantastic. His mercurial moods and fits of temper can be both creepy and funny and the way that he stares at the plans of Rome as they burn with pure adoration is an excellent way of showing just how mad the man is. He has a slave drink from a goblet that he's just told was poisoned just to see if it's true and he stabs a guard for "not fighting hard enough". You see the real menace in this man even though for most of the time he's depicted as a pompous fool. The fact that he's also portrayed as a henpecked husband in total fear of his wife Poppaea is also hilarious as you realize that the most powerful man in the world at that time is limited by the same domestic concerns as anyone else. Poppaea is played with a sinister sincerity and her jealousy of Nero's attentions on Barbara is played in an understated manner, which makes it seem all the more dangerous. The rest of the guest cast is adequate but these two really deserve some praise for an outstanding performance.
The Romans is a bit of a departure for Doctor Who at this point because it is not 100% historically accurate. Limitations on studio size meant that Nero's banquet in Maximus Pettulian's honor depicts everyone sitting in chairs but Romans would have lounged on sofas. Nero likely was not the one who set the fire of Rome as other accounts place him at Antium. However, I give this one a pass as the charge that he was involved is part of history and one never knows how much history is garbled. Nero had also suspended gladiatorial combats to the death. Nero had a fascination with Hellenistic culture and the Greeks never let such games go to the death.
There are things that don't make sense, such as why does the TARDIS materialize in such a precarious position? We never see it do this before or after this story and the assumption is that it only arrives in "safe locations". David Whitaker's novelization of The Crusade even mentions such a device to ensure that the TARDIS doesn't materialize on a busy street in front of traffic. The Roman officer says that he's trying to kill Maximus Pettulian because the Emperor pays well when musicians better than him are put out of the way but then in the last episode we're told that the man knew about the plot against the Emperor and that's why he wanted to kill Maximus. I suppose they could both be true, since he obviously didn't tell the Emperor about the plot and figured that he could do his duty and get a profit for doing so. That gladiatorial scene really is so glaringly unbelievable because there's no way that they'd let the Emperor so close to men fighting like that as they'd do exactly what Ian and Delos do and attack the Emperor himself. It's a real shame because the fighting itself is good but the studio limitations make it look so fake that it's laughable. Then there's the fact that the slave trader, the owner of the gladiatorial school, and the captain of Nero's guard is the same man. The first two I can believe but I can't imagine that he's also the captain of Nero's guard. How does he run things when he's off slave trading? It looks like someone saved money by merging two parts rather than casting someone new in episode four to be the captain of Nero's guard, but it just makes no sense when you watch it.
There is one scene that deserves special mention. It's in the beginning of episode three as Barbara has just been introduced to Nero and Poppaea as a new slave. After Poppaea leaves, Nero chases Barbara, clearly infatuated with her. The scene is played for laughs but it underlies a grizzly reality of what the man will do once he catches up with her. Many people have chastised this scene for making rape the subject of a joke. Others have defended it on the grounds that other shows did similar things at the time and that it clearly wasn't the production team's thought to traumatize anyone. Others have asserted that it's no more than that Nero wants a kiss. The problem is that it doesn't matter what other shows were doing at the time and if the production team didn't know what they were insinuating then they were amazingly naive. The real fact of the matter is that in a master/slave relationship in any culture there exists the real chance of abuse. If Nero is supposed to have only wanted a kiss that should have been made more clear. Instead he tries to corner her on the bed which implies something else. I must admit that when I was a younger man I watched this scene and saw it for the comic romp that it's meant to be but in successive years I'm unable to view it that way. Still, I'm torn on this because black humor is predicated on the use of truly dark events so that the audience feels a release when the absurd happens afterwards, so whether or not something like this is fair game for comedy, I leave for others to decide, but I do know that this scene can have a strong impact on those who have felt some form of sexual abuse.
Final Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: Hilarious! Dennis Spooner gives us a story that is an outright comedy but doesn't seem odd. All of the characters are exactly as they've been depicted from day one and Barbara and Ian get a little closer, yet the strength of the story is showing how versatile Doctor Who can be injecting black humor and showing some of the really dark stains of history in a funny light. Hartnell absolutely shines in this one and if you don't come out of it a Hartnell fan then I don't think that anything will make you one.