Friday, 12 April 2013

The Romans written by Dennis Spooner and directed by Christopher Barry

This story in a nutshell: A trip to Rome proves to be a riotous experience for the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki!

Hmm: Given the chance to play comedy William Hartnell craps all over his descendants by lighting up the screen with his delightful performance. What do you think he is – a goldfish? He commands any scene he is present in and remains lovable throughout, especially when paired off with Vicki as the two of them scuttle of to Rome like a pair of excited kids. People always label the first Doctor as a crotchety old man and whilst there are still hints of that in his character he is far more of a lovable old Grandad figure in season two. Whilst the stories are variable I would say that Hartnell is at his height in his second year. I love him pretending to be insulted by Ian and Barbara and having a childish strop, the chemistry between these actors glows on screen. His eyes are positively aflame when he realises he has found a way into Nero’s palace. Few things in life are more pleasurable than watching the first Doctor kick the crap out a mute Roman soldier - he is so constantly outwitting the competition he tends to forget the delights and satisfaction of the gentle art of fisticuffs! The Doctor used to teach the mountain mauler of Montana (even Vicki pisses herself at that one!). Who is he to worry about something so small as being murdered? I howl with laughter every time I see Hartnell going to sit down on the imperial stool, silent moments of comedy that add to the overall experience. He plays up the comedy of this story for every laugh he can get, even managing to upstage Francis on the odd occasion. The Doctor and Nero are like a pair of bachelors, chilling out in the steam room, playing their instruments and one trying desperately to avoid being involved in the others bawdy love life (Hartnell’s I wanted a word with Nero but I’ll come back later he seems to be rather busy’ is spot on!). Hartnell has the honour of being the first topless Doctor but he certainly wont be the last. He specialises in trouble, dives in and usually finds a way. Watching Derek Francis and William Hartnell playing the Doctor and Nero pretending to be loved up whilst one plans to escape as soon as possible and the other plans to chuck him in the arena with the lions is one of the most pleasurable bits of Doctor Who I have ever witnessed. This is Doctor Who being played as a historical sitcom and the performances delight. He’s always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste and generally palatable. The Doctor refuses to believe that the great fire of Rome was all his idea but secretly loves the idea! His giggly little admission to the camera when Vicki is out of earshot is just between him and the audience.

Schoolteachers in Love: Let's not beat about the bush, these two are desperately in love with each other and loving every second of their time in Rome where they get to set up house (complete with irritating child and grumpy Granddad). Just look at the pair of them lying about blissed out on wine, flirting outrageously and chasing each other about! Thank goodness the slave traders interrupted or who knows where this lashup might have ended! Barbara thinks that he looks like a splendid Roman and takes the first opportunity to play about with his hair. We are only a heartbeat away from their departure from the series and it is wonderful to see the pair of them so intoxicated with each other at this stage of the game. Whilst they are both concerned that the Doctor might not wait for them they spend the entire story, once separated, obsessed with finding each other. Not the Doctor or Vicki, each other. Ian is definitely living up to his role as the action hero of the group; surviving a shipwreck, evading the guards and taking on his friend at the arena. Nero’s eyes light up with excitement when he sees that the beautiful Barbara has been employed as his new slave and it takes a good pinch on the arse from his wife to remind him that she is there! Jackie Hill really is game for anything that this show throws at her; be it high drama (An Unearthly Child, The Aztecs, The Crusade), action adventure (The Dalek Invasion of Earth), psychedelia (The Edge of Destruction, The Web Planet, The Space Museum) or out and out farce (The Romans, The Chase). She adopts to each of these styles like a duck to water and proves a continual joy to watch in this bawdy gem. In just two stories time she would be chased around streets in a very different historical period at the mercy of El Akir where the emphasis is completely differently but he she is lapping up the chance to run around, whooping with delight and attempting to escape the clutches of the salacious Nero.

Alien Orphan: It's Vicki’s first adventure in the TARDIS and all she wants excitement and adventure and instead she is trapped in Ancient Rome while the travellers take a holiday. Vicki needs to stick on re-runs of Bargain Hunt on the Time/Space Visualiser because she clearly has no idea about the art of haggling. She squeaks like a little mouse when she gets excited, it is an oddly endearing quirk. Vicki clearly hasn’t quite got the hang of this time travel lark yet – almost murdering one of the greatest figures in Rome’s history because she thinks his attitude is ‘a bit unfair.’

Great Gags: The Romans is without a doubt one of the funniest Doctor Who stories and it dresses up its comedy in some very dark historical detail to give it some edge. The individual gags are priceless so let us bask in them. Barbara sends Ian to the fridge to get some ice (‘Here’s to the first fridge!’), Barbara raises a pot to save Ian and ends up smashing it over his head (I love how the story mixes drama and comedy so successfully in this scene), the awesomely staged Carry On fight between the Doctor and the mute with Vicki running in at the end with the pot to smash over his head, Nero killing off his slave Tigilunus just because he's annoying which is surely one of the darkest jokes the series ever presented, Vicki exchanging the poisons and nearly killing Nero (he grasps Vicki around the shoulders he proclaims ‘If only I could get my hands on whoever was responsible!’), the kinky chase scene (‘That strange young woman has been chasing me around all day!’), the steam room sequence with the Doctor and Nero constantly shoving the sword in each others faces, the Doctor revealing his knowledge of Nero’s plans for him (‘You want me to play in the arena!’), Hartnell’s spot on reaction to the assassination plot (‘Kill Nero! I beg your pardon?’), the clever way the narrative keeps our two sets of heroes just a hairs breadth away from seeing each other and the gorgeous reaction the Doctor has when Vicki suggests the great fire of Rome is all his fault! The final gag sees the Doctor appalled that Ian and Barbara have been lazing about whilst they have been caught up in all the intrigue of Nero’s palace. It isn't just comedy for it's own sake, it's cleverly woven into a highly engaging narrative and each laugh adds to the overall experience.

The Good Stuff: I liked the clever juxtaposition of the TARDIS falling off a cliff and cutting to Ian apparently in a state of unconsciousness when in fact it is set weeks later, the schoolteacher lounging about in their villa.  How marvellous to open with the travellers having gotten all the exploration out of the way, fully settled in a holiday destination and lounging around stuffing their faces. Nice that we get to see the toothless old lyre player before the Doctor replaces him. It might be a bit insensitive to William Hartnell but they really aren't that different in appearance. I love how this story isn’t afraid to play out as a comedy but still educate in the more brutal aspects of the period. Spooner includes slave trading, woman being lusted after, torture in the galley, the nasty business of being thrown in the arena to fight for your life for the amusement of the crowds and all the unpleasantness with the poisons. Derek Francis offers up a fat, rude, horny, belching talentless Nero. And he's just perfect. I cannot think of a Doctor Who story that flaunts rumpy pumpy with such aplomb as The Romans outside of a Steven Moffat script (see how well it can be done, Steven?). Nero tippy toes around like a perverted version of the Child Catcher as Barbara tries to clean up his room and as soon as he has her in his clutches he tosses her onto the bed for a play around! If this wasn't being played for laughs it would be as distasteful as similar moments of attempted seduction in The Keys of Marinus and The Crusade. It's a brilliant sequence, high farce all the way and always find myself belly laughing whenever I watch it. It’s the reactions that make it work…Jacqueline Hill’s ‘oohs!’, William Hartnell chipping in with his what an extraordinary fellow!’ and of course once Nero has caught Barbara and his wife walks in…’Oh hello. Did you want something?’ This is Doctor Who venturing into Carry On territory and pulling it off with some aplomb. All this and 'close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise!’ Everything about the Doctor’s grand performance with the lyre is hilarious (‘he’s alright but he’s not all that good’).

The Bad Stuff: Whilst the stock footage of a storm lashed sea and the galley set are perfectly convincing the illusion was shattered when stagehands started throwing buckets of water into shot! Nobody seems to be reclining at the banquet – I’m certain tables and chairs weren't a staple of Roman culture.

The Shallow Bit: Ian is dirty, stubbly and has his legs on display – no wonder Barbara is feeling a little bit frisky at the end of this tale!

Result: I remember when I first showed The Romans to Simon. It was only the second Hartnell story I dared to let him watch and with great trepidation because of his love of modern, glossier television. He was smirking throughout but made no real comment about its content. When it was over he turned to me and declared it one of the most delightful Doctor Who stories he had ever watched despite the fact that barely anything seemed to happen in it. Riding on its own charm was the exact description, I seem to recall. It's one of those black and white stories that skips by effortlessly with the gorgeous regular cast delivering sparkling performances, a deliciously funny and smart script and some clever direction that suggests a much bigger world than the one it is capable of producing. Some will tell you that comedy and Doctor Who don’t go together but I would happily list ten humorous tales that prove the flaw in that argument and this gem would be chief amongst their number. I think a lot of people have been surprised at their reaction to this tale because it is another one of those stories that Howe, Stammers and Walker (who are of course as entitled to their opinion as anybody) trounced all over in their much-loved Handbooks, cementing an opinion of a generation of fans that couldn't access the story at the time. There's a brutality to the story that matches the comedy and ensures that things don't get too easy to watch and much of that comedy is of the blackest variety which really appeals to my (fairly) sick sense of humour. Vicki gets to have a real adventure in history, Ian and Barbara get to bask in the comfort of their relationship before being torn apart and proving their affection by spending four episodes trying to reach other again and the Doctor has rarely been this delightful, sparring with Nero, meddling with history (the old hypocrite) and generally having a whale of a time juggling intrigue and mayhem. Intelligent, clever, hilarious and educational, The Romans is a stirring highlight of the second season: 10/10


Nonie said...

This was already in my Netflix queue, but your review moved it up to the top of the list :)

Joe Ford said...

I hope you get as much pleasure from it as I do, Nonie :-)