The Romans

Written by:
Dennis Spooner
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1965
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Amazon

The last two or three years have seen a mild - yet still significant - upturn in the appreciation of Billy. He's starting to do better in the polls, people are starting to speak up for him, and even the once-panned The Gunfighters now threatens the top fifty in surveys. This is all good stuff, and brings a warm glow to my cynical heart, but stories like The Romans are still nowhere near as popular as they should be.

Christopher Barry's clever direction sees it open out with a fall from of a cliff of the Tardis, which then cuts to Ian's still face. However, the camera pans out and we see he's not dead, but merely sleeping nearly a month later. Yes, this is a "Tardis crew on holiday" story, a comedy that has wit developing organically from the narrative, rather than bolted-on "gags" at every turn. Self-conscious at times it might be, but it also has mountains of charm and, say what you like about Hartnell, he might not be the best actor in the lead, but I'm damn sure he's the funniest. When the various Doctors are reduced to one-line stereotypes (and how much do I get sick of hearing the second Doctor being described as a "Cosmic Hobo"?) it belittles the various dimensions of their characters. Yes, the first Doctor could be grumpy, but that was just one small facet of his make-up. He's also deeply warm and emotional, and Hartnell's delivery of lines like "My dear boy, there's a great difference between resting and being sort of.. .bone idle" is priceless.

There's even a hint of a sexual relationship between Ian and Barbara, where she remarks on what a "splendid-looking Roman" he makes and combs his hair for him. The next scene opens with them both resting, possibly in a post-coital position. I can maybe see why this story isn't to everyone's taste as it's more of a light entertainment than a dramatic piece, and there's precious little narrative tension. But this is still fine television, and, though it has dropped in my estimation due to one too many repeat viewings, it still gets a well above average rating:
* * * *

For some reason this episode is the only one of the story where Billy blows any of his lines. We get minor amusements like "My dear, it was an accepter - accepted thing in this age to hire an assassin. Prefembly - preferably, someone dumb"; and "That, your Excellency, would be an impossissib - impossibility." Yet we also get my third-favourite Hartnell fluff of all time, opposite Michael Peake. Hartnell is by now well into role as the Doctor, and wants to prove he can not only mess up his own lines, but those of fellow cast members, too. Peake as Tavius enters his first scene with Bill by proclaiming: "There was trouble, but I settled it." There follows a three-second pause, which might not sound that long; but by the look on Peake's face obviously seemed an eternity as he waits for Hartnell to give him his cue. It doesn't happen, so he carries on anyway, giving us "He's in the Opoditarium". Except that now Bill's remembered his "What happened?" line and decides to say it over the top of him. Magnificent.

If there's a fault with this story then it's that the humour, while often witty, also has a tendency to become broad. Witness the Doctor's fight scene, the comedy overegged by Raymond Jones's jaunty incidental music. Yet the sets, while not over expensive, are nice for the time, and Barry's use of dissolves more than makes up for any stock footage used. If you've read any of my Hartnell reviews before this, you'll know how much I love Jacqueline Hill as Barbara. So it's this respect for her that forbids me from making an Imac reference about her close-up. It's cruel and unkind, and there wouldn't have been any wax in Ancient Rome.
* * * ½

"The more I… the sooner I do it, the better." In a contradiction of my episode two review, that's a Hartnell fluff from the start of this episode, a minor stumble that I'd previously overlooked. Yet everyone's doing it here, perfectly illustrating how rushed filming was. Another example is Barry's frequent use of zooms, which rarely come off due to the inferior equipment being used. It's as if Chris's ambition is far in advance of the reality, a fact also flagged up by the obvious use of a photo backdrop to make up one of Nero's hallways. One final technical note is Nero's "Go away!" to a drink server when he's with Barbara - the sound bleeds both before and after he says it. Was it a fault on the original recording, or a fault with the video release?

The real innovative majesty of Spooner's script sees the Tardis crew inhabiting closely-knit yet separate plots, unaware of each other's presence and oblivious to each other's experience even at the end. Witness how the Doctor and Vicki were seconds away from seeing Barbara as a slave in the previous episode - even Tarantino would wet his knickers over that. Here we get Barbara fleeing through corridors narrowly missing the Doctor the whole time. It's a clever twist on the usual workings of a Doctor Who story, yet also disturbing. With Derek Francis hamming up his role as Nero, we're suddenly encouraged to find a would-be rapist uproariously funny in the grand spirit of drawerroom farce. Needless to say, it doesn't come off, and, while rape presented discretely for historical accuracy may have a place in family viewing (see The Time Meddler) having it sent up as something to amuse is really quite unsettling.

The worst thing about all this is that you could describe it as an archetypal episode three with lots of running up and down corridors - only not in the same sense as 90% of other Doctor Who stories. However, despite any shortcomings and qualms I may have, the natural pace and flow of Spooner's dialogue, mixed with Barry's direction and the strong acting of the regulars means its still above average quality for Who. Plus, we get the Doctor playing the lyre - what more do you want?
* * * ½

I really don't care much for Derek Francis as Nero, I've decided. On a technical level his acting is fine, but he pitches it so basely at the lowest denominator, playing for instead of against the laughs. While all around him are attempting to play their parts as genuine roles, Francis is only to keen to include the perceived audience with every last nuance. Also troubling is the Doctor poking fun at Tavius's perceived intelligence throughout. It doesn't come off because the whole time you can see Peake's thinking "You're saying I'm thick? At least I can remember my bloody lines!"

The action for this one resumes in an arena so small it could double as a boot cupboard. It might not exactly be Ridley Scott's Gladiator but which is more fun? "I've got a friend who specialises in trouble". I normally hate aggrandising lines about the Doctor, but that one really works for me. Also of note is a wipe when Ian and Delos sneak into Nero's palace… I don't know how many times such a thing was attempted during the era, but I don't recall it in any other Hartnell story offhand. It certainly isn't in the next one that's for sure.
* * * ½

A vastly underrated and deceptively clever Doctor Who story. It perhaps hasn't lived up to repeated viewings as much as I'd hoped, but this is still extremely undervalued.
* * * *