Saturday, 9 May 2020


First broadcast Jan/ Feb 1965
Written by Dennis Spooner
Contains more of Ye Olde Plot Spoilers

”Got a funny side to it, hasn't it?”
- Ian

What Has ‘The Romans’ Done For Us?

With popular culture, what’s normally more interesting isn’t what it says about the society that surrounds it but how it epitomises clashes. Its not a mirror but a lightning rod, not an essay but an arena. If it was a weather map, it would be one showing up the occluded fronts. In the case of ‘Doctor Who’, the question isn’t how well it reflects the post-war liberal consensus, to which the answer would be an all-too-easy ‘very well’. The real stuff happens when new social trends come along, the show feels obliged to take them up as well, and gets all bent out of shape.

Arguably, this first happens with the first ever episode and the unearthliness of Susan, but that gets reined back pretty quickly. And besides her role in the story is more an ambassador of the Sixties arriving in what's essentially the Fifties.

But if not then, when did the Sixties (as we now think of them) first show up? When rising consumption and increased aspiration saw a break with the post-war world so fixated on asceticism and Nazi analogies? El Sandifer takes a stab: “anyone wondering when drugs entered the 'Doctor Who' production office can probably make a pretty safe bet that it's somewhere in the vicinity the tentacle rave bouncy castle at the end of 'The Web Planet' and the introduction of cross-dressing comedy [in ‘The Crusade’].”

Okay, by plumping for ‘The Romans’ I’m only lighting the joss sticks one story earlier. Perhaps the more significant thing is that it happened not during a science fiction story (so easily associated with psychedelia or pop surrealism) but one of those supposedly stuffy historicals.

Outwardly 'The Romans' is very similar to Dennis Spooner’s predecessor 'Who' script, 'The Reign of Terror'. The Tardis crew land near a villa outside Rome instead of a house outside Paris. From there they split up, escape and get recaptured, spend long periods working out how to rescue each other, while progressively trading their way up from minor and incidental characters to genuinely historical ones. Then, when things get hot, they leg it. So we're just swapping sans-culottes for togas, Robespierre for Nero?

Not really. For all the formal similarities, this story feels quite different. While 'Reign of Terror' threw up occasional and incidental comic characters, 'The Romans unabashedly avoids all serious intent. It starts as it means to go on when it resolves the cliffhanger from the previous story. Or rather it doesn’t, it just shrugs it off, yawningly uninterested in such things. And instead tries a grape.

Finding The New in the Old

And let's remember those Romans were not just a beacon of early civilisation but did things for us. It was they who brought that light to our darkened isle. (At least in official story.) This is like a thumbed nose to all that classicism, graffiti on those schoolbooks which loftily explained what the Romans had done to us. Possibly used buy Barbara for her charges back in Coal Hill school.

But of course the expectation of toga-sporting soliloquies from gesticulating thesps that the title would have conjured up - that was the fuel to the fire. As said of 'Unearthly Child' the “basis of swinging London was non-swinging London - one relied upon the other as a drab backdrop against which to parade its futuristic sheen.” The toga-sporting Romans become like the dancing policemen in the Beatles' 'I Am the Walrus' video. The original idea had been to parody the 1951 film 'Quo Vadis', much as 'Carry on Cleo' (1964) had been a skit on 'Cleopatra' (1963).

'Tribe of Gum's stone age setting was – to put it kindly - not entirely credible. 'Reign of Terror' was a hackneyed take on Revolutionary France, history corroded into theme park by countless adventure stories. But they were a straight-faced take on such things, a jobbing writer's best guess, which contemporary audiences most likely took as intended. Here there's only the most perfunctory pretense they actually visit Ancient Rome, the place Mary Beard bikes round to read us inscriptions. It doesn't just incorporate farce elements. Where they go is the land of farce.

So it doesn't matter Nero is nothing like the historical Nero. He only has to be the Nero of popular misconception, a fat, middle-aged, megalomaniac louche, full of capricious whim and petty vengeance. Rather than some annunciating Rada type he's played by 'Carry On' regular Derek Francis (watch out for those!), who first emerges chewing on a chicken wing.

In fact we're better off asking which of the 'classic historicals' this is most unlike. Its tempting to contrast things to Spooner's earlier 'Reign of Terror', and we've already done so. But that was both the epitome of the re-enactment historical and the beginning of its subversion, Napoleon turning up to look like Napoleon while meanwhileadventuring Aristos play at 'Scarlet Pimpernel' games of hide-and-seek. (And, in something we'll come onto, it sets things up for Spooner's next assault on the classic historical.) 

Its equally tempting to choose 'The Aztecs' as, in something we'll look into, its rules are expressly flouted. (“You can't rewrite history, Barbara. The consequences would be too hysterical to contemplate!”) But the story which wins the Most Exactly Unlike crown is one yet to come - 'The Crusades', with its grand figures uttering heightened speeches at important historical junctures.

And yet the beauty of the concept is at the same time its a take-down its entirely fitting. For the Romans... the actual Romans loved farce and would have recognised every beat here. Characters are forever missing each other in rooms with multiple entrances. (Ian has gone to one door for the Doctor to come out of another before the first episode is even half-way through.) And even when they do meet they generally talk at cross purposes. Mistaken identities abound.

Despite its initial mandate as 'serious SF', 'Doctor Who' had never been at all interested in positing what life might be like on Mars. But it became increasingly keen on asking what might be going on elsewhere in the TV schedules, with a view to trying on their clothes. And the farce was a huge influence on that TV staple the sitcom. A link not only made here. The stage version of 'A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum' had come to London in '63, with the film following in '66.

Farce was, after all, created 
partly to derive maximum usage from limited numbers of actors and sets. Unable to perpetuate an illusion of realism, it instead blows up its own unreality. Unlikely and contrived events are accumulated and accentuated to amuse us. The appeal of farce is the opposite to the appeal of its ancient corollary, tragedy. Tragedy involves us, asking us to identify with the plight of characters who seem at the mercy of fate. In 'The Aztecs', for example, we're invited to feel Barbara's frustration that her good intentions don't bring results. 

With farce, we exult in being out of the action and seated in an audience, enjoying the removed perspective granted us by our seats. Events on stage become a kind of tangled puzzle, to which only our particular vantage point provides the key. The pleasure in seeing the Doctor and Vicki missing Barbara in the slave market lies in us missing none of it.

The Impetuous Doctor

Yet where farce really stands or falls is on the quality of the performance, which the audience needs to distract them from its inherently contrived nature. You could hardly call this ‘acting’, it’s more a matter of how much charisma the performers can invest into their stock characters.

And Hartnell shines here. We don't think to question, for example, that the aged Doctor is suddenly something of a champion wrestler who taught the Mountain Mauler of Montana, when in the previous story he’d been unable to fend off Bennett. It would be like asking how they can all get so split up and end up in the vicinity of one another anyway. All roads lead to Rome. Especially in farce.

Its striking the degree to which the Doctor is so driven by impetuous curiosity and mischievous play-acting, and so undriven by any kind of moral purpose. Rather than the emerging interventionist of 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' he seems closest to the early Doctor, the “blood-on-this-knife” Doctor of 'Tribe of Gum'.

Pretending to be a man who has just been assassinated purely to see where it takes him, he's adventuresome without necessarily being heroic. He's as amateurish as ever. While Hartnell's ailing memory had previously been incorporated into the scripts, here it’s given it's most in-story function - he's constantly unable to remember the name of the duffer he's impersonating. But at the same time he's brimming with cunning, and expertly plays those around him.

In the first Troughton story (to come, honest!) he takes up the badge of the bumped-off Examiner and promptly starts examining. While Hartnell shows not the slightest interest in offing Nero or destablising his regime, however blackly its painted. At one point, he even saves Nero from poisoning. He chooses to take the road to Rome, is dutifully handed his mission card, then simply refuses to play it. As far as the development of the show's formula goes, it almost feels like its being deliberately screwed with.

This effective amorality, this sense that the Doctor is free to follow his whims while others are mired in historical purpose, isn't so far from making him a kind of geriatric bohemian. And those he tricks into applauding his non-compositions are the clueless squares. This is Hartnell at his most impish, most tricksterish. Years before any suggestion he had an elongated lifespan, a sharp young mind and thumping heart are contained in that old body.

This is most apparent when, rather than stopping the Great Fire he starts it. Inadvertently, but on finding out he still succumbs to childlike glee. Rewriting time has gone from cast-iron no-no to sniggery jape, like doing your tax returns late or sneaking off down the pub while the missus thinks you're walking the dog.

His shining does, however, put others in the shade. Vicki is less his companion or even assistant, and more an on-stage audience - saying “what's that Doctor?”, “what are you doing now Doctor?” and the like. And her tagging-along, established here, becomes a habit. The honorary grand-daughter will spend more time in his shadow than the actual grand-daughter did.

Meanwhile Ian still seems insistent he’s in a serious drama despite all the signs to the contrary, beset by travails which mostly take the form of found footage. (Perhaps it was thought such scenes played better to William Russell's style.)

And notably its the Doctor's story you remember. In fact, at the end Ian doesn't even get to tell his.

Sights of the Sixties

Let’s return to and modify the original question? What does 'The Romans' do for 'Doctor Who'? Though this is an above-par effort, though there will be effective successor stories, the overall answer is “not so much”. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is “of its time”. With the Doctor not orienting himself around the wanderer/interventionist axis, that when seen with hindsight seems such a through-line, it feels more like a side-step the Sixties that a stride in the development of 'Doctor Who'. You have been watching a piece of 1965.

Sidney Newman commissioned the show as part of his shake up the fusty Beeb, now it had to compete with the commercial channel ITV. And so he did his best to enlist others in his vein, commenting: “I rejected the traditional drama types who did children's serials, and said that I wanted somebody who'd be prepared to break rules in doing the show. Somebody young with a sense of 'today' - the early 'Swinging London' days." Except he probably didn’t, as London wasn’t called a “Swinging City” until ‘Time’ christened it that in 1966.

And we all slip into such teleological conception of time, where the Sixties had a purpose which was to bring things closer to today. And of course that's just not how it works. The irony is that the most reactionary elements are often the very stuff which would have seemed so modern to a contemporary audience. Take the laugh-a-minute scenes of Nero sexually pursuing Barbara. Barbara's story essentially bisects both Ian's adventure and the Doctor's farce, which only makes the suggestion of rape harder to parse.

And this after the sexual threats made to her by the villainous Vasor in 'Keys of Marinus' were were portrayed as genuinely menacing. But this presentation of sexual subjects, undisguised but still seen as a ripe subject for tittering, that would have slotted straight into the TV schedules of the day.

And the story's other great weakness is the other time it tries to take itself seriously - the rather daft reveal that Tavis has been helping them due to secret Christianity. This scene is oddly jarring, like something from a schlocky Hollywood movie stuffed in the middle of a Roman farce. Perhaps what’s most notable is that it’s so similar to the Christianity of ‘Star Trek’s Roman episode, ‘Bread and Circuses’ - despite the two being so different in just about any other way. (‘Bread and Circuses’ is essentially a parallel Earth story played for drama, with an unbroken Roman empire.) 

In both Christianity is an underground, operating at the periphery of the main plot yet enabling of it. In both there’s the suggestion that no-one knows how big this underground is, perhaps even the people within it, and that the power of it’s ideas mean it will inevitably ascend. To win Christianity just has to be.

The popular view of the Roman empire has become so associated with the rise of Christianity it now seems incomplete without this, and so becomes self-perpetuating. And of course the two are so associated historically because they’re seen as so disassociated conceptually. They’re imagined as weathervanes, Christian brotherhood inevitably emerging just as gladiator fights and orgies wane. Historically of course this not even wrong. But historical fiction is often like party political broadcasts by the Conservative party, it allows people to rewrite history as they want it. And the desire to remember the past your own way is a strong one.

Ian & Barbara's Toga Party

One appealing element of the story is the time granted to show the travellers simply hanging out in their borrowed villa, at both the top and tail ends. Tradition at this time was for one storyline to follow straight on after another, being set up with a coda cliffhanger from its predecessor. (Presumably to deny the audience jumping-off points.) This ‘holiday’ stops things feeling too frenetic, too perpetual. It also suggests the travellers live quite aristocratically - never working, merely squatting someone else’s property while they’re away. (There's a couple of passing references to their selling vegetables, which wouldn't really explain how they get to dine on such fine repast.)

This lack of noises off throws a focus on the relationship between Ian and Barbara. Fans can fixate on this, finding in their flirty-fighting fun belated proof of how in love they really are. It may be surprising to our modern eyes how much of a given their relationship is – all that travelling in time and space doesn’t seem to change anything from when they were teaching together in Coal Hill School. In a modern drama, being thrown together on the Tardis would doubtless make them realise their underlying feelings, their hearts would finally speak out and all the rest of it. Here it changes nothing.

But let's remember the 'understanding' was common to dramas of this period. They understand, even if unspokenly, that one day they will settle down and get married. They have a familiar manner with each other, even in the opening episode, which makes that quite clear. But first there's a whole load of marking to do. Closely followed by becoming stuck on Skaro without a fuel link, captives of Marco Polo and so on. All quite stiff obstacles to booking the Church and sending the invitations. But the underlying point remains the same. If they don't say things out loud that's because they don't think it needs saying.

These scenes work perfectly well. But what they’re not is a development, something missing from the earlier storylines. In his novelisation of 'The Daleks', David Whitaker gave them an antagonism-into-romance plot line. But that was for a one-off. An 'understanding' works better, both with the constraints of the era and the nature of a running TV show. The set-up even gives them an honorary child to fend for (first Susan, here Vicki).

And an emphasis on the very English uprightness of the two schoolteachers may be a good point to end on. For their tweedy ways would soon be gone, the steady hand taken from the tiller and the more rocky seas of the Sixties sailed into. Yet swinging Sixties culture did not erupt all at once. It was seeded, and perhaps the main seed was – irony of ironies – a genuinely funny comedy dressed up as one of those historicals everyone's so quick to label as 'educational'.

Plus, unlike 'Reign of Terror', but like 'The Aztecs', this comes in at a slim four episodes. The most basic rule of early 'Who' is thereby reinforced – to misquote Orwell, four episodes good, six episodes bad!

Coming soon! Insects. Insects are coming soon...

No comments:

Post a Comment