Saturday 10 October 2020


Written by Donald Cotton
First broadcast Oct/Nov 1965

“Is nothing sacred to you?”


Deflating the Legends

The Romans and Greeks, historically they overlapped. We know that full well. But our hindsight can’t help but build a divide between them. The Romans were ‘early’ and serve up historicised adventure stories, the Greeks ‘ancient’ and provide us with quasi-primordial legends. Think of the difference between two early Sixties films, ’Spartacus’ (1960) and ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963). One asks us to imagine this is the way real things happened, even if no-one’s speaking the Latin. The other has mythological creatures and yer actual Gods gazing down while proclaiming things. 

Which seems explicable. Rome's connected to us in two ways. They invaded us, leaving things behind when they went. Hadrian’s Wall makes for something of a memento. And later Roman times incubated Christianity. While the Greeks are more removed from us.

And associated with this is the way the Greeks represent culture. Which is seen as somehow beyond human creation, the heirloom we can no longer remember how we got. The Romans of popular conception watched human blood sports at colosseums, the Greeks did serious-minded theatre. We use terms from Greek comedies, such as “cloud cuckoo land”, without even thinking they had comedies. Our minds go to their tragedies. While as much as we think of Roman theatre at all, it’s the farces.

So when the earlier story ’The Romans’ was played as a comedy, partly it seemed audacious but it was as equally fitting. Making this Greek-set, legend-based story a comedy is the bigger step. Pissing on a Greek statue becomes a bigger art of desecration than on a Roman monument. This story knows this. In fact, that’s precisely why it’s here. To piss on stuff.

(Which may be behind the well-known fact that the BBC barred the punning episode titles. For some reason the least of them, ’Small Prophet, Quick Return’, was passed. But alas we lost ‘Zeus Ex Machina’ and the even better ’Is There a Doctor in the Horse?’)

So this opens as if it was going to be played straight, with characters of legend saying things like “the God of my people are not lightly mocked” and sounding all thespian. Setting up a tonal clash with the more everyday speech of the travellers, with the Doctor intent on asking them for directions.

But this source of comedy is soon replicated between the historical characters, and we’re witnessing exchanges such as Cassandra intoning “the auguries were bad this morning. I woke full of foreboding”, only for Paris to complain “never knew her when she didn’t.” (Generally the squabbling family unit of the Trojans gets the best lines.)

Despite the adventure story trappings, it soon comes to resemble a sitcom when ’The Romans’ had only really got as far as farce. This time we’re shown a situation which is on repeat, even if we get only one iteration of it. Set ten years into the siege everyone is trapped in a stand-off they don’t like with people they care for even less, with all having become wearily accustomed to it.

After the initial fight, the Greeks and Trojans don’t meet until the final episode. It’s their own kind they have the trouble with, Paris loudly complaining he gets more respect from the enemy. While Menelaus is (as the saying goes) “in his cups”, a cynical and washed-up drunk. Plans are confounded like that’s just a law of physics. (And besides anything else, epic history on a budget? The only way to play it successfully is to thwart expectations.)

History is Rough Hewn

But then in that final episode they do meet. With far from hilarious consequences. This widely noted tonal shift takes things more into the realm of revisionism. The Sixties was a prime era for revisionist Westerns, which morally muddied and de-heroised America’s founding myths. (And notably Cotton’s next ’Who’ script would do similar things to Westerns.)

So it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the same era saw revisionism of legends, such as the Pasolini films ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1967) and ’Medea’ (1969). Was Helen the face that launched a thousand ships? Of course not, Menelaus is glad to see the back of her and the whole thing’s really an unseemly squabble over trade routes. Helen’s so unimportant to the true course of events she doesn’t even appear.

Which sets up the story’s best-known feature for fans. It’s known for breaking what was once a prime directive, in letting the characters affect historical events. And it’s true, this happens to a greater degree than the inadvertent, incidental stuff in ‘The Romans’. But it’s a perspective which reduces the series to a bunch of formal innovations, and in-so-doing misconstrues what happens within the story itself. Yes it’s the travellers, not the “heroes” they run into who are the myth makers of the title. But how does this work out?

Unusually, the travellers admit they’re from the future. Which has the Doctor and Vicki seized on by both sides, as “prophets” who can get them out of all this. From there the story not only assumes we know the basics of the legend, but builds gags around it. The Trojans, for example, are forever going on about their fondness for… nudge, nudge… horses.

The legend was told to me at school as an illustration of how smart the Greeks were. But it more suggests the opposite, the Trojans history’s thickies in falling for such a transparent ploy. And the Doctor originally dismisses the wooden horse as a dumb idea, clearly a fiction dreamt up by Homer, and only reverts to it out of desperation. It’s a plan so flimsy Cassandra sees through it straight away, but can make no-one listen.

(Generally round here, legends get deflated. Achilles is a single- and slightly simple- minded lad bereft of special powers. The Cyclops is just a bloke Odysseus knows with a bad eye. But Cassandra’s prophetic powers seem genuine, she even tells Odysseus it will take him ten years to get home.)

The causal loop, they only know of the horse because they’ve read about it, isn’t dwelt on. The point is that history was made by the bad, fall-back idea because the people at the time couldn’t think of anything better. It’s the biggest reversal on audience expectations in the story, the Doctor doesn’t come up a brilliant last-minute masterplan to save the day, he effectively has to give up. But it’s more than that…

In the epilogue to the novelisation of ‘The Crusades’, history had been specified as moral and instructional, paving the march of human progress. Here plans are hasty and extemporised, motives grubby and grasping. See history up close and it becomes, as Priam describes the horse, disappointingly “rough hewn”.

And the badness of the idea becomes associated with the carnage that ensues, once the Greek troops get inside the city. This isn’t one of the Doctor’s elegant plans which resolves everything. It’s closer to him being forced to build a weapon which then gets used, while he’s forced to witness the results. Odysseus, about the only character at home in the situation, described by the Doctor as “selfish, greedy, corrupt, cheap, horrible”, is effectively the villain of the piece. Yet he triumphs, and does so gloatingly. Precisely one Trojan gets saved from the lot.

It’s the biggest reversion to flight-over-fight since ‘The Aztecs’. Yet there, and in ‘The Time Meddler’, the Doctor was forced to yield to history, as an overpowering force. But, contrary to what almost everyone says, he doesn’t change history here - he enables it. Odysseus’ butchery triumphs precisely because of him. Which is somewhat revisionist not just to tales of legend but ’Doctor Who’ itself.

Vicki Vacates

Vicki, meanwhile, is more the ingenious young woman of ‘The Space Museum’ than the poor li’l orphan girl we met in ‘The Rescue’. For the majority of her stories she hung off the Doctor’s side, asking him narratively useful questions. Here she spends very little time with him at all. Frustrated at being told to stay in the Tardis, she’s mostly with the Trojans and is frequently contrasted with Steven’s impulsive hotheadedness. Her chiding riposte to him, “I told you strong-arm tactic wouldn’t work”, is itself quite a Doctorish comment.

Which of course means she leaves at the end of the episode. It’s like the classic thing people say about relationships, you wish the person you split with at the end could have been the person you met at the beginning. It follows the Susan formula, growing up equals falling in love which itself equals leaving the show. And, just like Susan, Vicki has been allowed the regulation two stories to be interesting in.

First Troilus and Steven get all huffy with each other over her. But in the legend Cressida (aka Vicki) dallies with Troilus before going off with Diomede (aka Steven). Here there’s the strange congruence of them getting a battle injury at almost the same time, and her getting Steven to the Doctor before going off with Troilus. It’s like a transference is occurring between the two.

It seems incongruent that the Doctor and Steven’s mission becomes to get the hell out of Troy, while she elects to stay forever. But, if we’re to accept the somewhat schzio way her character’s been presented, it makes some sense for her. She’s attracted to Troilus partly because of his own love of adventure and, while Susan needed some not-so-subtle nudging out of the nest, she just takes off. Given which, the tabula rasa caused by the fall of Troy becomes almost a plus for her. The girl always complaining she had no place in the world hasn’t found one, she’s decided to make one.

She’s replaced by a dutiful servant girl, rather hastily concocted up by the plot, who thinks the Doctor is a God. Ah well…

Further reading: At Chair With A Panda, BJ O’Shea homes in on something I barely allude to, Vicki being given a new name within the story. It perhaps veers towards the category error of trying to weight genre characters with psychological depth, but for all that is worth reading.

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