The Doctor: First Doctor (William Hartnell)
The Companions: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill), Ian (William Russell)
The plot: The crew’s attempts to unwind in Roman times are stymied when Ian and Barbara are sold into slavery
Written By: Dennis Spooner
First aired: 16/01/1965-06/02/1965
Theme Song: Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 Radiophonic workshop, including the beautiful and haunting middle eight.
Season 2, episodes 11-15 review
Up to this point, these reviews have had a certain tone. But, to be honest, I’m not sure how I can maintain that tone after watching The Romans. I’m just not sure how to be analytical or detached from something that plays whacky music over an attempted rape or rewrites history to the point of absurdity. My friend, Eazal, who is on this journey with me was equally as horrified. I can outline the plot and try to highlight the pros and cons but ultimately there’s only one thing to say. The Romans is execrable.
Spooner wanted to make the Doctor more of the main character in his own show and to ensure Doctor Who could survive cast changes. But these laudable goals were achieved at the expense of history and of his female characters. The Reign of Terror was criticised for historical inaccuracy when it aired – although its crimes against history are nothing compared to The Romans. And its crimes against its female companions pale in comparison to this serial as well. Spooner is extremely sexist, if not outright misoygnistic. Women were either cheerleaders for the heroic male lead or sexual victims and the seeds of the problem planted in the previous French historical sprout here.
On paper, the serial follows the classic formula of the period. The Doctor and his companions are separated early and each little group explores an aspect of the story before finally reuniting and flying away. In The Romans, more than any other serial, the separate plotlines are merely a series of shallow cliches, kind of like an offensive children’s book of stereotypes (slavery, gladiatorial games, debaucherous emperors and noble Christians). A children’s book with a beloved main character being chased around a palace trying desperately not to be raped while the soundtrack tells us it’s a moment of hilarious high farce.
Yes that actually happened.
Yes this is a children’s show.
Not that rape is particularly hilarious in any vehicle. Or in any way funny at all.
The Romans starts promisingly enough in a villa not far from Rome in the year 64 A.D. The Doctor and his companions are having a holiday from their usual chaos, although Ian and Barbara are enjoying the idleness more than the Doctor and Vicki. After nearly a month, the eternal wanderer and the teenager are becoming restless.
While “just good friends” Ian and Barbara laze in the villa in a remarkably post-coital manner, the Doctor and Vicki decide to head to the capital. In their absence, Ian and Barbara are taken by slave traders.
Barbara is sent to Rome and sold to Nero’s slave buyer, leading to the unmentionable episode of “hijinks” I’ve already been forced to mention. It says a lot about Spooner that “sex slave” is the only thing that he can conceive for a female character once separated from her male protectors.
Ian becomes a galley slave, escapes and is then forced to fight as a gladiator in the arena like he’s in some kind of Hollywood epic from the period. Spooner was clearly drawing on epic films such as Ben Hur (1959) for this portion of the story, although it clashes wildly with the kind of Carry On farcical comedy he was attempting with the rest of the serial.
Nonetheless, Gladiator Ian is weirdly hot, much to mine and Eazal’s confusion.
On the road to Rome, the Doctor is mistaken for a famous lyre player, Maximus Pettulian, and is also taken to Rome to perform at the Emperor Nero’s Court. With no ability to actually play the lyre, he’s forced to draw on his traditional trickster persona to hide the fact he can’t play at all. This involves at one point pulling an Emperor’s New Clothes on Nero. The emperor is forced to pretend he can hear the Doctor’s non-existent playing rather than admit he’s not sophisticated enough to comprehend it.
Unbeknownst to the Doctor, Maximus Pettulian is involved in a plot to kill Nero, which leads to several assassination attempts on the Doctor’s life as well. And with the Doctor humiliating Nero in his own court, the emperor decides to return the favour by feeding him to the lions.
One of the show’s few genuinely successful attempts at humour comes from the constant near-misses of the Doctor, Vicki and Barbara in Nero’s Court. With Barbara unaware the Doctor is pretending to be Maximus Pettulian and the Doctor believing that Ian and her are safely back in the villa, the two groups exit and enter rooms just in time to miss each other. In fact, the two storylines pass in parallel for the entirety of the serial, with neither realising the other is there until they’re both safely reunited. Vicki even foils an attempted poisoning of Barbara by the Empress without ever knowing it was Barbara’s life she saved. It’s one of the few times the show works.
Other than that, Vicki’s entire role in the serial is to follow the Doctor around being appreciative of his genius like some kind of temporally displaced cheerleader. It’s the beginning of an increasingly common phenomenon that is going to plague Doctor Who in future years – that of the female character simply being there to reflect the Doctor’s greatness back to him with her adoration. It is not an improvement.
Ian and Barbara manage finally to escape with the help of Nero’s slave buyer, Tavius, who is apparently motivated by his Christianity. No comment.
And yet for all its farcical, genre-clashing, whacky sexual assault hijinks, The Romans only jumps the shark when it embraces the conspiracy theory that Nero started the fires of Rome so he could rebuild it in his own image. Not only that but the Doctor intentionally inspires him to do it so he and Vicki can escape. Nero may have “fiddled while Rome burned” but he did not set the fire and he certainly didn’t do it deliberately.
To be fair to Spooner (though it gives me some pain to do so) The Romans is supposed to be I think a kind of Carry On Nero and we’re supposed to be amused by its historical distortions. But whereas the Carry On films – love them or hate them – were clear farce from beginning to end, The Romans with its children’s television tone and epic film subplot instead gives the impression that it’s the writer who thinks that, for example, rape is funny. Or that Nero really did burn down Rome and the only nod to historical revisionism is that the Doctor gave him the idea.
The image of Nero playing his lyre and cackling with glee while the flames devoured his city might have been powerful if the whole thing wasn’t nonsense. Nonsense that, despite its detours into high farce, is packaged as something that is not nonsense.
Ian and Barbara make it back to the villa before the Doctor and Vicki, which means their two companions arrive back unaware the two were sold into slavery at all. By the time they return, Ian and Barbara are once again lounging around, which leads the Doctor to accuse them of idleness – much like my parents used to when they came back from work in the evening to find me back in front of the TV without seeing the 8 hours of study I did in between. Some experiences are universal.
Ian and Barbara laugh at the absurdity of it before they all return to the TARDIS and leave. Eazal and I attempt to laugh at the absurdity of this episode but we’re still too full of rage.
The Romans happened. I somehow managed to review it. And now thankfully I can move on. At least until Spooner writes another historical and I’ll discover these emotions anew.