It’s after midnight, and I’m lying on the floor in the dark, shirtless, a three-quarters empty bottle of some cheap (but good) Italian wine next to me. The airy, iconic tones of the Doctor Who theme are fading away as the last of the credits scrolls past, but the truth is, I’m still grinning. Humor can be difficult to pull off, but the thing is, The Romans is really, really funny.
This is a bold experiment that works surprisingly well. Comedy, especially farce, is the last thing one expects in a science fiction drama, but it’s precisely because of that that this story is able to pull it off so effectively. Of course, humor is a very large part of later Doctor Who with varying degrees of success. (Love and Monsters comes to mind immediately. Need I say more?)
Perfectly played farce
William Hartnell especially seems to relish the opportunity to ham it up a little, while keeping the Doctor completely serious and believable; the humor in the story isn’t overplayed or gratuitous. Likewise, Jacqueline Hill plays off Derek Francis as Nero perfectly, spurning his advances—with a little perfectly-timed help from the Doctor, of course—and it seems that only poor Ian, always the consummate action hero, is stuck with a more serious storyline, first as a galley slave, then a shipwreck survivor, and finally a gladiator in the perhaps less-than-perfectly realized arena.
At the same time, Spooner doesn’t shy away from some of the darker, far more brutal elements elements of ancient Roman culture. Slavery, assassinations, poisonings, gladiatorial to-the-death combat were all facts of life in first century Rome, as were the extravagances of its ruling family: by this point, most people had forgotten about Rome’s past as a republic, and were comfortable, even embraced, life under the watchful eye of the emperor—or at least under the watchful eye of the emperor’s surrogate.
The Romans isn’t completely historically accurate, but frankly it doesn’t need to be. All purely historical Doctor Who tales are really stories about the Doctor and his companions set against an historical tableau. Important players in history become more or less wooden stereotypes; it’s the set pieces that are main focus. In this case, the balance is perfect, and plays into the farcical elements of the story seamlessly.
The Doctor, Ian, Barbara…and random TBD girl companion
My chief complaint about this serial is that Vicki seems somehow wrong from a character development standpoint. The fact that she comes from a technologically advanced future of rocket ships and space travel aside, she comes across as perhaps being further along in her acceptance of time travel for someone who, more a less a month previously, left behind everything even remotely familiar, and went off with four strangers. And the fact that she’s “bored” in ancient Rome is incredulous—but maybe that’s just me.
Furthermore, it seems that this story was written for the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara, plus one extra girl companion to be sorted out later. Only she wasn’t completely sorted out by the time this story was filmed, so Vicki is very under utilized at best. It’s a fairly minor point, though, and doesn’t detract at all from the overall enjoyment of the story.
What happens next
What happened next? Suetonious’ account of Nero’s life reads very much like a farce itself, and it would truly be laughable if not for the fact that those were real people, who lived an age of barbarity cloaked in a toga of civility. As it happens, Nero died at 31, the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome, to much rejoicing and fanfare.
As for the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Vicki, no sooner have they resumed their journey through time and space, does the Doctor make a dire pronouncement: the Ship materialized for a split second, and is being dragged down…
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)