The Romans is the first of only two Doctor Who stories set in ancient Italy. It would take a further 43 years, until 2008’s The Fires of Pompeii, for the Doctor to again visit the region. Perhaps in a nod to the First Doctor’s inability to navigate the Tardis, the Tenth Doctor and Donna landed in what they had initially thought was Rome, but soon discovered was Pompeii. The Tenth Doctor referred to his earlier adventures in Rome by stating that his role in the Great Fire of Rome was almost “nothing”.
The Romans is perhaps the only Doctor Who story to have ever been conceived as a farce. Unapologetically in the English tradition of ribald comedies, such as Carry On movies, The Romans does not lack the “slap and tickle” school boy humour of the genre. Barbara is chased around by Caesar Nero for most of episode 3, in a slapstick game of sexual catch in which she is an unwilling participant. Seen as a threat by Nero’s wife, Barbara is the victim of yet another attempted poisoning. Unlike the first poisoning conspiracy in The Aztecs, it is not Barbara who thwarts the attempt on her life but Vicki, albeit unknowing of the intended victim.
The story begins with the Doctor and his companions living it up in a Roman country villa. For the first time since the show’s commencement, the Tardis Crew are holidaying and have been leading a leisurely existence for the last month. Although never stated, but clearly implied, Ian and Barbara are very much a couple. Together they play harmless practical jokes and Barbara restyles Ian’s hair. Ian would be happy to continue this lifestyle indefinitely, however the young Vicki is easily bored. She complains to Barbara that she is not getting the life of adventure that the Doctor had promised. Vicki shows no ill effects from the psychological trauma suffered at the hands of Bennett/Koquillion in her first serial. Given that the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not coined until the 1970s, it’s perhaps not surprising that the writer, Dennis Spooner, was not conversant at the time with psychological trauma and its effects.
The irascible Doctor decides to visit Rome and is begged by Vicki to be allowed to accompany him. Although accepting Vicki’s request, the Doctor refuses to allow Ian and Barbara to join him. He doesn’t need people to fuss over him and suggests instead that they make their own way there. Little does the Doctor know that his fellow companions will eventually make it to Rome, but not by their own free will. Even at the story’s conclusion the Doctor is blindly unaware of his two companions’ adventures.
The farce continues as the Doctor is mistaken for the famous Corinthian lyre player, Maximus Pettullian. Initially unable to remember his assumed name, the Doctor and Vicki are taken to Nero’s palace where the real, but now decidedly dead, Maximus was due to play a recital. Being bereft of all lyre playing skills does not prevent the Doctor from performing at a feast for Nero in a hysterical example of what today might be described as “Air Lyre”. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Vicki continuously, but ever so slightly, miss running into Barbara and Ian, who are unaware that their fellow Tardis crew members are also in Nero’s palace. After being captured in the villa and taken as slaves, Barbara is sold to Nero’s household as a servant and Ian finds himself as a galley slave in a boat. After again being knocked unconscious, this time by a beam, Ian escapes upon the boat’s wreck. Making his way to Rome to save Barbara, Ian eventually finds her in Nero’s household.
Almost every conceivable cliché of Roman life is played in this story. When shopping in a market for fabric Barbara reminds Vicki that “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Ian quotes Latin texts whilst lounging around the villa eating grapes, is trained as a gladiator, and almost ends up as a lion’s meal. The Doctor gets the corniest lines when, in reference to playing lyre amongst the lions, he states that his performance is bound to be a “roaring success” and “something to get your teeth into”. Slave traders abound, and the “good guy” in Nero’s household, Tavius, is a closet Christian. Rome burns whilst Nero plays the lyre, but not before the Doctor inadvertently gives him the idea that a fire is a good way of circumventing objections to Nero’s rebuilding plans. Even the episode naming is clichéd, with the second entitled All Roads Lead to Rome.
Relations between Vicki and Barbara have softened following the killing of Sandy in the The Rescue. Vicki goes as far as asking Barbara to make her a dress while the pair are shopping in a Roman market. Dressmaking is a skill frequently assumed of Barbara. The Doctor continues to be decidedly amoral and exhibits how much he relishes a good fight. Upon being confronted by a would-be assassin, the Doctor smashes a pot plant over his head and then wraps a blanket around him. He then throws wine over the assassin’s face, hits him over the head with a jar and very athletically dodges a swinging sword. Just as Vicki picks up an object to hit the assailant, he jumps out of an open window. Frustrated by Vicki’s intervention the Doctor regales the girl with tales of his fighting prowess.
DOCTOR: Young lady, why did you have to come in and interrupt? Just as I’d got him all softened up and ready for the old one, two.
VICKI: You’re all right then?
DOCTOR: All right? Of course, I’m all right, my child. You know, I am so constantly outwitting the opposition, I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the arts, the gentle art of fisticuffs.
VICKI: I realize you’re a many of many talents, Doctor, but I didn’t know fighting was one of them.
DOCTOR: My dear, I am one of the best. Do you know it was I that used to teach the Mountain Mauler of Montana!
VICKI: The what?
DOCTOR: Do you remember? Have you never heard? No, of course, no, no, of course you haven’t, have you?
The Doctor, who in later serials such as Galaxy 4 is keen to advise all that neither him nor his crew kill, clearly has no such inhibitions when it comes to fighting. Will the Doctor entertain us with his combat skills in the next serial, The Web Planet? Stay tuned for the next review where perhaps this question will be answered.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.