The Romans
BBC Books

Author Keith Topping Cover image
ISBN# 0 563 538?? ?
Published 2001
Featuring The First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki

Synopsis: The TARDIS crew arrive to take in the splendour of the Roman Empire, amid intrigue, lust, power, oppression, resistance and murder.


A Review by Finn Clark 5/9/01

This review will contain no spoilers. Lots and lots of abuse, but no spoilers.

Before beginning I should apologise to Keith Topping, those nice BBC dudes and absolutely everyone else in the universe. Byzantium! is not as bad as I'm about to paint it. There's some nice research in there and the writing isn't too bad. Many of its scenes were very readable blends of violence, conspiracy and historical detail. It wouldn't have taken a drastic edit to turn this into something I'd now be praising and recommending to all.

Having said all that, I will now explain why I found Byzantium! about as much fun as a diarrhoea mouthwash.

"There's little point in writing if you can't annoy someone with it," is quoted by the author in his acknowledgements, which suggests he might have anticipated my reaction from a section of his readership. Byzantium! started well by getting me interested in the ancient world and the people. The politics, the casual killings, the intrigue... this was good stuff. I wanted to read more.

Then the regulars arrived, albeit vaguely annoying and not well characterised. My happy mood dipped a little, but I kept reading. I still wanted to know what was going to happen to the incidental characters. I've never quit on a Doctor Who book yet. I kept my chin up. I was determined.

And then the plot got under way...

The book didn't seem to know what it wanted to be. It had all this good historical stuff with death, blood and atrocities, but then it quoted Monty Python's Life of Brian. (Also known as "how to undo the effect of ten pages of painstaking worldbuilding in one easy step".) It quotes Carry On Cleo. Some of its scenes might have been lifted from a rejected draft of Up Pompeii. I don't have a problem with black comedy, but here the clash of changing gears was deafening. It's like a production of Macbeth suddenly cutting to scenes from Dumb and Dumber. I imagine some people found this amusing, but it never failed to piss me off. And I love Carry On movies!

Oh, and the regulars each get their own disconnected sub-plot. None of their actions affected any of the others that I noticed. Mind you, by the end I was probably steaming too much to notice the finer subtleties.

And then, on top of that, we have the annoying regulars. There's far too much slang in their dialogue, turning Ian into a cockney wideboy and Vicki an eighties Essex girl. Barbara is simply naive, not having much of a clue when it comes to what to expect from the Romans. Huh? It's obviously a conscious decision from the author, but I simply couldn't believe it. And then there's the Doctor dropping unbelievable fanwank. There's some horrendous stuff here, true throw-the-book-against-a-wall material. I do not want to know what "Doctor" means in Gallifreyan, and I certainly don't believe that the Doctor would suddenly decide to say it to some random yokels. And the less said the better about the leprous, pus-filled, syphilitic wank on page 31. No, no, no!

Okay, I'm allergic to fanwank. But still, to learn that Vicki's parents nearly called her Tanni is to turn puce and expectorate rancid semen. And lengthy companion discussion of the nuances of the TARDIS translator circuit offends my Mandragora-watching sensibilities. I'm sorry, for me it's wrong. (IIRC Asylum committed the same sin, but Peter Darvill-Evans was more discreet in how he went about it. He simply placed a small turd on the page rather than rubbing it into my face.)

In fairness there was one bit where the book stopped annoying me. I won't give it away, but it's the book's best idea by a country mile and fascinating in its potential. Unfortunately it's used for what amounts to an extended comedy sequence.

Ahhhhh, that's better. I repeat that this isn't a bad book as such, just one that irritated me more than any book I've read. Ever. I imagine most people will read this and see some interesting research and nicely done scenes sitting alongside some unfortunately dull stuff. However only sheer bloody-mindedness and sad fanboy completism stopped me from tearing up this book after the first hundred pages and dropping it in the bin.

Titter Ye Not by Robert Thomas 20/9/01

Now this is one bloody good book!

1st Doctor and a historical means that is has a lot to live up to. The TV classics such as The Romans, The Massacre and The Aztecs, along with the great many good books, Witch Hunters and The Plotters. Yes there are other good books but they contain non historical elements. Byzantium! however can hold its head high as it carries on the tradition of good historical Who.

There are a great many characters vying for our attention and a lot of things happening all the way through the book. There is never a dull moment in here, humor, tragedy, death and political intrigue. All four main characters get there own little sub plot that intermingles with the other slightly. The Doctor's one gets some very funny moments at one stage (those of you into the Christian cult without a sense of humor should avoid these pages).

Also a fantastic setting that is high in atmosphere and filled with culture and opinions of people who genuinely make you stop and think.

In short definitely recommended and one that doesn't fail to entertain.

One out of Five by Jamas Enright 15/1/02

It's hard to describe just how horrendous this book is, but being a reviewer one has to try. The most basic description of this novel is 'caricature', not only of the people involved but also the story itself.

This is most certainly a historical novel. In fact, people just seem to sit around for long periods of time and exposit huge chunks of history, almost essays, in an attempt to inform the reader that this is indeed a historical novel with historical events going on, and that lots of other historical events are going on at the moment. Perhaps we could see some of those events? Apparently not, just when it looks like something might happen, the scene changes to someone sitting and talking. With all this sitting and talking going on, it's hardly surprising that nothing plot-wise occurs. Basically, there is no plot.

This isn't the first time a book has been light on plot. Usually this is compensated by more characters. Indeed, there are tons of characters here. The book is split into five 'episodes', and in the first episode almost every chapter introduces a new batch of people, complete with back story that is explained through an excessive amount of verbiage. It's hard to determine exactly who the main characters are supposed to be, due to the skipping around the book does between people. Too many people, too much jumping around, I couldn't keep track of them all. Although it didn't help that the book so was unreadable I was trying to find other things to do rather than read any more.

The TARDIS crews, the mainstays of any Doctor Who story, the one thing that is essential to bringing the events to the readers. It's amazing how badly screwed up they are in Byzantium!. (By the way, what is the deal with the exclamation mark?) Ian starts espousing phrases like a 60's hipster. Vicki becomes extremely bratty with a comeback for every line, and a way to get into trouble in every situation. The Doctor is even more forgetful than ever, only once getting Chesterton's name right whenever the Doctor addresses him. As I said, caricatures. The only reason Barbara escapes becoming a mockery of herself is because she is treated so blandly. It might be that because she's a history teacher, and thus can blather out exposition with the best of them, that Keith Topping spared her.

Is it all bad? Well, yes, but at least the people are presented as human, with human foibles. Most of them anyway. We have groups of Zealots, Greeks, Romans, Pharisees and Christians, and probably some others I missed amidst the tidal wave of characters. All have light and dark sides. Except one group, the Christians. They are a persecuted people, a good people, that will survive the ugliness of the events in this book, whom the Doctor aids by helping translate the bible. Well, I'm sure there's no agenda there.

This is a caricature of a book, with more people and plot contrivances that a reader should ever have to endure (I don't even want to get into the astounding coincidences that occur to bring the TARDIS crew back together). Even if you like the First Doctor, even if you like historicals, I suggest you don't read this book. Heck, go read Vanishing Point, it's better than this (and considering the bashing I gave it in my review that's saying something).

Exclamation! by Robert Smith? 5/3/02

Thankfully, Keith Topping's second solo novel vastly improves upon his first. Byzantium!, despite the highly disturbing appearance of the exclamation mark in the title, flows along quite nicely, producing a quick read. I like that in a novel. You don't have to set the world on fire to please me, but so long as you don't waste my time I'm not too fussed.

This book really plays to the strengths of the Hartnell historical, which is a sub-genre that I'm starting to think can do no wrong. There's not even the slightest need for an alien menace here and I'm glad we didn't get one.

Splitting the action four ways is an obvious trick, but it works. There are four distinct groups and all are drawn well. The large cast of characters does tend to blur, but that's perhaps unavoidable. Through the eyes of the regulars we get a rich view of the city and its activities, with lots of period detail that doesn't alienate the reader. It helps to have seen I, Claudius, true, but if you haven't seen that, then you shouldn't be wasting your time reading Doctor Who books. Or indeed this review.

The Doctor, Barbara and Vicki are reasonably well drawn, although the Doctor's habit of referring to Ian by an oh-so-funny variety of mispronunciations was a joke that was old in 1964. And there, it was at least done with some restraint. Thirty eight years later, with no restraint whatsoever, and the joke's starting to wear just a little thin.

This brings us to Ian himself. What the hell is up with this characterisation? Ian Mary-Sues his way through this book rejecting the sexual advances of lots of women, enjoys putting them down and speaks in rhyming slang, saying things like "Stop procrastinating or I'll give the pair of you a ruddy good biff on the conk" (pg 212), "If you want to talk geography, darlin', then fine" (pg 122) and "It pen and inks a bit down here" (pg 86). Huh? Since when? This is wrong on so many levels. What next, a season 22 novel where Peri manfully talks about how much she likes Rugby and beer and norgs? (On second thoughts, that might not be so bad...)

The book's climax is full of historical violence, as people get murdered all over the place. The events pretty much happen independently of the regulars, which isn't too much of a problem in a Hartnell historical, except that the author obviously feels a bit guilty about the sub-genre he's writing for, so he has Ian ask the Doctor "Is it just me or didn't we solve anything?" Um, thanks for pointing this out for the stupid readers, Ian.

The prologue is a bit cheesy - the concept of Johnny Chess was pretty lame to begin with - but the epilogue is quite touching, up until the end of the description of the Gladius. It's an almost criminal shame the book didn't end right there, which would have been perfect, but instead we have another four paragraphs that have to end the book on a lame and pointless joke by Ian that isn't even funny. Oh well.

There's a weird encounter on page 238, where Barbara meets a Greek woman named Cressida. I'm not sure if we're supposed to assume that this is actually an older Vicki, post-The Myth Makers - because if so, she'd have to be about 1200 years older, given that the fall of Troy is dated to around 1184 B.C. If not, then what's the point of giving this Greek woman the same name? Is she a descendent of Vicki's? This is exactly the sort of in-joke that stops a novel stone cold while you try to work out what you've missed. The flipside isn't any better: a character actually says "What have the Romans ever done for us?" (pg 41) and despite the fact that most anglophiles can recognise that quote's origins, it doesn't do the book any favours whatsoever.

On the other hand, the Bible quotes work fabulously. Unlike the ridiculous Nostradamus stuff in The King of Terror, these play into the story well and provide some really nice resonance. Playing into a very specific niche - between the cliffhanger of The Rescue and the opening of The Romans is the sort of thing that I would have thought the MAs and PDAs would have been doing all the time, but this is the most tightly woven it's ever been (the next closest being Salvation). It works really well, too, letting the story coast off its successor to great effect.

Overall, Byzantium-and-its-random-exclamation-mark is a bit of a mixed bag. It's a zippy read that plays with the setting and the Hartnell historical style quite well, but it does weird and fundamentally wrong things with Ian. That said, his section is less than a quarter of the book, so there's still a great deal of enjoyment to be had. The exclamation mark continues to haunt my every waking moment, though.