|Dates||Jan. 16, 1965 -
Feb. 6, 1965
With William Hartnell, William Russell,
Jacqueline Hill, Maureen O'Brien.
Written and script-edited by Dennis Spooner.
Directed by Christopher Barry. Produced by Verity Lambert.
Carry On Doctor! by Christopher Fare 11/5/97
I'm glad this story is slowly gaining a good reputation, becuase it's one of my all-time favourites. True, some of the gags are downright unfunny, but when The Romans shines, it shines brighter than any Hartnell star.
Dennis Spooner returned to his roots with the script, with features a memorably OTT plot, with every Roman cliche in the book thrown in. Thankfully, what could have been an unmitigated disaster works thanks to the dedication of everybody who worked on it. It oozes confidence.
It also gives the regulars a chance to show their comedy talents, or rather the lack thereof. Margaret O'Brien falls at the first hurdle, as she plays everything deadly straight, the "I've poisoned Nero!" bit ruined by her deadpan expression. Hill and Russell don't really have a chance to be that funny as their plots are mock serious. Only the fridge line is worthy of mention.
It is William Hartnell who steals the show. Back to his lovable line-fluffing self seemed an impossibissibility after the last story, but be it fighting with assassins or sparring with Nero, the Doctor is at the centre of affairs. With actors like Michael Peake and Derek Francis in the cast, he couldn't go wrong.
Along with The Rescue, The Romans shares Ray Cusick's set and Christopher Barry's direction, and both repeat their earlier success. You're in for a guaranteed laugh a minute with this, the best of the comedy historicals by a mile!
A Review by Matt Michael 24/4/98
The Romans is my favourite Hartnell story, which comes as a great surprise to me for two reasons. First, I tend not to like historicals, and second, I am no fan at all of "humorous Who" - I find The Gunfighters tedious, and Season Seventeen juvenile and uninteresting.
I can't pin down why I like The Romans so much. Maybe it's Hartnell, clearly a comic actor, revelling in his chance to go OTT. The scene in which he is to be fed to the lions has me in stitches-- "Hopefully I shall be a roaring succes. It's something I can really get my teeth into. Perhaps, if I go down well, I'll make it my farewell performance..." Maybe it's Nero-- Derek Francis is super as the mad emperor, all rolling eyes and childish tantrums. Perhaps it's Ian and Barbara-- more clearly in love than ever before, especially when drunk. The characterisation is brilliant-- even Vicki gets something to do, and there are some outstanding lines, particularly Ian's description of the Doctor: "I have a friend who specialises in trouble-- he just wades in and usually finds a way."
Of course, it's not all perfect. The scenes with Ian on the ship seem to be padding, adding little to the main plot; and the serious undercurrents sometimes jar with the comic elements, however I would far rather sit through The Romans than The War Machines or The Chase.
Admittedly, I haven't seen many Hartnell era stories, nor will I ever be able to watch the "classic" historicals-- Marco Polo and The Massacre-- but of those I have seen, The Romans stands out as a forgotten gem-- Hartnell at his best, before his sad decline, coupled with a great script makes for some excellent television. 10/10
The Adventure of Maximus Petullian by Carl West 24/4/98
As far as William Hartnell stories are concerned, The Romans is fairly good, though I certainly cannot praise the story unequivocally. The biggest problem with the story would have to be the humor. A lot of people criticize Tom Baker's sixth season (Season Seventeen) for it's largely unserious approach, but at least most of the jokes during that season were well-written and witty. A lot of the humor in The Romans comes off seeming either very simple minded, or often just downright pathetic (I would however have to agree with Christopher Fare that Barbara and Ian's thing about "the fridge" is great). The kind of serious approach that had been used in The Aztecs could have made this story something utterly different, and probably a good deal better. The supporting cast comes across as a fairly forgettable bunch, too: from Michael Peake's Tavius to Derek Francis's Nero, the guest actors in this adventure are all a bit dull.
For true Doctor Who fans, however, I do think The Romans is worth viewing. The fact that the BBC Video release of this story is coupled with the classic The Rescue certainly makes the video a worthwhile purchase. William Hartnell gives what is probably one of his best performances ever as the Doctor. The Doctor is mistaken for the wandering musician Maximus Petullian by Nero and his court, and this rather seems to free-up the First Doctor from his crotchety old man image; Hartnell comes across a bit more like the younger, successive Doctors in this story (he does look amazingly distinguished wearing the Roman robe and get-up too). The fact that the real, ill-fated Maximus Petullian has the exact same hairdo as Hartnell's Doctor is an absolute scream.
I really can't forgive Christopher Fare for criticizing Maureen O'Brien in his review of The Romans. I would have to put O'Brien right up there with Wendy Padbury as the "most charming" of the Doctor's female companions (see Keith Bennett's recent Top Ten list). I'll agree that Maureen O'Brien isn't a terribly exceptional actress, but Christopher's criticisms of her in this story seem a little unfounded.
The BBC was to recreate ancient Rome much more successfully eleven years later in the wonderful I, Claudius, but I suppose comparing Doctor Who to Masterpiece Theatre would be a little unreasonable!
A Review by Leo Vance 13/11/98
To go straight to it, first the cast.
From small roles like 'the official court poisoner', right up to Nero himself, the cast is superb. William Hartnell is undoubtedly at his best in this comedy, far better than his performance in the preceding The Rescue. Even William Russell gets his act into gear (pun intended) and plays with conviction. Jacqueline Hill is undoubtedly superb, and one of the best performances is Maureen O'Brien as Vicki. A superb portrayal which deserves recognition.
The sets are fabulous. They really couldn't be improved upon. The ship looks more real than the model of 'Roma', admittedly, but this is a minor gripe. In the costumes department, there are no problems at all.
The script is what makes this great. From 'Barbaras calling you', to 'he was right', it all works. Nero chasing Barbara is unquestionably hilarious, and the Mountain Mauler of Montana is sickeningly funny. And as an earlier reviewer stated, the scene where the Doctor is going to be fed to the lions is unbelievably funny.
All in all, a superb demonstration of what Doctor Who can be if you have a good team, and a superb cast and script. Top Five material. Really. 10/10
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 6/12/98
Whether you enjoy The Romans or hate it depends largely on your sense of humour. Admittedly on it`s first viewing, I didn`t think it was much cop, but repeated viewing has made me see it in a new light: as a highly enjoyable historical romp.
If The Reign of Terror marked the beginnings of Doctor Who`s foray into comedy, then this can only be seen as pure farce. William Hartnell is a joy to behold here in the guise of lyre player Maximus Petullian and as The Doctor. Jacquline Hill, as Barbara, gets a lighter storyline for once, as The Emperor Nero takes a fancy to her. As for Nero himself, while he is competently portrayed, whether he was such a bumbling idiot (as he is shown to be here) is a debatable matter. Maureen O`Brien as Vicki doesn`t get a lot to do, but what she does she obviously relishes, showing a flair for comedy, perhaps. Only William Russell as Ian is given a serious storyline, which is out of keeping with the rest of the tale. This however allows for some character development and is actually a welcome distraction from the hi-jinks at Nero`s court.
Production values are generally high: the scenes of Nero surrounded by flames are memorable. There is some fine dialogue (if a little risque), and the religious background behind the character of Tavius makes for a believable supporting character. Overall, The Romans has a lot going for it, and as an experimental story of this nature it just about works.
A Review by Keith Bennett 8/1/01
Considering all the talk about how comedic The Romans is supposed to be, it surprised me when I first saw it to see how comedic it isn't. By the end of the first episode, Ian and Barbara are in chains, depressed and in danger of the chop, while a lyre player has been assassinated and the Doctor is about to be attacked himself. Not even jolly, let alone funny.
The third episode is undoubtedly the most humorous, with Nero chasing Barbara everywhere, but I have to say that, overall, I would not regard this story as a "comedy".
However, I would still regard it as a good one. Nero is wonderfully entertaining (the poisoning of his servant is marvellous), while the leads all do well, although Ian and Barbara's frivolities in the opening episode give things a bit of a slow start. Not that I'm trying to be a party pooper, but I feel like telling Ian to cut it with the Roman quotes after a while.
The Doctor is wonderful, even if he does seem to fluff one line every two minutes, and Vicki is a delight - so much more, one has to day, than the overly dramatic Susan. Carrying on from The Rescue, Vicki clicks wonderfully with the Doctor. The sets and costumes are also outstanding, and I actually thought the scenes of Ian on the boat were rather good - even if it was padding.
Overall, I do not subscribe to the belief that The Romans is a comedy, but I do subscribe to it being a good, enjoyable story.
A Comedy of Errors by Peter Niemeyer 26/3/01
I wasn't too crazy about this story. Much has been said about how The Romans was basically written as a comedy, or as close to comedy as a show like Doctor Who can get. This where The Romans made its first and fatal mistake.
I do believe that otherwise serious science fiction shows can have comical episodes. The original Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles", Voyager's "Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy" and even Doctor Who's "City of Death" all made me laugh out loud throughout the episode. But in every case, the main point of the story was still science fiction, and the circumstances, although believable, were also absurd enough to naturally evoke humor.
The Romans, on the other hand, felt like it was going for laughs. With the exception of Ian's whole slave adventure, the story seemed to go in the direction that would achieve the greatest levity. And that just isn't why I watch Doctor Who. The Brigadier's insistance that Omega's universe is Cromer; the Second Doctor telling the Brigadier that his replacement "was pretty unpromising too", Tegan's complaint when the Fifth Doctor tells the Cyberleader she is "no one of consequence"... this is organic humor that doesn't detract from or attempt to substitute for a story. If The Romans wanted to be comedy, this is what it should have gone for. Alas, it did not.
If I forgive The Romans for attempting to be comedy, then I can give it an average rating. It wasn't as well done as The Aztecs or The Crusades, but at four parts was a bit easier to get into than Marco Polo or The Reign of Terror.
One Thing I'd Do Differently: I'd have Ian do something other than the whole slave adventure. The storyline was too ambitious to be done as a B-story (slave market, shipwreck, arena combat) and too much at odds with the less menacing qualities of the other stories.
One Thing I Wouldn't Touch: The Doctor's interactions with Vicki. After The Rescue, which brings in Vicki as Susan's replacement, this story does a nice job of showing the Doctor and Vicki futhering their surrogate grandfather/granddaughter roles.
Would I Like To Watch This Serial Again?: Yes, but only if I was watching the entire season. I doubt I'd ever watch this serial in isolation.
Seriously funny by Tim Roll-Pickering 6/10/01
One of the most obvious periods in history for a Doctor Who story to be set is ancient Rome and so it's not too surprising to see one fairly early on in the series' run. However it avoids the most obvious period - that of Julius Caesar and the struggle to succeed him - and instead opts to show us Rome in the time of Nero. It also goes for a far more humorous slant on history than any previously seen in the show.
Although mainly remembered for its comic elements, The Romans contains its serious points as well, most notably the sub-plot involving Ian as he faces a long life as a galley slave and then a short one in the arena. There's little humour in these scenes, especially at the point where fellow galley slave turned gladiator Delos tells Ian that even though they are friends, he is still prepared to kill him in combat if it means he can win his freedom. Right from the start the contrasts between the Roman way of life and modern living are clear, such as the scenes in the market place or the widespread acceptance of mute assassins and court poisoners. As Tavius points out to Barbara, few people would act as she does towards a fellow weak slave. When at the end the viewer (but none of the characters) learns that Tavius is secretly a Christian it makes the entire plot clear and reminds us of the harsher side to Nero's regime and the persecution of the Christians.
Nero himself is interestingly portrayed. His entrance in the second episode, All Roads Lead to Rome, is a far cry from the traditional image of a Roman Emperor nobly marching into a room, receiving respect and awe from all around him. Whereas other historicals such as Marco Polo or The Crusade are like other historical dramas in that they portray famous historical characters with respect and dignity, The Romans belongs to the tradition of historical comedy, along with film series such as the Carry On...s or television series such as Blackadder that send up such figures and Derek Francis' portrayal of Nero works wonderfully with William Hartnell. It is refreshing to see a fun take on history, even though it means some of the more serious elements are ignored completely or diminished to a very small mention, such as the persecution of the Christians. The story goes for the historically dubious view that Nero was involved in the fire and even shows him in Rome at the time (he was in Antium), but The Romans isn't aiming to be fully historically accurate. Nero's court is filled with many of the traditions such as a jealous queen/empress determined to hold onto her position, the conspiring servant, the executioner/poisoner who treats their job as an art and the pompous king/emperor. Interestingly no mention is made of Nero trying to have himself declared a living god (an almost obligatory desire by any Roman Emperor who realised they would never receive the accolade posthumously) even though this would fit perfectly into the story.
The comedy is wonderful, especially in the scenes where Nero tries to discreetly catch and seduce Barbara but instead bumps into half the palace or in those where the Doctor tries to find out more about Maximus Pettulian's secret plans and instead only succeeds in getting even less out of Tavius than he might otherwise have. Especially wonderful is the fact that at the end of the story the Doctor sets off for the TARDIS without ever finding out what Ian and Barbara got up to whilst he was in Rome - a far cry from most stories which see all the regulars converging in the final episode.
What makes the comedy work is the fact that the basic plot of The Romans is reasonably straightforward and serious. Thus the humour arises naturally and complements the plot well. This is one to watch again and again. 8/10
A Review by Michael Hickerson 29/1/02
There are a lot of people out there who love The Romans. It's certainly seemed to gain a great deal of stature since the BBC released it on video a few years ago.
But I will be honest -- I'm not a huge fan of the story.
It has some nice moments, yes, but overall, the entire story leaves me cold.
I think a large part of this is that, in my mind, The Romans simply doesn't compare to what I consider to be the definitive Hartnell historical story still in existence, The Aztecs. The Aztecs works extremely well because it splits up the TARDIS crew into different experiences within the historical society in question and manages to get a lot of drama and suspense out of each plotline.
It's that sense of drama and tension that's missing in The Romans.
Part of the story suffers from a lack of focus. The Aztecs had the focus of Barbara's placing the TARDIS crew in peril by her attempts to change history and save the Aztecs from themselves. This conflict opened up the doors to the TARDIS crew being placed into various aspects of Aztec life with convincing results.
In The Romans, there's no such central tension driving the story. Barbara has apparently learned from her experiences and instead of trying to change things, the crew is merely content to sit-back and observe the Roman lifestyle and the times. Yes, there's the dramatic conflict of Ian and Barbara being sold as slaves, but it never really reaches the level of suspense or interest that The Aztecs or even The Crusade.
So, it's overall a lack of focus that makes The Romans less than what it could be.
Add to it that it can be a bit campy. About three quarters of the way through episode three, I kept asking myself -- how many more ways can they have for the characters to almost see each other only to have it go wrong? It's an amusing idea at first, but it loses the humorous value quickly. Even the much heralded episode three, with the crackling good dialogue between the Doctor and Nero, falls flat at times, trying to be a bit too humorous and too over the top for my liking. I understand the series wanted to inject some humor into the show, but surely there could have been a better way than it was done here.
Thankfully, this story is only four episodes long -- though it barely has enough plot for two. Unlike other Hartnell stories which stretch the episode number to new heights of incredulity (Web Planet, anyone?), this one is over fairly quickly and painlessly.
All that said, there are some things about The Romans I like.
A Review by Alan Thomas 14/4/03
In Season 2, Doctor Who went all experimental. The first real example of this is The Romans, a story conceived as a comedy, which certainly owes a lot to the Carry On films.
First of all, I must say that I don't find The Romans particularly funny. I enjoy it, it's a good story with light-hearted moments, but it also has brutal sides to it. Is the storyline of Ian and Barbara being sold as slaves funny? I don't think so. The Romans actually has very dark tones to it. Many of the deaths are played comically, making for a distinctive black humour and wonderful slapstick.
However, it's not quite as clean cut as that. It's often been said that The Romans' comedic reputation has been severely tested by its more horrific aspects. The performances might be comical, but the scenes with Vicki and The Doctor in Nero's Rome, which are very comical, are juxtaposed with scenes featuring Ian or Barbara, which show a much darker tone. This really brings forward the experimental aspect of the story. The scenes with Barbara in the cell and Ian in the Galley are not pleasant to watch.
Luckily, the action moves in unlikely "Carry On" ways. Barbara ends up at Nero's court, meaning that she has some very funny scenes, and Ian eventually manages to break free of the Galley and is thrown into Nero's arena. Obviously, all of this is totally implausible, but then when has Doctor Who ever pretended to be plausible?
The Romans sadly suffers from a problem - it doesn't seem to know what it is.
At one time, The Romans is a farcical comedy. At another time, The Romans is a very serious story. These two types of story of so extreme that it creates rather a bizarre story to watch. However, the humorous parts of the story succeed, for the most part, to be quite funny. Depending on your mood and how you view it, the story is entertaining on several different levels. But is that always what the viewer wants?
It's this diversity that is one of the strangest yet striking things about the serial, and it shows the series in a state of flux.
As far as performances go, William Hartnell is in his absolute element here, and is completely at home in the humorous scenes. The story is a perfect vehicle for Hartnell's whimsy, and this is probably his best performance. The "roaring success" scene in part four is hysterical owing to Hartnell's excellent timing.
At the end of the day, The Romans can be both brilliant entertainment and inept comedy, depending on the mood in which it's viewed. 7/10
Priceless history... by Joe Ford 12/7/03
Ten reasons to love The Romans...
10) It is stuck in the middle of the excruciating season two.
No honestly! You have The Web Planet and The Chase, both hysterical masterpieces of badness. Then you have Planet of Giants and The Space Museum which compete each other for sheer borderm. Only The Crusade, The Rescue and The Time Meddler actually manage to be entertaining... don't even get me started on that nasty Richard Martin directed "classic" ,a href=dalei.htm>The Dalek Invasion of Earth because I may hurt your feelings... No The Romans is one of those experimental stories that Doctor Who tries out every now and then and it actually works. It is more akin to season three than anything in season two but I'm glad it is where it is because we can at least give the show's second year a little merit.
9) The historical accuracy.
People moan about this but I love it. Whilst The Romans is at heart a comedy it has a twisted edge to it that makes a lot more interesting to watch. The Hartnell era was very good at conjuring up a genuine historical atmosphere and this story is no exception. Scenes of Ian being forced to fight against his friend in the arena and Barbara being sold at a slave market merely help to enrich the story. It is a witty and clever look at a much explored culture.
8) It looks FAB!
The sets are gorgeous and Chris Barry shoots the whole thing with his usual panache. I love the steam room scene where the camera pans over the dozing bodies of Nero and the Doctor. The Villa in particular is a great set, it looks extremely authentic and starts the story on the right foot. Whilst it isn't really the sets you're watching (it's the excellent actors) they certainly help to build a good atmosphere. I love the chief prisoners' lair... very creepy.
7) Ian and Barbara.
Who are just sooo in love it is silly they don't admit it! Look at them lounging about in their Roman clothes, pissed as farts and flirting madly with each other. She does his hair, he cracks jokes and when they are in danger they rush to each other's sides. Honestly Hill and Russell's chemistry in this is palpable indeed, they act more like a pair of actors who have grown to enjoy each others company. Their screen presence is quite heart-warming. Plus it is their characters that bring gravity to later events.
6) The running gag of The Doc and Vicki and Barbara being in Rome but
never actually meeting.
The best jokes are usually those that have been worked on the hardest and this is a joy. I love the slave market scene where Barbara is pushed up onto a podium in front the crowd the second the Doctor turns away. Or how they never meet despite Barbara being chased through the corridors of Nero's palace. To top it off Hartnell's gigglesome reaction when he gets back to the villa to find Ian and Barbara asleep (and thinks they have been there the whole time!) is priceless.
5) The naughtiness!!!
Oh gosh, Doctor Who rarely has scenes with a sex-obsessed Roman Emperor chasing the companion around his house threatening to do all sorts when he gets hold of her! It's a brilliant sequence, high farce all the way and I love it. Barbara's "Ohss!" are just perfect and Hartnell's giggly reactions ("What an extraordinary fellow!!"). I love it when they reach the bedroom and he has her cornered and then his wife walks in! And he just pretends Barbara was there anyway ("Oh hello did you want something?). This is Doctor Who venturing into Carry On territory and pulling it off with real style. Plus "Close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise!" ...can you think of a ruder line in Doctor Who?
4) The script.
Which in the expert hands of character writer Dennis Spooner is a laugh riot from start to finish. There are lots of fun diversions... the whole poisoning of Nero sequences, the Doctor being attacked by the assassin and kicking the crap out of him, the plans of Rome going up in flames, the fight at the arena, the silent lyre playing at the banquet. It is a story packed with spoilers and fun incidents.
3) The jokes.
Too many to mention... Nero killing off his slave Tigilunus just because he's annoying, Vicki swapping the poisons over and nearly killing Nero, the kinky chase scene, the steam room scene with the Doctor constantly shoving the sword in Nero's face, the scene where the Doc reveals his knowledge of Neros plans for him ("You want me to play in the arena!"), the Docs reaction to the assassination plot ("Kill Nero! I beg your pardon?"), the way he so effortlessly dispatches the assassin in episode one, the Doctor's hurt but hysterical reaction to Ian and Barbara not trusting him to go to Nero on his own and of course Barbara hitting Ian over the head in episode one and his finding out about it in episode four (his reaction... chasing her a bit more... is great!). It is a breathlessly funny story matched only by a few gems in the Williams era.
Derek Francis offers up a fat, rude, horny, belching talentless Nero. And he's just perfect.
1) William Hartnell
This wonderful man who can make me grin by just looking at him. This is one of his best surviving stories because he is so involved and clearly having a ball. His fluffs are ever funnier in this because there is a possibility they might be deliberate ("That Your Excellency would be an impossbissity... illity!"). His laughter and charms ring very true in this story and his facial expressions as he uncovers one plot after another are brilliant. The Doctor is at the height of his game in this story, witty, sharp minded and one step ahead of the enemy. His friendship with Nero is both charming and very funny. Their dialogue that has about three meanings is just wonderful. Hartnell is a real joy to watch here and I always have a warm feeling in belly after I've turned it off.
To cap off this wonderful story... the Doctor's reaction to being responsible for burning Rome... lots and lots of laughter!
Are you being served? by David Massingham 29/1/04
This is more like it! Season two finally hits its straps with this fantastic little tale, one which rivals The Aztecs as the strongest story to date. The Romans is a clever, witty and engaging adventure, which successfully showcases the talents of the four leads, whilst bringing in some strongly portrayed secondary characters -- Nero, Tavius, Delos, even Tigilinus -- to flesh it out a bit.
There is so much to recommend with this story. The tone is obviously humourous, echoing high farce and camp carry on antics, and surprisingly succeeding. Tampering with genres like these in a science fiction drama could be potentially disastrous, but here we come up trumps. The scenes of Nero chasing Barbara around the palace are terrific, wonderfully reminiscent of the classic bedroom farce, with sequences including different parties from the TARDIS narrowly missing each other and the glorious moment when Nero swipes aside the curtain to reveal William Hartnell examining the wall nonchalantly. Our lead character is simply superb here; the manner in which the Doctor is brought into the plot, masquerading as a great musician, leads to many hilarious scenes. His "performance" at the feast of Nero, his interactions with Tavius, and his bizarre fight with the tongueless assassin... these are priceless moments which by all rights shouldn't work, but nonetheless entertain in a way that no other Doctor Who story ever would again.
The rest of the cast is just as good. Maureen O'Brien cements Vicki as a vastly superior Susan replacement, lighting up the screen with her exuberance alone. Perhaps not quite as adept at comedy as her co-stars, O'Brien still manages to convey a sense of fun and adventure in her performance. Likewise, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell are rarely better than here. Hill jumps into the story and imbues it not only with comedy, but also awkwardness (her scenes with Nero), despair (worrying about the hopelessness of her position as a slave), and, again, that sense of fun, ably demonstrated in her fooling around with Ian.
Speaking of which, The Romans seems to have a reputation for showing Barbara and Ian as more in love than any other story... and boy, is that reputation accurate! Never mind the fridge jokes and coy smiles, it's scenes such as the one in which Barbara stares wistfully out of her prison window, practically willing Ian's safety -- that's where we see the spark between these two (and there's only one of them there!). Whether you enjoy picking up on subtext like this or not, it is nonetheless easy to argue that the, um, friendly relationship between these two characters helps to make The Romans enjoyable not only from a comedic and dramatic perspective, but also a romantic one.
William Russell's Ian is possibly at his very best here. Not only adept at comedy, Russell manages to infuse his character with a certain amount of desperation in evading the law and escaping captivity. There is an animal-like quality to the way Ian hides to the back walls of the Roman streets, his unshaven face and tousled hair painting him less as the resourceful hero he is often cast as and more as the wanted fugitive. Things like this help to highlight the story's more dramatic aspects and balance the comedy and the tension well. Other elements that contribute to this nice balance include the scenes on the slave ship, the underlying seriousness of Tavius' motivations for wanting Nero dead, and Poppaea's plot to murder Barbara.
Christopher Barry's direction is much better than in the previous adventure, The Rescue, with many original touches staying in the viewers' mind after watching the story. We get the map of Rome with "Roma" emblazoned on it; clever shooting which manages to convey Rome on a Doctor Who budget as being much larger than it undoubtedly was; the wonderfully scene of Nero laughing as Rome burns; and simple and direct camera-work in the sauna scene which is also successful in heightening the comedy of the whole "sword gag" (a gag which could, nay, should, have fallen flat on its face... somehow, against all odds, it works). The design is top notch, with a large variety and number of sets portraying the countryside and the cities, with only the gladiatorial arena really disappointing in any way. Particularly impressive are the villa, the slave ship and the prison cells. The music further aids the production in remaining lighthearted but unobtrusive, highlighting the comedic elements, rather than swamping them.
When I had finished watching The Romans the first time, I was deeply satisfied with a clever story and a witty, fast-paced script. Having now viewed it a couple of more times, I can categorically say that it is one of the strongest Hartnell stories, and certainly the most re-watchable. True, some of the gags fall flat and the first episode takes a bit to warm up, but, for me, this is the second real classic Doctor Who adventure.
9 out of 10
Billy Lyre by Andrew Wixon 10/4/04
'Doctor Who can do anything.' So Terrance Dicks always used to say, but I have to confess that I've always had my doubts (I suspect tapdancing film noir and rastafarian pornography may always lie beyond it, though doubtless Big Finish will get around to trying eventually). These days Uncle Tel is apparently saying 'Doctor Who is like a Western', which seems to me to be a step too far in the opposite direction, but I'm not going to argue with him for obvious reasons.
But Doctor Who can certainly try anything, it's just a question of whether the attempt itself is a wise or necessary one. Which brings us to The Romans - yes, Doctor Who can certainly be a faintly crap farce with bits nicked from Hollywood epics, but do we really want it to be? (Many Doctor Whos have been farcical, of course, but unlike - for example - Warriors of the Deep, this is obviously intentional.) No doubt someone somewhere has declared this to be an overlooked gem, a comic masterpiece - well as far as I can tell the main joke is 'The Doctor comes in through one door just as Barbara goes out the opposite one'. This gets used about sixteen times, and surely I'm not too demanding in thinking that's rather flogging a dead gee-gee?
Oh, dear, I don't mean to sound crotchety, because I did enjoy a lot of this story. Hartnell's performance is joyful - you can tell the chance to do comedy has energised him, and his set-piece bits - playing the silent harp, roughing up Drax - are very funny. But the rest of the story does seem a bit drab and flat - Ian's subplot consists of bits out of Ben Hur and Spartacus stitched together. It's certainly nowhere near the standard of the season one historicals, and the potential was there - a serious story about imperial Rome and the Neronian persecution of Christians could have been somewhere between The Aztecs and The Massacre. As it is this angle is barely hinted at, but even so it's one of the story's most arresting moments.
This isn't actually a bad story, it does have bags of charm and is quite amusing in places, while the sets and well-stocked crowd scenes indicate a biggish budget has been allocated. But you can see why the series so very seldomly went all-out for laughs in the rest of its career. Fun, but very dispensable.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 21/10/04
Following quite serious historical stories of the first season, it must have been quite a surprise to encounter this comedy show masquerading as an historical Dr Who story. Looking back now it is easy to see this as an attempt to lighten things up - this was supposed to be a kids' show after all. Above all though this a genuine attempt to introduce farce into Who. It was a step that was welcome - Doctor Who could be straight-laced and serious, but it didn't need to be all the time. It was another of those bold moves in stretching the format that ultimately resulted in a more varied and interesting show.
As for The Romans itself it fully embraces its comic angle - and it is very entertaining as a result. It's nice to see our four heroes having a laugh. Ian and Barbara lounging about, in the grand Roman style - they finally have something to smile about. We also get to see William Hartnell's clever comic wit, as he embraces the ludicrous. It's another step to a more mellow and likeable Doctor, the distant anti-hero of An Unearthly Child is far in the past by now.
The script is pretty good. Dividing the TARDIS crew into two sides is a terrific idea. Having them miss each other at every turn, provides much of the comedy. The script is also punctuated with some very funny gags, there's also a great deal of farce - particularly involving Emperor Nero.
The lighter tone is taken up with full force by all the main cast. William Hartnell hums, ah-hahs and giggles his way through his lyre-playing role. Barbara gets to romp around the court with Emperor Nero. Ian gets to be all heroic as a gladiator. All enter into the spirit of the story, and all give excellent performances. The only one who comes across a bit out of place is Vicki. She has no real role except to follow the Doctor around, and giggle uncontrollably at the jokes. It's a shame after her very good opening story.
There has been much talk of the historical accuracy of the story. I find this quite a pointless argument to be honest. If this was a serious historical I can see the reviewers' points, but everything is done with a comic bent - they are hardly going to worry about historical accuracy are they?
The Romans is put together quite well too. There is much more use of stock footage to give the thing a more broad canvas. Shots of old sailing boats on the ocean moving to Ian as an oarsman, work well. Lions roam the cells, with Ian and his mate looking on in fright. They mix the extra footage well into the mix, and the whole thing seems bigger and grander than usual DW fare. Helping in this is that interesting time before the story actually starts. The TARDIS crew land in Roman times, the TARDIS falls off a cliff, and then we find they have been sitting around doing practically nothing for nearly a month! This kind of relaxation (seen recently in the BBC 8th Dr book - Intelligent Tigers) makes for a much more realistic lifestyle. So many stories appear to merge from one to another, and you just can't see how the TARDIS crew can handle the stress and strain of all the adventure. To have a rest like this immediately shows them to be more real - and therefore you can see why they are all so mischevious throughout the story. They've had a holiday!
All in all The Romans has much to like. It is so nice to see our heroes not taking themselves too seriously and genuinely having a laugh. We are the beneficiaries of such lightheartedness, and I would have liked to see more of this type of story. 8/10
Lend Me Your Ears by Ben Kirkham 27/4/10
In 1965, Doctor Who producer Verity Lambert decided to stretch the format somewhat. One of the results was this fruitful and vibrant story, featuring one of Hartnell's best performances.
The story uses an interesting storytelling technique in denoting a passage of time between The Rescue's literal "cliffhanger" and the crew relaxing. It adds an air of mystery as to what has happened in the intervening time. All of the cast are on top form here, with William Russell and Jacqueline Hill loving the chance to be flirty and funny, playing off each other deliciously. They seem to strike the balance between serious drama and high comic farce extremely well. There's some wonderful interplay between all the TARDIS crew and Vicki has already settled in well, being much more convincing all-round than Susan was.
Plaudits should be given for the production on this occasion. The soft lyre playing in the background and the busy marketplace add a convincing atmosphere to the story. There's some lovely comedy present all around, even from the guest cast. When Sevcheria keeps trying to get information from the stall trader and she asks for more money for each nugget of information, I was laughing out loud. The best performance is certainly from Derek Francis as Nero. This blustering buffoon is a riot from start to finish, yet also has a veil of sadistic cruelty that reminds the viewer of his true intentions.
But the greatest performance is certainly William Hartnell. He revels in the farce here, playing most scenes for laughs and also getting the First Doctor's pomposity down to a tee. The look on his face when he discovers he's eating ants eggs and his repeated mispronunciation of Ian's surname show an actor at the top of his game, putting some of his lacklustre moments in The Dalek Invasion of Earth to shame. A particular highlight is the scene with Nero in which the Doctor gloats about Nero's plan to throw him in the Arena. Okay, so the story isn't historically accurate. But really, how many Doctor Who stories truly are?
It has to be said that the plot is not much more than the crew running around, missing each other, and veering from one calamity to another. In the wrong hands, this could go awry, but director Christopher Barry clearly has everything under control, and the humour sprinkled with moments of serious drama (such as when Tavius' Christianity is revealed) make the story roll along at a great pace. Later experiments in comedy ultimately come out either over-earnest or pale, but The Romans seems to get it right.
It's really the tone of the story (switching between the Doctor and Vicki's farcical adventure to Ian and Barbara's terrifying ordeals) that makes it so interesting to watch. In a season where some experiments didn't come off and some just worked, The Romans was a complete triumph.
And isn't the whole "Emperor's New Clothes" sequence just brilliant?
A Review by Tom Marshall 22/7/10
There have been very few 'proper' Doctor Who comedies. When they do occur, they do tend to be set in the past (don't ask me why) - and arguably only The Romans and The Unicorn and the Wasp fit the bill. Both are equally brilliant and perhaps more memorable than the surrounding historical stories simply because they emphasise the old adage of using comedy to make a serious point. Despite the farcical humour, both stories are poignant, serious drama at heart.
But it is rollicking good fun, a proper romp of mistaken identity and (a lack of?) coincidences, with numerous, humorous and often-tangential side plots thrown in for good measure. Dennis Spooner seemed much more comfortable approaching historical settings than he did any others: The Time Meddler is another standout of the genre, but for sheer historical detail The Romans is an absolute gem, right up there with the brilliant The Crusade for the very best entertainment of the 60s. There may be a few inaccuracies but to be honest this is as good a depiction of Roman culture as we'll get. Much as I love The Fires of Pompeii, the slow pace works to this story's advantage here and we actually get to know the Romans properly.
You have the country villa, with leafy paved roads outside, reclining couches, fountains, statues, markets, slaves, banquets, prisons, an egotistic emperor, a bustling city complete with populated marketplace, steamy baths, early Christianity, the Great Fire of Rome, a shipwreck, whips, chains, lions, the arena, a lyre, a swordfight, paid assassins without tongues... it's like every time Spooner thought of another Roman cliche, he couldn't resist throwing it into the mix as well - and it's marvellously put together (the same could be said for Holmes in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and we know how popular that is!)
The production is excellent, almost as good as that on The Crusade and while Chris Barry isn't the best director the show has ever seen his work here is more fluid and assured than on The Rescue. Some of the set pieces are excellent, a real sense of scale being given to the city of Rome which means one can forget the mediocre 60s TV budget. Shots such as the tag "ROMA" with a model of the city, the ship sailing through the storm and the final one of the fire ravaging the buildings are likely to linger long in the mind.
But the selling point of The Romans is its humour and, while some of it grates, it is mostly perfect. Whether it's a disturbing chase sequence featuring an aroused Nero hunting a perplexed Barbara, or the Doctor chuckling with glee every other minute, you're guaranteed to find something in this four-part story that will make you laugh out loud. My personal favourite has to be "He was right!" If you've seen the story you will know what I mean and if you haven't you need to. It's the way he turns away afterward, casually, that particularly makes me laugh.
The characters are well-drawn, too. Spooner nails the TARDIS team who are rarely as good as they are here, and there is vivid characterisation in the form of Nero and Tavius (with strong backup from Poppaea and Delos, too). Derek Francis is absolutely grotesque as Nero, spoilt, egocentric, absolutely horrible - and one of the funniest men you'll ever see at the same time. Some of his humour might be a tad in-your-face (the extended chase sequence, Nero gorging himself), but if the final scene of The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone is anything to go by, this precedent has continued, and it is the quieter humour that works best: the gag with the sword in the baths, Tigilinus trying to put the laurel crown on the Emperor... Much of it works and a little doesn't but it is all fun to watch regardless.
The funny thing is that Spooner's script still presents the Romans seriously, despite the comedy: their society is not portrayed as one you would like to visit (as it is in The Fires of Pompeii); with the lions, assassins, arena and double-crossing it's every bit as ruthless an environment as the uninviting world of Dido the Doctor landed on in the previous adventure. The people represent this too, from the unpleasant Didius to the jealous, mistrustful Empress Poppaea; none of them are particularly pleasant. There are some exceptions to the rule, naturally: Tavius is a wonderfully clear-headed, quiet, compassionate man who buys Barbara perhaps because he sees an extension of his Christian values (maybe I am biased because I am a Christian but I find his final moment holding the cross as Rome burns rather affecting). Ian and Didos' friendship is also rather touchingly portrayed.
Maureen O'Brien steps up her game a notch as Vicki, delivering an irrepressibly enthusiastic performance positively bouncing with fun. Ian and Barbara continue to... er, fall in love even more (why can't they just admit it, honestly!), their banter sometimes the best parts of the episode. William Hartnell almost steals the show away from Derek Francis here, the Great Man delivering one of his very best performances, clearly revelling in the comedy, whether he is chuckling, spouting superb lines like "Oh, so you want a fight, do you?" and beating up the mute assassin, making those rather tasteless but very fun puns about lions in the arena, or being extremely quick-witted and setting Nero's plans alight. He is at his most loveable, authoritative and irritable all at once: very much the stuff of legend, to quote The Satan Pit.
Fun and diverting it may be, but there is enough under the surface of The Romans for any viewer to get their teeth into. Again, if you have seen the episode you will no doubt understand the last sentence a little more than others would...
A Review by Paul Williams 24/5/19
The Romans is an epic comedy that sparkles periodically but also descends into absurdity. Scenes where Nero chases Barbara around the palace or when the Doctor plays an imaginary tune on the lyre belong in a bad Carry On film. Interestingly, Carry On Cleo, one of the better entries in the series, hit cinemas just a month earlier. There are similarities in the plots. Both feature a mad emperor and Britons trapped in Rome, winning fights that they had no right to win. Both have a character that infiltrates the palace on a pretext, and both use the period cliches of slaves rowing boats, lions eating people and slave auctions.
The Romans also builds on Dennis Spooner's previous scripts, without capturing the same sense of danger. Ancient Rome is every bit as dangerous as revolutionary France, but nobody told the Doctor. In The Reign of Terror, he used comedy as a means to escape. Here he enjoys the threat, ignoring warnings and placing himself in greater peril. Vicki aids him, having the luxury of scenes that Susan, who spent The Reign of Terror sick or imprisoned, never enjoyed. The new companion is delightful, and, despite a bevy of excellent supporting characters, all four regulars have ample screen time, beginning and ending with some lovely bonding in the borrowed villa.
It isn't all fun for the regulars. There is a serious side in the tribulations of Barbara and especially Ian. Barbara's realisation that they might never get home is a sobering moment. If child brides and lascivious gaolers in the first season didn't sway you from the notion that early Doctor Who was a platonic show for children, then scenes of Barbara being sold and pursed by a lustful Nero certainly should. Whilst the Doctor scoffs at court intrigue, Ian faces real terrors, especially in the third cliffhanger.
The Romans also introduces the idea that the travellers can change history. The Doctor reveals that he inspired Hans Christian Anderson, then inspires Nero after saving him from Vicki's attempted poisoning. They are no longer observers but part of the proceedings. You can't take this story too seriously, but you can enjoy it.
When In Rome... by Matthew Kresal 26/4/21
Now into its second season, Doctor Who should have been consolidating its place on British television, learning the lessons of its first year on air. Instead, and perhaps down to new script editor Dennis Spooner coming on board, the series was still very much in an experimental stage, continuing to play with the show's format, alternating historical adventures with science fiction ones. In the former category is The Romans, written by Spooner himself, and introducing a new sub-genre for the series: the comedy historical.
Yes, you read that right.
Finding the TARDIS crew in Nero's Rome, this is a very different kettle of fish from stories like The Aztecs or even Spooner's previous serial The Reign of Terror. The Doctor and Vicki leave Ian and Barbara behind at a villa to go to Rome, where the Doctor gets mistaken for a famous lyre player invited to the emperor's court, meeting the infamous Roman himself. Ian and Barbara, meanwhile, find themselves kidnapped, sold into slavery and eventually at the court as well, though not quite interacting with their fellow travelers. Those near misses make for some of the funnier parts of the story, as well as Hartnell getting a chance to play a more comedic side to the Doctor. Seeing the 'fight' between the Doctor and his would-be assassin early in episode two is a delight to watch, and Hartnell himself seems to be having a whale of a time doing it. That's without forgetting Derek Francis' comic turn as the Roman Emperor, which is at times delightful to take in, particularly when the Doctor plays a "concert" in episode three.
That isn't to say there aren't darker things lurking underneath it all, of course. As mentioned earlier, Ian and Barbara get sold into slavery, with Barbara ending up as a handmaiden to Nero's wife. There are rather stark depictions of life as a Roman slave, from rowing on a galley ship to imprisonment and gladiator fighting that stand at odds with the comedic aspects of the piece. Stranger still, there's a sequence where a lecherous Nero literally chases Barbara through the halls of his palace with only one thing in mind. It's a sequence that's played for laughs but which plays less well today. It's even odder seeing it in something ostensively aimed at a family audience in the mid-1960s, almost as odd as the scene at the end of Flesh and Stone where Amy tries to seduce the Doctor 45 years later.
It's the mismatch between the two that makes the serial feel odd. It starts with Spooner's script but extends to the design work and Christopher Barry's direction, but this is a story that wants to be both a comedy and a historical drama. It wants to blend the tradition of British comedy with the costume dramas that the BBC has always been apt at putting on (indeed, it's no surprise how many Roman productions get cited on the DVD's making-of documentary). Perhaps there is a balance to be struck between the two but, in the winter of 1965, it clearly wasn't found.
In the end, perhaps The Romans isn't quite successful as a comedy or as a historical. Even so, it's an interesting artifact of a unique moment in Doctor Who's long history on our screens. But it isn't the least successful tale from this period, by any means.
More on that another time...