“The Romans” is Doctor Who’s first real stab at historical humour. There were hints of it evident in “The Reign of Terror”, but nothing as full-blown as we see in this story. At times it works and at times it doesn’t, but on the whole “The Romans” entertains more than it annoys. The TARDIS crash landing at the start of the serial is superb; even the visual effects don’t look all that bad. After such a promising beginning though, the story slows down enormously as the TARDIS crew rest up in a villa outside Rome.
There is a lot in this story that made me laugh out loud, most memorably the Doctor’s wonderful ‘fisticuffs’ sequence and the trick he plays in front of Nero with the lyre – this story really is the William Hartnell show! Derek Francis’ Nero is also hilarious, although at times things almost descend into a ‘Carry On’ style farce as he chases Barbara around! In terms of the more serious side of the story, Vicki is handled well by Spooner who gives her the old ‘you can’t meddle with history’ treatment. Tavius (Michael Peake) is an interesting character and his affection for Barbara is touching, as is the camaraderie between Ian and the slave he escapes from the shipwreck with, whom he is later forced to fight. The story’s final scenes are particularly memorable, even if they are at odds with the general tone of the story; Rome burns around Nero as she stands alone, playing his lyre.
All things considered, I can’t help but feel that “The Romans” was a something of a wasted opportunity. So many things are lightly skipped over in this story that would have made for a brilliant, serious Doctor Who adventure à la “The Aztecs.” Nevertheless, on Hartnell’s exceptional performance alone Spooner’s story holds up reasonably well even today, forty years on, so I suppose it can’t have been that much of a waste. The verdict? Good, but could have been so much better!
'The Romans' is Doctor Who's first attempt at full-blown comedy after the hints of this in 'The Reign of Terror', also by Dennis Spooner. Despite this, it tends to be ignored in favour of 'Marco Polo', 'The Aztecs' or 'The Crusade' when historical stories are overlooked, which is shame because it is, quite frankly, brilliant.
Firstly, 'The Romans' is frequently genuinely funny rather than simply witty or satirical. Most of the comedy comes from Derek Francis' Nero, who is an excellent character. Despite frequent slapstick or innuendo, Francis plays it with utter conviction – Nero may be a lecherous bumbling egotistical buffoon, but he can still have people killed and Francis gives an impression of stupid brutality. Whilst he gets lines like "I'll have you both killed over and over again", it is still easy to believe that he really could have the Doctor and Vicki slain, which stops 'The Romans' from being too cozy. Nonetheless, his scenes with the Doctor are pure comedy, and Hartnell proves himself a master, especially during the scene where he silently plays the lyre, having announced that the music is so sophisticated that only those with a keen musical taste will be able to hear it (not only is this an obvious nod to The Emperor's New Clothes, but the Doctor claims to have suggested the idea to Hans Christian Anderson). Nero's sulky announcement that "he's alright but he's not all that good" is hilarious. Even when Nero is absent however, the comedy lurks throughout from the scene in which the Doctor gets Ian's name wrong, to Barbara accidentally knocking Ian out during the fight with the slavers. The scene near the end of episode four in which the Doctor realises that he inspired the great fire of Rome is amusing but also significant; it is the first time since 'The Aztecs' that the idea of meddling in history is mentioned, but on this occasion, whilst the Doctor warns Vicki to be careful, he is clearly gleeful when he finds out that he has influenced events. His overall sense of responsibility to the web of time will remain throughout the series, but it's still interesting to see him consider the possibilities of interfering with almost childish delight. The Doctor shines throughout this story, but particular note must be given to his fight with the assassin, whom he easily out-fights. It is unusual for Hartnell's Doctor to participate in violence, with Ian usually fulfilling that role, but it is hugely entertaining to see him scrapping with such obvious relish. Although it does raise the question of why he didn't give Bennett the same treatment in 'The Rescue'.
Of course, comedy of 'The Romans' is tempered by the predicament of Ian and Barbara, who are kidnapped and sold into slavery. The grim reality of this situation is largely focused on Ian, who first gets forced to row on board a slave ship and is later forced to train as a gladiator; Barbara's situation seems less perilous, since it becomes more comic once she reaches the palace. On one level the idea of Nero trying to force himself on the enslaved Barbara is of course horrific, but to be honest the way in which it is presented disperses any such horror, since Nero is more reminiscent of a harmless and self-deluded middle-aged flirt rather than a sexual predator. It still probably wouldn't be done today, but it has such a pantomime tone to the way it is handled that 'The Romans' just about gets away with it. Ian's experiences are much more brutally portrayed and, as in 'The Reign of Terror', Spooner uses this grittiness to give 'The Romans' a constant sense of danger despite the comedy element. The feeling of restfulness at the start offsets this, as we learn that the Doctor and his companions have spent a month relaxing around the villa – it is unusual to hear of the TARDIS crew getting some time to relax, but somehow welcome.
This story confirms the suspicions sown in 'The Rescue' that Vicki is more fun than Susan, taking constant delight in the sights of ancient Rome, and generally giving an impression that she is eager for new experiences. Her frank discussion with Locusta is full of curiosity rather than the moral outrage that Barbara might have demonstrated on meeting the court poisoner. Later, her glib (and amusing) attitude towards nearly poisoning Nero emphasizes that she is still a child and suggests that, as yet, she doesn't seem to really grasp the consequences of her actions - indeed, she certainly doesn't grasp the implications of time travel yet, or she wouldn't have tried to poison Nero. I suspect that her attitude is largely a combination of giddiness at being able to go anywhere and any when, and also at having escaped from Dido - she constantly bubbles over with excitement. Kept largely by the Doctor's side as he uses his wits to survive in the court, she is effectively shielded from any real danger during this story. This changes during 'The Web Planet', after which she is at least slightly more cautious during her travels with the Doctor.
'The Romans' also succeeds in terms of characterisation; not only Nero, but all the supporting characters seem real, from the old slave woman in Barbara's cell, to Ian's new and trusty friend Delios, to the gentle Tavius who is key to Barbara's safety in the palace. The slave traders are nasty without ever becoming pure cliché, the unfortunate Tigilinus entertains throughout with his unwanted and occasionally unnoticed fussing around Nero, and the scheming and jealous Poppaea is deliciously icy. Every single character, however minor, is well captured. In addition, the sets are uniformly excellent, managing to give a convincing impression of ancient Rome. 'The Romans' is the best surviving example of the comedy historical and is easily as deserving of a DVD release as 'The Aztecs'.