'THE RESCUE / THE ROMANS' DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD2698) RELEASED IN FEBRUARY 2009.
Italy, 64AD. Enjoying a rare
holiday with his companions, The Doctor takes Vicki to visit Rome, where
he is mistaken for the musician Maximus Pettulian. He finds himself
obliged to perform for Nero, or risk incurring the vile Emperor's wrath...
16TH JANUARY 1965 - 6TH FEBRUARY 1965
1. THE SLAVE TRADERS 2. ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME
3. CONSPIRACY 4. INFERNO
The Romans was Doctor Who’s first real stab at historical humour. The previous season’s Reign of Terror teasingly toyed with the notion, but contained nothing as full-blown as some of the hi-jinks to be found within this serial. At times it works and at times it does not, but on the whole I find that The Romans entertains far more than it irritates.
Above: Dalek writer Robert Shearman discusses Spooner's influence on his work
This DVD release is notable in that the bonus material influenced me to such an extent that I find myself warming to the serial all the more. In particular I was swayed by the enlightening documentary on the story’s writer, Dennis Spooner: Wanna Write a Television Series? This seventeen-minute featurette is narrated by Anna Hope (of New Earth, Gridlock and, a little more recently, The Condemned fame) and features a wonderful ‘cast’ – the likes of Donald Tosh, Brian Clemens and even Robert Shearman are each on hand to discuss Spooner’s work and its impact on them, focusing of course on Spooner’s scripts for Doctor Who and the time that he spent working as script editor on the show.
“You can make a difference.”
Shearman, as always, steals the show with some very intriguing points about The Romans and The Time Meddler especially. After watching this feature, I realised that if one looks at Shearman’s acclaimed Big Finish audio dramas The Holy Terror or even Jubilee through a monochrome, family-sanitised lens, then what you see is not a million miles from the dark humour of The Romans.
Even the DVD’s lavish flagship documentary, What Has The Romans Ever Done For Us?, engendered a little bit more respect for The Romans in me. This discerning thirty-four minute programme dwells as much on actual history and other television programmes and movies as it does Doctor Who, but in doing so it only heightens the surprisingly high level of historical accuracy to be found within Spooner’s story.
Above: The What Has ‘The Romans’ Ever Done For Us? Documentary
I also like that here Doctor Who – both ‘classic’ and ‘new’ – are treated as being one and the same, with adventures as far apart as The Romans (1965) and The Fires of Pompeii (2008) both being examined. Sadly the scope is not broad enough to encompass Steve Lyons’ superlative Big Finish audio drama set in Pompeii, The Fires of Vulcan; nor does it make any reference to Byzantium!, The Stone Rose, or any of the other Who novels set in the Roman Empire. Of course, had it done, the running time of the feature would have probably outstripped The Romans itself.
The third most substantial special feature on offer may not be quite as enlivening as its title suggests, but even so Girls! Girls! Girls! rounds the disc off in real style, looking at all the 1960s Who girls from Susan and Barbara all the way up to Zoe Heriot. Interestingly, both Katarina and Sara Kingdom are included in the featurette, despite actress Jean Marsh’s firm assertion that Sara “wasn’t a companion” in her segment. Yes she was, Jean. Yes she was...
The commentary is a bit more engaging for this serial than it was on The Rescue DVD, moderator Toby Hadoke (Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf) able to haul out a lot more from William Russell (Ian) and Christopher Barry (director) than he could the last time around. The rest of the bonus material is made up of Blue Peter clips and comparable ephemera; nothing to get excited about by any means, but nice for completeness all the same.
The four episodes themselves are beautifully presented; the clarity of the picture and sound is nothing short of magnificent. What’s more, watching the episodes again after such a long time, I found myself laughing out loud through much of the serial – skits such as the Doctor’s wonderful ‘fisticuffs’ sequence and the trick that he plays in front of Nero with the lyre are absolutely peerless; it’s certainly easy to believe that William Hartnell began his career in farce after seeing this. Indeed, were it not for Derek Francis’s turn as the comically libidinous Nero, Hartnell would have completely dominated the comedy in this one.
“He didn’t fight hard enough.”
Turning to 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 also an interesting character (a very early Christian, by all accounts) and his genuine affection for Barbara is touching, as is the camaraderie between Ian and the slave that 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 he stands alone, playing his lyre.
All things considered, The Romans DVD is a real treat in every respect. The bonus material is first rate and, better still, it has given me a much deeper appreciation of the serial itself – something that hasn’t happened since Ghost Light was released on DVD four years ago. Some fans will grumble that once again two outwardly unlinked serials have been released together on DVD in a box set, but that is how The Rescue and The Romans were released on VHS and, more importantly, that is how The Rescue and The Romans were made. And besides, if we want our Who DVD collections completed this side of the fiftieth anniversary, then I’m afraid that the occasional (and in this case very reasonably-priced) box set is going to prove essential. Bring on Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks…
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2009
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
The Romans is one of those experimental stories that Doctor Who tries out every now and then that actually works. It’s much more akin to the quality of Season 3 than anything else in Doctor Who’s second season, but I’m glad that it’s where it is because it really boosts the merits of Season 2.
Aside from Nero’s glorious feast, which sees fruits and meats spilling from tables while all the guests dine sitting up rather than lounging, this is a comedy that never forgets it’s trying to teach at the same time. It should be uncomfortable shoving farcical scenes into a serial that juggles slavery, whippings, gladiatorial combat and poisoning, yet Dennis Spooner’s story flits between high drama and comedy with ease. This serial has a delicious, twisted edge to it that makes a lot more interesting to watch than most Who comedies. The William Hartnell era was very good at conjuring up a genuine historical atmosphere, and this serial, with its scenes of Ian being forced to fight against his friend in the arena and Barbara being sold at a slave market, is a wonderful example of this. Spooner is far too clever to simply mock the Roman era, so instead he translates the period into one of decadence, violence and sexuality. The resultant tale is a witty and clever look at a much explored culture.
The sets and costumes are as attractive as we have come to expect from stories set in the past, and Christopher 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 - more power to Hartnell for being the first topless Doctor! Like The Rescue, The Romans again proves how good lighting enhances the mood of a piece – just take a look at Tavius looking out over Rome burning with the flames casting shadows over his face. Furthermore, Nero’s palace has lots of passages, nooks and crannies for plots to brew, and the villa that the story opens and closes in looks spacious and is beautifully dressed. Considering where and how it was filmed, The Romans gets through an astonishing amount of sets (the villa, the market, the road, the Doctor’s bedroom, the Palace with its banquet, corridors, kitchens, the ship’s galley, the streets of ancient Rome…).
I don’t know who is more smitten – Ian and Barbara with each other, or me with them! Look at them lounging about in their Roman clothes, pissed out of their heads and flirting madly with each other. She does his hair, he cracks jokes, and when they’re in danger they rush to each other’s sides. Jacqueline Hill and William Russell’s chemistry in this story is perfect. I love it when you can see that actors are enjoying working together in their performances; it somehow makes the whole experience even more enjoyable. It is this relationship that saw the show through its first tricky bump of losing Susan and gaining Vicki, and so to see them in such luxurious, relaxing surroundings is an absolute joy. Barbara gets to have all the fun whilst Ian is forced to row and fight. She catches Nero’s eye (who has only one task in mind for her!) and spends almost a whole episode trying to avoid having her arse grabbed by him, much to the annoyance of Nero’s wife!
The funniest jokes are often those that have been worked on the hardest, and this one is an absolute joy. In fact, this running gag is so successfully executed that Russell T Davies would play about with something similar when he re-introduced the Doctor and Donna in Partners in Crime over forty years later. I love the slave market scene, which sees Barbara pushed up onto a podium in front the crowd the very second that the Doctor turns away, and how they never meet despite Barbara being chased through the corridors of Nero’s palace - that must have taken some real planning! And, just to top it all off, Hartnell’s gigglesome reaction when the Doctor gets back to the villa to find Ian and Barbara asleep is absolutely priceless - he assumes that they’ve been there the whole time!
I cannot think of a Doctor Who story that flaunts rumpy-pumpy with the aplomb that The Romans does. Nero is such a naughty boy, creeping up on Barbara like a child catcher as she cleans up his room and then casually tossing her onto the bed for a play around! It’s a brilliant sequence, high farce all the way. It’s the reactions that make it work - Jacqueline Hill’s “OOHHS!”, William Hartnell’s “what and extraordinary fellow!” and, of course, Nero’s “oh hello. Did you want something?” when he wife walks in! This is Doctor Who venturing into Carry On territory and pulling it off beautifully. We even have what may be the rudest line in the history of the series: “Close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise!”
In the hands of expert character writer Dennis Spooner, the script is a laugh riot from start to finish. There are lots of fun diversions: the whole poisoning of Nero sequence, the old 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. The Romans is a story packed with fun incidents.
Nero killing off his slave Tigilunus just because he’s annoying (which is surely the darkest joke in all of Doctor Who that doesn’t involve Fondant Surprise); Vicki swapping the poisons over and nearly killing Nero (and his subsequent proclamation “if only I could get my hands on whoever was responsible!” as he grasps Vicki firmly around the shoulders!); the kinky chase scene; the steam room scene, where the Doctor and Nero constantly shove a sword in each others’ faces; the Doctor revealing his knowledge of Nero’s plans for him (“You want me to play in the arena!”); Hartnell’s spot-on reaction to the assassination plot (“Kill Nero! I beg your pardon?”); the way the Doctor so effortlessly dispatches the assassin in the first episode;, the Doctor'’ 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 the first episode and his finding out about it in the final one. It’s a breathlessly funny story, matched only by a few gems in the Graham Williams era.
Derek Francis offers up a fat, rude, horny, belching, talentless Nero. And he’s just perfect.
The Romans is one of Hartnell’s best surviving stories because he is so involved in it, and clearly having a ball to boot. The Doctor is really at the height of his game here - witty, sharp-minded and one step ahead of his opponents all the way. His fluffs are even fluffier than ever (“That, Your Excellency, would be an impossbissa... illity!”) and his laughter and charm ring truer than ever. He uncovers one plot after another and then strikes up an intriguing rapport with Nero that sees the Emperor of Rome offer him banquets one minute, and a trip to the lions’ den the next! Hartnell is a real joy to watch; just go and watch his reaction to being held liable for burning Rome – sheer indignation, followed by hysterical laughter!
There are not many Doctor Who stories that give me as much pleasure as The Romans. With a superb cast, strong direction, an intelligent script and terrific production values, here we have a treasurable story that I would recommend you stick on whenever you next feel a bit down in the dumps.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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