Monday, December 13, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Romans"

Ah, it really seems as though I keep doing a lot of First Doctor stories -- which is odd because the Grab Bag is totally random and I don't have all *that* many First Doctor stories.

At any rate... here we go again, into the William Hartnell era with "The Romans".

There isn't a lot of background to this story. The show was well into it's second series by this point, Maureen O'Brien's new character of Vicki had just been introduced in the previous story, "The Rescue" and so O'Brien was still new to the show. The rest of the cast and crew were somewhat stable. Verity Lambert was still producing and the only other change was that Dennis Spooner, the writer of this story, had been named as the new Script Editor but he would not take over the duties there for another few months.

Lambert had long been wanting to expand the range of the show and so she collaborated with Spooner to have "The Romans" written as an action/adventure-comedy or, some would argue, a dramedy. Either way, "The Romans" would be Doctor Who's first foray into a more comedic style. It wouldn't be the last.

Just for some context as well -- this story follows directly on from "The Rescue" and the story that would follow this one was "The Web Planet" (previously reviewed HERE).

The Plot: The Doctor along with companions Ian, Barbara and Vicki make a rather bumpy landing in ancient Rome. 64 A.D. to be exact. We are immediately whisked away to nearly one month later where we find that the TARDIS team has found an empty villa in a little town not far from Rome and moved in. The rest and relaxation, however, comes to an abrupt end as the Doctor gets a case of wanderlust and decides to go visit Rome with Vicki tagging along. Shortly after the Doctor leaves Ian and Barbara take a more frightening and unexpected trip as the duo are kidnapped by slavers and taken away. Ian is sold on the road to Rome but Barbara travels on to the capital city where she is bought as an attendant for Empress Poppaea, wife of Cesar Nero!

Meanwhile, on the road to Rome the Doctor finds the body of a famous musician, Maximus Pettulian, murdered! The Doctor is mistaken for Maximus and decides to play along out of curiosity as to who might have killed Maximus. Their path takes them not only to Rome but to Nero's palace where the Doctor learns that Maximus himself was supposed to assassinate Nero and Nero, jealous of Maximus's fame with the lyre, had ordered Maximus's death! Now the Doctor must dodge more murderous attempts on his life and extricate himself from the plot to kill Nero as well.

In another part of the palace, Barbara has caught Nero's eye and tries to escape his amorous advances. All of this has not escaped Poppaea's notice and she tries to have Barbara killed to eliminate her as a rival. All this time, Ian has been having adventures of his own, escaping the life of a galley slave he makes his way to Rome to try to rescue Barbara.

With plots and counterplots, with jealous rivalries, with murder and executions hanging over all their heads can the various time travelers escape from their situations and make it back to the TARDIS?

My Take: "The Romans" is a bit of an odd-duck story but somehow it all manages to work. There is no denying the comedy and yet there is a dark streak running through the story and even a dark streak to the comedy. For example, we meet the "official poisoner" of the court and her matter-of-fact description of her job and the way she goes about it is deadpan funny but, at the same time, the fact that, in that time and that place, political killings were rather common is sobering. There is another moment when Nero gives one of his slaves a cup he believes is poisoned and orders the slave to drink from it. The slave does so and drops down dead. The scene is exaggerated and played for laughs but on the heels of that laughter you realize that Nero quite casually killed another human being and showed no remorse at the act.

There is also the situations of Ian and Barbara. Barbara, the former history teacher, flat-out states that the role of a slave in ancient Rome is a frightening prospect. We see Ian treated like dirt as a galley slave and, for all the humor in Nero chasing Barbara around like a farce one is uncomfortably reminded that female slaves could also be subject to rape. And for Barbara, Nero's advances place her between a rock and a hard place.

The more lighthearted part of the story is with the Doctor and Vicki. They face no hardships and we get to see the Doctor as a sly and crafty old bird as he avoids revealing that he is not Maximus and confounds Nero's schemes at every turn.

It is Spooner's script that manages to make everything gel so surprisingly well. Nearly every line of dialogue is a treat and he wrote genuine warmth and admiration into all the character relationships. In point of fact, his scenes between Ian and Barbara are downright flirtatious! It is also a really different story in that Spooner takes his time with the plot -- although not in a boring way -- it is one of the only Classic series stories where viewers get to see the characters truly relaxed and taking time to enjoy themselves. The usual Doctor Who method was to throw the characters into danger right away and the difference works well here.

Spooner also manages that deft balance that is required in black humor. If you push the darkness a little too hard you end up with a story that is disturbing instead of funny but if you don't push the darkness hard enough the story stays a little too light. Here the lines are perfectly drawn. As a four part story things really do not drag either. The action and interactions keep things moving and happening and at no point does the viewer get bored.

All of the actors involved also turn in lovely performances. Both William Russell and Jacqueline Hill prove to have a talent for comedy and William Hartnell, with a background in comedy, is obviously getting a huge kick out of going back to his roots and his enjoyment adds an extra spark to his performance. Character actor Derek Francis is also quite obviously going for the comedy jugular with his turn as Nero. He manages to balance a bit of menace with a kind of bumbling ineffectualness that is absolutely hilarious.

The story is also studio-bound but the BBC manage an excellent job with costumes and set dressing so that the viewer neither notices that much nor cares. Although it must be said that the minuscule budget means that some things have to be left out to the detriment of the story. For example, the audience is told about Ian's escape from the galley rather than being able to see it for ourselves.

Even if you're not a fan of the First Doctor take "The Romans" out for a spin. Hartnell's Doctor is light, happy, cunning, and having a grand old time instead of being slightly cantankerous. There is action, adventure, intrigue, lots of humor (even if the history is really lacking, but what the heck, if you can't laugh at history what can you laugh at?) and quite a bit of fun.

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