Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Romans — Blogging Doctor Who

This time, Barbara is
the one who needs to be
“The Romans” is a bit of a romp, which is surprising when you think that it involves Barbara and Ian being abducted into slavery and Vicki killing a man. Is she a ancestor of Leela? Clearly if she had gotten the drop on Koquillion, she would have finished him off, even if the Tardis had never landed there. The signs of terror were just an act.

You would think that the Tardis has some sort of safety to prevent it from landing halfway over a ravine. For that matter, given that the Tardis really isn’t there (after all, it contains more space than would fit into the exterior form of a Tardis), why would it be affected by outside gravity? They clearly move through areas without gravity without being affected. But the fall of the Tardis isn’t anything more than a surprise (at the end of “The Rescue”) and an inconvenience. Soon, the four are in an appropriated Roman villa with the owners and all their servants conveniently absent.

Roman country villas weren’t just vacation homes for the Roman aristocracy, somewhere to get away from the heat, noise, and political intrigue of Rome. They were working farms and often the source of power in a region. To leave a home completely unattended would have been unthinkable, since it would leave the place vulnerable to someone walking in and taking it over (just the way the Doctor and his companions did). Who was keeping the crops tended? Who was taking care of the animals? And who was keeping wanderers from just taking the place over?

“The Romans” is Dennis Spooner’s second serial for Doctor Who, and it’s much funnier than his first, “The Reign of Terror,” even though that had its comic moments. The Doctor engages in a bit of wordplay, getting Barbara and Ian to agree that staying at the villa would be pleasurable, then saying that he intends to visit Rome, and that since they have no desire to go anywhere, they can stay behind. He and Vicki aren’t far down the road when Barbara and Ian are seized by slavers (with Barbara accidentally helping to subdue Ian). One of the slavers, Didius, would look much better without that horrid scruffy beard. Meanwhile, the Doctor is conning a centurion who is on the lookout for Maximus Pettulian, who has just been murdered by a very attractive brigand.

The centurion is in the midst of the many intrigues surrounding the court of Nero, who is given a fine comic turn by Derek Francis. Many of the Nero scenes are played for farce, including one in which he pursues the enslaved Barbara (I suspect the historical Nero would have had a slave who resisted killed, and the historical Poppaea wouldn’t have worried that Nero might replace her as Empress with a slave, as the idea is absurd).

The Doctor and Vicki have a difficult time of it. The centurion takes the two into his care, but it turns out the brigand was in his employ. He attacks the Doctor who is quite vigorous in combat again and then Vicki pitches him out of the window to the Doctor’s irritation. It’s not clear whether or not he survives the fall, but he isn’t heard of again. We might have to blame Vicki for two deaths.

Everyone but Ian ends up at Nero’s palace fairly quickly, while Ian’s on a galley (on which the slaves really do a poor job of synchronizing those oars) getting water thrown by offscreen stagehands between clip scenes from old movies. After the ship crashes, he too makes it to Rome to join everyone else. During his period of captivity Ian grows some whiskers, and William Russell really does look better with some facial hair (alas, in the final scenes, he’s clean shaven again). Although the plot would seem to push to a meeting at Nero’s palace, that doesn’t happen and the two pairs make their way back to the villa separately, with Barbara and Ian getting back first so they can be accused of indolence by the Doctor.

Eye Candy for Gay Time Lords
Do you like them in tunics and togas? There are a variety of fairly attractive young men in this one. There’s the mute brigand Ascaris. In Nero’s court we get the comic character of Tiglinius. His role is set when Nero, after taking a bite out of what looks to be a turkey drumstick (should we assume it was goose?), wipes his hands on Tiglinius’s clothes. Vicki saves Barbara from being poisoned, but it does lead to the death of Tiglinius. There’s a smattering of various other good looking men in short skirts throughout the story.

So, Is This a Must-See?
I’m going to offer a qualified yes. It sets a new tone for the series that would actually endure. After all, some of the best of Doctor Who has the Doctor joking in the face of terror. (Take, for example, the Doctor’s response to the bounty placed on him in “The Sun Makers.” The other characters are amazed at how high it it, while the Doctor is insulted by how low it is.) Compared to “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” it’s something of a lesser story, but it has its charms.

Next: Oo! It's a huge ant! Kill it! The Tardis gets trapped on "The Web Planet."
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