“The Romans” (season 2, episodes 12-15. Originally aired Jan. 16-Feb. 6, 1965)
Doctor Who was never more willing to experiment with different kinds of stories than during its first couple of seasons, which jumped from the post-apocalyptic monsters of “The Daleks” to the 13th-century historical epic “Marco Polo” to the futuristic sci-fi of “The Sensorites” and back to history again, but with a more farcical touch, in “The Romans.” Partly this was because it was a good idea to try a varied approach, since nobody was sure yet what fit the show best, but it was also a conscious choice by producer Verity Lambert and the show’s first two script editors, David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner. “The Romans” is a historical story like “Marco Polo” and “The Aztecs,” but differs in one crucial respect: It’s less interested in the history for its own sake than using it as a backdrop for thrills and comedy.
It’s pretty clear that by this point in the series, four stories into the second season, the original idea that Doctor Who should provide both entertainment and lessons in history and science was going by the wayside, if not almost entirely gone. Spooner, who not only wrote this story but made his unofficial debut as script editor here, is not particularly careful with his facts about ancient Roman life, changing Nero’s age (he was in his mid-20s, not middle-aged) and embracing the legend that he was personally responsible for the Great Fire of Rome, in both cases because it lets him tell the story he wanted to tell instead of, y’know, what actually happened. Not that I have any big problem with that; Doctor Who isn’t exactly a documentary, and it’s not something the series was ever very committed to even at the start.
“The Romans” begins, quite literally, by resolving the previous episode’s cliffhanger, in which the TARDIS landed too close to the edge of a high precipice, swayed precariously, and toppled over. Next thing we see, the blue box is in a ditch at an odd angle, and we cut to the Doctor’s friend and kidnapping victim Ian lying prone, apparently unconscious. But, in a clever twist, we’ve actually jumped forward several weeks: Not only is the TARDIS crew just fine, but they’re taking it easy in a palatial Roman country estate in 64 A.D. Ian is chillaxing on a couch, eating grapes and wearing a toga. It’s a rare glimpse at what the characters do between adventures, when they’re killing time instead of traveling through it. It’s particularly interesting to see Ian and Barbara in more relaxed circumstances, suggesting that their relationship has grown deeper than merely being friends and co-workers. Although there’s nothing as blatant as an on-screen kiss, the two have a certain casual familiarity when they’re alone together that’s unmistakable. Whether this is a new development or just something we haven’t been allowed to witness before is an open question, since there’s reason to suspect they’re a couple as far back as “An Unearthly Child,” but it’s pretty clear that Amy and Rory weren’t the first lovebirds to travel with the Doctor.
There’s also a new face here, and an important one: Maureen O’Brien as the Doctor’s new companion Vicki. As companions go, Vicki’s introduction was more crucial than almost anyone’s: She was the first replacement, taking over for the original Unearthly Child herself, the Doctor’s grand-daughter Susan. As such, she was the first major test of Doctor Who’s ability to reinvent its core character dynamics. Introduced in the brief two-parter “The Rescue,” Vicki was an orphaned survivor of a spaceship crash who happily went along with the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara, having nowhere else to go, and replaced Susan as the daughter figure in the TARDIS’ makeshift family. Endearingly charming, Vicki was a huge positive change in almost every way, and her more exuberant personality set the tone for a whole host of future female co-stars, from Zoe to Sarah Jane to Amy Pond.
By this point, Vicki has gotten past any trauma she went through while marooned during “The Rescue,” and is enjoying life like any well-adjusted, slightly entitled teenager, cajoling Barbara to buy her fabric for a new dress at the market, and, of course, sew it for her too. But she’s bored; they’ve essentially holed up in the Roman Empire’s version of suburbia, and wants to know when they’ll go somewhere more interesting. Barbara, who’s seen more than her share of the uglier “more interesting” locations in the galaxy, tells her to be careful what she wishes for: “The adventures come without us looking for them.”
Which they do. Eccentric and secretive as always, the Doctor suddenly announces he’s going to Rome—a complete surprise to the others—and takes Vicki along. Ian and Barbara reluctantly stay behind (but not too reluctantly, you’ll notice)—and then are promptly kidnapped by slave traders, split up, and sold. Everyone’s in horrible danger soon enough, though the difference in mood between the three storylines is striking. Ian’s travails are nearly as grim as anything in Spartacus, as he endures life as an oarsman chained in a galley, gets shipwrecked, and then winds up slated to fight lions in the gladiatorial arena.
Barbara, meanwhile, seems to be headed for a similar fate when fate intervenes and she winds up as a servant of Emperor Nero’s wife instead—which is actually just as dangerous, if played more for laughs, when she gets unwillingly caught between Nero’s lustfulness and Poppaea’s jealousy, chased through the hallways in classic bedroom-farce style and winding up at the top of the empress’ murder list. I suspect this came across as more innocent in 1965, and I’m glad Derek Francis plays Nero such as a hopeless buffoon or it might have crossed the line from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum territory into David Lynch-esque creepiness. From Barbara’s perspective, what’s happening is pretty horrible: The most powerful man in the world is trying to rape her, and his wife wants to kill her for it, not him.
The Doctor and Vicki’s plot is comparatively lighter, but he’s also dancing with death even as he giggles with delight at the sheer fun of it all. In fact, the humor here is surprisingly dark and wicked—where the previous season’s “The Aztecs” was comparatively stark about showing a culture warped into evil by its death fixation, “The Romans” goes for the satiric jugular with scenes like Vicki meeting Locusta, the official court poisoner who’s proud to be a part of such a longstanding Roman tradition. And any of my qualms about the hallway-chasing aside, Nero is a terrific character played to the hilt by Francis. He’s simultaneously an oafish buffoon whose stupidity, pride and lust constantly expose him to well-deserved humiliation, and a psychotic bully whose absolute power gives him the ability to commit any act of violence he wishes to. It’s a credit to Francis that he balances the two sides well enough that they both come across, and makes a line like “I’ll have you both killed over and over again” funny and chilling at the same time, sort of like Taxi Driver-era Robert De Niro playing Yosemite Sam.
Which, if I’m going to the cartoon well, makes the Doctor a bit like Mr. Magoo, walking into what seems like certain death while seemingly blind to how close he is to his doom. Magoo, of course, never does realize what’s going on, but several of the best comic moments in “The Romans” are when the Doctor gets to turn the tables on that concept, repeatedly surprising us with the fact that the defenseless, doddering old man was in control of the situation all the time. William Hartnell makes the most of these scenes, hooting with glee as he takes out an armed assassin in single combat, and giving a satisfied smile as he reveals that he really did have a plan for getting around the fact that he’s impersonating a musician but can’t play the lyre to save his life. That plan being, not playing the lyre to save his life. Hartnell’s crowning moment comes when the Doctor audaciously hits Nero in his sorest spot, his childishly insane belief in his superior intellect, needling him with a series of well-chosen puns that make clear he knows being asked to play the arena means Nero plans to throw him to the lions:
I shall try to make it a roaring success. … Something they can really get their teeth into, hmm? … If I go down well, I might even make it my farewell performance. You see, I've always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste. Generally regarded as, er, well er, palatable, hmm? But I must be boring you, oh I must! Surely you have so many other important things to attend to without standing here, chewing over the facts with me?
And while he’s saying this, he’s also got his eyeglasses behind his back, the lenses focusing sunlight on Nero’s map of Rome. Which brings up a very interesting question: Was setting the map on fire an accident? We’re probably meant to think so. But it’s possible that he knew exactly what he was doing. And if that’s true, it says something interesting about the Doctor’s evolving attitude toward changing history, not just visiting it, that fits surprisingly well into his long-term character arc, suggesting he could have been a devious master planner long before the Seventh Doctor came around.
Not too long before this, in “The Aztecs,” he’d insisted that “you can’t change history—not one line!” But clearly, the Doctor does change the course of history here, ensuring that Nero stumbles onto the idea of burning down his own capital city for insane dreams of glory and urban renewal. And I think there’s there’s just enough evidence to support the idea that he landed the TARDIS in ancient Rome specifically for the purpose of making sure Rome burned down. It certainly fits the story’s repeated motif that he’s not as harmless or clueless as he seems. The biggest stumbling block, of course, is that in these early seasons, we’re led to believe that he can’t steer the TARDIS well enough to land in a particular time and place. But we also know the Doctor is a liar, and he has one very important incentive to pretend he can’t pilot his ship: Otherwise, he’d have to let Ian and Barbara go home to 1960s London, and for all his irascibility he’s lonely and would miss them. And he doesn’t have to be a great pilot—just good enough to get to Rome before the Great Fire. That could be why the restless vagabond uncharacteristically spent weeks loafing in that countryside villa: He landed too early, and decided to wait around a few weeks rather than take off and try again. He then sets off to visit Rome at just the right time to cause the fire to happen on the correct date, taking along the young and naive Vicki but excluding Ian and Barbara, who would have tried to stop him if they’d known what he was up to. And why does he steal the identity and lyre of Maximus Pettulian, who has an invitation to play before the emperor? In his own words: “we’ll never get a better chance of meeting Nero.”
Now, why would the Doctor want to start Rome ablaze, and why would he be so giddy about it when he realizes he’s succeeded? After all, he’s just caused an untold amount of death and destruction, which at best implies a rather callous irresponsibility on his part. Maybe it’s the old “kill Hitler to prevent the Holocaust” time-travel chestnut, where his actions stopped some greater evil from happening—certainly possible, but we’re not shown anything on-screen that confirms he might have had that in mind. It seems equally likely that he was so caught up in his scheme that he didn’t think about its consequences, very much in character for the rascally and incautious First Doctor. It also adds a little more resonance to the final story of the second season, “The Time Meddler,” in which the Doctor meets another Time Lord with a disturbingly casual attitude toward messing around in the past. If in “The Aztecs” the Doctor believed that you can’t change history, “The Romans” proves him wrong, and “The Time Meddler” carries that to its logical conclusion by confronting him with the idea that how and why you change history is even more important than the fact that you can.
• The Doctor hints at couple of untold previous adventures: He claims to have given Hans Christian Andersen the idea for “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and claims to have personally trained someone called “the Mountain Mauler of Montana.”
• Vicki: “It’s boring! No wonder [the Doctor] gets irritable.” Ian: “Ha. That's got nothing to do with living here, believe me.”
• Vicki: “Oh, something else I forgot to tell you, I think I’ve poisoned Nero.”
• Ian: “I've got a friend who specializes in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way. I think I'll take a leaf out of his book for once.”
• Upcoming schedule:
Oct. 14: “The Three Doctors”
Oct. 28: “The Deadly Assassin”
Nov. 11: “Warrior’s Gate”