Before this: The Rescue
Season 2, Episode 3: The Romans
The Romans is the fourth serial of the second season of Doctor Who. It comes in four parts and is set during the reign of Nero.
Well, after the heavy episodes, it was a nice change to have a pantomime and comedic episode. Sharona and I actually laughed loudly, which is impressive for such an old show. While some parts of this episode were rather kitsch and a little put on, often it added to the magic of this story. My inner historian wept bitterly at the depiction of early Imperial Rome and Emperor Nero, but I was overall pleasantly surprised by the episode. It probably couldn’t be done in the shorter New Who format, but it would be wise for the New Who writers to take note on how humour can be used to write a strong story.
The story actually is made up of several smaller stories, which actually makes it engaging. After staying in an abandoned villa in the Italian countryside for a few months, the travellers inevitably get separated, and that’s when the stories splinter into different plotlines. There’s a variation of The Emperor’s New Clothes with the Doctor and Vicki; Barbara’s antics in the Imperial Palace, trying to defend herself from Nero’s lecherous antics as well as the antics of his jealous wife; and Ian’s rather unbelievable transition from galley-slave to gladiator. Each of the plots have their ups and downs, but theyíre all mostly lighter: for most of the story we get to hear William Hartnell’s bemused giggle between Nero’s monologues.
The sets and props are still not that fine in quality, but because it is a light episode, it adds to the dorkiness and playfulness of the story. And there are some great gags: Barbara manages to trick Ian into going to get “something from the fridge” – despite the fact that fridges won’t be invented for another 1900 years. In regards to the humour as well, it is (for the most part) not offensive (except to historians such as yours truly). It is something again that modern Who stories could use some more of, instead of some of the rather uncomfortable sexual innuendo of the Moffat Era Who. I’m not a prude, but there is something that is enjoyable about some quaint, family friendly humour every now and again (maybe I’m just getting old?).
Anyway, a fun little episode that you can put on if your party goes really south, or if you have really awesome Classic Who friends who enjoy fun, historically inaccurate 1960’s British sci-fi. Certainly a fun watch.
Unlike Aidan, I’m not a huge history buff, but luckily, you don’t have to be to enjoy this episode. The Romans is a light episode and definitely much more humorous and less serious than most Doctor Who episodes. It’s also obviously a historical piece, and shows that Doctor Who’s strength lies not in the zany aliens and explosions (although they certainly help), but in the themes and characters themselves.
While this episode was apparently strongly disliked by the original test audience, I loved it. After some pretty dark content (see: Daleks taking over Earth and poor orphan Vicki being lied to by Bennet), it was great to have some really light-hearted comedy mixed with a decent enough storyline. While the circumstances of their arrival is skimmed over, the fact remains that the gang are in Rome, and enjoying it. Of course, this is Doctor Who, and sure enough they decide to split up, and sure enough they get into trouble. Barbara and Ian get kidnapped by slave traders, while Vicki and the Doctor discover the dead body of a lyre player on the way to Rome. What follows is a harrowing journey for Ian, a fortuitous purchase of Barbara and an amusing mistaken identity situation for the Doctor and Vicki. While Ian is sold and made to row in a galley, Barbara is sold to a comparatively nice fellow who works for the Emperor Nero. Meanwhile, the Doctor takes the place of the dead lyre player who was engaged to play at the palace, with Vicki tagging along and experiencing palace life.
Because these old Doctor Who episodes are quite lengthy in full, you will have noticed that it’s standard for the characters to split up and have their own adventures and storylines. Sometimes it feels quite forced, and sometimes it’s great. This is one of the latter: while there are some parts in which you have to stretch your suspension of disbelief (Ian is on a galley in the Mediterranean which is broken up, he’s washed ashore and somehow makes his way to Rome…then becomes a gladiator…”), some parts are comedy excellence (Vicki, the Doctor and Barbara wandering around Nero’s palace and narrowly missing each other for a good chunk of the episode).
Along the way, the Doctor uncovers an assassination attempt, accidentally inspires Nero to burn Rome and fools a large chunk of the aristocracy, while Ian and Barbara struggle with life as slaves in the Roman Empire. The Romans mixes together these darker elements with playful moments too, including some great Vicki moments as well as some fantastic Barbara and Ian interactions. Sure, the humour is quite old-fashioned, but I can live with that. The ending is a little too convenient too, but
And as usual, the episode ends on a cliffhanger: the four get in the TARDIS, but are pulled off course by an unknown force…