The Romans

Posted in Episode by - August 11, 2016
The Romans

Aired 16 January – 6 February 1965

‘The Romans’ sees Doctor Who return to the the historical genre, adding a new twist by focusing more on comedy and entertainment rather than education as most historical stories have so far. Avoiding the potential disaster of this setup, ‘The Romans’ ends up being a fine story that toys with the typical format in several clever ways.

Rather than focusing on how the TARDIS survived the cliffhanger at the end of ‘The Rescue,’ it is simply implied that the TARDIS is much stronger and more resolute than previously known, and the story instead opens with the Doctor and his companions enjoying a fancy Roman meal. ‘The Romans’ also tells several stories concurrently, managing to even succeed in telling two tales- one with Barbara and one with both the Doctor and Vicki- taking place in the same place without either party being aware of the other’s actions. This is again another area fraught with potential disaster that could undermine the entire story, but somehow it succeeds without ever becoming frustrating or annoying.

‘The Romans’ is the first story to predominantly incorporate comedy, to this day remaining one of the few stories to seriously attempt this feat. This is perhaps most obvious with the character of Nero, whom Dennis Spooner presents at a bumbling and blabbering stooge who is prone to rather sexist remarks and thoughts. Derek Francis does well in playing this farcical interpretation without going too over the top, and he certainly shows that he is able to portray a more serious side as he throws the Doctor into the lion’s den following a moment of embarrassment. This certainly helps to offset the rather nonchalant and almost happy attitude he shows towards the burning of Rome. Indeed, it’s arguably William Hartnell’s comic strength that carries the episode more fully. Quick with quips and puns and showing a strange propensity for the lyre, Hartnell seems to be relishing the opportunity to show a less serious side to his portrayal of the Doctor, further fleshing out the character in the process.

Humour in any context only works when there are serious moments to balance it, and fortunately ‘The Romans’ does not overlook this. The subtle discussions about religion are incorporated nicely as well, but it’s Ian’s story of being bought as a slave and having to fight for his life that is particularly harrowing. Still, the tone is kept suitably light to keep the severity of the situation from becoming too dark for family viewership. Whether facing the prospect of death or jovially interacting with Barbara, William Russell excels throughout the story; with Barbara and Vicki both written and performed strongly as well, this is certainly a story that highlights each member of the TARDIS.

Despite the gravity of the events going on around them, it’s a nice change of pace to have an overall more relaxed episode. Combined with the always-excellent historical production values of the BBC, the strong script and performances create a unique and wholly enjoyable experience from beginning to end that blazes new territory while staying true to what has preceded.

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