The Romans is famously the story that’s a first serious Doctor Who effort at comedy – at least in Conspiracy, the third part. This is patently untrue – the whole thing is structured as a farce.
Right from the go, we have the initial danger of the cliffhanger resolved in the lightest way yet – an apparently unconscious Ian is reveals to actually be lounging around drinking wine and eating grapes. Not only does this riff on the already-cliche of Ian getting knocked out, it subverts it in a comic matter that we will see a lot more of in the coming four episodes.
All of the crew are having an idle holiday in a vacant house and have been there for three to four weeks – easily the longest gap between stories as yet.
From here on, the bulk of the action is driven by coincidence, mistaken identity and characters just missing each other. The Doctor finds the corpse of Maximus Pettulian and neither he nor Vicki seem to even notice that the stiff bears significant resemblance. Indeed, he looks a lot more like William Hartnell than Peter Cushing or Richard Hurndall. If we were meant to take this seriously, there would be a great deal more of a fuss about this. The Doctor has no problem assuming his identity – especially as it will get him a meeting with the Emperor – further signs of lightness and the first hint of the shameless namedropper and socialite he’d sometimes become.
General consensus has focused on the lightness of the farce structure and gone on to suggest the narrative is fairly throwaway. However, the action is actually on a pretty epic scale – it certainly outstrips any other historical so far.
This is in part due to it being led by the Ancient Rome setting. This is a historical that puts the crew down in a place and their adventures reveal more of the setting and time, rather than them being tied to learning about a historical figure or event.
With the main cast split in two, we get to see the Doctor and Vicki whisked away to Rome pretty quickly, while Barbara and Ian have a tougher time of it. Their adventures allow us to see a great deal of the civilisation of the setting. Barbara and Ian both get captured, with Ian forced into work as a galley slave, suffering the indignities of getting splashed with water by someone off-camera, before becoming a gladiator. Meanwhile, Barbara is treated a little less brutally and sold into the Emperor’s service for an apparently generous price.
What is noteworthy about these two is how easily they take it all into their stride, despite having been taking it easy in a Mediterranean villa. For a modern-day equivalent, imagine going to Benidorm and getting sold into the sex trade. Only you’re from the future. Barbara doesn’t even seem to question whether or not Ian will be able to come and rescue her at any point – it’s just the done thing. They are clearly in their element with all this action and have moved on somewhat from the stuffy teachers concerned about the wellbeing of a pupil residing in a junkyard.
As such, they have stopped being the audience identification figures they once were. What’s particularly odd about the show now is that this is Vicki – she’s the one who is there to ask the Doctor the questions and generally prompt exposition. Bear in mind she’s from the 25th century and was only introduced to us in the last serial. The potential of this would unfortunately remain largely untapped, but it is the first instance in which the series uproots us and starts to ask for a little more in terms of audience imagination. When Leela joins the Doctor ten years down the line, this will be used to fuller impact in order to help alienate familiar settings like Victorian London ad make them strange. The precedent for that is here.
Back to the Doctor, who really gets to enjoy himself sending up Nero. William Hartnell gets some of his finest moments from the comedic script, with many of the double entendres and puns merging seamlessly with the increasingly-frequent Billyisms. Case in point, referring to Ian as Chesterfield: when corrected he tells him “Barbara’s calling you”.
The Emperor’s New Clothes trick is particularly fine. Absolutely no one falls for the ploy – not even Nero, but they all act as though they do – or have to in order to maintain etiquette. This is underlined as all the guests burst into laughter as soon as Nero leaves the room.
Which brings us to Nero himself. This particular scene shows off his preciousness and insecurities. Derek Francis is an incredible Nero – one of the best. He plays him as a spoilt brat, an innocent psycho that has always had his own way.
This is a fantastically irreverent attitude to a historical figure – the first time Doctor Who does it. It also firmly establishes the show’s place in a burlesque, music hall tradition. The next time this potential will be explored in any depth is Carnival of Monsters.
However, the dangerousness of Nero is not forgotten – the killing of the slave for not fighting hard enough is wonderfully played, especially as the threat to Barbara is set up beforehand. We know the regulars are not going to be in any real danger by this stage, but this pushes that assumption just a little.
At the same time, Nero is also the pervy uncle, chasing Barbara around and acting as though it was all her doing. Again, this gives Dennis Spooner the chance to get some shamelessly dirty puns in – “Close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise.” This is years before Harry becomes the butt of gay jokes about the Navy.
Much of the humour is also very black, particularly the Doctor’s speech when Nero is proposing he perform in the arena. Almost while we’re distracted by Nero sulking because he worked out the surprise, the Doctor tells him: “If I go down well… I’ve always wanted to be generally considered as palatable.” This is about as far as the series ever goes in terms of unpleasantness, Robert Holmes included.
Some of the roles are slightly subverted too, in keeping with the burlesque tradition – albeit a light, family entertainment version. For instance, when Nero is acting the horny old man chasing women around – he goes for Barbara. The older woman, the more motherly figure. Convention dictates this should be Vicki, but he’s really not in the least bit interested. Again, this is used to undermine Nero and gently hints at psychological insecurities.
This is also applied to the regulars – when they all meet again at the villa, Ian and Barbara have their clearly-doing-it-by-now interchanges until the Doctor and Vicki return. At this point they’ve been taking an afternoon nap while the old man and the young girl are excited from their fun adventures, coming back to fund the boring old adults being boring. Which is as it should be. Indeed, Ian is absolutely at his best when he’s being the embarrassing dad in history, reciting the Mark Antony speech just because he’s got a new haircut. Look out for more of this ridiculousness in The Chase.
Finally, the Doctor realises he has had a direct role in potentially changing the course of history. If The Rescue was the tail-end of David Whitaker’s wrong science space opera approach, this is beginning of the end for the initial, reverent attitude to history. We’ve got The Crusade yet to come, but The Time Meddler will push these ideas still further. This scene is also a significant one in the development of the Doctor himself. Most notably, his gleeful laughter cross fades with Nero’s maniacal laughter as Rome burns – one man realising the possibilities of his position, another revelling in his limitless power.
Overall, The Romans is genuinely one of the funniest serials in Doctor Who’s entire history, and blends this with action-adventure in such a way that the humour drives the irreverent narrative, enhancing it. While it is generally acclaimed, I would argue it is still overlooked – it’s an absolute classic and a highlight of the era that should be up there with City of Death in fan opinion.