Sunday, 27 February 2011

12: The Romans - A Comedy Masterpiece?

The newly formed TARDIS crew.
Written by: Dennis Spooner.
Companions: The Doctor, Ian Chesterton, Barbara Wright, Vicki.
Mosters/Villains: Nero.
Brief synopsis: The Tardis materialises in first century Italy. Ian and Barbara are captured by slave traders and the Emperor Nero mistakes the Doctor for a well known lyre player.
Rating: 8/10.

Is The Romans a comedy masterpiece? Well... Lets look at the evidence. After the most literal 'cliffhanger' in the history of the programme, the story uncharacteristically kicks off a month after the TARDIS' arrival. Dispensing with the usual "set-up" first episode we discover the Doctor, Vicki, Ian and Barbara lounging in a villa, dressed in full Roman attire.

The action quickly picks up when Ian and Barbara are captured by slave traders. The Doctor and Vicki unbeknownst to this head off to Rome, where the Doctor is mistaken for a well known lyre musician by none other than Emperor Claudius Nero. Hartnell gets an hilarious fight scene with a mute which he seems to throughly enjoy. Afterwards boasting to an awestruck Vicki that he is "one of the best" when it comes to fighting and that he was the one who taught 'The Mountain Mauler of Montana' everything he knows. This scene is truly comical especially seeing a young, healthy man getting bested by a wily old one. Albeit uncharacteristically violent of the Doctor.

Jaqueline Hill looks beautiful in her Roman finery.
Ian and Barbara get some silly gags, where they trick each other to go look in the fridge, which won't be invented for thousands of years to come. There is an almost Benny Hill like scene where Nero is running around chasing Barbara through some corridors which in the run of the series so far seems so un-Doctor Who, but it's hilarious all the same. There's an amusing scene where Vicki meets the the palace poisoner and poisons Nero's goblet. The Doctor stops this and Nero forces his servant to drink from the goblet, hazarding out first comedy death. 

Derek Francis as an OTT Nero.
The Doctor manages to impress Nero on the lyre without ever playing a note, claiming that only the noble of heart will hear this music. The Doctor employs the Emperor's new clothes trick and claims credit for giving Hans Christian Anderson the idea. And of course there's the moment where the Doctor accidentally burns Nero's detailed map of Rome, thus giving him the inspiration to burn it down. The whole story is chock full of slapstick and jokes, but moreover as a whole is clearly written with comedy in mind. I love the conceit that the Doctor and Vicki never see Ian and Barbara all the way through the whole story, and at the end think they've just been lounging around the whole time.

There are some great cameo performances in this one. Michael Peake stands out as Tavius, who has an interesting moment where he is revealed as an early christian. Of course Derek Francis, who gives a wonderfully ridiculous OTT performance as Nero. Hartnell is clearly having a wonderful time getting to stretch his comedy muscles. and Jacqueline Hill puts in a great performance and looks just beautiful.

Michael Peake is great as Tavius.
So, is The Romans a comedy masterpiece? Probably not, however it did do a great deal for Doctor Who as a whole. Whereas before the series had moments of humour, The Romans made it feel legitimate. It made it allright in all the stories that would follow. The Romans isn't the best story ever but it is for the first time: funny throughout, and for that reason it has certainly earned its place in the history of Doctor Who.

Join me next time for The Web Planet. Will I survive it, tune in next time to find out...


tigerna9 said...

I think the writers of this enjoyed themselves and invited the actors to do the same! I remember that Nero - on the edge of horrific/comic.

Anonymous said...

Can we have more information on the actors in the cameo roles please a brief career nod would be nice!But again loving it em
sam x

Anonymous said...

I really warmed up to Hartnell in this episode. Yes, his humour was still at someone else's expense, but at least it was at the Roman's, not his companion's.

Anonymous said...

I agree, this was when I started to really like Hartnell. It's a good in for anyone who wants to check him out.