Friday, January 15, 2010

"The Slave Traders"

Hello everyone, the Historian here, bringing you the beginning of another story. Joining me, as usual, are Ketina, Ronelyn and Schmallturm. With this story, we return to our pattern of a Historical every other story, this time taking our friends back to anicent Rome. Without further ado, let's get to the summary!

Episode summary: First aired 16 January 1965. The TARDIS lands, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff...and falls! Ian awakens, dressed in period clothing, in a Roman villa--and grabs a bunch of grapes. Far from just recovering from the crash, it transpires that a few weeks have passed. The TARDIS crew, finding the nearby villa empty, have decided to take the time for a short holiday. The Doctor, watering plants nearby, accuses Ian of not simply resting, but slipping into becoming "bone idle!" Ian asks if Barbara and Vicki have gone to the nearby village. The Doctor, after musing a bit on Roman plumbing, answers that they have. Indeed, the two are making their way down the road towards the village, intending to spend some time and money at its market. Vicki tries to hurry Barbara along; she is frustrated with the older people's relaxation. They'd promised her adventure! Barbara tells Vicki not to worry, rather than having to look for it, adventure normally finds them. And, indeed, a ragged looking man waits in the bushes, sharpening his sword, but he lets Barbara and Vicki pass unmolested. They are obviously not his intended quarry...At the village market, two unsavory characters survey the crowd. They are slave traders called Didius and Sevcheria, recently come from Gaul with a rather pathetic lot of slaves. They are scouting the market, looking for people who will not be missed. This is their last chance before Rome, as this village is too small for anyone to complain. They quickly spot Barbara and Vicki, who have arrived and stopped to notice an old man with long, white hair, enthralling the crowd by playing a lyre. The two women move on to a clothing stall, where Barbara reminds Vicki to watch out for anachronisms--they are not from "London," but "Londinium." As they move away, the slavers approach the stall and use coins to buy information from the stallkeeper. For a steady stream of coins, she tells them all she knows: The women and their two male friends appeared at the villa, apparently friends of its owner who are looking after it while he is away on campaign. They have come to the market to sell produce from the villa garden for prices that are far too low; it is obvious that the visitors have no idea of what they're doing. It is her last piece of information that excites Sevcheria; the stallkeeper overheard Barbara's comment about being from Londinium. Britons! The two slave traders make plans to acquire these four strangers. Meanwhile, the lyre player has finished his concert to appreciative applause. He acknowledges this, and leaves the market, travelling up the road Barbara and Vicki had taken. It is he that the skulking man has been waiting for, and the old lyre player is ambushed and killed. The man drags his body into the bushes. Later, back at the villa, the TARDIS crew relax after a large meal. Ian and Barbara ask the Doctor if they shouldn't go check to make sure the TARDIS is all right, but he testily dismisses them. It is fine, he assures them, and it matters not whether it is right side up or not; it can take off from any position. He tells them they can check on it if they want to while he is gone. Gone? Why yes, the Doctor plans to go to Rome for a few days, surely he'd told them. Vicki, bored of villa life, asks to go along and is delighted when the Doctor agrees. But he angrily refuses the other two's request to come along, realising (rightly) that they want to come to keep an eye on him. If they want to go to Rome, they can go themselves! He and Vicki begin packing provisions. After they leave, Ian and Barbara relax. The two decide that if the owner of the villa returns before the Doctor and Vicki, they will go to the TARDIS to wait. Barbara uses a comb to rearrange Ian's hair in more of a Roman fashion and he, liking what he sees, takes some time to ham out lines from Julius Ceasar. In the slavers' camp, Didius again bemoans the sorry lot they've brought from Gaul. Sevcheria, while making plans to break camp that night, reminds Didius that they must go to the villa for their prizes. The two strap on their swords and exit. Back at the villa, Barbara and Ian have been drinking perhaps a bit too much wine. The two are surprised by Didius and Sevcheria, who are visibly disappointed to find only two of the expected four at home. Ian tries to make excuses, believing one of the slavers to be the villa's owner, but the slavers quickly overpower our friends. On the road to Rome, meanwhile, the Doctor and Vicki have come upon a statue. As the Doctor stops to look at it (to Vicki's consternation), he notices something in the bushes--the body of a man! The dead man is the lyre player, still clutching his instrument, which the Doctor takes absentmindedly. Vicki recognizes the dead man from the marketplace, but the Doctor advises her that getting involved in what was obviously an assassination would not be a good idea. But, turning, they discover a centurion beating the bushes with his sword, obviously looking for someone. Seeing the Doctor--an old man with flowing white hair, currently carrying a lute, the centurion answers the Doctor's question by "recognizing" him as the great musician Maximus Pettulian, who had been journeying to Rome to meet with the Emperor Nero, a musician himself. He had been expected earlier, so Nero, concerned for his safety, has sent out an escort. The Doctor, excited at the idea of an inside look at Nero's court, decides to play along, although Vicki is unsure that this is a good idea. The Doctor introduces her to the centurion as the girl who "watches the lyres," a knowing look acknowledging the pun to her. In the centurion's company, they again set off for the camp at Assyrium. Later, Didius and Sevcheria run into a man looking to buy some slaves and begin driving a hard bargain with him. The man asks about the British woman, but is told he must go to Rome to bid at auction if he wants her. The man, still needing three "replacements," continues to dicker with the traders. Outside, Ian and Barbara are chained to a wagon wheel. Barbara is despairing; as a history teacher, she is well aware how the Romans treated their slaves, as well as how few were able to escape bondage. Ian, however, refuses to give up hope, even as Barbara adds that time is against them. Even if they could escape, how long could the Doctor and Vicki wait for them? Didius, Sevcheria and the buyer approach, having struck a deal, to examine the merchandise. The buyer picks two Gaulish men...and Ian. As he is being unchained from the wheel, Ian tells Barbara he will find her in Rome. But his new owner tells him with some relish that he will be going nowhere near Rome! At Assyrium, the centurion paces up and down angrily. The ragged looking man who killed the real Maximus Pettulian appears and the centurion grabs him, calling him by name as Ascarius. He demands to know why, when he went to look for the musician's body, why he found a live man instead? Wasn't the assassin's pay from Nero--to get rid of a better musician so the Emperor would not be embarrassed by his own lack of skill--enough to do the job? Ascarius tries to protest, but is obviously mute. Never mind, says the centurion. The musician is here, so Ascarius can go earn his fee--or be killed himself. A short while later, the man creeps along towards a curtain, behind which we can hear the Doctor and Vicki laughing as the Doctor attempts (and fails) to play his stolen lyre. Ascarius draws his sword and moves through the curtain....

As I said before the episode began, "And now for something completely different!" Breezy and witty, new story editor Dennis Spooner's script sparkles in a way that Doctor Who hasn't before, quite, with occasional almost Cowardian-like repartee. One of Ronelyn's favorite exchanges is not atypical:

THE DOCTOR (to Ian): Oh? Well, I don't know that I was under any obligation to report my movements to you, Chesterfield.
BARBARA (correcting him): Chesterton.
DOCTOR: Oh, Barbara's calling you.

There are similar delights sprinkled throughout the script, from Barbara and Vicki joking about anachronisms to discussion of the lack of refrigerators in Roman times! Of course, this fun is wrapped around a few serious subject, slavery and assassination, the former endemic to the period (and, with some exceptions, just as fearsome a prospect as Barbara alludes to) and the latter a standard view of Nero's time. (If writers like Suetonius are to be believed!)

As you might expect from the above, this episode was like Spooner's last story, "The Reign of Terror," in that it sparked some historical discussion, especially between myself and Schmallturm. Of course, examining the history too closely is never a good idea. Where, for example, were the slaves and other servants that should be keeping up the villa regardless of whether the master is at home? How much rest could Barbara have been getting if she was doing all that cooking and (presumably) cleaning? (I opined that the villa's owner would come home to find a room entirely filled with dirty dishes.) And, of course, there are the nitpicky things, like Barbara and Ian not mixing their water with wine, etc. etc. I think the best way to look at this story, though, is as taking place in what I called "BBC Costume Drama Rome." The best thing to do is look at it as being informed by history, but walk away from the idea that it would be bound too closely to accuracy in any way. After one does that, it becomes unreservedly delightful and engaging.

This story also continues an aspect of the historicals, going back to "The Aztecs," that the team finds endlessly amusing: once again, upon arriving in a historical period, the TARDIS crew almost immediately steals clothes and belongings. This time, though, they take things to a farther extreme than simply finding clothes to fit in. As I mentioned, they simply move into an empty villa, eating the food, drinking the wine and generally making themselves at home! Ian and Barbara are quite right, I think, to fear the owner's return! Think about how you'd feel if you came home from a trip to find your home invaded by squatters! And, of course, the Doctor continues this kleptomania by absentmindedly stealing the dead Maximus' lyre--he doesn't even realize he is doing it, which is made obvious once he begins speaking to the centurion. (As he took it, Schmallturm quipped, "That's right, loot the body!")

The entire Project team enjoyed this episode thoroughly. In fact, our discussion this week was a bit difficult because we had a hard time finding any real fault with it! The script showcased the four regulars very well; it was nice to see Ian, Barbara and the Doctor relaxing together, obviously enjoying each others' company and completely comfortable with each other. The addition of Vicki gave us another element; as I mentioned in our previous story, she feels much younger and more energetic than Susan. She wants adventure, it's why she agreed to come along, whereas Susan was there as the Doctor's granddaughter. There's a vividness about her, an excitement at being there that transfers very well to the audience, and must have resonated very well with young viewers at the time. The guest cast, for what they have been given (this is definitely the core cast's script), do quite well also. Sevcheria and Didimus manage to be quite well-drawn in their small screen time, appearing as rogue and rogue-in-training ("We'll make a slaver of you yet!"). The miming of Ascarius, the closest this episode comes to pathos as he tries desperately to make himself understood by the centurion, is an effective bit that conveys a lot with a little. Even the somewhat dull centurion comes off well, as he introduces the idea of Nero not liking rivals in skill one bit. (Although Schmallturm was amused by the thenturion'th apparent thpeech impediment--shades of "Life of Brian," according to Schmallturm!) The costumes and sets were, as I mentioned "BBC Costume Drama Rome," which means quite good within a limited budget.

All in all, a lot to like and almost nothing to dislike. If the following weeks continue this trend (and, as with the last story, it's been a very long time since I've seen it, so my memory isn't as sharp as it could be), I'd say we're looking at a very fun Doctor Who Historical indeed! Can't wait until next week, but until then, I remain



Ketina here,

So, I have to say that the start of the episode confused me. The TARDIS falls down the hill with the crew being thrown around inside. Then a shot of the TARDIS sideways on the ground, covered in weeds, looking much the worse for wear. And then Ian, laying down in strange clothes, just waking up, leans over to eat some grapes. Suddenly we're in Roman times! Is the TARDIS okay? Is it broken? Can they fix it? I'm completely distracted for the first 5 minutes of the episode wondering all this, until the Doctor finally discusses it in a completely blasé manner. I suspect, however, that I was the only one of our group annoyed by this late explanation.

Another scene that bugged me was when the group finished eating dinner, as they squatted in their palatial estate. The Doctor asks Barbara what they just ate, and she describes this outrageous meal. Perhaps she was joking, but in either case cooking a dinner like that in ancient Rome would be lots of work. Yet everyone is raving as to how this trip is so relaxing? Would Barbara really think that making bread from the wheat she'd have to pick herself be relaxing? The Historian says to "just walk away" from the inaccuracies to any level of realism, but these sorts of things just bug me. But then again, I wonder where the toilets are on the TARDIS. :)

Story wise, however, this one so far is lots of fun. The Doctor is a lying old coot, and the Mr. sword swinging hero Doctor from last week seems to be once again replaced by the absent minded mischief making schemer. I guess a month lounging on the Mediterranean made him a little soft? We'll see if a long walk to Rome fixes that.

This week -
Screams: 1
Squees: 1 (we got an actual honest to god "squee" from Vicki, when the Doctor told her she could go with him to Rome.)

See you next week,


No comments: