Thursday, February 18, 2010

"The Romans" wrapup

Hello everyone, the Historian here with, as promised, the wrapup post for this tonally different historical story. Over the past few weeks, I've thought of many things to say, so I'll have to martial my thoughts and work them into something coherent. (Let me apologize in advance, in case I fail in that last task.) As always, bear with me.

Let's get one thing out of the way: as "the Historian," I ought to dislike this story. It's ahistorical to an extreme, and (apparently) intentionally so, meaning to invoke the "myth" of Nero, rather than the reality. Still, I ought to excoriate the inaccuracies....but, as a Doctor Who fan, I love this story, from the humor of the Doctor and Vicki's plot to the pathos of Ian and Barbara's. This is one of those stories that has, at most, a few bare moments that don't work perfectly (such as Tavius' odd stare into the camera in episode four).

The guest cast is excellent; Derek Francis is a wonderfully over-the-top Emperor Nero with Kay Patrick as a cool and cruel Empress Poppaea. And then there's Tuskin Raider-to-be Peter Diamond as Delos and Barry Jackson, making his first of several appearances on the program, as the mute assassin Ascarius. There are others, who I might get to, but my point is there isn't a dud among them.

Moving on to the story, again, there's a lot to talk about. Famously, this was an experiment initiated by producer Verity Lambert, who wanted to see if injecting significant comedy (as opposed to the small moments of humor in previous stories) would work for the program. Opinion at the time was a bit divided (the BBC got quite a bit of negative feedback during the story's run), but in retrospect I think I can say with some surety that it did work. Of course, as many have pointed out, the comedy probably worked as well as it did because it was in direct contrast with the very serious plight that half the cast found themselves in. As Barbara observes in the second episode, being a slave in Imperial Rome could be a terrible fate. Although Barbara doesn't fall prey to the worst of it--thanks to Tavius noticing and responding to her compassion--Ian's story is certainly a bit harrowing--within the context of watching "BBC Costume Drama Rome," as I kept referring to it. From chained slave, to galley slave nearly killed in a storm, to gladiator forced to kill or be's not funny stuff. All of which, as I said, make the light moments and broad comedy--especially in the farcical third episode--that much more of a relief. It is the balance between these two, humor and pathos, that is the key to the success of "The Romans." Excellent writing by Dennis Spooner, wonderful direction by Who stalwart Christopher Barry.

And that brings to mind another point I was going to make, something that came up in conversation after the last episode that both Ketina (who was paraphrasing/summarizing something I said) and Spoo alluded to in the episode post. They both commented on how...cold blooded Vicki seemed to be, watching Rome burn. It was like she was watching something in a movie, I think Spoo said...and, well, he's right. A good deal of it goes back to the nature of the differing experiences of the two groups. Ian and Barbara, taken as slaves, get involved with people. They make friends, they make enemies, they become a part of things. For Ian and Barbara, the people of Rome are real. The Doctor and Vicki, on the other hand, remain aloof and apart. Above and beyond the "don't mess with history," this is necessitated by the Doctor's masquerade; both he and Vicki must keep their distance from Nero, et al, to make sure they are not found out. Because of this, Vicki doesn't make a real connection with the people of Rome, not even with Locusta who she looks at more as a curiosity than anything else. And so, to her, the burning of Rome is not a personal tragedy, it's an event, a historical event that she's excited about seeing. Her experiences were not...interactions (for want of a better word), they were adventures, which is what she said she wanted, back in episode one. Because she has no real connection, she can see things from a detached, amused, interested perspective that Ian and Barbara, who might actually know people who died (and who had an honest-to-goodness enemy in Sevcheria), wouldn't be able to share. As for the Doctor's reaction, well, there's a similar argument to be made, but we have to remember that the Doctor is different, he is other. So it can be difficult to judge his reactions at times.

I feel I should say something more about Vicki, as this is her first story as a full companion. As I mentioned in "The Rescue" wrapup, she makes a good contrast to Susan. Although Susan was highly intelligent, Vicki seems to have a quicker wit. She's also much more interested in adventure and fun, rather than "protecting" the Doctor and seems less fragile than her predecessor. At least so far; we'll have to see how things develop in the weeks ahead! Maureen O'Brien is quite good, though, and injects a real sense of fun into things. She works very well with the other regulars as well, fitting in almost seamlessly.

Right, this has been a long one, so let me cut myself short and provide the episode post links:

"The Slave Traders"
"All Roads Lead to Rome"

As always, if you want fascinating behind-the-scenes info, Shannon Sullivan's page is the place to go. And, for a more official take (including the Audience Approval info alluded to above), there's always the official episode guide.

Next, we'll be tackling probably the oddest story of the '60s, if not the oddest Doctor Who story ever! Until then, I remain


This post is dedicated to the memory of Derek Francis, who played Nero in this story, and who passed away last Sunday, 14 February 2010. Rest in Peace, Mr. Francis.

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