The Romans, by Jacob Edwards (and Dennis Spooner, and Donald Cotton)

When I first watched the story we now call The Romans in 2006, I wrote:

The Romans has a considerable, and surprisingly effective, comedy element, carried almost entirely by Hartnell’s Doctor. On a whim, he decides to leave their holiday villa and go to Rome (taking Vicki with him) pretending to be a murdered musician, and succeeds in fending off Nero’s jealous attempots to have him killed. There is a much less funny sub-plot involving Ian and Barbara, kidnapped by slavers, who also end up in Rome – Ian as a gladiator, Barbara as palace slave, pursued by the lustful Emperor – before making their escape. (Somewhere there must be a definitive list of the characters who have lusted after Barbara: Ganatus in a very gentlemanly way in The Daleks, the much nastier Vasor in The Keys of Marinus, the equally nasty El Akir in The Crusade, and now Nero.) The Ian/Barbara chemistry is very sweet – they have a nice joke between them about looking in the fridge. The script rather neatly resists bringing the travellers together, so that neither the Doctor and Vicki nor Ian and Barbara ever discovers what the other pair of characters is up to in Rome. Hartnell is simply superb, utterly watchable, imperious, funny, devious. It’s a shame that Maureen O’Brien can’t quite rise to the challenge of being his straight man, but this was only her second story, so I suppose one must make allowances.

When I came back to it three years later for my Great Rewatch, I wrote:

I’ve watched The Romans a couple of times, which may be once or twice too many. There are a lot of good things about it – the costumes, sets and background sound are totally convincing; the Ian/Barbara relationship is at its sweetest and snuggliest; Maureen O’Brien is carving out a quite different Vicki persona to Carole Ann Ford’s Susan, less frightened and more curious. The plot of course takes in all the cliches – lecherous emperor, slavers, the threat of the arena, and even culminating in the Great Fire. The two interlocking plot strands are deftly contrived. The problem is, unusually, with Hartnell himself who is way over the top, smirking, chortling and giggling manically; it matches quite well with Derek Francis’ portrayal of Nero but is otherwise a bit much.

I gave it another go two years later, and wrote:

Last time I watched The Romans, just over two years ago, it left me rather cold. On F’s suggestion we watched the first two episodes last night and the other two this evening, and I found I loved it (and so did he). Last time round I was watching while waking up early and jetlagged on a particularly arduous field trip; shows how the mood you are in can make a difference to your appreciation of, well, anything.

Watching it again, this time with the DVD info text, I enjoyed it again. Hartnell is still a wee bit over the top, and the plot doesn’t really hold together once you start poking at it, but I particularly appreciated Jacqueline Hill keeping in character.

The second paragraph of the third section of the novelisation is:

I hope you are as well as habitual, and as it leaves me also, I am pleased to say.

When I first read it in 2008, I wrote:

I had been looking forward to this one, famed as one of the best Doctor Who novelisations, and I was not disappointed. Cotton has recast the narrative of Dennis Spooner’s TV script into epistolary/diary form: letters from Ian Chesterton to his headmaster, the Doctor’s own diary, letters from Ascalis the assassin and Locusta the poisoner, and contributions also from Barbara, the Emperor Nero, and Nero’s wife Poppæa (but not Vicki); the whole thing framed in a covering note by Tacitus (obviously written several decades later). Eye of Heaven, the best of the spinoff novels featuring Leela, also featured multiple first-person viewpoints, and I’ve read first-person narratives in other First Doctor stories, but this is the only case of the whole thing being ostensibly done from written records (the Doctor having compiled everything and then left it behind in the villa for the archivists to discover).

Admittedly, as an actual story it’s no great shakes, and purists will be disappointed that we lose a lot of the funny lines from the TV version and one of its major comic elements (the two pairs of time travellers not actually meeting each other in their wanderings). But the whole thing is done for language and laughs; it’s meant to be fun, and it is fun, and that’s all you can really ask.

Now that I’ve read almost all of the Doctor Who novelisations (apart from the very latest ones), I appreciate even more the imaginative flexibility that Cotton was allowed to bring to the story. But it’s interesting that the Ian Chesterton of the novel is clearly a teacher at a minor public school, rather than the secondary modern or comprehensive Coal Hill that we see on screen. It’s also regrettable that the women characters don’t get as much bandwidth on the page as they did on screen. Anyway, you can get it here.

Jacob Edwards has written a substantial monograph on The Romans, not quite as long as Frank Collins on Warriors’ Gate but still, I think, one of the longer Black Archives. It’s good chunky stuff, which I think would be useful for anyone interested in mid-sixties UK television in general as well as us Whovians.

A short introduction points out that at time of broadcast, nobody ever expected to see The Romans again; yet we are still analysing it almost six decades later.

The first chapter, “Why Comedy?”, looks at Dennis Spooner’s conscious decision to make Doctor Who funnier than Sydney Newman had imagined it, and points out that The Romans was the first story which was intended to be humorous.

The second chapter, “Humour in The Romans – Is It Funny?” looks at the roots of the humour in the TV story, admits that audience feedback for the fourth episode was negative but challenges the (mostly long-dead) viewers on their reactions; and then looks at the novelisation (“mostly the same type of funny”) and the reception of the later releases of the TV story, the DVD coming out at roughly the same time as the Tenth Doctor’s The Fires of Pompeii.

The third chapter’s title is “Comedy After The Romans“. The second paragraph (with equally long footnote) is:

After The Romans, season 2 continued with three very serious stories – The Web Planet; then The Crusade and The Space Museum (both 1965) – before lightening up with The Chase (1965), a six-part Terry Nation runaround intended to make the Daleks more fun. The humour here is rather patchy, and none-too-subtle, the nadir coming atop the Empire State Building with Peter Purves’ prolonged and cringeworthy appearance as sent-up hillbilly Morton Dill¹. Purves later proved himself a fine actor, returning in ‘The Planet of Decision’ (episode 6) as new companion Steven Taylor. As Dill, however, he was terribly ill-used.
¹ ‘Flight Through Eternity’ (The Chase episode 3). Dennis Spooner by this time was script-editing Doctor Who, and must bear some responsibility. In the audio commentary to ‘Flight Through Eternity’, director Richard Martin says of Dill’s incredulous, irreverent inspection of a Dalek: ‘That’s a Dennis Spoonerism. Dennis invented this. It wasn’t at all a Terry Nation thing.’ But here we see a key difference between The Romans and The Chase. Spooner may have dictated a more comedic approach, and in the former case, with Christopher Barry’s direction, was able to carry it through successfully; yet, humour was a tricky business, and the ham-fistedness with which Morton Dill was written (and directed; Martin heaps praise upon the performance) in large part bears the hallmarks of Terry Nation.

The chapter looks at the humour of later Who stories, pointing out that while the show became funnier in the rest of the black and white era, neither Letts / Dicks nor Hinchcliffe / Holmes wanted there to be many laughs and it was only for the couple of years of Douglas Adams’ influence that comedy re-emerged – to retreat again under John Nathan Turner, with occasional sorties of varying success.

The fourth chapter, “What Else was New in The Romans?” argues that it was the first real four-part story, earlier four-parters having ended up at that length by accident rather than by design; that Derek Francis was the first big name guest star; and that it marked the end of any pretensions to historicity from the historical stories, with the Doctor actually causing history rather than refusing to intervene. On that last point, I note that two of the three previous Hartnell-era Black Archives also deal with historical stories, and contra Edwards, Dene October argues that the earlier Marco Polo lacks historical detail and James Cooray Smith argues that The Massacre, made after The Romans, has much more historical accuracy than may at first be apparent.

The fifth chapter, “What is History?” attempts to untangle the concept of time in the Whoniverse, but does not get very far.

The sixth chapter, “Where Did The Romans Come From?”, briefly looks at the debt the story owes to Carry On Cleo and more particularly A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

The seventh chapter, “How Historically Accurate Is The Romans?”, details a number of inaccuracies before concluding (correctly, in my view) that it doesn’t matter very much.

The eighth chapter, “The Romans and Counterculture – Rewriting the Margins”, briefly unpacks the approach of the story to class, race, sexuality, gender, religion and disability, in the context of wider societal trends and later Doctor Who.

The ninth and final chapter, “A Viewer’s Response to The Romans”, goes through the story episode by episode, and practically scene by scene, listing the successes of the format (and one or two lapses). It’s difficult not to be charmed by Edwards’ enthusiasm here.

As I said earlier, this is a good contribution to the Black Archives series, combining in-depth analysis with enthusiasm, and I recommend it. You can get it here.

The Black Archives
1st Doctor: Marco Polo (18) | The Dalek Invasion of Earth (30) | The Romans (32) | The Massacre (2)
2nd Doctor: The Evil of the Daleks (11) | The Mind Robber (7)
3rd Doctor: The Ambassadors of Death (3) | The Dæmons (26) | Carnival of Monsters (16) | The Time Warrior (24)
4th Doctor: Pyramids of Mars (12) | The Face of Evil (27) | Horror of Fang Rock (33) | Image of the Fendahl (5) | Full Circle (15) | Warriors’ Gate (31)
5th Doctor: Black Orchid (8)
6th Doctor: The Ultimate Foe (14)
7th Doctor: Battlefield (34) | The Curse of Fenric (23) | Ghost Light (6)
8th Doctor: The Movie (25)
Other Doctor: Scream of the Shalka (10)
9th Doctor: Rose (1)
10th Doctor: The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit (17) | Love & Monsters (28) | Human Nature / The Family of Blood (13)
11th Doctor: The Eleventh Hour (19) | The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon (29) | The God Complex (9)
12th Doctor: Dark Water / Death in Heaven (4) | Face the Raven (20) | Heaven Sent (21) | Hell Bent (22)