Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Romans

31/10/10 “The Romans”
The adventures come without us looking for them.–Ian

Quite a strange story to watch on Halloween, but there you go. For some reason, like “The Rescue,” I was under the impression “The Romans” was a two-parter. I wasn’t prepared for the sprawling historical adventure even though I knew the basic plot, nor was I prepared for the darkness countered by farce. I understood, both from its reputation and from acquaintance with Dennis Spooner’s other writing, that “The Romans” was a rare Doctor Who comedy—not that most Doctor Who isn’t comic—but I didn’t find it hilarious. Parts of it were funny, no doubt, but much of it was serious—much of it farcical. Parts of it seemed very “Love and Monsters” to me, which isn’t a good comparison!

It’s quite interesting to watch it after having just seen “The Keys of Marinus”—both stories feature classical elements and give Barbara a chance to lounge around on a low couch voluptuously. (It’s possibly Jacqueline Hill’s best look, the classical Greek/Roman one.) However, in Morphiton, Ian was at first the one who wanted to know “the price” of the riches and luxury surrounding them. Here, he comes off immediately sensuous, in Roman costume and gorging on grapes. The Doctor, by contrast, who was really enjoying himself in Morphiton and indulging in his (apparent) love of fruit, is a bit more chastising here. “There’s a difference between resting and being bone-idle.” There’s a somewhat labored historical-fact insertion when the Doctor talks about the Romans having difficulty with plumbing, though he does say the amusing, “The answer is pipes, my dear Chesterton, pipes!” All of the characters are, as can be expected, well-costumed in what (appears to me) to be correct attire. The Doctor’s rich robes show that by the 1960s historians were aware of the colors and textures available to the ancient Romans, even if they couldn’t show them in color yet (contrast this with Gladiator and Rome, which get everything right except start a weird craze for Roman characters with cravats). I will say that while I commented on the shortness of the son’s toga in “Fires of Pompeii,” Ian’s is at least as short.

I had kind of forgotten that this was Vicki’s second story, her first trip after being rescued in, er, “The Rescue.” I was thus a bit surprised to see her. “You’re getting as bad as Ian,” she complains to Barbara. Vicki’s youth and yearning for adventure is highlighted. “I thought we were going to have adventures.” On one hand, I can understand her viewpoint. She was a virtual prisoner of that sicko Bennett for so long, it’s no wonder she’d want to get out and about. However, I can also see the point of view of Ian and Barbara, who have been traveling through danger much longer. It’s a contrast, even at this early stage, to see the companions and Doctor in a state of relaxation and while this would get dull after awhile (the audience would find themselves agreeing with Vicki), it’s a nice change of pace to see it for now—à la “Black Orchid.”

Barbara takes Vicki to the marketplace where they are known by sight not by name (which is a good thing since they have shacked up at a vacant villa for the season). The representation of this rural Romanized area is good; not as showy as in “Fires of Pompeii,” but its verisimilitude is richer than a lot of what we’ve seen from 1964. While Barbara and Vicki are shopping, some shady-looking characters take an interest. They’re “suitable” is the sinister conclusion. As much as I like Vicki, I can’t say she comes off very well in this story. She’s written extremely close to Susan here. As in Morphiton, where Susan wanted a new dress made of fine material, Vicki is a bit obsessed with getting some material for a dress. Barbara lets slip that they are from Londinium (the kind of remark that would get heard as “Celtic” in “Fires of Pompeii”) which leads the dastardly men to suspect no one will miss these “Britons” if they are kidnapped. “They must be fools,” says the stall-holder when she sells information—the first of many demonstrations that almost without exception, the people of Spooner’s Rome are not very nice. This is a departure from the “nuclear family” of “Fires of Pompeii.” If we needed more evidence, another rough-looking character murders a toothless old lyre-player by the side of the road—even if done “off screen,” it’s pretty brutal.

There’s an interlude back at the villa as the Doctor enjoys the honeyed ants—I hadn’t realized before that this scene is referenced in “Fires of Pompeii” (why are we fascinated by Roman cuisine? Because it’s so familiar yet filled with weird things like peacock and dormouse? It was the same even in Fires of Vulcan). Vicki once again asserts her wish to go exploring with the Doctor (it had seemed rather uncharacteristic of him to be content staying in one place for so long—the First Doctor especially). “It’s boring,” Vicki complains. “No wonder he gets irritable.” The decision is made that the Doctor is going to Rome and Vicki’s going with him, while Barbara and Ian are staying behind. The Doctor has manipulated them into accepting this situation, and Vicki doesn’t know any better. There’s a scene between Ian and Barbara that can only be described as flirtatious and involves her combing his hair (!) into a more accepted Roman style (I guess she should know since she’s the history teacher). Ian spouts some Shakespeare and “o tempora, o mores” before they get ambushed by the slave traders. They almost fight them off but Barbara, who is usually so capable, hits Ian over the head with a vase. One up for the comedy, but one down for Barbara’s abilities.

On the road to Rome, Vicki and the Doctor find the body of the dead lyre-player and realize it wasn’t a robber who killed him. “There’s nothing we can do for him now,” says the ever-pragmatic Doctor. They meet with a Centurion who the Doctor, by dint of holding the lyre and looking kind of like the musician, Maximus Pettulian, gets roped into saying that he is him, so he’s expected at court and dragged into a new adventure. The centurion is very expositional. So off they go; Barbara and Ian are suffering a much worse fate, to be sold into slavery, separated, and unlikely to get near Rome.

On the way, the Doctor and Vicki are put in lodgings. The Doctor has already deduced that the centurion was looking for Pettulian’s body and is on guard for further attacks. He astounds Vicki and the audience by superbly dispatching the assassin, tossing him out the window, never to be seen again. It’s quite a feat for a Doctor who will, later, die of old age before Ben and Polly’s disbelieving eyes. After this, the Doctor witters on for awhile, confusion reigns, and one wonders if this is all a gentle nudge from Spooner over Hartnell’s ability to fluff, which he has done quite a bit so far.

Barbara and Ian have been separated; after 34 days (!) Barbara and her fellow female slaves (Gallic if I heard rightly) reach Rome. Barbara will fetch a price because of her good state (after all, she kept her hair in remarkable condition after 34 days of bad treatment) but her companion is so weakened she will go to entertain in the circus. The next scene is quite important from a number perspectives. Barbara is compassionate toward the woman, coaxing her to eat. Compassion has always been part of her nature, and as we quickly see in the scene, it makes a difference between life and death. At first I thought it was a bit of shorthand writing, to introduce that trait so quickly, but then once it had been revealed they had been traveling for 34 days, it seemed only natural that the two women should have become friends. After a month of miserable conditions, you can imagine the sort of camaraderie that would have had to exist for them to keep sane. In any case, Barbara told the woman about Ian. Barbara’s act of kindness is witnessed by Tavius, a sort of steward to Nero’s household, and although his attentions seem sincere, the only help he can provide Barbara is as a slave. It all hints at something darker.

Ian, meanwhile, is suffering physically and mentally in probably the worst of slave environments, the galley. Remarkably, after 34 days Ian hasn’t grown a beard (well, it’s not necessarily true that they’ve been at sea for 34 days, but I can’t imagine for what reason Ian would have been allowed to shave), and Doctor Who isn’t ready at this point for its hero to go shirtless like many of the other galley slaves. Ian’s attempted coup against the overseers is futile, and it seems grimly cynical of Spooner to suggest that the only way Ian and his friend Delos survive is due to the whims of nature. I’ve read enough Sabatini and Sutcliff novels to know what fate the galley slaves were going to get had the storm not intervened. In any case, Ian and Delos survive the shipwreck (rather like Titus Pullo). “I have to find her,” Ian says. Whatever else “The Romans” is, it strengthens the idea of a strong but unsaid love affair between Barbara and Ian.

A slave auction is going on in Rome while the Doctor and Vicki are wandering around, but in the first of many near-misses, the Doctor shoos Vicki away. “Don’t let’s see that.” It’s interesting to me that white slavery is culturally acceptable (ie, we can see the degradations of slave life when it happens to white characters but never in Doctor Who, to my knowledge, have we seen anything showing the conditions of black slavery. “Planet of the Ood” may well have been speaking to that in an allegorical sense, but it still seems surprising by its absence). Certainly Barbara is treated like a piece of meat and knows this; Ian suffers but Barbara is demeaned. Certainly in ancient Rome it could have gone that way for Ian, if someone had decided they wanted some kind of pederast, but this being 1960s Doctor Who, that wasn’t going to be suggested. Nevertheless, I find it all a bit close to the bone. Barbara is fortunately bought by Tavius who brings her to Nero’s palace. Despite possible ambiguous hints—“I’ll instruct you in your duties later”—Tavius has seen and valued Barbara’s kindness (we’ll find out why later).

In the same complex, the Doctor and Vicki meet Nero at last. I don’t know much about Nero or the Carry On films, but for much of the story, they seemed to coincide in the one person. The Doctor’s silver-tongued flattery saves him from trying to impress Nero by actually playing the lyre, with a little help from Vicki. They live to see another day, all the while anticipating the evening banquet in the Doctor’s honor. Ian and Delos get to Rome, all right, but they get recaptured and are going to be fed to the lions later. A popular theme and an unfortunate cliffhanger as it relies on stock images of lions. It would have been better just to hear the roaring!
Part three really becomes more slapstick than anything; I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting it. I guess I know from previous experience that Spooner’s writing can be terribly witty, so why did it need to resort to this kind of repetitious silliness? Oh well. The Doctor just gets through telling Vicki, “We must not interfere in progress” before she disobeys him with no real care for the consequences (but I’ll get to that). “Progress is a very flexible word. It can mean whatever you want it to mean”—that’s what the Fourth Doctor said in “The Power of Kroll,” and I found it a very interesting choice of words for Hartnell to use (unless it was a fluff) instead of history. As Nero is chasing the new slave Barbara (angering his ambitious and cold-hearted wife Poppaea) around the palace, the Doctor is meandering about and Vicki is having a conversation with the court-sanctioned poisoner. This part was interesting—it certainly made yet another disturbing comment about Roman society but I can’t decide if that was the point or the humor was.

Poppaea gets to the point she wants to poison Barbara. If Vicki somehow knew this and switched the goblets around, then it would make sense. Instead, she seems to do it from caprice, without seeming to care that she’s sent poisoner Locusta to her death at Poppaea’s command. Locusta’s trade may have been one that didn’t jive with Vicki’s morals—are we meant to think she got her just desserts?—but she didn’t do Vicki any harm. In any case, it did give Maureen O’Brien a real comedy moment—it would have been nice to have more for her in this story, rather than being merely peripheral, holding the Doctor’s props, so to speak.

The Doctor has gotten very chummy with Nero, and they appear in a sauna (for some reason it made me think of the old granddads in diapers in “Vengeance on Varos”). Since the Doctor has inadvertently saved Nero’s life by warning him about the poison, he briefly receives the Emperor’s favor. He plays the scene at the banquet beautifully, and I thought it was one of the best moments of the serial: the Emperor’s new tune. It was a one-shot deal and sort of backfired in the end as it enraged Nero into wanting to dispose of the Doctor, but on the surface it was a masterstroke. Nero takes Barbara to the circus to see some gladiators, and coincidentally Ian and Delos have been pitted against each other. It says a lot about Ian that even this far in he won’t abandon his high principles for anything—Delos tells him he will kill him if he gets the upper hand, if it means he gets a pardon. It’s actually a good cliffhanger as Delos is about to make good his assertion.

Fortunately the honorable slave does an about-face and attacks Nero instead! In the confusion Delos and Ian get away but Nero associates Barbara with Ian and decides to use her as bait in a trap. Ian plans to collect Barbara from the complex and wants to find the Doctor. “I’ve got a friend who specializes in trouble.” It has since transpired that the Doctor is in the middle of an assassination attempt on Nero, which Tavius makes plain to the Doctor. From Barbara, Tavius learns Ian’s plight, who in turn tells the Doctor. The Doctor can thus show up Nero in one of, if not the, funniest scene in “The Romans.”
Nero : “I have a little surprise for you. Guess what it is.”
The Doctor : “Now, let me think. You want me to play in the arena?”
Nero : “You guessed.”
The Doctor : “It's no problem at all. After all, you want to do your very best for your fellow artists: why not the arena?”
Nero : “Yes, yes, of course. That is exactly right.”
The Doctor : “Well, I promise you, I will try to make it a roaring success.”
Nero : “You'll have to play something special, you know.”
The Doctor : “Of course, of course. Something serious, yes. Something they can really get their teeth into.”
Nero : [Muttering] “You can't know, you can't. I've told no one.”
The Doctor : “Caesar Nero, I've always wanted to put on a good show; to give a great performance. After all, who knows, if I go down well, I might even make it my farewell performance. You see, I've always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste, generally considered as palatable, hmm?”

The Doctor has meanwhile been peering at Nero’s maps of his new design of Rome with spectacles. I was really skeptical as to where he had gotten them from and why he needed them exactly, but I think he did have them before now. In any case, in a rather astonishing re-writing of historical facts (well, it’s no “Visitation” but still) the Doctor’s glasses start the fire—not literally in the sense the palace starts burning down, but he puts the idea into Nero’s head. This, for me, is the only part where the characterization of Nero seems right. He even goes babbling off to Poppaea who accepts it with the same weird calm that Lucy Saxon displayed.

Nero brings in some random guys to start the fire as per his bidding, letting them in at the same time Ian and Delos are able to slip into the palace with Tavius’ blessing, and collect Barbara. The Doctor and Vicki are meanwhile slipping out. Tavius watches as he brings out his secret cruficix. So he was a Christian all along, which actually makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting that amid the decadence and cruelty of the Romans, the only moral character (aside from Delos) is a Christian. I suppose it all balances later stories like “Curse of Fenric” which really don’t show Christianity in a very good light. Nero plays his lyre as Rome burns, and the Doctor is quite amused about the whole thing!

Back at the villa, Barbara and Ian are just settling back after their month of suffering. They indulge in some of the weirdest foreplay you could possibly imagine before the Doctor and Vicki arrive and interrupt. From their perspective, Ian and Barbara have never left the villa and so when the Doctor and Vicki want to return to the TARDIS, only the audience can share in their angst.

I had expected this to be somehow different than it was, and while I thought it was interesting, all the elements didn’t quite come together. The way Back2theWhoture works, we can see the different tonal degrees of stories set in roughly the same time periods (this will all unravel once we get to the “future” but for now it’s quite instructive).

1 comment:

Aya Vandenbussche said...

:D You made me feel as if you were inside my mind while I was watching it myself. I love the way you think! I too was wondering how come Ian is the only slave who is not topless...