Landing in Rome, A.D. 64, the travellers take a rare holiday. While Ian and Barbara are happy to relax, the Doctor and Vicki set off to pursue adventure.
However, adventure soon finds Ian and Barbara too as they are kidnapped by slave traders, and the Doctor’s imitation of Maximus Pettulian sees him taken to the court of Emperor Nero, where he will play an inadvertent role in deciding the course of history…
There’s something a bit unusual about the approach that The Romans takes to telling a historical story. Whilst The Aztecs, Marco Polo and The Reign of Terror had played it pretty straight in telling this type of story, this one decides to take a more humorous approach to history and it largely works.
The story for the most part separates the TARDIS crew into the Doctor and Vicki and Ian and Barbara, with the characters only coming back together at the end of the fourth part, despite several close encounters as the story progresses. It is a well written story and most of the jokes do land, even if I felt that the overly comedic nature of the story at times undermines any kind of sense of peril. Despite some dark themes, like Ian and Barbara being sold into slavery and Ian being trained up to be a gladiator to fight lions in the Colosseum, none of them feel like our central quartet are in any real danger and it certainly means that moments like Tavius revealing that he is a Christian do not have the impact that they would in a straight production. There are some lovely moments however, such as the Doctor pretending to play the lyre for the Emperor, claiming that only those with the most sensitive and cultured ears will be able to hear his music in an homage to The Emperor’s New Clothes, which is of course met with thunderous applause. Whilst it is nice to see the TARDIS crew given a chance to relax at the villa at the beginning of the story, it does feel as though it causes The Romans to take a little while to get going. Christopher Barry’s direction is solid, as it usually is – he probably was considered a safe pair of hands to do a good, but not exceptional, job at the time, the most mid-tier of directors of the original run. He will never be considered in the same breath as directors like Douglas Camfield, Graeme Harper or even Peter Grimwade, but he does everything with a workmanlike efficiency. The sets look good too, making it not too obvious that this story is studio bound.They wouldn’t let me build my new Rome. But if the old one is burnt…If it goes up in flames, they’ll have no choice. Rome will be rebuilt to my design. Brilliant! Brilliant!
Of the guest cast, Derek Francis stands out as the boorish and egotistical Emperor Nero, who takes a shine to Barbara leading to one of the most farcical chase sequences through the palace, tripping over scenery as he goes. This would not feel out of place with the Benny Hill theme played in the soundtrack, and the sequences come across as quite uncomfortable viewing at times. Francis does play the role with aplomb, rivalling Hartnell for some of the more comedic moments, such as the scene in the Roman baths or when he gets a slave, Tigilinus, to drink the poisoned cup because he finds him irritating, then seizing Vicki, who swapped the cups around and proclaiming “if only I could get my hands on whoever was responsible!”. Nero is quite a dark character, but played for laughs, which undermines both the character and the story as the main threat cannot be taken entirely seriously. It is interesting to compare the depiction of Nero to Robespierre and to a certain extent, Napoleon in The Reign of Terror who are treated with a more serious and sombre tone, as opposed to this portrayal of Nero. Interestingly, it is now widely accepted that Nero was not in Rome at the time of the fire, contrary to what this story shows, and that the fire was an accident.
One of the strongest parts of this story are the interactions between the main cast, especially Ian and Barbara, and all of them do sterling work. William Russell and Jacqueline Hill have such undeniable chemistry, and whilst the show does not make it explicit here, there is something more than friendship going on between them. Ian’s sole motivation in going to Rome is to rescue Barbara and he doesn’t not even mention the fact that the Doctor and Vicki will be there – it is possible that this does not even cross his mind. The duo also share some of the best moments of comedy in the story, such as the fridge joke, and even physical comedy moments like Barbara smashing the vase over Ian’s head by accident whilst he struggles with the slave traders. William Hartnell goes from strength to strength story after story, especially with this more mellow version of the First Doctor that has arrived since the beginning of Season Two. He finally feels at ease with his companions, demonstrated in the opening sequence where he pretends to throw a strop at them, and Hartnell is able to use his comedic experience to the maximum in this story. His dynamic with Vicki continues to feel much more organic than his relationship with Susan and Maureen O’Brien shines here too, even if she has the least of the four to do. Vicki comes close to interfering in history, something that had previously been established as something that is not possible in The Aztecs, and in fact this story probably sets the way that future stories set in the past would deal with the Doctor and their companions interacting – they can set established events on their course, like say the Great Fire of London.
Verdict: An enjoyable story, which does undermine itself by not taking itself too seriously. The main cast are all on fine form here, but the story lacks any sense of real threat. 7/10
Cast: William Hartnell (The Doctor), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara Wright), Maureen O’Brien (Vicki), Derek Sydney (Sevcheria), Nicholas Evans (Didius), Dennis Edwards (Centurion), Margot Thomas (Stall Holder), Edward Kelsey (Slave Buyer), Bart Allison (Maximus Pettulian), Barry Jackson (Ascaris), Peter Diamond (Delos), Michael Peake (Tavius), Dorothy-Rose Gribble (Woman Slave), Gertan Klauber (Galley Master), Ernest Jenning (1st Man in Market), John Caesaar (2nd Man in Market), Tony Lambden (Court Messenger), Derek Francis (Nero), Brian Proudfoot (Tigilinus), Kay Patrick (Poppaea) & Anne Tirard (Locusta).
Writer: Dennis Spooner
Director: Christopher Barry
Parts: 4 (The Slave Traders, All Roads Lead to Rome, Conspiracy & Inferno)
Behind the Scenes
- It was the first story to mix its dramatic elements with comedic ones, as suggested by Verity Lambert as David Whitaker, the script editor, was starting to view historical stories as a liability. Director Christopher Barry, as well as Lambert and William Hartnell thought that this story went overboard with the comedy.
- The Romans was intended as one of three historical stories around the Spanish Armada and the American Civil War.
- The first use of stock footage for a cliffhanger.
- The last story on which Mervyn Pinfield would serve as associate producer, although he would return to direct The Space Museum and Galaxy 4.
- Barry Jackson went on to appear as Garvey in Galaxy 4 and Mission to the Unknown and Drax in The Armageddon Factor.
- Edward Kelsey would play Resno in The Power of the Daleks and Edu in The Creature from the Pit.
- Gertan Klauber played Ola in The Macra Terror.
- Kay Patrick played Flower in The Savages.
The Doctor realising that he had more than a small role in the Great Fire of Rome after berating
I’ve got a friend who specialises in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way.Ian Chesterton
Previous First Doctor review: The Rescue
Other Stories mentioned