What I Learned From Doctor Who: “The Romans” (One, 1965)

Doctor: One (William Hartnell)

Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien)

Time: July in the year 64 AD.

Place: The vicinity of and the city of Rome, Italy, Earth

Episodes: 

1. “The Slave Traders” (Season Two, Episode Twelve)
2. “All Roads Lead to Rome” (S2, E13)
3. “Conspiracy” (S2, E14)
4. “Inferno” (S2, E15)

Today’s Lessons

1. The TARDIS lands awkwardly and falls off a cliff, rendering our adventurers seemingly stuck in the mud and, therefore, living in ancient Roman times for a month before our story really gets under way.  During that time, Barbara becomes a gourmet chef, preparing a meal of delicacies, including breast of peacock in orange and juniper sauce and ants’ eggs in hibiscus honey.  The Doctor finds this all simply smashing. One really loves eating.

2. When Barbara and Ian start grousing about checking on the TARDIS, the Doctor grumbles that the TARDIS can take off from any angle.  Then why are they staying so long in Rome?!

3. The Doctor called Ian “Chesterfield” again.  It seems he’s lapsing.  Also, he indicates that he is going to Rome, and that his invitation was somehow declined by Ian and Barbara to go, but he agrees to take Vicki, who laments that lounging around in a villa and eating food is “boring.”  He’s become rather grumpy with both Ian and Barbara, who suggest it might be “safer” for all four to go to Rome, which results in the Doctor sputtering about how he can take care of himself.  They’re all acting peculiar here, but I think Ian and Barbara are simply worried about the Doctor and how sad he’d been after Susan’s departure.

4. Ian is a ham.  First, I think Ian and Barbara are flirting a bit, when she suggests that he makes a fine looking Roman.  Then, as she combs his hair into a Caesar style, he bellows, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”  To which she quips, “Well, that was a mistake.”  The humor of the show is really starting to find its stride by this serial.  They also fight at the end of the serial, nagging at each other over who cleans up, and Ian finding out that Barbara initially cracked a vase over his head, making him vulnerable for capture.

5. In the second episode, the Doctor staves off the plebe who murdered the musician with whom the Doctor is mistaken, which allows him to end up at the court of the Emperor.  Vicki remarks that she didn’t know fighting was one of his talents, to which the Doctor replies, “My dear, I am the best!” before discussing how he tamed the Mountain Mauler of something or some sort.

6. Vicki worries that the Centurion, who the Doctor worked out had hired the plebe to kill the musician with whom he is mistaken, will try to kill him again.  The Doctor opines, “Who am I to worry about a little thing like that?”

7. Even though Rome seems some distance from the landing place of the TARDIS, the Romans still maintain a consistent English accent, even though Barbara is identified as “Britannic.”  There is also a shocking lack of Latin…

8. When One finally meets the Emperor, Caesar Nero, he talks out of turn.  The Emperor commands the Doctor, as the musician Maximus Botalion (his assumed name, which the Doctor can never remember), to play his instrument, the lyre.  The Doctor deflects the request, since he can’t really play the lyre, by flattering the Emperor’s music skills and asking to learn from his example. Nero snaps his finger for a stool, which he clearly intends for himself, but the Doctor makes the mistake of going to sit on it first. Nero calls it the “Imperial footstool.” Hilarious. Further, when the Doctor comments on his narrow escape and how well he got out of having to play the lyre, Vicki asks, “But what happens when he asks you to play next time?” The Doctor croaks, “hmm?!” utterly surprised by the possibility of a “next time.”  It’s funny how One veers from a doddering old man one minute to a petulant man-child the next.  One is very young, though, you know.

9. The Doctor later grouses about his decision to come to Nero’s palace at all, when Vicki precociously replies, “Because you’re as curious as I am.”  One harrumphs.  “Me? Curious?  Ha.”  Vicki suggests that they may as well look around, “or would you rather we forgot?” The Doctor nonchalantly replies, “Oh no, we may as well look around as you say.”  It seems Vicki has figured out quickly how to manipulate the Doctor a bit. How funny.

10. When history does not afford one the luxury of good special effects, one is bound to see a boom mic creep into the picture, say within the first five minutes of the “Conspiracy” episode.

11. One reminds Vicki that, as she goes exploring, she must not interfere with the progress of history at any point…I don’t know.  Seems fishy at all levels, since the Doctor is not exactly an innocent when it comes to interfering with the progress of history…

12. More comedic gold: The Doctor takes a Roman bath with Nero.  Also, they exhibit some very similar personality traits…hmm…

13. Nero informs the Doctor that a banquet is being held, at which the Doctor, as Maximus, will have to play his lyre “like he has never played before.”  The Doctor laughs: “Too true!  Too true!”  See?  Funny.

14. When the Doctor reunites with Vicki, and she asks if he did what he meant to, the Doctor answers that he “raised the question” with Nero but sees that doing so was “rather a mistake.”  “That’s rare for you, isn’t it?” Vicki purrs demurely.  I rather think Vicki is the cat, and the Doctor is the mouse.  Who is this Vicki person?

15. Vicki then says: “Guess what?”  “I haven’t any idea,” the Doctor retorts.  “There’s going to be a feast tonight!” Vicki announces.  “Oh, so I heard, so I heard, my dear” and then laughs about the fact that he is the most unusual entertainer.  There really is a whole other tone to season two, isn’t there?

16. Foreshadowing rearing its ugly head alert: Vicki announces that she poisoned Nero.  You see, Nero’s wife, jealous of Nero’s obvious crush on Barbara, who was bought at auction to be a slave in the palace, decides to poison Barbara via drink. Vicki overhears this plan, though not knowing that the slave in question is really Barbara, and swaps the goblets, which she sheepishly admits to the Doctor, who cries, “I told you not to interfere with history!”

17. In order to get out of playing the concert at the feast, the Doctor convinces Nero that only the most musically gifted would be able to hear the “so soft and so delicate” tones of his new composition.  He then proceeds to not actually pluck the lyre, resulting in no music whatsoever.  While the other feast attendees begin a barrage of whispered protests, Nero quips to his wife, “He’s alright, but he’s not that good.”  One indicates that he got the idea from the “Emperor’s New Clothes.”  This, unfortunately, leaves Nero feeling humiliated and causes him to run off with Barbara in tow, while Ian is ordered to fight his friend, the slave who helped him to escape, to the death.

18. When the Emperor’s aide Tavius communicates Barbara’s warning to the Doctor that he, as Maximus, will be sent to play in the arena and the lions released in return for humiliating the Emperor, the Doctor comments, “Oh, won’t that be charming?”

19. The Doctor learns that Maximus originally plotted to kill Nero, which is why the Centurion originally set to and killed the original Maximus.  The Doctors finds this funny. “So, I’m a would-be murderer, am I?”  He continues this line of jest when Nero asks him to guess what he’ll be doing in the future.  The Doctor correctly guesses that he will be playing in the arena.  “I’ll ensure it will be a roaring success!” he quips before saying he’ll give the people something they can “really sink their teeth into.”  (Get it?)

20. Foreshadowing rearing its ugly head alert, the second: While the Doctor is waxing eloquently about the marvelous show he’ll put on, in what could be his “farewell performance,” the Doctor is holding his spectacles behind his back.  Unfortunately, it catches the sun’s rays and sets Nero’s plans and maps, which the Doctor had been examining, on fire.  This results in giving Nero the idea to burn the city to the ground (which really happened in 64 AD).  After the Doctor convinces the guards to let he and Vicki go after Nero’s effusion about the Doctor’s “brilliant” plan, Vicki comments, “I didn’t think that was going to work.”  The Doctor retorts, “Never going to work?  What next? My dear, I never had any doubt in my mind…”  Um…random luck seems to follow the Doctor throughout all his incarnations, eh?

21. Excellent direction award and historical allusion alert: Tavius helps Barbara to escape with Ian after Nero’s forces begin lighting the fires that burn the city.  He earlier said he had his own reasons for helping Barbara.  As Ian and Barbara flee and Tavius watches, he says, “Good luck, my child.  Good luck,” as the camera zooms in on a cross that he is clutching in his hands.  Aw, he is a secret Christian, during the times in which Christians were persecuted by the (pagan) Roman heads of state.  Nice touch.

22. While Vicki is appreciating the fact that she is watching the Great Fire of Rome, which people will read about in history books for thousands of years, she notes that there is no mention of the Doctor in any of those books.  When the Doctor questions what she is talking about, she (appropriately) scolds him for giving Nero the idea to burn the city in the first place and for meddling in history after all his admonition to her.  The Doctor attempts to deny his role in the inspiration, blaming the burning of Nero’s drawings on the circumstances of an accident, but Vicki ends the argument by saying, “Alright, you’ll have it your way, and I’ll have it mine.” Ooh…she’s spunky.  One then realizes that it may be his fault after all and starts laughing uproariously.  The visit to Rome ends on Nero playing the lyre in the middle of the burning city.

23. When the Doctor and Vicki return to the villa on the outskirts of Rome, Ian and Barbara have passed out, having escaped the burning city.  In all the time while they were in Rome, Ian and Barbara and, separately, the Doctor and Vicki never encountered each other.  The Doctor accuses the other pair of having a long holiday and of idling away their days.  He asks Vicki not to look at their idea of “youthful exuberance.”  When Barbara and Ian begin to protest, Ian suggesting that the Doctor won’t let them get a word in edgewise, the Doctor stuffs a grape into his mouth.

While this serial did not add much in the way of overall story arc to the long-running series, it did establish and plant the early seeds of the humor that has followed the program throughout its lifetime and provided quite a bit of characterization for the four main characters, the Doctor included.  All in all, the story was not so interesting, but the interactions between the characters were, on the whole, quite funny.  I can see an obsession being born in this early episodes, had I been alive and in England at the time…

Next serial: “The Web Planet” (Season 2, Episodes 16-21).

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One comment

  1. kyliekeelee · January 5, 2015

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