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30 September 2016 @ 06:36 pm
The Randomiser: The Romans  
The Romans (apocryphally, at least) shared a its researcher with Carry On Cleo. I'm not sure if this is true, I doubt that Doctor Who had the budget for a researcher. But there is definitely something "Carry On" in the DNA of this tale of intrigue and shenanigans in ancient Rome.

The Carry On influence is most obvious in the scenes where Nero chases Barbara around the court in Rome and his bedroom. Clearly, this is a comic chase scene and the conventions of such a scene dictate that Barbara must escape and Nero will be made to look a fool in the process*, however Doctor Who is not a Carry On Film or Benny Hill and consequences are frequently deadly. Poppea's jealousy is presented as a genuine threat to Barbara where in a Carry On film the worst that can happen to anyone is usually some kind of public embarrassment. In fact the scene is not especially funny. This may be because this particular trope has gone out of fashion, but I suspect it is more because it is being written and choreagraphed by a production team with little time and no real experience in crafting this kind of humour.

The Romans is intended as a comedy (I think) but I'm not sure its comedy is really its strength. William Hartnell is clearly having fun hamming it up as the musician Maximus Pettulian and the emperor's new clothes scene, in which he pretends to play the lyre in a way only the most sophisticated of musical ears could detect is one of the genuinely clever bits of humour here. But a lot of the time it fails to deliver comic situations with much conviction if only because they are interspersed with far more regular Doctor Who style scenes of genuine peril. Ian's journey from galley slave to gladiatorial arena in particular lacks many laughs, but the intruigue at the court that is supposedly fuelling the Doctor's presence etc., isn't a particularly comical or preposterous set up and so fails to drive any real humour.

I also found the story oddly disjointed, though I think I would need to watch it again to be sure how much of that is flaws in the story telling or me just not paying enough attention. The timings don't seem to be quite right - Ian is sold as a galley slave, shipwrecked in a storm, makes his way to Rome, and ends up in the gladiatorial arena in, as far as one can tell, the time it takes Barbara to be introduced to Nero and subsequently chased around his bedroom. The character of Tavius, who purchases Barbara for the court, is somehow involved in a conspiracy to kill Nero, and in the final episode is acting as a friend and protector to Ian and Barbara before being revealed as a Christian - I can see how all that might fit together but I'm not sure the story really makes a case for it.

Where The Romans does succeed, I would argue, is in the first episode where it depicts the Tardis crew at leisure in a borrowed villa. There is genuine charm to their relaxed interactions; to Vicki's desire to explore further and have adventures and the Doctor's cantakerous restlessness which we rarely get to see on Doctor Who and is a genuine pleasure to watch.

* I'll just note here that feminism has had a lot to say about this particular trope: the comic pursuit of a young attractive woman by an older unattractive man. But I don't think it is of much interest here beyond noting that Doctor Who is always a product of its time. We're not supposed to consider her seriously in danger, whatever the realities of the situation would be outside of its presentation as a comic chase.

In the end, I felt most of The Romans was a miss. Comedy is difficult to do well, and even harder to pull off when you want an element of genuine peril in your story. Doctor Who in the 1960s had neither the rehearsal time nor, I suspect, the expertise to pull this off. However, as a story, it has its moments of genuine charm and gives us a view of the Tardis crew we rarely get elsewhere.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/211233.html.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on October 4th, 2016 08:59 pm (UTC)
I like this more than you do, but as with all the Hartnell comedies, there's an uncertainty of tone which makes it hard to get into or to really love in the way that, say, City of Death or The Androids of Tara might be loved. As you say, Ian's plot is largely laugh-free, and fairly typical of the era and does not quite gel with the farce elsewhere. I do also find the scenes of Nero chasing Barbara unpleasant, even when I try to take account of the mores of the era.
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on October 5th, 2016 11:54 am (UTC)
I nearly wrote that it was the closest a Dr Who story had ever got to causing me to declare it "not Doctor Who" in the manner of an out-raged fan (even though there are worse stories out there), but there are bits of it that are very Doctor Who so I can't quite put my finger on what about the comedy aspect in general (which I think is the main culprit) that sets it aside from other comic episodes.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on October 5th, 2016 01:58 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't go as far as to say "not Doctor Who". Seen in order, it's actually quite important as it's the first Doctor Who story to contain a significant amount of humour. I'm not sure what the reactions of the audience at the time were - I can imagine some did not take well to the sudden influx of humour.
daniel_saunders: Leekleydaniel_saunders on October 4th, 2016 10:16 pm (UTC)
Also (having now seen the comments on Dreamwidth) the version of the Carry On story I heard is that Jim Dale was Dennis Spooner's neighbour and invited him to spend a day on set of Carry On Cleo. Although with so many versions going around, there may be a strong Chinese whispers element to all this!
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on October 5th, 2016 11:55 am (UTC)
That makes more sense, in terms of how the Carry On tone might have influenced the writing, than either of the other stories.