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Doctor Who II.4 : The Romans

March 2nd, 2008 (12:41 am)

I wondered, just now, whether it's still possible to pick up the Robert Graves translation of Suetonius's The Twelve Caesars, and according to both Amazon and the Penguin website, it still is. I mention this because most of what I have ever known of Roman history comes from this and from other Penguin Classics translations, mostly picked up when I was doing Latin O-Level. I think that BBC 2 was handily repeating I, Claudius at the same time. I bought both the Graves Claudius books and enjoyed reading them against Suetonius, though I don't know how far Graves's translation was shaped by his own creative work. I also read an Anthony Burgess novel, written in the mid-1980s parallel with the screenplay to an American TV series, which portrayed the Julio-Claudian family in a different light, with particular emphasis on a craven and thoroughly unsympathetic Claudius.

I've started my review on this note because I was considering the background against which the Doctor Who team decided that Nero's Rome should be the setting for the first historical adventure of the second season, back in 1964/65. Alongside the easy availability of the classics in translation was the fact that a lot of Doctor Who's core audience - "average age 14" - would have been studying Latin at grammar school; and the surviving postbag from the period shows that a good few of the correspondents were teenagers either criticising the inaccuracy of the series' history or science, or who wryly commented on the humour. (There was also a ten-year-old who drew the Daleks as a Beatles-like pop outfit - I wish that would get reproduced somewhere at some point.) More broadly, for over a decade Hollywood had been making visits to the Roman world - whether Ben Hur (and it might be relevant that Christopher Trace, Blue Peter's first male host, still in place when The Romans went out, had been a stuntman on that film) and Spartacus; or The Robe and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators; or Cleopatra, just spoofed by Carry On Cleo a few months before The Romans was broadcast.

So, rather than take viewers somewhere unfamiliar, as with the painstakingly imagined palaeolithic of 100,000BC, or Mongol-ruled Cathay of Marco Polo, or the bloodsoaked moral perspective of The Aztecs, writer Dennis Spooner presented the audience with a familiar setting and extracted entertainment out of it with little pretence at education. Spooner claimed in an interview for Doctor Who Monthly in 1981 that Carry On Cleo had been the principal source of his research; I suspect him of doing some very light reading and becoming confused, as 'Flavius Guiscard', the name of the Roman landowner in whose villa the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki are staying, is surely a reference to a figure from later Italian history, Robert Guiscard, one of the Norman conquerors of southern Italy in the eleventh century. The best way to take the reference seriously is to take the hint that The Romans is not to be taken very seriously.

The Romans develops the approach to historical settings begun by Spooner in his French revolution story of season one. The Reign of Terror isn't so much about the France of Robespierre as about France under a later tyranny; there is a rough equivalence established through the way France is depicted between the British-aided opposition of 1794 and the French resistance of World War Two. In The Romans the complexities of the Roman constitution under the principate are swept aside, and Nero (bar a line about Senate approval) is a comedy absolutist, a figure of fun. I was going to say that it's safe to have this character in Britain because our experience of dictatorship is remote, and while I'm not sure if there is anything to explicitly connote Derek Francis's Nero as foreign, he's definitely 'historical' in that he's introduced chewing on a leg of something, straight out of Charles Laughton's Henry VIII. Physically he resembles Laughton more than he does perhaps the most prominent cinematic Nero, Peter Ustinov.

How far, I wonder, did the removal of Susan liberate the character of the Doctor? If he acts in loco parentis to Vicki, it's quite a different relationship to the one he had with Susan. Vicki (here in her first proper story as a companion) and the Doctor are partners in crime rather than cowed and rebellious grandchild and disciplinarian grandfather. The Doctor treats Vicki as a protégée in anarchy, meandering off to Rome without a plan, and blithely incorporating her into his spontaneous adoption of the identity of musician Maximus Pettulian without concern for her safety, with the explanation to the centurion that Vicki's task is 'to keep an eye on all the lyres/liars' - to learn from the Doctor as well as to be alert to the designs of their enemies. Vicki's squealing on meeting Nero anticipates not only latterday internet squee, but also Rose's self-conscious blaséness on meeting Queen Victoria in Tooth and Claw. Vicki enthusiastically joins in with the period to the extent that she thinks poisoning Nero would be a huge joke, and the Doctor is less overwrought by the consequences than would the Doctor of The Aztecs.

The farce-like structure of the story means that the Doctor and Vicki have an entirely separate adventure to Ian and Barbara from each duo's perspective; neither pair is aware that their activities are having a bearing on the others' fates. Ian and Barbara have the worse time of it. I don't know anything about Roman slavery, but the raid on an estate is now established as a fictional trope as it appears in Gladiator. Barbara is explicitly identified as 'British' rather than 'English', avoiding anyone anticipating Gregory the Great's 'non Angli sed Angeli' line in this story, but also making her an emblem of patient forbearance, a supposed British wartime virtue, as well as identifying the modern, barely post-imperial Britain of 1965 with the colonised Roman province of Britannia. Barbara's kindness to her fellow-captives is presented in such a way that the viewer is meant to find it remarkable that other characters find it strange; this is an idea, I suspect, imported from the Hollywood epics about early Christianity, given that it's juxtaposed with the observations of Tavius, revealed in one of the final scenes to be a Christian.

Not that Barbara and Ian don't have fun. I was less convinced this time round by the widespread fan assumption that they have sex during episode one; there's an innocence about their play appropriate to their usual cardigan and turtle-neck default wardrobe (not in evidence here - togas etc. being worn). They do come from 1963, where dwelt Larkin, after all; but it would be pleasing were there to be implied sex in mid-1960s Doctor Who which isn't threatening.

In The Aztecs the year before, the Doctor told Barbara that she couldn't change history. This rule still seems to stand in The Romans, but the Doctor can become responsible for well-known historical events. He's shown here as inspiring the Great Fire of Rome, and by the end of 1965 will have given the besieging Greeks the idea of the Trojan horse in The Myth Makers. The rules in the writer's guide - that the Doctor and company should keep their distance from major historical actors - have nonetheless here been torn up by Dennis Spooner, who as story editor was meant to protect them; but David Whitaker had let John Lucarotti do this in Marco Polo, the fourth story. This pushes me closer to the conclusion that the writer's guide was intended as a piece of bureaucracy or a tool to be cited when necessary as a way of justifying otherwise capricious or expedient decisions rather than as a strict rulebook.

The Romans is good Hartnell-era Doctor Who, though, and William Hartnell gives one of his most exuberant performances here, his accent often treading that fine line between RP and cockney which helped suggest that the Doctor was a 'Wizard of Oz' figure, a combination of inspired visionary and fraud, as Sydney Newman wanted. The lighting is often very good and suggests a Mediterranean warmth; there are directorial touches throughout, like the crash zoom on the caption 'Roma' over a model shot of Rome, which sing the absurdity of attempting a Roman epic in a BBC studio, and point out that they are not going to try. The lions seen at the end of part three, and in a less prolonged edit at the start of part four, surely had Johnny Morris out of shot in his zookeeper guise from Animal Magic. Doctor Who in 1965 was a programme that tore down the fourth wall and dragged the family around the black-and-white set into its own extradimensional world; and we are all the better that so much of it still survives.


Posted by: Evil Asian Genius (eag)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 05:25 am (UTC)

Have you read Julian, by Gore Vidal? I really enjoyed that one.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)

I haven't! Is this about the fourth-century 'apostate' emperor?

Posted by: Evil Asian Genius (eag)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)

Yes, that one! I really enjoyed it. It's sort of epistolary. Set up like written correspondence between two authors that are writing commentaries on an autobiography of Julian.

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 10:29 am (UTC)

You seem to have used the word "squee" ...


Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)

If you see the way Vicki behaves on meeting Nero, it's entirely appropriate!

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 10:41 am (UTC)

Yes, he's gone bananas and started using the words "squee" and "ranty" with gay, indeed slashy, abandon. You should probably do something involving grunting to bring him back to the blokely fold.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 10:49 am (UTC)
Horace Walpole

Sounds like potential for gay slashiness there to me...

Posted by: Evil Asian Genius (eag)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)

I hear that fold is full of chest hair and grunts.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 07:37 pm (UTC)

In The Romans the complexities of the Roman constitution under the principate are swept aside, and Nero (bar a line about Senate approval) is a comedy absolutist, a figure of fun

In DWM some years ago (#316), Christopher Barry revealed he considered Dick Emery for the role, which shows that he was thinking of the character in purely comic terms.

The Doctor treats Vicki as a protégée in anarchy

... and Ian and Barbara are clearly left behind on the grounds that they would spoil their fun.

This pushes me closer to the conclusion that the writer's guide was intended as a piece of bureaucracy or a tool to be cited when necessary as a way of justifying otherwise capricious or expedient decisions rather than as a strict rulebook.

Quite possibly. Alan Barnes noted that City of Death systematically breaks most of the rules laid down in the edition of the writer's guide written by... Douglas Adams.

We might distinguish between aesthetic guidelines (to be broken by a good writer) and those things that literally could not be done in terms of budget and time-slot, providing clear justification and so avoiding legal consequences, when scripts had to be rejected at the last minute.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: March 2nd, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)

I'd forgotten about that interview - I'll have to look it up - and I agree with the way the Doctor and Vicki dimiss Ian and Barbara as potential spoilsports who are best left behind.