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2x4. The Romans
Writer: Dennis Spooner
Director: Christopher Barry
Script Editor: Dennis Spooner
Producers: Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Synopsis: While staying in Ancient Rome, the time travelers split up and find themselves uninentional participants in a series of adventures: the Doctor and Vicki
are caught up in some palace intrigue involving an attempt to assassinate the emperor Nero, Barbara has to fend off the advances of the eccentric emperor, and Ian is forced into slavery and nearly dies in gladiatorial combat.

Review: "The Romans" is correctly recognized as the first example of Doctor Who attempting a story with a primarily comedic flavor, and while the episode deserves credit for experimenting with a new approach, I'm sorry to say that I find the results disappointing. There are some scenes where the humor works, but there are just many where it doesn't, and I don't think it would be uncharitable to suggest that the creative team had not yet figured out quite how to do comedy on Doctor Who.

It would be easy to say that "The Romans" goes wrong by trying to make a joke of things that aren't funny: Ian and Barbara are sold into slavery, the Doctor and Vicki nearly get mixed up in an assassination plot, and at the end Rome is set on fire. But I don't think the episode's problems are quite that simple. Ian's storyline is played straight for the most part, and there's no reason that seemingly grim material can't be played in a humorous way as long as the right approach is taken. Writer Dennis Spooner seems to envision the story as a farce, taking the excesses of Nero's Roman Empire and playing them as a comedy of errors and misunderstandings. The imperial palace as rendered by Spooner's script is a textbook example of the lunatics running the asylum, as Nero is so preoccupied with chasing Barbara and contemplating his ridiculous scheme to rebuild Rome that he barely notices or cares about a conspiracy being hatched right under his nose.

Ian and Barbara respond to all this as we might expect: Ian simply does what he can to survive and reunite with his friends, while Barbara is understandably repulsed by Nero. The Doctor and Vicki, however, are written as if they know that they're not really in Ancient Rome but only in a farcical television serial about Ancient Rome, and they seem curiously indifferent to the danger to themselves and to others. In the case of the Doctor, it's not a return to the selfish attitude he showed in early first-season episodes but a carelessness that's almost childish. He walks into the middle of what he correctly guesses is a murderous conspiracy for no real reason (given that he never takes sides or seems to care about its outcome much), and the fade from his own chuckling at having inspired the fire of Rome into Nero's insane laughter feels just a bit too appropriate. (Incidentally, if you thought the Doctor got whimsical in "The Rescue," he's positively giddy in "The Romans," and frankly Hartnell's endless "hmm-hmm-hmm" laughing got on my nerves after a while.) Vicki is less of a known quantity and thus perhaps less "out of character" in the strict sense, but she still has one rather jarring scene in which she casually and unconcernedly mentions that she may have just poisoned Nero.

I am aware, of course, that this is all intended as a joke, and I have no problem with otherwise dramatic series doing comedy episodes from time to time. I certainly don't mind it on Doctor Who, of which humor would later become an essential ingredient, at least during certain periods of the show's history. But it's always been my opinion that the characters of any series -- comedic or dramatic -- must remain at least minimally consistent from one installment to the next, no matter what the situation around them. The Doctor has certainly never shown any signs of indifference to matters of life and death simply because some of the people involved are fools and buffoons, and there's no indication from what we saw of Vicki in "The Rescue" that she would be likely to behave that way either. For a later and more successful example, consider "The Stones of Blood": the Doctor notices the humor in a pretty grim situation and quips his way through the entire serial, but never does one get the sense that he isn't concerned about what's happening or that he would have laughed it off if he had accidentally given someone the idea to burn an entire city. But "The Romans" treats the Doctor and Vicki as if they were just two more caricatures in the menagerie of silliness rather than recurring characters with established traits.

I realize that I'm going against what appears to be a positive consensus among Who fandom about this serial, so I'll hasten to add that there were parts that I rather liked. The Doctor's charade when called upon to play the lyre -- he claims that only the most sophisticated ear will be able to hear the music, and then proceeds to feign playing it without touching the strings -- is cleverly executed, and it reaches its payoff when Nero, either pretending to hear it or  fooling himself into thinking he really is hearing it, grumbles, "He isn't *that* good." And the more light-hearted tone does work when the script focuses on the increasingly affable relationships between the leads, such as when the Doctor calls Ian "Chesterfield" and then tells him "someone's calling you" when Barbara cuts in with "ChesterTON." And I also got a kick out of the back-and-forth between Ian and Barbara, especially the gag they both pull about using the refrigerator and Ian's reaction when he discovers that Barbara accidentally bashed a pot over his head in the struggle with the kidnappers.

"The Romans" is never boring (a claim that not every Hartnell-era serial can make), and I give it credit for trying something new and opening up the show's stylistic range. But while the creative team demonstrates a good comic ear at times, there are few things more essential to a television series than consistent characterization of the leads, and this serial's flaws in that area are too significant for it to be a success.

Other notes:

- The TARDIS falling off a cliff at the end of "The Rescue" turned out to be completely irrelevant: the ship was not harmed or even stuck somewhere that made it hard to enter or exit, as far as I can tell.

- On a minor point of historical accuracy, Nero himself wasn't in Rome when the city burned, whether or not he was responsible for the fire.

Rating: ** (out of four)

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