Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Four – Inferno

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Inferno opens with another demonstration of Nero’s ruthlessness. Ian and Delos have escaped and Nero’s none too impressed with Barbara (Barbara couldn’t help but shout out to Ian, which infuriated Nero). “So you’re a friend of the gladiators are you?” He then asks a soldier for his sword and looks set to murder Barbara.

The scene is blocked well, as Nero stands in front of both Barbara and the solider when he strikes the killing thrust. We hear Barbara scream and it’s possible to wonder for a split second if he has actually done the unthinkable – but no, it’s the guard that’s died. “He didn’t fight hard enough” mutters Nero as he looks at the (presumably) blood-covered sword whilst Barbara looks suitably sick.

Although The Romans is generally regarded as a comic gem today (although some people will never accept that Doctor Who could or should be a comedy) there’s plenty of evidence that viewers back in 1965 were rather nonplussed. The audience research report includes a number of unfavourable responses, such as “this programme gets more and more bizarre; in fact it’s so ridiculous it’s a bore” and someone else declared that the series “was only fit for morons”. The report summed up that most of the respondents felt that “the story had steadily declined to a farcical and pathetic anticlimax”. Oh dear!

It’s difficult to see exactly what they found to be so irritating, as the script is still bubbling along nicely with some excellently played comic gems. Nero, tiring of the acclaim heaped on the Doctor, decides to throw him to the lions. But he doesn’t directly tell him, all he says is that he wants him to play in the arena. The Doctor knows what’s going on though and Hartnell and Francis share another classic two-handed scene. Francis’ hangdog expression is priceless!

DOCTOR: Yes, well I promise you I shall try to make it a roaring success.
NERO: You’ll have to play something special, you know.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes, of course, of course, yes. Something serious, yes. Something they can really get their teeth into, hmm?
NERO: You can’t know, you can’t. I’ve told no one.

The major weakness with the story is the revelation that Maximus Pettulian had come to Rome to murder Nero – since the real Pettulian was so feeble it’s rather a stretch to imagine he could ever be a successful assassin. The burning of Rome isn’t quite as successful as it could have been either – but on Doctor Who‘s budget this isn’t too much of a surprise. It’s worth reflecting that later prestige serials like I Claudius had similar production standards so if you place them side by side, The Romans stands up quite well.

But as we’ve seen, most of the viewers questioned in 1965 weren’t impressed and seemed to be bored of historical stories – much preferring the Doctor’s trips into the future. But they should have been careful what they wished for, as we now jump headlong into six episodes of The Web Planet …….

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Three – Conspiracy


Conspiracy opens with another clandestine scene between the Doctor and Tavius.  The obvious joke is that the Doctor still has no idea what Tavius is talking about.  Tavius imparts the following vital information “I haven’t got long, so listen carefully. I’ve managed to get rid of that body and I don’t think anyone suspects. But if you delay your action, it will be safer.”

Every time that Tavius appears he hisses in a most unsubtle manner (in order to catch the Doctor’s attention).  It’s interesting that this bit of business wasn’t present in the script, so presumably Hartnell and Michael Peake worked it out in rehearsals.  Much later, Tom Baker’s willingness to treat the rehearsal script as simply a jumping off point for his own improvisations and suggestions would become legendary, but there’s no doubt that the four days rehearsal each episode was given during this period did allow for a certain leeway which sometimes benefited the story.

This episode sees the farce quotient ramped up another couple of notches as Barbara is presented to Nero’s wife Poppaea (Kay Patrick).  Poppaea’s not terribly impressed with Barbara, no doubt because she’s witnessed Nero’s instant attraction to her.  This wasn’t the first time that Barbara had found herself the object of male lust, although the others – Vasor in The Keys of Marinus and El Akir in The Crusade – weren’t played for laughs like Nero’s pursuit is here.

There’s a level of innuendo in the script for those who want to look for it (for example, Nero tells Barbara to “close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise”) and the farce element is at its most obvious as Nero pursues Barbara through the palace (she just avoids bumping into the Doctor or Vicki each time).  That Barbara remains unaware that the Doctor and Vicki are at court (and vice-versa) hardly seems credible – but that’s the whole joke and it’s delightful to see how the actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into the swing of things.

Derek Francis is a joy to behold in these scenes, he plays Nero as a little boy who’s anxious not to be found out.  But his other, more ruthless side, is demonstrated at the end of the episode as he watches Delos and Ian fight as gladiators.  Delos gains the upper hand and Nero has no hesitation in ordering Ian’s head to be cut off.  Whilst this seems at odds with the amiable, befuddled ruler we’ve previously seen, it actually fits in very well – Nero (like most Emperors) had lived so long with the gift of absolute power that he could be either cruel or compassionate, depending on his mood.  That so much power could be in the hands of such an unbalanced individual seems remarkable – but for all the comic stylings of the script, that part of The Romans is probably historically accurate.

Ian’s rather sidelined in this episode.  Locked up with Delos for most of the duration, he faces an uncertain future as a gladiator.  These scenes are most notable for the shots of two gladiators practising – unfortunately the way they fight is so feeble that it’s hard to imagine either would be capable of punching their way out of a paper bag …

Back at court, Vicki confesses to the Doctor that she might have poisoned Nero(!) which leads into another scene which is comic and dark at the same time.  The Doctor warns Nero and he passes his cup to the unfortunate Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot).  Tigilinus drinks and plummets to the floor, dead.  “He was right” deadpans Nero as he shrugs and moves off.  What’s remarkable is that Vicki nevers seem to realise or indeed care that her actions cost the life of the court poisoner Locusta (Ann Tirard).

It’s finally time for the Doctor to demonstrate his non-existent skills as a lyre player.  “I would like to play my new composition in honour of this occasion. The music is so soft, so delicate, that only those with keen perceptive hearing, will be able to distinguish this melodious charm of music.”  Delightfully, he then proceed to play not a single note aloud, but since nobody wishes to admit that they lack the perceptive hearing required, everybody (including Nero) pretend to be entranced.  “He’s all right, but he’s not all that good” mutters Nero testily.  Brilliant!

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Two – All Roads Lead To Rome

Although the main plot of The Romans is straightforward enough, the various palace intrigues which bubble below the surface are slightly more opaque.  At the start of this episode it’s confirmed that the Centurion we met in the previous episode wanted Maximus Pettulian dead and he’d commissioned a mute assassin called Ascaris (Barry Jackson) to do the deed.  The joke being of course that Ascaris is unable to tell him that he’s already killed Pettulian once!

So he has to kill him again (in the shape of the Doctor) but the Doctor offers more evidence that he’s handy in a scrap.  The fight scene between Ascaris and the Doctor is a comic highlight of the episode and although it was designed to put as little stress onto Hartnell’s shoulders as possible, it still works very well.  When Vicki enters the room, Ascaris has clearly had enough and heads for the nearest window.  The Doctor’s rather disgruntled.  “Young lady, why did you have to come in and interrupt? Just as I’d got him all softened up and ready for the old one, two.”  Lovely stuff.

And what of Ian and Barbara?  Ian’s been sold as a galley-slave and quickly strikes up a friendship with Delos (Peter Diamond).  Although Diamond was a bit-part actor, he spent most of his time working as a stuntman/arranger (amongst his numerous film credits was the first Star Wars movie).  Delos performs much the same function as Larry did in The Dalek Invasion of Earth – he’s someone for Ian to talk to as he searches for the others.  Diamond’s a solid presence though and manages to be something more than just a line-feed.

Barbara’s landed on her feet as she’s been bought by Tavius (Michael Peake) and brought to the court of Caesar Nero.  Tavius is an interesting character – he’s someone who has an agenda of his own (which is connected to Maximus Pettulian) although his ultimate aims remain nebulous for a while.  And is he Barbara’s friend or foe?  Peake had an imposing physical presence and would clearly have found no difficulty playing the heavy, but we’ll see that there’s more to Tavius than meets the eye.

Nero (Derek Francis) makes an impressive entrance (he belches loudly).  “Royal felicitations” murmurs the Doctor.  Amongst a host of sparkling performances, Francis’ is the jewel in the crown and his byplay with Hartnell is delightful.  From their first meeting, the running gag of Maximus Pettulian’s skill (and the Doctor’s total lack of skill) as a lyre player is established.  Nero is keen to hear Pettulian play, but the Doctor manages to cleverly sidestep this potentially awkward moment by asking Nero to go first.  Another nice comic moment occurs when Nero calls for a stool – the Doctor begins to sit down on it, but it quickly becomes clear that Nero wanted it to balance his leg upon, causing the Doctor to rise again with a disgruntled expression!

Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode One – The Slave Traders

The literal cliffhanger from the previous episode (which saw a lovely model TARDIS falling down a ravine) is negated here in the most offhand way – although this very much fits in with the tone of the episode.  We open on a close-up of Ian, apparently unconscious, but it then becomes clear that he’s simply closed his eyes for a moment – he’s relaxing on a couch and is decadently maneuvering a whole bunch of grapes towards his mouth.

The Doctor has shamelessly moved into a villa on the outskirts on Imperial Rome (luckily for them, the owners are away).  It’s clear they’ve spent a few months here, doing nothing but overindulging in both food and drink (quite where all this comes from is a mystery that’s never solved – either the unfortunate householder had an extensive larder and wine-cellar which they’ve ruthlessly plundered or the Doctor has a large supply of Roman currency aboard the TARDIS).

Although Ian and Barbara are enjoying this unexpected lull, Vicki is bored. Vicki’s written here as rather more childlike than she’d later become – for example, she’s so keen to get to the market she tugs Barbara along and later reacts with glee when the Doctor agrees to take her to Rome – but as she’s such a novice time-traveller, that’s reasonable enough.

As for the Doctor, he also seems to be tiring of this inactive life and, with Vicki in tow, heads for Rome.  The Romans was Doctor Who‘s first overtly comic script and it’s clear that Hartnell’s in his element.  It would have been a story that demanded even more concentration from him than usual – the interplay between characters only works if the dialogue is delivered accurately (something that he sometimes had trouble with) but there’s no real problems in this episode.

After the Doctor and Vicki depart for Rome, Ian and Barbara remain behind at the villa.  William Russell has the chance to essay a few lines of Julius Caesar and narcissistically preen at his appearance, whilst Barbara is able to get in a few decent gags (like asking him to get some ice from the non-existent fridge).  As per the rest of the episode this chugs along comedically but events soon take a darker turn.

Two slave-traders, Sevcheria (Derek Francis) and Didius (Nicholas Evans), capture Ian and Barbara and intend to make a healthy profit out of them.  The fight scene is a comic one – Barbara accidentally knocks out Ian, rather than Sevcheria – but after that the reality of their situation hits home.  Chained up together, then separated, Ian and Barbara face an uncertain future.

Meanwhile the Doctor and Vicki find a murdered man in the bushes at the side of the road leading to Rome.  It clearly wasn’t robbery as his lyre wasn’t taken, so it remains a mystery (for a while at least) what the motive could have been.  The man was Maximus Pettulian from Corinth, whose skill as a musician was talked about even in Rome.  As luck would have it, he bore a certain resemblance to the Doctor and so the Doctor decides to assume his identity – since Pettulian was en-route to play for Nero, it’s a golden opportunity to meet the emperor.

Amongst the many nice little touches peppered throughout this episode, watch for the look between Hartnell and O’Brien after the Doctor confides to the Centurion (who’s appeared to escort Pettulian to Rome) that Vicki “keeps her eye on all the lyres”!

Until Nero appears in episode two the story never quite kicks into first gear, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in The Slave Traders.

Doctor Who – The Rescue. Episode Two – Desperate Measures

The Rescue was the first story of Doctor Who‘s second production block, but it was touch and go for a while as to whether the series would continue after The Dalek Invasion of Earth.  During the last twenty years or so a considerable amount of information has come to light concerning the lengthy birth pains of the series – most of which flatly contradicts the accepted view of Doctor Who‘s history which had formed during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Back then it was generally believed that the success of the second serial, featuring the Daleks, had secured the series’ future, but the truth was rather more complicated.  To begin with, Verity Lambert was only offered a four week extension after DIOE.  She countered that if that was all that was on offer they might as well just go ahead and cancel the series.  Lambert wanted a firm commitment for thirteen weeks with an option for another thirteen.  This was eventually agreed and Doctor Who‘s future was further strengthened when Hartnell’s agent insisted on a confirmed twenty six weeks before his client would re-sign.  The BBC agreed again and so planning for series two could begin in earnest.

The most pressing requirement was for a story to introduce the new companion and that was The Rescue‘s main function.  There was also a minor mystery to be solved (Bennett = Koquillion and it’s revealed that he’d murdered all the inhabitants of the spaceship – including Vicki’s father – in order to escape justice) but Maureen O’Brien is the focus of the story.

In episode two we see some further examples of Vicki’s hysterics – especially when Barbara kills Sandy the Sand Beast.  Vicki’s penchant for giving things pet names was retained, although it’s just as well that her hysterical outbursts weren’t (Vicki certainly spends less time collapsing at the drop of a hat than Susan did).  Her anger with Barbara for killing Sandy allows her character to be developed a little further – Vicki’s extreme emotions demonstrate that she’s been isolated from human contact (apart from the surly Bennett) for too long.  It takes the gentle words of the Doctor (a lovely scene from Hartnell) to start to break down these self imposed barriers.

Although the focus of the story is on Vicki, the Doctor has a key scene as he confronts the mass-murderer Bennett.  It’s another opportunity to see an aggressive Doctor – although his fight with Bennett is naturally brief (and could be said to be motivated by self-defence, as it seems obvious that Bennett intends to murder the Doctor in order to preserve his secret).

Given the short running time, The Rescue is obviously not the most complex of stories, but the fact that there’s only five speaking parts means that each character has a decent amount of screen time.  Vicki and the Doctor come off best, although Ian and Barbara also enjoy some entertaining scenes (Ian gets to tussle with the unconvincing spikes of death whilst Barbara gets a little gung-ho with Sandy) and Ray Barrett is imposing in his duel role.

Doctor Who – The Rescue. Episode One – The Powerful Enemy

Following the epic nature of the previous serial, The Rescue is a much lower-key story.  The brief running time (two episodes) is one of the reasons why – a fifty minute slot doesn’t allow time to develop a particularly complex story.   But that doesn’t really matter as it mainly exists to introduce the new companion,  Vicki (Maureen O’Brien).

The initial shot of the model spaceship is impressive (even if it does look a little too much like a model).  We then get our first glimpse of Vicki – a young, eager and somewhat naive girl.  O’Brien would tone down this characterisation once she settled into the role, but based on what we see during this episode it does seem strange that the production team had decided to replace Susan with a character who’s so similar.

The moment when the Doctor asks Susan to open the TARDIS doors before remembering that they left her behind on Earth is a touching one, as is the way that Ian and Barbara rally round to subtly support and comfort him.  There’s also a lovely comedic feel to this opening TARDIS scene.  Barbara, referring to the ship, tells the Doctor that the trembling’s stopped and the Doctor, completely misunderstanding, pats her cheek and tells her he’s glad she’s feeling better!

Vicki and Bennett (Ray Barrett) are the only survivors from a crashed ship.  They live in fear from a mysterious creature called Koquillion.

Director Christopher Barry uses a similar inlay shot here to one he used in The Dead Planet.  Ian and Barbara look down from the caves and see the crashed ship in the valley below.  Although it’s a basic effect, it works very well.

Barbara meets Vicki.

BARBARA: Tell me more about this Koquillion .

VICKI: He just keeps us here, Bennett and me. There’s a rescue ship on the way. He doesn’t know about that. But he’ll find out. I know he will.

BARBARA: But why does he keep you here?

VICKI: They…they killed all the crew. We…when we landed we, we made contact here. Everyone on board was invited to a grand sort of meeting. I couldn’t go, I was ill, a fever or something. I stayed here that night. I remember waking up, a thunderstorm I thought, but is was an explosion. Bennett…Bennett…dragged himself back. I was ill for days, I didn’t know about it ‘til later. I came around and…found Bennett. He can’t walk.

There scenes almost play out as an audition piece for O’Brien.  It’s fairly overwrought stuff, but she handles it pretty well.

The Rescue is the first time we see the Doctor land on a planet that he’s visited before.  Last time he was here he was struck by the friendliness of the locals, so the bloodthirsty antics of Koquillion baffles him.

There’s a literal cliffhanger as the Doctor and Ian are trapped by some highly unconvincing metal spikes which emerge from the rockface.  It’s all good b-movie stuff.

The Legend of King Arthur – Simply Media DVD Review

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Broadcast in eight 30 minute episodes during October and November 1979, The Legend of King Arthur contains all the familiar story-beats you’d expect, but Andrew Davies’ adaptation still manages to throw in a few twists along the way.

Merlin (Robert Eddison) and Arthur (Andrew Burt) have established a new enlightened age, thanks in part to the mighty sword Excalibur which is used by Arthur to subdue his rivals.  But this hard-won peace is short-lived as his vengeful half-sister Morgan le Fay (Maureen O’Brien) has vowed to avenge her father’s death and only Arthur’s demise will satisfy her.  Well versed in the dark arts of witchcraft, she uses her powers to convince Arthur that his bravest knight Lancelot (David Robb) and Queen Guinevere (Felicity Dean) are enjoying a passionate affair.  But Morgan isn’t the only danger that Arthur faces and the treacherous Mordred (Steve Hodson) proves to be the one who fatally halts Arthur’s reign.

Long regarded as one of the best adaptations of the Arthurian legend, once you can get past the rather low-key production values (the VT nature of the studio scenes gives everything a rather stagey feel) there’s much to enjoy.

The central performances of Andrew Burt, Maureen O’Brien, David Robb, Felicity Dean and Steve Hodson are all first-rate.  Burt (the original Jack Sugden in Emmerdale Farm) might not be the sort of actor that would instantly spring to mind when considering the perfect Arthur, but his rather stolid persona is just what the production needed.  Maureen O’Brien is compelling as Morgan, eschewing cackling villainy for something much more low-key.  David Robb and Felicity Dean are both strong players whilst Steve Hodson gives Mordred the sort of slowly increasing intensity which serves the character well.

And if the main cast are pretty faultless, there’s also strength in depth to be found with the supporting players.  Denis Carey, Kevin Stoney, Richard Beale, Geoffrey Beevers, Peter Guinness, Hilary Minster, Ivor Roberts and Margot van der Burgh are amongst those who help to enrich the production.  A young Patsy Kensit, playing Morgan le Fay as a child, is another actor worth looking out for.

The story opens with the King, Uther Pendragon (Brian Coburn), deciding that he wants a Queen to bear him a son. He declares that the wife of his trusted ally, Goloris (Morgan Sheppard), will fit the bill nicely. Both Goloris and his wife, the lady Igrayne (Anne Kidd), are horrified, but Uther is not a man for compromise and tells Goloris that if he doesn’t comply, “however strong you may make this castle, I will have you out of it and roast you like a badger!”

Goloris and Igrayne have a daughter, Morgan (Patsy Kensit), who calls on divine help to strike down Uther, but Merlin appears instead. He tells her that “you have the gift, but not the knowledge of the gift. You see a glimpse of the forbidden things, but only a glimpse.” Merlin may stand by Uther’s side, but he doesn’t serve him, not fully. Goloris’ death at the hands of Uther sets in motion Morgan’s life-long hate of her half-brother Arthur (born of the forced union between her mother and Uther).

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Kensit might have only been eleven at the time, but she was already something of a television and film veteran (her first credit came when she was just four years old). She’s appealing as the innocent who finds herself consumed with loathing for the boorish Uther (a broad, but effective turn from Coburn) and Arthur. Morgan’s transformation from good to evil is sealed when she fails to aid the choking Uther. That he dies after a glutinous feast rather sums up his character.

Episode one then moves ahead some fifteen years, as we see the young Arthur (Richard Austin) pull the sword from the stone, the act which confirms he is the true King. Sadly it’s a rather flatly staged moment, lacking any sense of magic or wonder. Much better is the following scene where Arthur makes a decent impression with some of the nobles. Others are less convinced, so there will be war. But first there’s another key moment – Excalibur needs to be retrieved from the Lady in the Lake.

It’s a pity that we don’t spend more time in the company of young Arthur, as by the start of episode two Andrew Burt has assumed the mantle. It’s not too surprising that the long battles he had to fight in order to prove his legitimacy happened off-screen (budget considerations I’m sure played a part in this). Maureen O’Brien now takes over the role of Morgan. She claims to Merlin that now she serves only God ….

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It quickly becomes clear that Arthur is not the man his father was. Arthur is fair and conciliatory, but events prove this to be a weakness rather than a strength. After he pardons a bitter rival called Accolon (Anthony Dutton), it’s obvious that he’s simply delayed an inevitable confrontation. Arthur and Guinevere are married and Lancelot offers to be her champion, to stay constantly by her side and do whatever she bids.

Merlin disappears after the second episode, which is a shame as Robert Eddison had a teasing, impish presence. Merlin’s absence forces Arthur to take control of his own destiny, which you sense is not going to end well. And Morgan’s arrival at Arthur’s court, with Mordred in tow, sets in motion the long endgame that results in Arthur’s death.

The middle episodes develop the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot. Whilst the arrival of the elderly King Pelles (Denis Carey) dispossed of his lands and with a daughter laying stricken under the curse of a powerful witch (who has to be, unknown to any at court, Morgan) adds another layer to the narrative. Carey, an actor of dignity and subtlety, always enhanced any programme he appeared in and this one is no exception. Pellas tells the court that only one man can save his daughter and that man is Lancelot.

As the serial progresses, both Morgan and Mordred continue to manipulate Arthur.  Amongst some of the riper turns, Steve Hodson offers something more nuanced. When we first meet him he appears to be Arthur’s man, but his alliance with his aunt Morgan and his own ambitions slowly rise to the surface to reveal his true nature.

Morgan suggests to Arthur that the love between Guinevere and Lancelot is the sort of love shared between a husband and wife, whilst Mordred spies an excellent opportunity to blacken Guinevere’s name even further.  Mordred and Morgan had intended to poison Guinevere with a piece of fruit, but the Queen innocently decided to offer this treat to someone else.  When Guido de la Porte (Tim Wylton) drops dead after a single bite, the Queen is suspected of murder.

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Lancelot would be the man to defend her honour, but he lies injured and isolated from the court.  And Lancelot’s standing amongst his fellow Knights (already shaky due to the innuendo about his possible affair with the Queen) diminishes even further when the dead body of Eleanor (Amanda Wissler) comes drifting towards them.  Eleanor loved Lancelot, but he couldn’t return her love.  When Lancelot and the others realise that the spurned Eleanor has taken her own life, it’s amongst the most powerful moments in the serial.   By the time we reach the final episodes, Galahad (James Simmons) arrives, as does the Quest for the Holy Grail, Lancelot and Arthur become bitter rivals whilst Mordred, in Arthur’s absence, usurps his kingdom.

Even with eight episodes, given the amount of ground covered in The Legend of King Arthur there’s the sense that an even longer running time would have allowed some of the secondary characters to be fleshed out a little better, as well as allowing more time to linger on certain themes.  For example, when Lancelot heads off to avenge King Pellas, he’s able to do so with almost indecent haste.  He may be the bravest Knight in the land, but this still seems a little perfunctory!

Produced by Ken Riddington, directed by Rodney Bennett and with incidental music by Dudley Simpson, The Legend of King Arthur is a treat from start to finish.  Those used to the glossier production values of modern television may find it to be lacking in places, but Andrew Davies’ layered adaptation, an attention to detail and the quality cast all help to compensate for the fairly low budget.

There are some production missteps (for example, as the characters age unconvincing wigs and beards are pressed into service) but there are many positives as well.  Andrew Burt is entertaining as the thoroughly decent but doomed King, whilst Felicity Dean is terribly appealing as the winsome Guinevere.  Add in the smiling manipulative villainy of Maureen O’Brien’s Morgan and it all combines to produce a heady brew.

The Legend of King Arthur is released by Simply Media on the 10th of October 2016.  RRP £19.99.

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