Doctor Who – The Romans. Episode Four – Inferno

inferno

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.