Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Story XII - The Romans

In which the TARDIS crew put their sandalled feet up at a Roman country villa, in the year 64 AD. The TARDIS had previously fallen into a shallow ravine on landing. The ship has been concealed, and the travelers have been relaxing for a month or so in this empty property - the owner being away in Gaul. Vicki and Barbara visit the nearby town's market, where they attract the attentions of slave traders Sevcheria and Didius.
An old man, with long white hair, is also at the market, playing a lyre for the entertainment of the crowd. His name is Maximus Pettulian. Soon after leaving the town, he is set upon by a mute assassin and murdered - the body hidden in the undergrowth beside the road.
After dinner that evening, the Doctor announces that he is going to visit Rome. Vicki, bored by this indolence after being promised adventures, asks to go with him. Ian had earlier inadvertently talked himself out of the trip, along with Barbara. They will have to stay behind.

On the road to Rome, the Doctor and Vicki find Pettulian's corpse. The Doctor picks up his lyre just as a Centurion appears - apparently searching the bushes. The soldier assumes that the Doctor is Pettulian and  claims to have come to escort him to the court of Caesar Nero. Pettulian is a noted musician from Corinth. The Doctor realises that it was a body he expected to find - and so does not trust him.
At a roadside inn near Assysium, the puzzled assassin is ordered by the Centurion to kill the old man as instructed. The Doctor gets the better of him in the ensuing fight.
Ian and Barbara, meanwhile, have been attacked by Sevcheria and Didius. Barbara accidentally knocks Ian out cold, and both are captured. Ian is sold on almost immediately - destined for the galleys.
Next day sees Barbara going to the slave market in Rome, and the Doctor and Vicki arriving at Nero's palace. Ian and a fellow slave named Delos survive the wreck of their galley in a storm. They make for Rome, where Ian hopes to find Barbara, but are recaptured by Sevcheria almost immediately. This time, they will be forced to train as gladiators for the arena.

Barbara is bought by a man named Tavius, who works in the Imperial household. She will have to work for the Empress Poppaea. The lustful Nero takes an interest in her, chasing her around the palace. The jealous Empress decides to poison her but Vicki switches the drinks - almost poisoning Nero.
The Doctor finds that Pettulian is a musical, and political, rival of the Emperor, who is keen to eliminate him. Tavius knows of a secret involving the old lyre player and helps protect him - including killing the Centurion. The Doctor later discovers that Pettulian had intended to assassinate Nero.
Ian and Delos escape and go to the palace to find a way of breaking in. The Doctor has inadvertently inspired Nero to burn Rome to the ground - so he can build a new city. (His spectacles had focused sunlight onto a map of the proposed city and set it alight).
As a group of fire-starters are ushered into the palace, Ian and Delos sneak in with them. The Doctor has heard he may be entertaining crocodiles in the arena, so he and Vicki slip away. Tavius - a secret Christian - helps Barbara escape. Delos blinds Sevcheria with a torch as he and Ian get away.
As they see the flames in the distance, Vicki points out that the Doctor has been responsible for the Great Fire of Rome. In a way he has. Back at the villa, the Doctor and Vicki have assumed that Ian and Barbara, who got back before them, have been lazing for the last couple of days...

This IV part adventure was written by Dennis Spooner and broadcast between day XVI of the month of the god Janus and day VI of the month of ritual of Februa, MCMLXV. Though now script editor on the series, Spooner had been commissioned, and the story written, before he assumed the role.
It is chiefly remembered for its level of humour. Forget 'I, Claudius', this is more 'Carry On Cleo' or 'A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum'.
Previous historical stories had been played straight, reflecting the often bloody times in which they are set. Rome under the Julio-Claudian dynasty was no less murderous, and this is touched on in the script, but there is a gloss of humour over everything - even the nasty bits.
Hartnell once again shows that he was a frustrated comedy performer, and he shines in this. From his indignation at being fed ants eggs to the business in the sauna with the sword, via the dialogue about his farewell appearance in the arena - "roaring success", "give them something they can really get their teeth into" etc, he is really in his element.
Watch out for the other little bit of business with the footstool.
There's a running "fridge" joke between Ian and Barbara, though their adventures have less to laugh about - although there is a farcical chase as Barbara is pursued by Nero, always narrowly missing the Doctor and Vicki.
Guest star Derek Francis plays a somewhat mature Nero. He was a well known comic actor. He can be villainous and funny at the same time.

The only people playing things straight are Derek Sydney as Sevcheria, and Kay Patrick as Poppaea. Michael Peake, as Tavius, appears at first to be a somewhat sinister character, but has some witty material with Hartnell (not always scripted) and proves ultimately to be a sympathetic character - only a slightly superior slave himself. The events of the Great Fire will be blamed on the Christians - so we have to wonder what his eventual fate might have been.
Delos is played by the programme's some-time fight arranger, Peter Diamond.
Designer on The Romans was Ray Cusick. It was recorded as part of the same block as The Rescue, with the same director - Christopher Barry. Apart from elements of the forthcoming Dalek stories, it would be Cusick's only historical work.

No doubt Spooner will have done his homework - probably reading Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars or Tacitus' The Annals of Imperial Rome which cover Nero's reign. The real Emperor would have been only 27 at the time of the Great Fire, and of course he was nowhere near the city (Tacitus puts him in Antium). It's true that he did want to extend his vast new palace - the Domus Aurea or 'Golden House' - and did take advantage of the fire to do so. He also got to use the event as a pretext to persecute the Christian sect.
He probably came to power by poisoning first his step-brother Britannicus, son of the Emperor Claudius, and then Claudius himself. He was aided and abetted by his mother Agrippina. Fed up with her controlling ways he then did away with her. He had a ship built which was designed to collapse whilst at sea and drown her - in what would look like an  accident. She survived, but was killed in more conventional manner soon after (Bond villains, take note).
In 68 AD, army rebellions would force Nero out of power. Fleeing from the city and fearing assassination, he didn't have the resolve to kill himself and so had a slave do it for him. (There is a church called Santa Maria del Popolo built on the site of his cremation. It had a famous haunted tree - reputedly his ghost - always full of ravens, which had to be exorcised by the Catholic Church. The church has two sublime Caravaggio altar pieces.  Don't say you never learn anything on here...).
The Julio-Claudian dynasty ended with him.
Poppaea would die a year after the events of The Romans. Nero is reputed to have kicked her to death in a rage. She was pregnant at the time.
Hardly a laugh a minute this stuff, is it...?

Episode endings for this story are:
I. The Slave Traders - The Doctor is practising the lyre at the inn. The assassin creeps into his room.
II. All Roads Lead To Rome - Locked in a cell in Rome, Ian and Delos are told they will have to fight in the arena. But against who - or what? wonders Ian. They hear lions roaring nearby. (Cue stock footage of Whipsnade Zoo...).
III. Conspiracy - Ian and Delos are being forced to fight to the death in front of Nero. Ian trips and falls. As Delos stands over him, the Emperor gives the thumbs-down sign.
IV. Inferno - The TARDIS has been caught by some powerful force in space and is being dragged down. But to where? To what?

Some people don't like this story - either because they have no time for historicals in general or because of the level of humour. I'm no massive fan of the former, but I love the humour in this. I have an interest in the period anyway (did you guess?), so have a soft spot for this. Watch with an open mind and you'll find lots to enjoy. Worth watching just for Hartnell.

Ian and Barbara are quite content to wait for the invention of the refrigerator...
Things you might like to know:

  • Ann Tirard who plays the court poisoner Locusta will be back in the programme to play The Seeker in The Ribos Operation.
  • Two of the cast will return as Time Lords - Barry Jackson (the assassin Ascarius) will play Gallifreyan wide-boy Drax in The Armageddon Factor, and the Centurion (Dennis Edwards) will play feisty old Lord Gomer in The Invasion of Time.
  • Peter Diamond would go on to teach Darth Vader et al their lightsaber skills in the better 'Star Wars' trilogy.
  • If you're wondering why a slave trader is an Emperor's right hand man, it's because another character, a Praetorian Guard Captain, was dropped from parts 3 & 4, and Sevcheria's role expanded.
  • Unseen adventure you probably aren't interested in seeing: his meeting with Hans Christian Anderson.
  • Unseen adventure you definitely do want to see: learning the delicate art of fisticuffs with the "Mountain Mauler of Montana"...

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