Monday 2 December 2019

What's Wrong With... The Romans

For some fans, what's wrong with The Romans is the humour. It's a story which contains a lot of humour - including some broad farce as Nero chases Barbara around the palace, and she continually fails to see the Doctor and Vicki, who equally always manage to miss her. The problem is that this humour sits in amongst a lot of death and destruction - assassinations, murders, poisonings, and someone getting a burning torch shoved in his face. The tone is very uneven. The general viewing public weren't all that keen on a funny Doctor Who story, as its broadcast just happened to coincide with the national tragedy of the death of Winston Churchill. Episode 3 was actually shown on the day of his funeral.
On to the story itself, and let's start with historical accuracy.
The Emperor Nero - Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus - was born in December 37 AD. The Great Fire of Rome took place in July 64 AD, so Nero should be 26 years old. Derek Francis, who portrays the Emperor here, was a far from youthful 42 when this story was recorded.
Tigellinus is presented here as some sort of slave, who is killed when Nero forces him to drink poisoned wine. The real Tigellinus - Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus - was one of Nero's most trusted advisers, a Prefect with the Praetorian Guard. He survived Nero's death by suicide in 68 AD, when he switched allegiance to Galba. Unfortunately, Galba only lasted 6 months, replaced by Otho during what would later be known as the Year of the Four Emperors. Otho ordered Tigellinus' execution, but he died by committing suicide.
Locusta is seen being dragged away to feed the lions in the arena, after Poppaea blames her for failing to assassinate Barbara. The real Locusta also outlived Nero. She was executed by Galba in 69 AD.
Whilst it was believed later that Nero had started the Great Fire so that he could make space for his huge new palace, according to Tacitus he was not in the city at the time. He was in Antium, 32 miles away. The fire actually burnt down the new palace addition he had already built - the Domus Transitoria on the Palatine.
Other things that aren't quite right include the writer's belief that a villa is just a big house, like a mansion. The Doctor and companions are seen to be relaxing in a villa for a whole month - the owner supposedly being away campaigning in Gaul. Apart from the fact that no Roman army was campaigning in Gaul in 64 AD, the villa is presented as just the house. A villa was at the heart of a huge agricultural estate, where slaves lived all year round. There's no way the Doctor and company could simply take over the house for a month, with no evidence of any slaves in attendance.
The pool in the courtyard appears to be lined with polythene - something noticeable now on cleaned up video, but wouldn't have been spotted on initial broadcast.
Something else that wouldn't have been so noticeable at the time was the use of metal washers for coins, as seen when Nero throws them on the ground for his fire-starters to collect.
The slave trader Sevcheria starts off as just that - a rather down at heel slave trader. Midway through the story he suddenly becomes Nero's chief henchman, able to order the Praetorian Guards around. He doesn't even smarten himself up for this new role.
If everything is being translated by the TARDIS then surely the Centurion would have seen through the Doctor's lyres / liars pun. 'Liar' in Latin is mendax, and 'lyre' is lyra.
Something out of character for Vicki is that she simply switches the chalice from the palace, rather than getting rid of the poison - so she's quite prepared for someone to be murdered through her own actions.
Nero wouldn't have enjoyed an evening watching gladiators kill themselves. He had actually banned gladiatorial combat, as it offended his aesthetic sensibilities. His idea of a fun night out, apart from orgies and marrying eunuchs, was music or poetry recitals. The thumbs down for execution is also wrong - a mythconception from Hollywood movies. The Emperor kept his thumb in his fist if the defeated fighter was to be spared, and put the thumb up if he was to die.
Tavius, the secret Christian, has a crucifix. This is anachronistic. The symbol for the early Christians at this time was the fish symbol - the ichthys.
One good Hartnell fluff: "That, your excellency, would be an impossibissity".

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