When Doctor Who started, it was a grim little series. Its first story had cavemen beating each other to death. Its second showed the aftermath of nuclear war. But one year in, and it lightened up considerably and could even playfully mix up genres. By story number 12, the series can tackle one of the bloodiest periods of Earth’s history with Carry On-style verve. The Romans is, famously, Doctor Who’s first comedy.
Of course, it’s only partially played for laughs. Ian (William Russell) has an awful time of it; sold into slavery, almost drowning in a galley and thrown into the circus to fight for his life. There’s not much there to chuckle at. Even the stuff played for laughs has a dark edge: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) gets caught up in an attempt to poison Nero (Derek Francis) which, although unsuccessful, it still results in the death of servant Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot). Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets chased around the palace by Nero, Benny Hill-style which might raise a smile until you remember she’s being sexually harassed. And the Doctor (William Hartnell) thinks it’s utterly hilarious that he may have inadvertently inspired Nero to burn Rome to the ground. He chuckles heartily away even though down amongst the inferno, people are dying horribly.
So as comedies go, The Romans is as black as night. It’s in good company among the Hartnell historicals like The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, both of which mix up humour with death on an operatic scale. Even writer Dennis Spooner’s own The Time Meddler has a comedy plot punctuated with violence and rape. Makes you wonder exactly who this stuff was aimed at.
More to the point, is The Romans actually funny? I can’t say I’ve ever actually laughed at it. (My first viewing of it, via the VHS release in 1994, put me to sleep). Its jokes are pretty laboured. That unlikely gag Ian and Barbara deliver about the “fridge” is weak, but still it gets two runs. The Doctor’s employment of the emperor’s new clothes tactic to avoid having to play the lyre is very stagey. As is his comedy fight with the assassin Ascaris (Barry Jackson). Francis comes closest to making it work, but even his antics of bashing people over the head with lyres, falling over beds and absent-mindedly waving swords about is pretty tiresome.
But actually, I don’t think it matters that the comedy stylings of The Romans seem irredeemably lame. For a start, it’s impossible to tell what a 1960s audience made of this – they might have thought it was a riot. What’s important about it is that it’s another of Doctor Who’s attempts, even at this early stage of its life, to push the boundaries of what the show was capable of, to ensure that it had sufficient variety to enable longevity. Better Doctor Who comedies will follow because The Romans showed it was possible for the show to bend that far and not break. And hey, they’ll be back to killing people with acid next story.
But gee, can you imagine the reaction to this story if they’d had Twitter in 1965?
@babshair WTF are they doing to #doctorwho? Unfunny comedy antics turning the show into PANTO. BBC intent on killing it. Spooner must go! #notmydoctor
The other thing The Romans does is change the dynamics of the TARDIS crew.
In an era known for decadence and hedonism, Ian and Barbara are cheekily positioned as lovers. They flirt and joke around and treat each other with gentle physical intimacy. We never see them as much as hold hands, let alone kiss. But there’s something undeniably sexy about them lounging around in their togas together.
Their friends with benefits time is interrupted by them being kidnapped and sold into slavery. So begins one of Ian’s semi-regular quests to rescue Barbara, but the absence of the Doctor and Vicki from this adventure means this plot can be viewed in isolation, and it’s purely about two lovers pulled apart by circumstance and eager to reunite. It gives their solo adventure added piquancy, which you can sense when the two finally find each other again and rush into a joyful embrace. From here on in, they’re clearly more than just friends, ready for generations to come to ship them madly.
The Doctor meanwhile is getting to know his new substitute granddaughter, Vicki. I’ve noted before that I think it was an odd decision to replace Susan with someone so similar to her, and yet O’Brien brings a greater air of independence and worldliness to the teenage girl companion than Carole Ann Ford was allowed to. And for his part, the Doctor is less paternal towards her. He sees Vicki as a co-conspirator in his schemes and a student who’ll benefit from his tutelage. Plus she’s more likely than Susan to instigate action within the story; the whole poisoning gag comes about because she’s struck out on her own and made friends with the palace poisoner. Of all people.
Whereas previously we had a TARDIS crew made up of people with protective responsibilities towards Susan – her grandfather and her teachers – now we have a crew of four friends. (Incidentally, The Romans does a great job of giving each of the four regulars a slice of the action, something the most recent series of Doctor Who struggled to do). And in its quiet way, it sets a new template for the show to follow from now on: a TARDIS crew of people who travel together because they want to, not because they have owe any responsibility to each other to do so. A cohort of genuine buddies who’ll go on holiday together, drink, dress up and fondly tease each other.
The Romans may not be very funny, but it’s loads of fun. And because it happens so early in the show’s run, it allows loads of subsequent stories to be fun too. That’s a far more valuable legacy than simply being the first Doctor Who story to crack a few gags.
LINK TO Fury from the Deep: TARDIS crew members washing up on the beach.
NEXT TIME: More trouble with the eight-legs in Arachnids in the UK.