Doctor Who (Classic): S02E04 “The Romans”

Season 2
Directed by Christopher Barry
Written by Dennis Spooner

After last week’s transitional serial, it’s time to settle back into the typical format and the first historical of the new season. Maybe typical format isn’t the right term though since this is possibly the lightest and most comedic story to date and is almost as much a vacation for the show after all the change as it is for the characters as well.

After last week’s cliffhanger of the TARDIS quickly plummeting to its doom, the situation isn’t even acknowledged for almost ten minutes. There’s an odd one month time jump at the start with no acknowledgement of the crash or even evidence that it affected anyone and the time jump is only mentioned in a quick bit of dialogue. Instead we are immediately thrown into The Doctor and his companions already settled into The Roman era. It’s a nice change of pace from the typical serial format but it’s disorienting as the show takes its time to actually explain the backstory.

Of all the historicals so far, this is the one least interested in actually teaching anything about the period which is frankly for the best. Much has already been said about the original educational attempt of the show and this very much feels like a course correction from that. It allows the Doctor to travel in time and deal with non-alien threats while still maintaining the fun of those serials. As stated previously, The Doctor and his companions view this trip as a vacation and therefore this is also one of the first cases where Doctor Who’s story isn’t propelled by the TARDIS breaking down, being disabled, or someone getting kidnapped (that comes later). The Doctor has shown hints of curiosity at exploration before (“The Daleks”) but between this serial and “The Rescue” (where he sought to meet up again with the locals) there is a conscious shift in this second production season to a Doctor who travels because he enjoys it and not just because they are lost. It is a welcome change which starts to bring the First Doctor towards his modern companions (though as we saw with Eleven there is no way they would be able to stand a month in a place without going crazy).

The comedic tone lends itself best to The Doctor and Vicki as the former to chew the scenery and the latter to slip right in as a natural fit to the show and a good pairing with The Doctor. It also allows one of the better villains so far with Derek Francis as Nero hamming things up accordingly in a performance which trades historical accuracy for broad comedy and monologues. It obviously doesn’t always work, with the buffoonery and accompanying Mickey Mousing getting tiring on occasion, but it is memorable and fitting in tone. Despite this comedic bent, it is still a serial where Ian and Barbara are captured and sold into slavery while Barbara has to escape the sexual advances of Nero in some thoroughly “wacky” scenes which have not necessarily waged. Ian’s story especially though feel completely disconnected in tone and location as the soundtrack turns serious and he spends most of the serial failing to interact with any other regulars.

The Doctor once again gets an action scene but he is far more successful in this one and it overall just looks better than the last. The later swordfight between Nero’s guards and Ian and his new friend is less so serving as some B-rate Errol Flynning. I can still get enjoyment out of it, but now is as good a time as any to bring up the action scenes in the early days of Doctor Who as a whole. As with the special effects, the quick and cheap production of the show didn’t exactly allow too much in the way of great fight scenes. You just have to accept this if you are going to watch the show even if you don’t excuse it.

All this adds up to an enjoyable, if incredibly lightweight feeling serial of the show. There’s no real climax as despite the separation of stories all episode, it basically just ends when The Doctor gets bored and wants to leave as Rome burns to the ground practically to a laugh track. There’s no real conclusion to Ian’s or Barbara’s close encounters with death or rape and death respectively, it’s just as if the show checks its watch, realizes it is out of time and calls it a day. It does at the very least make for a nice breather and breakthrough episode for Vicki after her awkward introduction in “The Rescue”. She may have been chosen to be as close a replacement as possible to Susan, but already she is standing on her own as someone very much dissimilar.

Grade: B-

Stray Observations

– Ian may not interact much with everyone this serial, but when he does it comes in the form of heavy flirtations with Barbara. It’s adorable.
– Official Poisoner of Rome is a wonderful position and I love how she has manage to carve out a niche being behind the killings of people and the revenge killings
-Vicki’s glee at getting to see Nero is great and along with her excitement at traveling with The Doctor last serial makes her a perfect fit for the new direction of the show.
-Vicki already manages to chase an assassin out the window instead of just shrieking and being useless like a certain former cast member.
-“I think I may have poisoned Nero…” Have I mentioned how much I like Vicki yet?

-The Doctor very casually inspires the Nero to burn down Rome and then denies doing so to Vicki. Instead of this being a fight as it would be in the past, it becomes more of a good natured disagreement.
– If you haven’t seen the news, Steven Moffat is stepping down as showrunner of Doctor Who after Season 10 with Chris Chibnall taking his place whose stories are of how do I put it, mixed quality at best as he wrote perhaps the worst story in the Doctor Who universe (“Cyberwoman”) among many other faults but he also did Broadchurch Season 1 (yay) and Season 2 (boo). I know Moffat takes a lot of crap for his work as a showrunner but he has overseen 3 awesome series (5, 8, and 9) and 2 of a more mixed but still enjoyable quality. I also assume season 10 will also be Capaldi’s last season now and he will be missed even more as he has become perhaps my favorite NuWho Doctor (can’t speak for all of Classic Who).

Next Up: “The Web Planet” on Monday for the second of three 6 episode serials this season.