In the earliest days of Doctor Who, the historical story lines took great care over their accuracy because they were meant to provide an education to the viewers. The Romans was the first to leave such worthy causes behind in the search for light entertainment style comedy.
It was done far better than the Sylvester McCoy years lapse into light entertainment stories, but it does make The Romans a rather unusual sibling to the other stories of the time.
The Romans also features what is probably the greatest climb down from a cliffhanger in the series, for the previous story (The Rescue, featured in the same box set) ended with the Tardis teetering on the edge of unstable ground and about to fall down a cliff. The Romans starts as if the cliffhanger never happened, with only a later brief dismissive reference to how the fall did not really matter as the Tardis easily survived it.
The fighting, as so often in Doctor Who, has some problems. Thankfully, being set in the Roman times, we don’t have any of the ludicrously unrealistic shooting such as in the Pirate Planet or the ‘Ha! I’ll shoot you by aiming my gun at the floor several feet away from you’ of The Wargames. Nor even the rather stilted fighting as if everyone is a lethargic drunk of The Time Meddler, for here the fighting is carried out at quite a pace. There are only two problems – first, much of it involves not really touching and, second, it features the world’s smallest ever arena for a gladiator fight (about the size of my front room, and no – it’s not a large front room).
One of the extras on the DVD does shed light on how much harder convincing fighting scenes were to shoot then than now. It is not only that the acting art has advanced over the years, but at the time the expense of cameras and filming meant there was very little scope to do cut-aways at the crucial moments of apparent impact in a fight. Hence the fights which often seem to show people not really hitting each other, whereas now cut-aways would disguise the lack of actual physical contact.
William Hartnell‘s performance is a very skilled comedic one, whose difference from his usual Doctor Who style may grate at time even as it delivers the laughs. The one serious failing is at the end when he is confronted with responsibility for having caused Rome to burn down (and so killing many) and ends up chuckling like an old uncle remembering a happy childhood incident.
By contrast, Derek Francis is fantastic as Nero, managing the regular switches between apparently sane, self-indulged and manically homicidal with amazing acting skill, giving us a plausible and tortured character that shows up the Doctor’s cavalier humour in the face of widespread death.
The events in the story get a brief subsequent mention in the Tenth Doctor’s The Fires of Pompei.
You can buy The Rescue and The Romans here.