Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The Romans

The Romans 1: After the grimness of the Daleks, and the slightness of the Rescue, this is rather a change. It's fab to see an episode that allows the audience to breath - if not throughout, for the majority of its length. The scenes with the TARDIS crew just relaxing are witty and fun, showing the bond between all of them. It's easy to see why people think the Ian/Babs scene is post-coital (considering how desperate every bloke seems to be diddle Barbara, he really seems reserved and not terribly bothered - I'm beginning to wonder if he's her gay best mate...). Generally again they showcase the Doctor and how loveable he's become, becoming a slightly absent minded dotty rogue. He's actively interested in investigating the mystery now, rather than just prevented from escaping.There's some nice slapstick in the Ian and Barbara scenes, lots of playful fun. No-one ever really references how clever the first shot post-reprise is. It seems to be an unconcious Ian, looking injured from the fall. Then he starts to eat grapes, the camera pulls back and we realise we've leapt some distance. It's jarring, but in a good way. The revelation that it's a month later is likewise - its nice to get a sense that the crew have a life outside the adventures.Vicki has become part of the team instantly as a result of this. Her distrust of Barbara is forgotten instantly, for example. This is perhaps the only element that doesn't quite work about the leap forward. The crew clearly know her much better than we do.Not much to add beyond that really, as this is very much a warm up episode - you know the plot's turning up round the corner, it's just a question of waiting. Most of the incidental characters seem to be relatively stock, though one of the slave traders has a ludicrous beard that must have come from a warehouse, and the man who buys Ian has one of the best diabolical laughs I've heard.Generally however, I love it. I've always been for the use of wit in drama. For all the talk of this being out and out comedy, it isn't really. It's witty, and that's more important.

The Romans episode 2:Recently I finished watching the greatest tv serial of all time, I Clavdivs. It's a history of the Roman emperors, ish, fro Augustus to Claudius, and ends as Nero takes over. So I can't resist viewing this as a sequel. It's a suprisingly neat segue...Thoughts on the episode itself - the only real weakness is the Ian plot. The whole galley slave subplot is so short and pointless that it might as well have not been there at all. OK, so Ian meets his slave mate, but he could just as easily have done that in his cell (though that could be too similar to Reign of Terror). His plan to escape is wonderfully half-hearted, and executed badly that it does just feel like an attempt to look like something's actually happening in his thread.It's still a bit better than, as was mentioned above, the capture escapes of Reign as it much more clearly aimed and directed - Ian has a clear and definite objective. The whole James Stirling plot didn't really seem to bother him much, whereas here he has a desperate need to escape. And the tone livens it up. All the struggles and his bravado, and he walks straight into a patrol.Barbara/Dr/Vicki fare much better. Admittedly, Babs' thread is fairly basic. Just getting sold. The near misses she has with the Doctor are fun, feeling like a satire on the plot of, say, DIOE, where they can travel half way across England and still just bump into each other.The Doctor and Vicki stuff is fab too. He's living on his wits, and veering wildly between slightly dotty (his inabilty to remember his new name), sly as hell (his outwitting of Nero really nails the character we come to know - living on his wits, outhinking the baddies) and investigating wrongdoings. It's testament to Hartnell that he makes these diverse figures coexist brilliantly.He is getting a bit violent, though. This is his third story in a row with a fight, and it's suprisingly action packed here. Vicki doesn't have much to do but act as the Doctor's foil, but she is proving herself brave and resourceful, and very smart. Immediately more appealing than Susan.All in all, it's not hard to pin down why I like this story. It's the series letting it's hair down, being unafraid to have fun. There's a dull humourlessness to a lot of the first series, and in stories like say Marinus with little else to offer this adds a problem. The Romans is inconsequential, but it delights in that. It's a show that wants to be fun, rather than dramatic or educational. This is something the show has lacked, for the most part. A heart. The warmth that humour brings. It's around the Rescue and here that joy enters the show, the Doctor becoming the essentially humourous central character that defines him from here on in, a sense that one of the primary aims of the series is to entertain. It's been enjoyable so far, but up to now it's been an intellectual enjoyment, a dramatic appreciation. It's mainly worked by stimulating the brain, not the heart. It's the slide to combining the two, the sense of intelligent fun that defines the show for me, and explains it's enduring popularity and accesibility. As the characters lighten up we start to love them, rather than like them, or just enjoy their adventures.It's one of the truths of proper drama that humour is important - one assumes that the word drama implies seriousness, but humour is vital part of that. It accentuates the sadder moments, it gives them something to play against, it allows us to warm to the characters and care for them (anyone who's ever seen Chekov played with humour versus without will attest that the former is much better, the second veers towards tediousness). I Claudius is a good example as it is very comic for such a dark piece. It is this lack of narcissism, and self-importance, but lightness of touch that defines why I love Dr Who rather than just like it. This is a show for your heart and your head, for your soul.And that starts with the Romans.

The Romans 3:Watched this one yesterday, but circumstances forced me away from the computer til now.Well, it really is terrific stuff. The Ian plot is still just there to make up the numbers, but it does provide a terrific cliffhanger. (Admittedly, it does mean that the last cliffhanger is a total cheat, with no eventual plot relevance for even one second more than it was on screen).The main comic centre points of this episode focus around the Doctor, Nero and Barbara. And they're terrific. Nero is a hugely entertaining character, probably the best in the guest cast so far (his mid performance critique of 'Maximus' made me laugh out loud, and the death of Tigilinus is rightly praised). It's played for real, and as a result is hysterical. Hartnell easily matches him, mainly in fabulous comic business (there's a beautifully underplayed bit in the spa where Nero keeps switching sides and Hartnell has to shift a sword he's holding - a lovely subtle bit of detail). The interaction he has with Vicki is superb, almost better than his rather cross relationship with his proper granddaughter. They seem like a pair of naughty schoolchildren trying to make their way out of trouble and delighting in the success of their schemes (even as those schemes backfire). Vicki too is still terrific - her terribly casual announcement to the Doctor that she thinks she poisoned Nero is brilliant, and belies the oft-made accusation that she is little more than a Susan clone. She's ballsier, and smarter than that. This is a girl who takes the travelling in her stride and isn't really put out by anything. Still like a teenager, but not in such a self-conscious way. She can't take the universe seriously, and you have to like that.The Barbara subplot is again, a little slight, but the near misses with the Dr and Vicki are beautifully done, and the stuff of high farce. Interesting that she doesn't seem too bothered by Nero fancying her, even rather likes it (she only starts to get riled when he starts to chase her, but she's clearly smiling when he checks her out at their first meeting). Mind you, the girl's been a lust object for someone practically every week, so she might have developed a high opinion of herself.One of the more suprising things about the serial, is its sheer bloodthirstiness. It's not often mentioned in the wake of the comedy - but it's just as bloodthirsty as Reign, for example. Just look, the first episode features the death of an old man, the second has the murder of the centurion, and the Doctor possibly accidentally kills Ascaris (it isn't entirely clear). And in this episode we have the court poisoner (who's a dark enough element without her being dragged off to the circus as a result of Vicki's whim to change the glasses), and the death of Tigillinus. In deed, typing that up it is noticeable that the last three are caused, indirectly, by the TARDIS crew. And they say they're not changing anything.The violence works, and is ignored, because it helps to focus the comedy. Comedy is at its funniest when there's something at stake (see how many great sitcoms are rooted in personal tragedy or dark times). It offsets it. So the story is funnier because it isn't inconsequential. Life is cheap in the palace, where you can be poisoned for being mildly annoying. It makes the Doctor's ploys and the various events mean so much more.Incidentally, he does say that he gave Anderson the idea for the Emperor's New Clothes. I do believe that's our first name drop.

Andy Noax
"Incidentally, he does say that he gave Anderson the idea for the Emperor's New Clothes. I do believe that's our first name drop. "
Surely not - hasn't he already mentioned Henry VIII and Beau Brummel in previous stories?

Certainly Gilbert and Sullivan at the end of the Edge...

You got me bang to rights, I'd forgotten that. (What the Gilbert and Sullivan one?) It is however the first instance of him claiming to have directly influenced history - in the style of him writing out Hamlet for Shakespeare - so that's probably where I made the mistake.

One day behind, but I'm back...The Romans 4:Again absolutely lovely stuff. OK, it's become more than a little clear that there isn't really a plot as such - the Maximus Petullian assassin subplot comes to nothing. It's just to provide mystery and keep the viewer hooked, but ultimately it doesn't go anywhere, and does seem faintly barking (that old man in episode 1 hardly seems to be the best choice for an assassin does he?). Likewise the Ian plot is mainly in captivity, and a few badly staged fights. The Babs plot is just running around. Ultimately, it's a series of disconnected and fairly unrelated romps for the TARDIS crew. However, the whole thing is so joyfully done, and pacey (leaping out a mile in this era, as everything up to this - barring the Aztecs maybe - has tended to be drawn out) that this barely seems to matter (and I suppose, considering the 'holiday' framing, it's rather appropriate). It's just damn good fun. The only true moment of significance in the whole thing is a shot I'd never seen before - the lingering shot of the crucifix that indicates precisely who Petullian was working for, and why the bald bloke's been so helpful.The Doctor is playful and dotty in this episode. The Lion puns are delightful, and are an instance of the Doctor playing with someone who wants to kill him. He's on the death list of the Emperor from Rome, and he's cool enough to make fun of it! (Likewise, his joy at having set in motion the fire is interesting - and seems to mark a sea change for the character. He now knows he can influence history).Incidentally, it's great the way that Barbara inadvertantly saves his life in this episode, rather like Vicki saved hers in part three. The not-quite meeting plotlines (everyone else meets the whole set, they just don't realise themselves) is the main conceit, and it's done fabulously. Odd to think how close this is to the regular structure of Who (DIOE and Reign immediately leap to mind as employing a similar split em up technique), but by refusing to have them meet til the end it takes on a whole new dimension.There seems to be a Star Wars style wipe cut at one point in this episode - I suspect it's a trick of the light really, just a straight cut, as I doubt the technology to do that would have existed at the time (and seeing as it's so out of the directorial tone of the rest of the story).The darkness is still there. Delios burns a guy in the face (possibly the slave master, it's hard to tell in the way it's shot), and Nero has gone from being an entertaining comic figure to dangerously mad. As life gets cheaper he becomes steadily less funny, and one cannot help but admire Derek Francis for combining so many levels into one person, demonstrable versatility.There's another DIOE like long epilogue, with the last ten minutes or so all dealing with the travellers return. Ian and Barbara are really flirtatious with their chasing each other and gentle mocking (and Spooner almost seems to be writing for the video age: would anyone have realised in 1965 that Ian references one of Barbara's lines from the first episode?). The whole scene, and indeed their confrontation with the Doctor and Vicki, is delightful, witty and charming. OK, so it's all a bit superficial, but its one of the great joys of the series - its versatility. We've just had an ecodrama; an epic, nihilistic tragedy; a chamber piece thriller; and a comedy romp. Name me another series that could experiment like that. People talk about BF's playing with the form last year. Season 2 was there before all that. And we haven't even got to the madness of the Web Planet yet! All in all, a terrific little piece. A relax and have a good time romp. Superb.

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