The chaps over in the Classic Capitology wing hit the way, way back button this week and think they came up with a unique Doctor Who story. Back in the sixties, once the series has established a foothold on both the TV schedules and the imagination of the nation, the average season was 42 weeks a year. Given that, a series such as Doctor Who, knowing it could have an amazing variety of storytelling, there was the opportunity, perhaps even the necessity, to experiment… perhaps even with comedy.
Strictly speaking The Romans wasn’t a comedy, but it did have more comedic underpinnings not only than any story up to that time, but any Doctor Who story since. This must have proved to be a welcome change to the regular cast because they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, especially Hartnell. But the real selling point which made it all work, especially from episode 2 onwards when the plot ‘descends’ into farce, complete with characters just missing each other a number of times, is Derek Francis as Nero. Both impish and lascivious, and yet with a bit of a darker side, this was a Nero smitten with Barbara, but charmed with Hartnell’s bluster. The sheer delight when he’s holding the burning map of Rome is something to treasure.
The Romans, quite cheekily but also quite unlike the forthcoming story The Ark, is actually two stories in one, with the Doctor and Vicki (in her first story after her introduction in The Rescue) treading the more comic aspects while Ian and Barbara went through the darker underbelly (as slaves) of the Roman empire. It is a supreme example of the endless flexibility of the program, especially in the early years. It would only take 43 years for the series to return to Roman times, even longer for the first ‘Roman’ companion (if you count Rory).