The First Doctor and the Ancients 

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Francis plays these scenes with the same dry and farcical humour one finds not only in Carry On, Cleo but also in the performance given by Zero Mostel as Pseudolous the Slave in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum  (which ran in the West End in 1963 and may have influenced Francis’s performance). Scenes of horror and murder may seem an odd choice for easy laughs – but Nero was one of the default bogeymen in early Christian culture, whose accounts strongly influence Nero’s modern popular image; if Nero is ‘every-emperor’ for us, he was, too, for Christian writers from the Middle Ages to the Victorians when it came to the suffering of  the religion’s practitioners, and the worst of the persecutions under all of the pagan emperors became attributed to him.[xxxi]

    With The Romans,  we, the audience, feel safe laughing despite the real-life consequences of these situations: angry both that Barbara prefers a gladiator (namely Ian) over the emperor and that Ian has escaped, Nero grabs Barbara and demands a sword from his guard; instead of killing the terrified woman, he turns the sword on his guard: ‘He didn’t fight hard enough!’ We laugh in relief, but also because despite Barbara’s terror, viewers were confident that nothing could or would happen to the principle characters (at least not yet; Doctor Who would shock viewers a few serials later by killing a companion). Strangers die in Doctor Who; those who die in The Romans are frequently unnamed, and, as with the ‘Red Shirts’ in Star Trek,  we have no investment in them – they are expendables that break to advance the plot, much like the vase with which Barbara accidentally hits Ian at the villa, leading to their capture. It is a legacy of ancient comedy from Aristophanes (the best known comedy-writer in fifth-century B. C. Athens) to Terence (one of the most popular comedy writers in second-century B. C. Rome) where, for the main characters, everything works out for the best.

So How Does the Humour Hold Up?

It is one thing for Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) to try out her rusty Latin at the local Marcus and Spensius in the Fires of Pompeii (2008), but some of the humour found in  The Romans has had its critics. Modern critics (for example Sandifer, Wood and Miles) argue that if The Romans fell flat on its original transmission, perhaps it was because Episode 3, which featured the strongest points of farce, was transmitted the day of Winston Churchill’s funeral and stuck out somewhat glaringly on an otherwise sombre occasion.[xxxii]Contemporary reaction and audience research, however, does not mention Churchill’s funeral at all; a surviving audience poll from the time reveals a mixed bag of reactions (those polled were in a ‘carping mood’ according to the researcher) complaining that the serial was a ‘bore’ and ‘too violent’ and ‘lacking in realism’ to what had started as a promising story had ‘declined to a farcical and pathetic anticlimax.’[xxxiii] The complaints, however, stem more from a general dissatisfaction with Doctor Who historicals and not necessarily because of a comedic script; children polled on their opinion of the previous year’s Marco Polo (1964) found it ‘boring’ and ‘too long drawn out’ – maps and charts could not compete with the Daleks[xxxiv]

    Modern fans have also found the mix of violence and humour off-putting.[xxxv] Most offensive recently is Nero’s lusty pursuit of Barbara, criticized as ‘sexual harassment’ and ‘a rape plot.’ For example, in his online blog, Tardis Eruditorum, Philip Sandifer finds Nero’s interest in Barbara ‘distasteful.’[xxxvi] On the website Something Awful  user Davros 1 recently wrote 'You know what Doctor Who's always been missing? Attempted rape.’[xxxvii] Another poster, After The War, replied, ‘Have been watching The Romans for the first time and said the exact same thing after all the "Nero chasing Barbara" Scooby-Doo sequences. Ugh.’[xxxviii] If this a fair assessment?

    Some British comedies from the ‘60s and ‘70s have not aged well (Love Thy Neighbour is a good example); recent revelations of sexual abuse in the British entertainment industry, too, have certainly curtailed appreciation for contemporary innuendo. In the case of The Romans, however, while Barbara’s pursuit may strike some now as abusive, contemporary viewers would have identified Francis’s Nero as ‘the most feared tyrant in classical history [acting] like the boss at the office Christmas party.’[xxxix] Modern viewers, too, certainly recognize the outrageous comedy for its intention: I recently watched Episode 3 with a group of History Society students at the University of Winchester, and the moment Nero appeared, someone laughed, ‘Oh, geez, he’s that drunk uncle who shows up at Christmas and all the weddings, isn’t he?’

    There is no denying that the murders and enslavement in The Romans are morally reprehensible, and that the fate that awaited slaves in Ian and Barbara’s position could be horrible.  But the key thing to remember is that the episode is played as farce, and it was promoted as such in official contemporary BBC literature: a synopsis sent out by the Serials Department describes Nero’s ‘playful advances’ towards Barbara[xl] – the Romans themselves lampooned and played out as slapstick scenes in their own comedies that would be horrifying in real life. Indeed, Christopher Barry specifically requested in a letter to fight choreographer that the fight between the Doctor and Ascanius be ‘humorously staged’[xli] to contrast with the later life or death combat between Ian and his fellow gladiator. But how can one reconcile the popular image of Nero as a murdering monster with the farcical character in a television programme aimed at children?

    Three possible explanations come from surviving BBC audience research polls of 1964. First, these polls, conducted mainly by women, were interviews held with children on their viewing preferences. Many of the children stated that they preferred to watch the splashier programming offered by the BBC rival commercially-sponsored ITV, and that ‘comedy shows [are] very popular with young children.’[xlii] ITV had the money to buy and transmit then-current American sitcoms such as The Lucy Show, Beverley Hillbillies, and Petticoat Junction; children polled by the researchers frequently mention such comedies as their favourites, and it was noted by a couple of pollsters that, because ‘an hour is all that many children are allowed, so not to be cheated, they watch ITV’ instead of an hour of ‘quality’ on the BBC, and therefore ‘many children are unaware of what the BBC has to offer.’[xliii] Second, the two research polls were conducted during the transmission of theDoctor Who serial Marco Polo – which followed closely on the heels of a Dalek serial. Dalekmania was in full swing in early to mid-1964, and many children complained that Doctor Who was not as exciting without the Daleks, and that they found the historical Marco Polo ponderous and dull and ‘boring detail of maps and charts.’[xliv] Finally, a number of the children remarked on how much they loved watching wrestling[xlv] – a pseudo-sport beloved by grannies and filled with pantomime villains who, despite their despicable personas, always got their comeuppance by the goodies. It is probably no coincidence, then, that Verity Lambert requested that the Romans go out as a deliberate farce: Roman-style comedies were a hot commodity at the time with Funny Thing and Carry On, Cleo; Lambert may well have wanted to add some comedic punch to Doctor Who to capture that audience of the 8 to 14-year-olds who enjoyed the sitcoms transmitted over on ITV; and, most interestingly, Nero, in BBC promotional material, is referred to as ‘The Mad Emperor’[xlvi]  – surely a sort of wrestling name if there ever was one. This last certainly indicates to the audience that this Nero is the sort of panto villain one might find in the ring on Saturday mornings: over the top, dangerous, lusty and cruel, but ultimately thwarted by the good Barbara and undermined by the intellect of the physically smaller Doctor. As indicated in the polls, the children interviewed could distinguish between the goodies and the baddies, and knew that the goodies would always win; as one mother who wrote in to the BBC requested on behalf of her children, ‘Keep the baddies as vile as possible, as her children loved to see them defeated.’[xlvii]

    Barbara is brave, and, of course, represents good: indeed, despite presumably knowing the fate that awaits her for rejecting the emperor – especially Nero’s advances, she continually rebuffs him, quite exasperated at times as well.  We know, too, just as we know Ian will survive his fate, that Barbara will be safe, and that there will be a happy ending – as the audience assumes that the main cast will come out of their predicament smiling and not raped or murdered. As it stands, in communion  with the sexuality of Carry On, Cleo, the intentions are meant to be silly fun (especially considering that it was a woman who not only sanctioned the serial, but requested that it be this type of farce in the first place), even if audience reaction and expectation has changed considerably fifty years on.

    And so it goes – the TARDIS crew escape Nero’s palace and rendez-vous back at their villa hideaway the next time the Doctor would encounter any Romans, he would be Patrick Troughton in The War Games. At the end of the day, The Romans is an enjoyable romp through an ancient Rome familiar to its audience through school-lessons and popular culture drawn from literary sources, tradition, and contemporary theatre.

the young audience enjoyed ITV sitcoms and BBC promotional material refers to Nero as ‘The Mad Emperor’ surely a wrestling name if there ever was one


[xxxi] For a recent survey on Nero’s portrayal in Jewish and Christian culture, see Harry O.Maier, ‘Nero in Jewish and Christian Tradition from the First Century to the Reformation,’ in A Companion to the Neronian Age,  385-404

[xxxii] Briefly discussed by Wood and Miles, About Time, 129.

[xxxiii] WAC, T5/1, 237/1 Dr Who serial M, Episode 4 (B/e 6.2.65), Week 6 audience research poll on Doctor Who in general, typed up on 2 March 1965.

[xxxiv] WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, Audience research report at five weeks ending on 29 March 1964. It was not only children dissatisfied with the grandeur of the Marco Polo serial; two adults described as ‘professional class fathers’ in the same report thought that the serial was ‘bad and pernicious.’

[xxxv] Howe and Walker, Doctor Who Television Companion,  46-47; Tulloch and Alvarado discuss contemporary viewers’ reaction to what they considered too silly on the programme in general in the early days, Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, 154-59.

[xxxvi] Philip Sandifer, ‘Like You Do When You’re Young: The Romans,’ The Tardius Eruditium (blog), 22 February 2011 

[xxxvii] Davros1, comment on ‘Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi is playing the new Doctor, don't freak out,’ The Something Awful Forums, 2 August 2013, 

[xxxviii] After the War, in response to Davros1, ‘Doctor Who: Peter Capaldi is playing the new Doctor, don't freak out,’ The Something Awful Forums 

[xxxix] Wood and Miles, About Time, 126.

[xl] An undated memo from the BBC sent to, among others, director Christopher Barry, which describes in the synopsis how Barbara must avoid Nero’s ‘playful advances’ (WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16).

[xli] WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, in  letter from director Christopher Barry to fight choreographer Peter Diamond dated 11 November 1964: ‘There is a fight between Ascarius and Dr Who; you will see that this is to be treated humorously so that Dr Who by his wits and not by his strength gets the better of Ascarius.’

[xlii] WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, Audience research polls of five weeks ending on 29 March 1964, 1.

[xliii] WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, Audience research polls of five weeks ending on 29 March 1964, 2 (‘an hour of quality’) and p. 4 (‘allowed only one hour’)

[xliv] WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, Audience research poll of five weeks ending on 29 March 1964, 3.

[xlv] WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, Audience research polls of five weeks ending on 29 March 1964, 4.

[xlvi] WAC, T5/1, 234/1 Dr Who Serial M, Episode 1, TX 65.01.16, undated memo (the same memo which describes Nero’s ‘playful advances’ towards Barbara).

[xlvii] WAC T5/647/2 Dr Who General 1964, 7 December 1964: Mrs R Taylor wrote to the BBC urging them on behalf of her children not to water down the programme, and how children always know that good triumphs over bad on television – and that the understanding that the baddies get their comeuppance in Doctor Who is certainly comparable to the violence in her generation’s appreciation and enjoyable of the Dan Dare comic.