056 – Conspiracy (The Romans Part 3)

Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Christopher Barry

Comedic hijinks ensue as Nero becomes smitten with Barbara.  Meanwhile, The Doctor must prepare for his second lyre performance.

I call this piece 'Wyld Stallyns'

“Close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise!”

Ah, history jettisoned for humor.  This episode is the most out-and-out comedic so far.  Nero is portrayed as a ravenous womanizer and much of this episode is spent with him chasing after Barbara.  This portrayal is a bit off.  In reality, Nero is not portrayed as the true Nero, but more of a caricature of Roman Imperial excesses.  Extravagant, lustful, gluttonous, and conceited.  Yes, some of these traits define Nero, but gone is the tyranny.  Gone is the cruelty.  While this episode is a well-staged comedy, it lacks the tone of the previous historicals, which is a shame.  I really liked them.  However, this does not mean the episode is bad.  It is quite well done.  Although, comedy aside, the most unsettling moment is when Nero, suspecting his drink is poisoned, calls a slave and has him drink.  The slave dies instantly.

The Doctor is forced once more to show his prowess on the lyre.  Drawing inspiration from The Emperor’s Clothes, a story The Doctor claims to have told to Hans Christian Anderson in the first place, he claims that only the most refined ear can hear the music he will play.  The Doctor then proceeds to mimic playing the lyre, to which Nero and his court applaud.  However, Nero is quite upset that The Doctor received so much acclaim.  He begins plotting The Doctor’s death.

The episode ends with the best fight we have seen thus far in Doctor Who.  Ian and Delos, once enslaved together, must fight to the death for Nero’s amusement.  They really go at it, and it is a joy, perhaps the best fight I have seen in classic Who.  Predictably, Ian cannot bring himself to kill Delos.  The episode ends with Delos poised to kill Ian.

A word on Tavius.  He is probably the most interesting character in this story.  Tavius holds a position of some power in Nero’s palace, but he has a position of some power.  He was the one who bought Barbara based entirely on the kindness he saw in her.  He has done what he could to make her time in the palace easy.  He has also disposed of the dead centurion that had hired the assassin sent to kill Maximus in the first place.  Tavius is the only character who seems to know everything that is going on, both in public and in secret.  Again, he is the most interesting character in this story.

055 – All Roads Lead to Rome (The Romans Part 2)

Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Christopher Barry

Ian finds himself a slave on a Roman ship.  Barbara is sold to Nero’s wife, and The Doctor must somehow pretend to be a famous lyre player without actually playing the lyre.

Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight....

“I am constantly outwitting the opposition I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the arts of fisticuffs.”

The episode starts with a rather entertaining fight sequence.  The assassin tries to kill The Doctor, only to find that The Doctor is a surprisingly good fighter.  Apparently this incarnation of The Doctor also knows Venusian Akido.

One of the strengths of these early stories, a strength that I never realized until watching them in order, is how well-developed Ian and Barbara were as companions.  I think it becomes striking in The Romans due to the comedy aspect of this story.  While I enjoy the show trying something different, I prefer the slave story to the comedic story.  I think this is largely due to the comedic story making some significant changes to history, particularly where Nero is concerned.  What Spooner gets right is Nero’s love of performing on the lyre.  The actual portrayal of Nero does not quite reflect who he was.  Yes, he was self-involved but he wasn’t the idiot this story makes him out to be.  With all the potential of setting a story in Rome, it seems a mild shame that they focused primarily on comedy.

But back to the well-developed characters, one of the clichés of the Hartnell era is that the companions were often split up.  Each character pursued their own story, often involving them trying to get back to The TARDIS.  I don’t mind this format so much because it forces the writers to create strong characters.  If each character must sustain their own sub-plot, then they need to be strong enough to carry it.  Ian and Barbara were.  Susan and Vicki…sadly, not so much.  I think Vicki has a bit more charm than Susan, but she is not strong enough (at this point) to be on her own.  In this story, she is paired with The Doctor, which works rather well for her.

I loved this story when I first watched it.  This time around, it isn’t impressing me as much.  I find myself most interested in watching Ian be the adventuring hero.  The rest of the story, I could do with out.

Thanks

I would like to thank everyone who has visited this blog and those who have left comments. Today, inspired in part by fighting off some illness, I was feeling tempted to give it all up. I love Doctor Who, but sometimes finding the time in a busy schedule to maintain a blog that requires watching and reviewing six days a week is difficult. Today I was tempted to give up. However, today also saw the largest number of views this site has ever had. Sure, 67 views is lower than some, but it means quite a bit to me, especially since I know many of them are repeat readers. So, I wish to thank you for reading. I appreciate it. I’m also open to suggestions for how to improve the site.

Thanks again.

054 – The Slave Traders (The Romans Part 1)

Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Christopher Barry

After a few weeks relaxation in a Roman Villa, Ian and Barbara are captured by slavers and The Doctor is mistaken for a famous lyrist.

Drunken Stupor

“You could easily kill someone.  Swords are dangerous, you know.”

There are two things guaranteed to get my attention in history or historical fiction:  Nazis and Romans.  Hence, it is with great enthusiasm that I watch this story.

This story is a bit odd as it starts with the previous cliffhanger in which the TARDIS falls off a cliff.  We skip ahead about a month to find the crew relaxing in a Roman villa.  Ian and Barbara are happy for the relaxation, even The Doctor seems to be enjoying not doing anything.  Vicki, however, is eager for excitement.  She joined The TARDIS crew after the promise of adventure and new sights and now she has become very bored.  Fortunes are about to change, however, as two slavers set their sights upon the time travelers.  Learning that the four men and women are not from Rome and are staying in a villa that is temporarily abandoned, the slavers see their chance to get some choice product.  Ian and Barbara are quickly captured.  The Doctor and Vicki avoid capture because they have left for Rome.  The Doctor is itching to do something, and rather than jump in the TARDIS for the next adventure, he decides to go to Rome with Vicki.  They soon become involved in their own adventure when they discover a murdered lyrist.  As The Doctor ponders the murder, he picks up the lyre and is mistaken for Maximus Pettulian.  Maximus is, of course, the murder victim.  He is also a renowned lyrist who was traveling to Rome to play for Nero.  The Doctor, seeing he will meet the emperor, decides to impersonate Maximus, despite not having any skills on the lyre.  He doesn’t realize that Nero actually wanted Maximus dead in the first place and paid a servant to have him killed.  So basically, The Doctor is walking into the most dangerous place he could go.  Typical.

Having reached the fourth story of this season, it seems that the production crew is now playing with the format.  While The Romans is definitely an historical, it is staged much like a comedy.  There are moments of slap-stick, one scene where The Doctor exits one door and re-enters another, and plenty of instances of verbal jokes.  Indeed, this is probably the most comedic episode to date.  It isn’t uncommon for some shows, when they are known primarily as dramatic or even dark, to have an episode that is out-and-out comedy.  And yet, while The Slave Traders starts out establishing a comedic tone, there are still dark elements.  An old man is brutally murdered.  Ian and Barbara are captured by slavers and split up.  And let’s not forget that Nero is not one of the better emperors of Rome.  Granted, it could be worse.  There’s always Caligula.

All in all, The Slave Traders is a good start to the story.  We have our heroes separated once more and, with Ian and Barbara in particular, the situation seems quite hopeless.  The Doctor is actively encouraging mistaken identity, claiming to have a skill he doesn’t have.  This will set him against the most powerful man in the Roman Empire.  This looks to be a fun story.

053 – Desperate Measures (The Rescue Part 2)

Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Christopher Barry

The Doctor, Ian, and Barbara meet Vicki and Bennett, the two survivors of the crash, and try to convince them to leave the planet Dido.

It was Red Herring all along!

“You‘re right!  I‘ve been here a long time!  I know what it‘s like here.  You‘ve only just come and you‘re trying to ruin things!  Nobody asked you to come here!  Nobody!”

Allow me to depart from the normal review and address the above quote.  In the context of the show, Vicki is mad at Barbara for killing her pet Sandy.  Sandy was a beast which looked quite ferocious but apparently was not.  Vicki had trained Sandy to leave his cave for food.  It would seem this creature was Vicki’s only friend on Dido, and Barbara shot him with a flare gun, killing him.  When our heroes try to convince Vicki to leave Dido, she gives the above rant.  The quote is from a place of anger and frustration.  She doesn’t really mean it.  However, it is an interesting thought.  The Doctor and his companions, current and future, show up on a planet, meddle, then leave.  We always accept their actions are for good, and usually they are, but it is easy to get involved than it is to rebuild after interfering.  In some ways, this is quite irresponsible.  Using a real-life example, it was arguably a good thing to remove Saddam Hussein from power.  He was a cruel dictator.  And while we could argue that his presence in Iraq held other powers at bay, he was harsh toward many of his people.  There is no question that he committed crimes against humanity.  However, it was much easier to remove him from power than it was to build a stable society after he was deposed.  We probably still haven’t seen the final result of this conflict, if we ever will.  It could still be a chain in the unfolding drama that is human history.  Vicki is correct.  The Doctor shows up, does his thing, and leaves others to clean up the mess.  Presumably there is something about his race that allows him to see how to interfere with minimal consequences, but this has never (to my knowledge) been fully addressed.  Should the show do this?  Would it limit things too much?  I’m not sure.

Back to the review.  This was a good conclusion that fits perfectly well with the previous episode.  There isn’t a lot of meat to The Rescue as a whole, but it is enjoyable and accomplishes it’s primary task of introducing us to Vicki.  Hartnell turns in two great performances in Desperate Measures, one when he convinces Vicki that he is here to help and that Barbara is not a blood-thirsty animal slayer, and the second when he confronts Koquillion, who is really Bennett.  Let me just say that the temple in which this latter scene takes place is wonderfully realized.  It is perfectly lit with shadows, beams of light, and mist.  The visuals in this story are some of the best the show has done so far.

One wonders if The Doctor thought much beyond his confrontation with Koquillion.  If the Dido survivors hadn’t showed up when they did, would Bennett have killed him?  It is fortuitous that they appeared when they did.  However, it is also unexpected and confusing.  The Doctor later explains that Bennett must not have killed the entire population of Dido.  Such a shameful oversight on his part.  Come to think of it, he didn’t kill Vicki either.  This seems odd for a man who murdered everyone on the ship and essentially committed suicide just so he wouldn’t be tried for the murder of a single man, which is why he was on the ship to begin with.  I guess when you really get down to it, this story has some major holes.  While a third part could probably fill in these holes, it really isn’t all that necessary.  Why should the production waste any more time than is necessary on what is essentially a character introduction?  Although, sometimes we dig ourselves some pretty deep holes when we try to not get caught at something.  We will compound lies and deception, so why not murder.

No, I’m not buying it either, but the costume looked cool, so I think I’ll let it go this time.

No sarcastic caption this time. Did I mention that I think this episode looks really good?

052 – The Powerful Enemy (The Rescue Part 1)

Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Christopher Barry

The TARDIS materializes on the planet Dido where survivors of a crashed ship are being menaced by the malevolent Koquillion.

Imprisoned by threat of spanner.

“Oh, I think I‘m going to have a nap.”

This episode has some great lighting.  When a review starts this way, you should be concerned.

Lighting aside (and in all seriousness, the lighting is very good), this isn’t a bad episode.  It has a feel to it that I can’t quite discern, but it feels like something is new.  Perhaps it is Susan’s absence.  Even The Doctor is having difficulty adjusting now that she is gone.  In fact, he seems more aloof than before.  He ushers Ian and Barbara out of The TARDIS to explore while he goes to take a nap.  In reality, he is trying to figure out where they are.  He realizes they are on the planet Dido, which is a good thing because he has been here before and the people are friendly.  Or so it would seem.

Outside the caves where the TARDIS has materialized lie the ruins of a ship.  This ship holds the injured Bennett and teenage Vicki.  Both are at the mercy of a mysterious creature named Koquillion, who insists that the two humans do all he say.  He claims to be protecting the humans from the rest of his people, who would kill them if they found them.  While he claims to be benevolent, his methods and actions seem more domineering than anything else.  Indeed, in an earlier scene Ian and Barbara encounter Koquillion and he pushes Barbara from a ledge and traps Ian and The Doctor in the caves.  This doesn’t seem like a hero.

Vicki is thrilled to find Barbara.  She has been hoping for rescue for days, and the arrival of other humans gives her hope.  She keeps Barbara hidden when Koquillion is around, but when Bennett later appears, she brings out Barbara in the hopes Bennett will share her excitement.  He doesn’t.

I think this story starts out fairly strong, stronger than Whitaker’s previous story Edge of Destruction.  The shots of Koquillion in the shadows of the cave are quite effective, and The Doctor and Ian have a wonderful interplay as they try to find a way out of the caves.  Bennett is obviously hiding something.  Vicki is hard to read at the moment.  No, she doesn’t harbor a dark secret, but while Maureen O’Brien seems to be approaching the material competently, it is hard to get a read on the characterization.  On the one hand, she is frightened of Koquillion.  She is also easily excited, but has an odd scene were she turns against Barbara without warning because she feels she is being pitied.  Maybe Whitaker is trying to show us a more dominant, strong character than Susan.  At least she isn’t screaming or panicking.

Oh, did I mention that Vicky is Susan’s replacement.  It is hard to judge a character based on one episode or even one story.  However, I like her better than Susan already.  I hope the writers find more interesting ways to use her.