Chapter 119. Doctor Who – The Romans (1987)

Synopsis: The time travellers enjoy a relaxing time in a villa just outside Rome. As the Doctor and Vicki head off on a trip to the city, Ian and Barbara are kidnapped by slave traders. Barbara is bought by a slave-master working for the Emperor Nero, but Ian’s fate is to be placed at the oars of a slave ship. Can the Doctor solve some of the mysteries surrounding Nero without affecting established history?

Chapter Titles

  • Prologue
  • I First Extract from the Journal of Ian Chesterton
  • II First Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • III First Letter from Legionary (Second Class) Ascaris
  • IV Second Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • V Second Extract from the journal of Ian Chesterton
  • VI Second Letter from Legionary (Second Class) Ascaris
  • VII Third Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • VIII Third Letter from Legionary (Second Class) Ascaris
  • IX Third Extract from the Journal of Ian Chesterton
  • X Fourth Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • XI First Extract from the Commonplace Book of Poppea Sabina
  • XII Fourth Extract from the Journal of Ian Chesterton
  • XIII First Selection of jottings from Nero’s Scrapbook
  • XIV Fourth Letter from Legionary (Second Class) Ascaris
  • XV Fifth Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • XVI Fifth Extract from the Journal of Ian Chesterton
  • XVII Second Extract from the Commonplace Book of Poppea Sabina
  • XVIII A Poisoner Remembers
  • XIX Letter from Barbara Wright
  • XX Second Selection of Jottings from Nero’s Scrapbook
  • XXI Sixth Extract from the Journal of Ian Chesterton
  • XXII Third Extract from the Commonplace Book of Poppea Sabina
  • XXIII Fifth Letter from Legionary (Second Class) Ascaris
  • XXIV Sixth Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • XXV Seventh Extract from the Journal of Ian Chesterton
  • XXVI Seventh Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • XXVII Sixth Letter from Legionary (Second Class) Ascaris
  • XXVIII Third Selection of Jottings from Nero’s Scrapbook
  • XXIX Eighth Extract from the Doctor’s Diary
  • Epilogue

That ‘most number of chapters in a novelisation’ record (previously held by The Myth Makers) gets smashed here with 29, plus a prologue and epilogue.

Background: Donald Cotton’s adaptation of scripts by Dennis Spooner for a story from 1965 arrives 22 years and two months after it was broadcast on TV. It’s the only time Cotton approaches scripts originally written by someone other than himself.

Notes: Consistent with his previous novels, this version of The Romans is narrated by Tacitus, the great Roman historian. Here though, Tacitus’s role is that of a framing narrative, within which appear certain documents that have fallen into his hands – diaries and letters written by Ian, the Doctor and Barbara, among others (as the chapter listing above shows). As a consequence, this is the first novel to be narrated in part by Ian Chesterton since the very first one. His chapters are addressed to his headmaster (who might or might not be the same one we’ll actually meet in a later story) and he fears his employer assumes that he and Barbara have eloped, which might affect their pensions. In the Doctor’s journal, he confesses that he intends to leave the school teachers behind when he visits Rome, due to his concerns that Ian’s politics might get him into trouble in the heart of an Empire, while Barbara is being punished for spending their money so freely on ‘feminine fal-lals’. He learns from his companions of a passing scholar who they encountered in a nearby town, and who performed ‘a rambling iambic account of the Rape of Lucretia’, which he considers to be inappropriate for ‘a mixed audience’ (a view with which Vicki later agrees). 

We learn more of the scholar in a legionary’s letter to his mother, in which he reveals that he has been ordered to kill said scholar, who is ‘in the running for the Golden Rose Bowl at the Senate Song Contest’, an accolade his employer wishes for himself. Ian learns from the home invaders that Barbara carelessly asked about the conversion rate from pounds to lira in the market, alerting the locals that she and Vicki must be Britons. Ian recalls he’d once contemplated a sailing holiday that would have been roughly the same stretch of water on which he now finds himself after being press-ganged into the rowing crew of a ship. He played rugby as an ‘Old Boy’, which once again suggests he’s a former pupil of Coal Hill School. He also reminds his headmaster that he was deputised as games master after Farthingale ‘lost an ear during a hockey scrimmage’. Ian references the hugely successful American comedian Jack Benny.

Nero sketches out an ode to Barbara – it’s terrible – and he uses the word ‘anapaest’ (incorrectly). There’s an unfortunate scene in the Doctor’s diary where he refers to a character as ‘deaf and dumb’ (very much frowned upon nowadays, but a common enough term even when the book was written); he claims to be ‘well acquainted with the rudiments of sign language’, but as he also calls it ‘mime’, we can take from this that the Doctor knows nothing about sign language (as we later see on TV in Before the Flood), least of all that there is not one universal sign language – not even in English-speaking territories. Let’s hope his efforts are more effective than we see on telly with the Zarbi!

The lions, which the Doctor accidentally frees during the gladiatorial games, find their way into Nero’s suite, where they settle down for a nap. Having embarked upon his adventure solely to disprove the legend that Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’, the Doctor leaves with Nero’s lyre and his plans for a new Rome in his hands; he sets fire to the plans, which then causes a major fire in the city and, happy that he has not made any effect on established history, departs while playing the lyre. In the epilogue, Tacitus lays the blame for the fire squarely on the Doctor’s shoulders. He names the tale ‘The Quo Vadis TARDIS Affair’ and also reveals that the failed assassin Ascaris eventually ended up in Britain, causing mayhem and disruption during the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

Cover: As Nero looks out to a burning Rome, the Doctor stands dressed in a toga. Tony Masero coincidentally uses the same photo reference of Hartnell that Andrew Skilleter used on The Gunfighters.

Final Analysis: Where to start with this? It’s likely that Donald Cotton has seen the BBC’s I Claudius. He might even have read Robert Graves’ original Claudius novels, too; as with Graves’ notation of the events of the Roman Empire, there’s a sly nod to the modern reader in the way Cotton suggests that his work is too contentious and should be left unpublished until… say, 1987. He definitely watched the historical farce Up Pompeii! though. His Tacitus straddles the centuries, just like Frankie Howerd did as Lurcio, with puns and sly winks that would make little or no sense to the Romans. Indeed, there’s one sequence where the Doctor, in his diary, observes that his would-be assassin was ‘getting away with the lute’, a joke that clearly gives him great satisfaction, until the character (and writer) begin to dissect it and he realises that the musical ‘lute’ wouldn’t be invented for four centuries and the word ‘loot’ wasn’t popularised until the 1920s. 

While the story remains largely the same, Cotton’s use of multiple epistolary narrators leads to some deviations in the telling. The assassin Ascaris becomes a recurring narrator and adds greatly to the sense that the Doctor is in fact a bloody nuisance. The poor Legionary accidentally kills his own superior, is set upon by lions and eventually emerges from his hiding place when the Doctor throws burning documents into the sewers, setting Ascaris alight. This is Cotton’s final novel for the range and it’s a shame. Each of his novels provides an education, not so much in the history, which is wilfully unreliable, but in the sheer unlimited joy of writing. I’ve loved every unbelievable word of these.

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