No time to mince words here: my main man Mithradates gets it exactly right when he says I’ve found I don’t have the time.
And so back to square one, regeneration-style. That is, this time it’s the same: but different. Per my original intent, I’m going to shoot at reviewing all the Who I watch. Also per that intent, I’m going to take a side–this one is on the Defense side. And, per my intent, I’m going to try to cobble together a vote between Mith and myself. But no time to waste–I’m going to push out the bare essentials, get it in the post, and let you peel back the onion yourself. My goal, as modified, is to get to you, dear reader, the essence of the episode. What to look for. The “bare necessities,” as it were. And so, onwards.
1. The First “Perfect” Hartnell Who Serial: I love Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and The Aztecs, but in comparison, The Romans excels in every category. It’s the first virtually perfectly paced episode of Who, and credit goes to the writer, Dennis Spooner. Dennis Spooner, who also wrote the First Doctor’s Reign of Terror (due for re-release on DVD in 2012, with two reconstructed missing episodes), went on to a well-deserved successful career writing for The Avengers, The New Avengers, Bergerac, and many other popular British television serials in the 60’s and 70’s. His early-career involvement in Who paid dividends, raising the bar in Who. The play between these three parallel plots of the Doctor and Vicki, Ian and slave Delos, and Barbara and “Caesar Nero,” is flawlessly executed. We’re treated to three great plots: The Doctor, stumbling on a murder victim and assuming the victim’s identity (with resulting hilarious plot reverberations), then becoming Nero’s bosom buddy; Ian, getting the Gladiator treatment and picking up a friend on the way; and Barbara, sold into slavery and pursued relentlessly by the Emperor. At the 2012 GallifreyOne convention, actor W. Morgan Sheppard commented that good writing such as Steven Moffat’s makes acting effortless, while bad writing makes convincing acting terribly difficult. That’s clearly the case here: for the second time, Who is graced with Spooner’s talents, and the team congeals in a way we’ve never seen before. Watch also for some great casting choices: Derek Francis as Nero and the subtle but wonderful Michael Peake as Tavius. The tying-together of the three plots in Episode 4 results in quite a few great moments of acting. Simply put, The Romans is the first nearly perfect Who story. (Caveat: haven’t seen Reign yet, but have seen or listened to all the rest.) Watch it.
And by the way: I’m a Spooner fan now. Spooner is cool.
2. Cinematography Shines: Well, except for that awfully cut stock footage of lions, it does. Note how Christopher Barry blocks the scenes, using minimal movement of the actors in relation to each other to keep the action interesting. For example, note the blocking of the actors in the villa–the Doctor in the foreground, Ian reclining behind him, neither looking at each other, but the faces of both key for to the scene’s progression. A second example: in the market scenes, Ep. 1, at about 6:30, we have the slave trader in the left foreground, and far in the distance, on the right, extras are milling back and forth to “fill out” and populate the marketplace, with good use of “crowd noise” played. It’s utterly believable, unlike, say, the Thal tribe in Daleks or the population of the Aztecs, which seemed to never go very convincingly beyond the key players themselves. Scene after scene, cut after cut, Romans is crisper and better than most of the Who before it. And watch for the three-odd live-theater-like moments where the characters break from the proceedings and stare directly at the viewer; interesting choice, and it works, given the comedic tones of Romans.
3. Great Use of Incidental Music: the incidental music seems so much better in The Romans than past episodes. I haven’t done a careful study. But perhaps because it’s historical serial, it was easier to identify “appropriate” music to set the mood. Just by way of example, the playful music during Vicki’s skip down the stone path at the beginning of Episode 1 ends clearly (unlike earlier episodes where the scene changes blurred with other scenes’ music), and the ominous music begins on the nose as the camera shot changes and we’re shown the thug sharpening his gladius. The same precision cueing is evident when we see the thug attack “the original” Maximus Petullian, and the music and camera shot glide, in unison, to reveal both the body hidden in the bushes, and the music’s end note. Again–have done no careful study, but while watching I noticed something palpably different about how The Romans uses incidental music, versus previous episodes. I think it comes down to precision cueing and good choice in music.
Bottom line: I’m thrilled more and more with each watching of The Romans. Watching from the beginning, while I loved Unearthly Child, Edge of Destruction, and Aztecs, and see the seeds of so much later Who in those three serials, it’s The Romans that first fully, with abandon, attempts to sell me on the First Doctor and William Hartnell in his own right, in a way I was sold on Tom Baker in 1978. The Romans deserves a full acquittal.