Review: The Black Archive #32 – The Romans by Jacob Edwards

Key Facts:

  • Black Archive Entry: No. 32, written by Jacob Edwards
  • Based on the Story: The Romans (No. 12).
  • Writer/Director: Written by Dennis Spooner. Directed by Christopher Barry
  • Key Themes: The introduction of comedy in Doctor Who; the representation and accuracy of Roman history; the counterculture of the 1960s; an episode-by-episode analysis of the writing, production and execution of The Romans.
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The Romans: If music be the food of comedy, play on. Or some words to that effect.

The Review

For me, Dennis Spooner taking over from David Whittaker is as important as Patrick Troughton taking over from William Hartnell within the history of Doctor Who. In each case, the successor had to go beyond the style of their predecessor, to redefine what the show and the character were about respectively, otherwise it would not stand much chance continuing once they had long gone. As such, I am particularly fond of The Romans and The Time Meddler by Dennis Spooner, as this is where I can start to recognise the roots of the show that I know and love today. With this in mind, I had high hopes for Jacob Edwards’ critical monograph on The Romans. It did not disappoint.

Many of the strongest entries in The Black Archive range I have encountered so far open with a short introduction that encapsulates why their chosen episode is of particular interest to them and hence ripe for analysis; this one is no exception. Edwards’ astute observation that Rome wasn’t built in a day but The Romans more or less was, and yet it still endures to this day really sets the tone for the analysis to come. Over a respectable nine chapters, he explores the episode’s use of comedy and whether it endures to this day, its use of history and whether it’s entirely accurate, the episode’s relationship with 1960’s counterculture (covering race, class, gender, sexuality, second-wave feminism and disability), and finally an episode-by-episode critique of the finished product.

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Inferno: We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning, since Nero was gurning.

The analysis is strong, providing a great deal of insight into the influences upon the scripting process, the production decisions that forever changed the direction of the show, and the varying attitudes to the text over a period of fifty years. Edwards’ pool of reference points is also comprehensive, drawing upon a wide range of media that depicts Ancient Rome (I, Claudius, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Quo Vadis, Carry On Cleo, Gladiator and the Asterix books!). He also makes ample references to the works of Tacitus and Suetonius who both reported on the morally reprehensible behaviours of the emperor Nero, yet also highlights the reasonable possibility that these were exaggerated or malicious lies (though I hardly find this comforting). There are also once again the seemingly compulsory references to Elizabeth Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorium and Tulloch and Alvarado’s The Unfolding Text.

I only had a few minor critiques of the finished work, all regarding the structure of the text. Firstly, the last chapter provides Edwards’ personal viewing analysis of The Romans and whilst he does provide good commentary… It felt like a ‘cheat’ chapter. If all the other Black Archive entries wrote thirty pages commenting on their episode’s writing, direction, production and execution in such a standardised format then the overall range would I feel suffer as a result. The sudden change from matter-of-fact subheadings (e.g. Acting and Characterisation) in the first half of this chapter to far more witty and thematic subheadings (e.g. Ashes to Ashes, Farce to Farce) in the second half is also jarring.

This brings me to the book’s overall structure where the first seven chapters combined are as long as the final two chapters.  I personally would have collected these first seven as two broader chapters examining the comedy (1-3) and then the history (4-7) within the episodes, allowing for a more consistent pace of chapters and potentially provide more opportunities for the witty subheadings that help punctuate each chapter, though perhaps this is more subjective. As I said, these are minor critiques.

Concluding Thoughts

To paraphrase the second episode title from The Romans itself, all reviews lead to a conclusion. This is a delightful entry in The Black Archive series of monographs and it comes highly recommended, even to those who may even not be too fond of the episodes themselves. Edwards’ analysis is unafraid to critique the episodes’ shortcomings on racial and disability representation but also quite successfully argues that The Romans was indeed a key turning point in the Doctor Who’s unfolding history and recognises why its quality has endured long past its production sell-by date. The Great Fire of Rome was set alight thousands of years ago, but it is The Romans that still burns bright to this day.

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