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Via Memoriae Classicae IIa: Classics and Doctor Who (The Sixties)

After the disappointment of Asterix and Cleopatra, for this second instalment of Revisiting Stuff from my Childhood That’s Vaguely Related to Classics, I’m going for something I know is good. Doctor Who. Most people who know me will at least have some inkling that I have something of a weakness for Doctor Who, especially the old series. I know it’s not the best-written programme ever made; it’s not the best-made and it’s certainly not the best-acted. But I love it anyway. I love its cheapness. I love its slight shonkiness. I love its ambition. I love it when it manages to pull off magic with nothing more than a BBC-issue teaspoon and an open mind, and I love it when it fails valiantly, misses the mark and hits ‘charmingly bobbins’ instead. Quite simply, along with home baking, books, and the sound of a parcel with the distinctive rattle of Lego on Christmas morning, it’s probably one of my favourite things in the world.

But for a show about time-travel that’s about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Doctor Who’s made surprisingly few visits to the Classical world. To this day there’s still never been an honest-to-goodness Classical Greece story. There’s more than enough to get our teeth into, though, and I want to pick out four stories in particular to see how the way the programme’s relationship with the ancient Mediterranean has changed over its long life. To keep things a manageable length I’m going to split this post in two. This part’s going to look at two black-and-white adventures from 1965, early in the series’ life. I’ll follow it up shortly with the concluding part, looking at two more adventures from different points later in the series’ history.

The Romans (1965)

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The TARDIS Crew. Left to right: Vicki, Barbara, Ian and the Doctor. Squatting in someone else’s villa, eating his peacocks. The gits!

As any Doctor Who fan will tell you, when the series began it tended to alternate between futuristic science-fiction stories and historical adventures with vague ambitions towards being educational if you didn’t squint too hard. Early on, adventures in the past tended to be what fans term ‘pure historicals’, that is, stories where there are no science-fiction elements beyond the presence of the time-travelling main cast and the plot generally revolves around them becoming caught up in some (usually) famous historical events. Coming early in the programme’s second season, The Romans is one of these. Told over four episodes, it involves the TARDIS landing in Italy in 64 AD and the various adventures its four-person crew find themselves caught up in.

This is, obviously, exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a BBC time-travel series in the mid-60s. The Romans was, however, something of an innovation for the series. The general mode for pure historicals early in Doctor Who was fairly po-faced. The past was depicted seriously, indeed often as fundamentally threatening. Generally the protagonists are motivated by little more than a desire to return to the TARDIS and escape whatever unpleasant events they’re caught up in. Tonally, the writers most associated with it – John Lucarotti and David Whitaker – took clear inspiration from Shakespearean historical tragedy, as is most apparent in Whitaker’s The Crusade, two stories after this one. ‘The Romans’ represents an alternative approach. Its writer, Dennis Spooner, had made his debut at the end of the first season with The Reign of Terror, in which the Doctor and his friends are caught up in the aftermath of the French Revolution. On the face of it this was classic pure historical territory. But Spooner’s scripts were miles away from the dark and portentous tone of his colleagues. With snappier, wise-cracking dialogue and a more light-hearted tone, they largely eschewed the (ostensibly) accurate and educational rehearsal of historical events in favour of plundering the toybox of every Hollywood or TV cliché associated with a particular setting and chucking the Doctor in to see what happened. It’s fair to say that this didn’t sit entirely comfortably with the mass-executions of post-revolutionary Paris. Fortunately, in his second story Neronian Italy gave him the opportunity to really go to town.

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Spell as a galley-slave. An unmissable experience in any trip to Ancient Rome!

Consequently The Romans isn’t so much a story as a series of familiar sword-and-sandals set-pieces recreated in BBC Television Centre with a CAST OF DOZENS! The Doctor (William Hartnell) and new, trendily Scouse (at least when they remember, and within the bounds of BBC acceptability) spacegirl companion Vicki take part in an unlikely plot in which the Doctor impersonates a murdered Corinthian lyre-player-cum-assassin, leading them to infiltrate Nero’s court and deal with decadent banqueting, poisons and intrigues. Nero – presented as a sinister but oddly likeable man-child who seems intent on ticking off every single one of the seven deadly sins over the course of the three episodes in which he appears – has it in for the Doctor because of musical jealousy, despite the fact that the Doctor manifestly can’t play a note. Meanwhile the Doctor’s other companions – sixties schoolteacher sort-of-couple Ian and Barbara – are captured and sold as slaves. Poor Babs ends up in Nero’s household too and is the unwilling recipient of the emperor’s clumsy advances. Ian becomes a galley-slave on a (stock-footage) ship (complete with rotund slave-driver bonging a big drum); he’s then shipwrecked, trained as a gladiator and threatened by some (stock-footage) lions.The whole thing culminates in the Doctor inadvertently giving Nero the idea for the Great Fire of Rome and the emperor playing his lyre as the city burns. In a less charming and self-aware production this confection of cliché over plot might be off-putting, but Spooner knows exactly what he’s doing and is unapologetic. More than once, one character points out a plot hole, only for another to dismiss it, saying ‘that’s just how it works’. 

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The face of a man who’s just found out he’s responsible for a massive fire in which countless people died or lost their homes.

The Hartnell era of Doctor Who has a bit of a reputation for being a bit stiff, worthy and strait-laced, but this is anything but. Despite the token nods towards peril, everyone’s clearly having a whale of a time, not least the Doctor himself. Hartnell’s Doctor is often thought of as crotchety, didactic and aloof, but stories like this are testament to the unfairness of such characterisations. He twinkles his way through the adventure full of glee and impish exuberance, giggling his way through murdered musicians, threats to the course of history, jamming with Nero, and, fairly delightfully, beating seven bells out of a would-be-assassin (he taught professional wrestler the Mountain Mauler of Montana everything he knew, don’tcha know!). He’s clearly distinctly tickled by the idea that he might be indirectly responsible for the Great Fire of Rome, though he tries hard not to show it. Also, he gets topless for a steamy scene in Nero’s laconicum, affording eager fangirls and -boys everywhere a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Billy Hartnell’s bingo wings.

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Barbara’s face says more than this caption ever could.

So it’s all very silly and it knows it. There’s a distinct strand of farce running through the whole thing, and Episode 3 brings this out in full force, embracing comedy in a way the series never had before. How funny you actually find these sequences will largely depend on your tolerance for scenes of the amorous Nero chasing the reluctant Barbara up and down his palace corridors. It’s almost entirely pretty tame and inoffensive, though for me it drags on a bit, and at one point it did cross the line into one of the story’s clear missteps. There’s something distinctly creepy about the Doctor overhearing distressed female screams and lecherous male grunting from inside the emperor’s bedroom and just going away chuckling to himself and saying ‘he seems to be a bit busy’. This is a pretty isolated black mark, though, and for the most part the story’s a joy to watch. Vicki’s facial expressions are worth the price of admission on their own. It was Doctor Who’s first out-and-out foray into comedy, and it’s an undeniable success. For a series in which humour was to become so integral (it was later script-edited and written by Douglas Adams, after all) it’s pretty hard to overstate just how important that was.

So in among all the fun and frivolity, what about the pseudo-educational details 60s Doctor Who is known for? Fear not: they’re all present and correct. Well they’re present, anyway. The Doctor’s opening (and largely unprompted) lecture on Roman plumbing – and how it was hindered by their lack of pipes – is suspect to say the least, and somewhat undermined by the fountain happily bubbling away in the back of shot. Other ‘fascinating facts about Ancient Rome’ that the kiddies might be interested in include London being called Londinium and a comic interlude about the bizarreness of Roman menus (though one might wonder when sensible 1960s schoolmarm Barbara became so practised in the culinary preparation of ants’ eggs and peacock). For all its irreverence toward history, this completely buys into the Enlightenment view of Rome as Our History and a beacon for all that’s good and civilised. It’s a story that will quite happily quote Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Cicero’s In Catilinam (in the original Latin) without explaining them and just expects the audience to know what they are. Tellingly, the Doctor’s warning not to change history is put in the terms of not ‘interfering with Progress’.

There are a few mistakes, though. Spooner evidently doesn’t know the difference between the circus and the amphitheatre (though that’s nothing compared to the confusion other Who scribes were getting themselves into concerning the difference between solar systems, galaxies and universes…) and Nero’s dining arrangements look suspiciously modern, with everyone seated neatly upright at table. He does have a rather nice Helios-crown, though.

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You will be approximately this blissful if you watch this programme.

This isn’t an all-time great Doctor Who, but it’s bags of fun and has plenty for classicists to enjoy. It’s charming, funny and there are some lovely moments for the main cast. Ian and Barbara’s friendship is particularly sweet. They’re noticeably more tactile with each other than they have been in the past, whether playfully teasing or Barbara playing with Ian’s hair. It’s pretty obvious what they’ve been up to in that Italian villa while the Doctor and Vicki are away. Nothing very out of the ordinary in most TV, but it’s the kind of subtle character drama that Doctor Who was distinctly poor at for much of its original run so it’s an added mark in the story’s favour. Highly recommended.

The Myth Makers (Other end of 1965)

There are two behind-the-scenes points to note before we get on to discussing the actual content of The Myth Makers. Firstly, when it was broadcast at the end of 1965 Doctor Who had just undergone its first big change of production team, with the departure of original producer Verity Lambert. In the male-dominated BBC of the early 60s, Lambert was one of two young women who had an incredible influence in shaping what Doctor Who was to become and in securing its long-term success; the other being the wonderfully geeky Delia Derbyshire, the radiophonic experimenter and musician responsible for what is, quite simply, the best TV theme tune in history. If you disagree, I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong. There was a transitional period of a few stories as Lambert handed over the reins to her successor, but The Myth Makers was the first story to go out entirely under the new leadership, with effects which we’ll see.

The second thing to note is that The Myth Makers doesn’t exist any more. In the 70s the BBC had a policy of junking old recordings to save on archive space and so they could reuse the expensive videotape. Huge amounts of TV and radio were wiped, including great swathes of 60s Doctor Who. All four episodes of The Myth Makers are now lost. Fortunately, complete audio recordings survive, along with several photos from the production. Enterprising fans have combined these, along with composite images and in some cases computer graphics, so it’s possible to watch missing stories as sort of radio-plays accompanied by visual slide-shows. These aren’t commercially available, but circulate free of charge among fans, if you know where to look. Incorrigible geek that I am, I have a set, and it’s this reconstruction that I watched to prepare this review.

MM1As the name hints, The Myth Makers is the first time the TARDIS has landed in a mythical version of the past rather than something vaguely resembling ‘real’ history (unless you count the cavemen from the first story). The time: c.1200 BC. The place: the Troad. The costumes: wildly inaccurate. Yep, folks: dust off your boar’s tusk helmets and set the temporal co-ordinates for rosy-fingered dawn. It’s Doctor Who-meets-Homer. And it’s ace.

I mentioned earlier about the different flavours of historical story within Doctor Who’s repertoire. Between The Romans and this one there’s been a major innovation: the so-called pseudo-historical, in which the historical setting is used as the backdrop for a science-fictional or fantastical story. These would soon entirely supplant the pure historical: barring a single experiment in the early 80s, there were no more pure historicals after the beginning of 1967. The Myth Makers is an example of a dying breed, and shows clear signs of trying to experiment and push the conventions of the pure historical format. This is clear in the overtly mythological setting (though this remains a version of the fall of Troy where the heroes are flawed and human, where the gods are absent, and where even the Cyclops is just a grubby mate of Odysseus’s with an eyepatch), but the story gains much of its power from treading the line between the ‘tragic events’ and ‘Spooner-style comedy’ versions of the form, raising and then subverting audience expectations.

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The Doctor, with Odysseus (centre) and Agamemnon (right).

The story’s writer, Donald Cotton is new, so we don’t have any expectations of him in advance, but given the setting, there’s every reason to believe we’re in for tragedy. Sure enough, at the start this is exactly what the script seems to be setting us up for. We open with Achilles and Hector in single combat on the Plain of Troy, an encounter which results in Hector’s death mere moments into the serial. The dialogue’s exactly the kind of portentous, cod-epic speechifying we expect from this kind of story, and we seem well on course for a grim tale of the Doctor and his friends caught up in the bloody fall of the city. But as we meet the Greeks, things begin to change. They’re much more human than popular perceptions of Greek mythology paint them, and rather more humorous. Achilles – only a minor character here – seems uncharacteristically calm and reasonable. On rather naïvely mistaking the Doctor for Zeus, he says, ‘To Europa you appeared as a bull; to Leda as a swan; to me, as an old beggar.’ Given the comparisons he chooses, one can’t help wondering how he expects the encounter to pan out. Meanwhile Odysseus is a big shouty, pompous, sarcastic boor and the nearest thing the adventure has to a clear baddie. Menelaos is a mournful old cuckold who admits he was glad to see the back of Helen: ‘It’s not the first time she’s let herself be “abducted”, you know,’ he complains in his cups. ‘I can’t keep going off to the ends of the world after her. It makes me a laughing-stock.’ The human frailties of the characters are dialled up and the dialogue gets steadily more naturalistic and more peppered with jokes.

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Priam. On the left.

By the time Vicki encounters the squabbling members of the House of Priam, we’re in full-on comedic mode. Less farcical than The Romans, Cotton’s script relies more heavily on characterisation and wordplay, and for my money is all the funnier for it. Paris is played as a standard upper-class English twit: posh, thick, vain and cowardly, and with a cut-glass accent. Twenty years later he’d have been played by Hugh Laurie, without a doubt. This sinister Bertie Wooster is opposed by his sister Cassandra, here portrayed somewhere between a melodramatic grumpy teenager and Eeyore. Her poor dad’s constantly pleading with her to smile once in a while or to keep quiet if she can’t think of anything nice to say. Priam himself’s an affable, if rather ineffectual, old buffer who admits he sometimes likes to go and sit on his own in the dungeons for an hour or two when the bickering all gets a bit much. His interrogation of Vicki quickly devolves into a cosy chat about boys (‘Why couldn’t Paris have married someone like you, dear? It’s character that matters; not good looks.’)

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Odysseus, on being inside the horse: ‘Stop pacing, Doctor. You’re making me more nervous than a bacchante at her first orgy.’

By Episode 3, The Myth Makers is gloriously funny. The dialogue sizzles and there are laughs aplenty to be had in both Greek and Trojan camps. While Vicki’s suspected of being a sorceress, the Doctor’s serving as Leonardo da Vinci to Odysseus’ Ludovico Sforza, drafted in to provide the Greeks with war-winning military innovations. His definition of ‘not interfering with Progress’ now apparently stretches to include fitting out the Late Bronze Age Greeks not just with giant ballistae, but giant ballistae capable of launching military gliders (prompting Odysseus to reveal Telemachos’ penchant for making parchment aeroplanes to throw at his teachers. That’s not in Homer). The scheme’s only abandoned (after the ballistae have been built) when Odysseus insists the Doctor be the first to test it. Instead, the Doctor falls back on Plan B: a good, old fashioned wooden horse, an idea he’s been distinctly snooty about up to that point. And a very nice bit of modelwork it is too, if the pictures are anything to go by. It gives an indication of the tone of the piece to note that the original plan was for this episode to go out under the wonderful title Is There A Doctor in the Horse?. Until, the story goes, some BBC suit vetoed it as a step too far. Humbug!

But even as The Myth Makers rushes to embrace Spoonerian comedy, the elements of Shakespearean tragedy are gathering ominously in the background. After being made to take the name Cressida in place of her own ‘outlandish’ monicker, Vicki begins a tentative flirtation with Priam’s other son Troilos. This begins very low-key but becomes increasingly prominent as we approach the climax, the extraneous Shakespearean plotline threatening to regain control over the narrative. Halfway through the final episode, all the air goes out of the comedy balloon. The Myth Makers turns on a pinhead and with shocking suddenness we come crashing back down into tragedy. The last fifteen minutes are, quite simply, brutal. Almost the entire supporting cast is butchered and the Doctor only just escapes with one badly wounded friend and a very confused Trojan priestess. Vicki isn’t with him, the young girl deliberately stranding herself in the past to remain with Troilos (who, unlike in other versions of his story, does actually survive to the end, albeit gravely wounded). Hers isn’t a very convincing love story, and it’s not the end the character deserved, but as Vicki and Troilos meet up with Aeneas and muse about the possibility of going off somewhere to found a new Troy, there is a pleasing (if almost certainly coincidental) symmetry for a character whose story began in the future, shipwrecked on the planet Dido.

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Not pictured: Aegean Prehistorian weeping into his copy of ‘Documents in Mycenaean Greek’.

Is The Myth Makers a historically accurate recreation of the Aegean Late Bronze Age? Not remotely. It’s hard to judge how much the BBC drew on Bronze Age-inspired material culture for the look of it, but all the surviving images suggest they went for generic Ancient Greek (or even Roman!), with hoplites in horse-hair plumed helmets running about the place. Is it a faithful telling of Homer? Again, a resounding no. Would I recommend this to anyone, even in its sadly diminished current form, over any Hollywood attempt at similar subject-matter? A thousand times yes! It’s smart, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and the ending packs a solid punch. And with this followed up with a twelve-part Dalek epic in which not one but two of the Doctor’s companions are actually killed, and then a last great historical tragedy about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, this marked a distinctly dark reinvention for Doctor Who.

There’s not much Classics-related to say about the rest of 1960s Doctor Who. In the later years of the decade, as the lead role passed from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton, the show became increasingly formulaic. More futuristic, more monster-focused, more simplistic; plots devolved into a succession of isolated bases under attack from evil forces. There’s less room for historicals generally, and, barring a cameo appearance by a few temporally-displaced Romans in Troughton’s final story, there’s no return to the Classical world. With the Doctor regenerating into Jon Pertwee and suffering exile to contemporary Earth without the use of his TARDIS for the start of the colour 1970 series, we’d have to wait a little while longer before we got a return to the ancient Mediterranean. But polish your double-axes, grab a couple of snakes and don your most ludicrously revealing bodices, because when we do return we’ll be going somewhere interesting…

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 Yep. Atlantis.

(Part 2 now available here.)

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17 thoughts on “Via Memoriae Classicae IIa: Classics and Doctor Who (The Sixties)

  1. Philip, may you always have this much time on your hands! I enjoyed this a lot – and I always find myself completely charmed by the ingenuity of Who fans… I think it must be a common character trait that’s tied to getting so much out of three spoons and a washing up liquid bottle.

    • Thanks, Fran! Glad you enjoyed it. Who fans are indeed a talented and proactive bunch. Lots of interesting stuff’s been written about Doctor Who fandom over the years, and the way it’s never really worked the same way as other ‘cult’ fandoms (at least in the UK). Like any of these kind of things, it’s got its dark and deeply embarrassing sides, but when they want to be, some Doctor Who fans are capable of very impressive feats of creativity.

      None of which has anything to do with Classics, but it’s worth saying anyway. And I’ll have more to say about how I think being a Doctor Who fan intersects with Classics and Archaeology in part 2 of this post.

  2. Cotton also did a rather sophisticated novelisation of The Myth Makers in the voice of Homer, whose blindness is accounted for in the course of his story by a series of dark comic mishaps too brutal for broadcast…

  3. I read this when you posted it and massively enjoyed it, but completely forgot to comment until this evening when I accidentally watched a Matt Smith episode (the one where Rory is a Roman).* Just a shout out to my main folk Ian and Barbara. To echo Fran, long may your blogging continue!
    *the idea of Rory surviving even a week in the Roman army in Britannia just pushed me over the edge, in an episode where I even swallowed Amy bringing the Doctor back from non existence by the power of wishful thinking**
    **even siller than Martha getting the whole planet to regenerate Ten by shouting that they all believed in fairies very loudly. At least there was an airship involved that time. And Martha went to some sort of effort.***
    ***oh, new who.

    • Cripes, I’d forgotten about Rory’s time as a Roman! You’re right; he wouldn’t last two minutes, gun-hand or no. But does that mean I have to add that episode to part 2? Because I really wasn’t planning on it. But it has River Song being Cleopatra and everything, which even (sort of) ties in with the Asterix review… I may deal with it in a single paragraph, like I intend to with Space Minotaurs, Space Argonauts and That Random Robot Presocratic Philosopher from 1982.

      But anyway, glad you enjoyed the post! And yes, Ian and Barbara are brilliant. Have you seen the episode where Barbara guns down Vicki’s pet for no good reason? It’s wonderful. If only for the sheer brilliance that they managed to make a whodunnit without realising that they’d only put in one suspect.

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