Doctor Who: The Rescue/The Romans Review
Two writers’ tales.
By the end of October 1964, Doctor Who had been in production for a year, although as far as the viewing public were concerned, the show had taken a six-week gap in September after the end of The Reign of Terror, holding over the two last stories of the block (Planet of Giants and The Dalek Invasion of Earth) to kick off the second season. A show which had originally been intended just to run thirteen weeks had – thanks largely to the Daleks – had been a proven success, and producer Verity Lambert was anxious to sign the regulars for a new run of episodes. However, at the end of this year’s production, there were departures on both sides of the camera. Carole Anne Ford, dissatisfied with the limited opportunities given to her as Susan, left at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. At the same time, David Whitaker stepped down as script editor, though he would continue to write for the series up to The Ambassadors of Death in 1970.
With Susan gone, a new companion had to be found. Again a teenager (though played by a woman in her twenties), she went through several names – Tanni, then Lukki (pronounced “Lucky”) – before ending up with the more earthbound Vicki. Contracted to play her was Maureen O’Brien, straight out of drama school and appearing in rep in her home town of Liverpool. Vicki was to be her first television role. Whitaker was asked to write her introductory story, so setting a semi-tradition (or it became one when Terrance Dicks later claimed it to be one) of outgoing script editors writing the first Who story for their successor, here an uncredited Dennis Spooner. This story was the two-part The Rescue.
The Rescue (49:56)
The TARDIS lands on the planet Dido in the twenty-fifth century. This planet is somewhere where – a throwaway reference tells us – the Doctor has previously visited, but things have changed. The native species are extinct, and inside a crashed spacecraft are two survivors: a crippled man, Bennett (Ray Barrett) and a teenage girl, Vicki. Hoping for rescue, they are terrified of the mysterious monster Koquillion (Sydney Wilson).
When new Who tells most of its stories in three quarters of an hour, it’s a voyage to a different time with The Rescue. To call it slight is beside the point; the same goes for other old-Who two-parters. There’s a mystery which isn’t difficult to solve (though I haven’t spoiled it, just in case) but the main purpose of this story is to rejig the franchise and to introduce and establish the new companion. As such it’s a scriptwriter’s (and script editor’s) piece more than anything else. The Doctor, Ian and Barbara have things to do over both episodes, but this is Maureen O’Brien’s story. She gets to display quite a wide range of emotion in this story, distinguishing Vicki from Susan straight away. As a human (although a future one) instead of a Gallifreyan (to use a term not yet invented in the show), she has a more down-to-earth quality than the otherworldliness that Susan projected. It’s not easy to judge Vicki as a companion as chunks of her time on the show are missing (half of The Crusades and all of Galaxy 4 and her farewell story The Myth Makers are lost), but certainly O’Brien thought her character was underused for the most part and she left the show after a year.
The major guest role in The Rescue goes to the Australian Ray Barrett, acting unusually under a beard. He’s suitably imposing and authoritative but this is hardly a stretching role for him. Raymond Cusick’s design is another plus, as is Christopher Barry’s direction.
The Rescue is a pleasant diversion, no more and no less. Its two episodes were, for budget and logistic reasons, treated as one production block with the four of the next story, The Romans, sharing the same director and designer. The two stories were paired on their VHS release and are paired again on DVD.
The Romans (97:09)
The Rescue ended with a literal cliffhanger, as the TARDIS materialised on the edge of one before falling off it. But this is a rare Who cliffhanger which is resolved offscreen, as the next scene takes place a month later. In between whiles, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vicki have been enjoying some well-earned R&R in a Roman villa. When the Doctor and Vicki visit the City, Ian and Barbara are abducted by slave traders...
The Romans, written by incoming script editor Dennis Spooner (who had previously written another historical serial for the show, the first season’s closing story The Reign of Terror) is an underrated story. It’s often described as the first overtly humorous Who serial, but that’s only partly true. There certainly is humour here, particularly in the third episode with the scenes at the court of Nero (Derek Francis). That strand features the Doctor and Vicki: meanwhile, Ian and Barbara are sold into slavery. Ian rows a galley and faces death in the gladiatorial arena from some stock-footage lions. This is certainly not funny.
What impresses about The Romans is the care that Spooner has clearly taken over his script, something many would find beyond the call of duty for a mere “children’s” show. (To be fair, this isn’t something you can accuse previous Who writers of.) As well as his adept mixing of comedy with high drama, he gives all four regulars significant plot material, something that certainly isn’t the case with many other serials, where often as not one companion or even the Doctor is sidelined for one or more episodes. Bearing in mind that these stories were intended to be viewed once, in twenty-five minute sections a week apart, and likely not repeated, Spooner seems prescient in setting up jokes in the first episode which pay off in the last. That’s something you can appreciate now you can watch The Romans at your own pace, even all the way through in one go if you want to. Also, it’s flattering to the intended young audience that they might know what “O tempora, o mores” means – I can’t imagine that line surviving nowadays.
Generally, the two main designers in Who’s first three years divided their responsibilities with Barry Newbery working on the historical stories and Raymond Cusick the futuristic ones. However, as The Romans was made back to back with The Rescue, Cusick has his chance to go historical, and his designs are a highlight of the production. The special effects depicting the fire of Rome are lacking a certain something, though.
Although there are some heavy hitters before and after it in Season Two, some of them do show their age a bit: The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Web Planet in particular, and The Crusades suffers from missing two episodes. So The Romans increasingly looks like the undersung highlight of the season.
The Rescue and The Romans are released as a two-disc box set. The former is a DVD-5 and the latter a DVD-9. Both discs are, as is usual for 2 Entertain, for both Region 2 and Region 4. As well as the usual visual menus, both discs have an audio selection menu.
Both stories were restored and VidFIREd from 16mm telerecordings from the original black and white 405-line two-inch videotapes, which were wiped long ago. The aspect ratio is, as you would expect, 1.33:1 As ever, the episodes are restored as best they can, as far as possible to look like the original transmission.
The soundtrack is the original mono, restored and cleaned up for this DVD.All episodes feature information subtitles, provided this time by Richard Molesworth. These are informative, and pack in as many production details as you are likely to need to know.
The commentary on The Rescue features William Russell, Christopher Barry and Raymond Cusick. Barry and Russell reappear on The Romans, where he is joined for part of the chat by actors Nicholas Evans, Barry Jackson. Cusick turns up for Episode Four. Both commentaries are moderated by Toby Hadoke: a good idea with the older serials, where forty-year-old memories are being relied upon.
The main extra for The Rescue is “Mounting The Rescue” (21:49), one of the Doctor Who range’s usual efficient run-throughs of a story from inception to broadcast, with contributions from as many participants as are alive and available. Interviewees this time include the commentary participants, Maureen O'Brien, Ray Barrett and fan Ian McLachlan. Given my interest in Australian cinema (evident in many other of my reviews on this site) I was pleased to see Ray Barrett being interviewed as I’m not aware if he has ever been asked about Doctor Who before. In his eighties now, he looks back on what is really a minor part, two weeks’ work, in a long and distinguished career, on British TV in the Sixties and as part of the Australian Film revival from the following decade onwards. He seems to have enjoyed making The Rescue though, and is proud of the fact that audience figures hit a high, only surpassed by the first episode of The Web Planet later in the season and not to be matched until the Tom Baker era ten years later – more people saw this modest two-parter than watched the six-part Dalek epic which preceded it. He tells a nice story of how he took William Hartnell back with him when he couldn’t get home, and took him to the local pub, to the fascination of the locals.
That’s it for The Rescue apart from the standard features (see below). The Romans has more.
“What Have ‘The Romans’ Done for Us?” (34:00) is another making-of documentary along similar lines for the most part, but it expands into different areas with a brief account of Roman history of the time (historian Mark Bradley and writer James Moran), and interviews with other actors who have played Nero (Anthony Andrews and Christopher Biggins). Also present are Doctor Who Magazine editor Tom Spilsbury and, again, Ian McLachlan.
“Roma Parva” (2:34) is a short item in which director Christopher Barry shows us a model of the main set, and demonstrates how he planned out camera positions and angles.
“Dennis Spooner: Wanna Write a TV Series?” (17:48) appears to be part of a series of tributes to Who writers. This is certainly welcome, though in David Whitaker’s case there’s only one more opportunity to honour him on a DVD of a story he wrote (The Ambassadors of Death) Spooner emerges as a very prolific, very gifted television writer, adept at mixing humour and drama, who died at the young age of fifty-three. Paying tribute are William Russell and Peter Purves, later script editor Donald Tosh, friend and frequent collaborator Brian Clemens, Jane Clemens (a friend of Dennis and wife of Brian), and later Who writer Rob Shearman.
Extracts from Blue Peter are a common feature on Who DVDs. In this item (7:16), Valerie Singleton stages a Roman banquet for her guests Peter Purves and Lesley Judd while slave John Noakes serves.
“Girls! Girls! Girls! The Sixties” (17:41) is the start of another series of Who featurettes. This focuses on the Doctor’s female companions from the Hartnell and Troughton years (including quasi-companions like The Dalek Master Plan’s Sara Kingdom), with interviews with the women who played them (apart from Jackie Lane, Wendy Padbury and the deceased Jacqueline Hill and Adrienne Hill) and contributions from their menfolk, such as William Russell, Peter Purves and Frazer Hines. Honor Blackman also appears, interloping from The Avengers, as an illustration of a different type of TV heroine that emerged during the Sixties.
Both discs have self-navigating stills galleries (8:14 and 6:08 respectively), a coming-soon trailer for Attack of the Cybermen and Radio Times listings in PDF format. The Rescue also has a PDF of Raymond Cusick’s design sketches.