Doctor Who - The Romans by Donald Cotton

Published: September 1987

Edition read: W.H. Allen hardback, 1987- another one which goes for an absolute fortune online, it seems

Coolest Cover: Tony Masero gives us Hartnell in Roman dress, a suitably manic-looking Nero (or is it Donny Osmond?) and a lot of fire.

The BBC Budget Wouldn’t Run To: Setting fire to Rome- and besides, the Italians tend not to like that sort of thing.

Purple Prose: Every damn word.

Childhood Recollections: I think this is another one of those read-in-an-evening jobs.

Letter from Reviewer (First Class) Ian

Salve, editrix!

I’ve spent a fair bit of the last weekend reading Donald Cotton’s adaptation of ‘The Romans’, and pretty darn good it is too. It’s written in an epistolary form (from the Latin epistola, meaning letter), which is nothing short of revolutionary for a Target book, and yet manages to be both a reasonable stab at summarising the plot of the story as seen on TV and a rather clever and funny improvisation on a theme.

The thing with ‘The Romans’ is that while not being an out-and-out comedy, it’s constructed with a particular sense of style and flair, so as to have the various adventures of the Doctor and his companions all running along simultaneously but never actually crossing each other’s paths again until the end of the story. What Cotton’s adaptation loses in word-for-word fidelity to the story as written (there’s barely two lines together which are the same as in the original story) he more than compensates for by retaining the same basic structure but using the device of having various characters (mainly but not exclusively the Doctor, Ian, Nero and Poppea) relating the action in the form of their own diaries, letters and so on. Quot homines, tot sententiae, as you might well say.

Cotton’s Doctor is very much the pompous and slightly more dotty take of the latter Hartnell era, although to be fair that persona works very well in a story like this, which relies on the Doctor failing to recognise his companions when they’re standing in front of him. Similarly, his take on Ian is somewhere in between Bertie Wooster and Arthur Dent rather than William Russell’s omnicompetent man of action. Pride of place, however, goes to the centurion Ascaris who, thanks to Cotton’s wonderful sense of absurd humour, tells his story through letters written home to his mother at the most inopportune moments, such as hiding in a sewer or while being sized up by a pride of hungry lions. Add to that a besotted Nero (and the first mention of Martha in a Doctor Who novel) and a brisk, Chalet School-type Poppea and the net result is a collection of distinct personalities all coming together to tell their own side of the story but without an overall authorial voice dominating the whole and leaving Cotton’s creations to speak for themselves. Materiam superabat opus, as Ovid would have put it- but then saying things like that got him into trouble in the first place.

In fact, not only is Donald Cotton’s adaptation a perfect light read, it’s one of the few adaptations so far in the range (Cotton’s own earlier novels and Stephen Gallagher’s novelisations spring to mind) which would have been good enough to stand on their own two feet outside the Target range. It’s a wonderful couple of hours’ entertainment for anybody who ever suspected that the First Doctor was borderline senile or that the travellers’ ability to reach the end of their adventures unscathed was far more down toluck than design, and although it does tend to fetch a high price on the secondhand market, it’s still very much worth anybody’s while to track down.

Ave atque vale!