Lesson 12: If it isn’t plausible, make it funny…
In the dim and distant past of the late 1970s there was a fanzine called Gallifrey. In the dusty nethersphere that is my loft-space, or possibly the echoing void that is my box-filled garage, I have copies of most issues. It was a good one. Fanzines back then were just emerging from rather basic photocopies into an era when actual crude printing was available. With photos and everything. Well, maybe not everything, but certainly a few photos. On the cover. So only that had to be printed and the insides could still be photocopied quite cheaply…
Rather like Doctor Who itself, the better fanzines made up for the lack of production funding by the quality of the writing. Gallifrey was certainly one of the best. And it was in the pages of Gallifrey that John Peel (the John Peel who wrote various Dalek story novelisations, just in case you were confused) and Martin Wiggins clashed over the historical merits – or not – of The Romans.
I won’t go into detail. To be honest, without delving into the nethersphere and/or void I don’t recall the details, but it was a heated debate over several issues with article and counter-article. Which surprised me, because at the time I’d not seen The Romans (except possibly when it was first transmitted), and received wisdom was not that it was historically accurate or interpretative, but that it was funny.
And, having seen it again, it is funny.
And it has to be funny to get away with some of the story it tells.
Dennis Spooner wrote funny. Not always, but often and well. You might not guess that from his first predominantly grim Doctor Who script, The Reign of Terror. But even that has its lighter moments. And some of them – like an awful lot of the humour in The Romans – are there to disguise implausibilities in the plot. You couldn’t imagine the Doctor’s Emperor’s New Clothes ruse working in The Romans if it was played straight. For those who don’t know, he claims his lyre-playing is so good that only the most appreciative can even hear it and then proceeds to pretend to play.
Similarly, the fact that Barbara never meets up with Vicki and the Doctor at Nero’s court only works because it’s played for laughs. They keep missing each other like characters in a Whitehall farce.
The humour glosses over the plot and makes it work. It may not be credible, but because it’s funny the audience doesn’t care.
I’ve done it myself. On many occasions. Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don’t. To give you one example, I recently had reason re look back through a Doctor Who novel I co-wrote with the talented Steve Cole – The Shadow in the Glass. For reasons we needn’t go into now, there is a sequence where the Sixth Doctor and the Brigadier have to gatecrash a Nazi celebration and persuade Adolf Hitler to give them a sample of his blood.
That’s not the sort of thing that would happen. It’s not easy to make it credible. But the key moment – persuading Hitler that the Doctor can stick a needle in him – comes immediately after the Brigadier accidentally comes face to face with the Fuhrer at the buffet. Bluffing and blustering, he follows the Doctor’s lead and attempts to shake hands, but as he’s still holding his plate it appears instead that he is offering one of the most dangerous and unpleasant men on Earth a half-eaten sausage roll.
Whether it works for you, I can’t say. But while I saw several reviews of the book that mentioned the sausage roll faux-pas, I didn’t see any that suggested Hitler giving blood to a mysterious physician he’d never met before was somewhat implausible… Maybe I missed them.
Or maybe it works because quite a lot of the book is quite dark. It stands out in contrast. And actually, a lot of The Romans is quite dark too. For all the funny business and wit, it isn’t a comedy. It’s a story that touches on the fate and philosophy of the early Christians; it’s about slavery, and about how death is seen by some as a diverting entertainment; it’s a story in which – and this is truly ‘dark’ – one of the Doctor’s companions, Vicki, casually arranges the death of a random innocent…
But we remember it for being funny. Humour can be a powerful weapon for the writer, both affecting and diverting.
Whether The Romans is also historically accurate is a matter for debate. But if it isn’t, the fact that it’s told so well and makes us laugh means that it really doesn’t matter.