Patron-inspired posts are back! I’ve been quiet for a while, but I hope to change that in the coming month.
I’m a big Romana fan from way back. As I’ve said before, Romana 1 is (often*) my favorite companion of all time. But she’s not the Romana I’m here to talk about. Today, I’m talking about Romana 2, and I’m still pretty thrilled about it. When I was younger, I waffled back and forth as to which was my favorite incarnation. The reason I often wobbled back to Lalla Ward’s portrayal was she was still “Romana”—as smart and savvy as ever, but she was just so gosh darn warm. Her Romana was a more open and instantly-friendly** version, and that suited (and suits) me just fine.***
Anyway, the reason I’m talking about good old Romana II here is one of my fabulous patrons, Darren, requested it! But the excitement I feel isn’t just because I get to talk about my beloved Romana 2. It’s because Darren specifically requested I talk about Romana Two as she exists in the Big Finish universe! If you listen to Verity!, you may already know I’ve barely dipped my toes into the realm of Big Finish’s audio plays. In fact, I’d only listened to (I think) two Big Finish plays before I got this request. I have now more than doubled that number! And! There are more to come! This is the first of two Romana 2 posts.°
The first two BF audios Darren suggested were The Apocalypse Element and Neverland. The Apocalypse Element is a 6th Doctor and Evelyn Smythe story, and Neverland features the 8th Doctor and Charley Pollard. Romana, of course, is in both. And as it turns out, Neverland ends on a cliffhanger. A really intense cliffhanger. So I couldn’t stop myself from buying the next 8th Doctor story immediately upon finishing it. Yes, I bought (and listened to) Zagreus—despite my Verity! cohost Deb’s repeated assurances it’s the worst thing ever. So my impressions of BF-Romana are also informed by her appearance in that story. Now be warned, everything beyond this paragraph may be quite spoilerey as to the fate of Romana in Big Finish audios, so if you haven’t listened yet and don’t want to know what happens, jump ship now!
HERE BE SPOILERS.
Full disclosure, I listened to The Apocalypse Element on a really bad day. So bad, I ended up in the hospital at the end of it (the day, not the audio play). So perhaps my feeling that this story was kinda meh is somewhat influenced by circumstances. That said, I listened to it in the car on the way to my bad day, and it really did help calm me down, despite driving towards major stress.
In this story, the 6th Doctor is reunited with Romana for the first time in many years. In fact, we discover that Romana, shortly after being elected president of Gallifrey, disappeared. And where had she been all that time?
Why, she’d been held captive, tortured, and forced to do slave labor.
By the Daleks.
For 20 years.
Now, I realize 20 years might not be a huge span for a Time Lord, but that’s still gobsmackingly horrendous. I’ve gotta be honest, I have real trouble with this. I understand how tragedy can lead to good narrative, but I really, really don’t like it when fiction does terrible things to my most beloved characters. I recently listened to an episode of The Doctor Who Book Club Podcast, in which they discuss the New Adventures novel Just War. In that book, Benny is held captive and horrifically tortured for much of the book. The hosts spent a good amount of the podcast talking about how awful and disturbing it is to include this sort of thing in the Doctor Who universe. I found myself wincing and nodding in sympathy.
In this case, we don’t actually hear Romana being tortured (thank goodness), but we see (hear) the aftermath. We learn what this has done to her as a character. It, unsurprisingly, has hardened her. Rather a lot. Don’t get me wrong, Romana has always had some steel underneath the smile. In some ways, I think Lalla Ward’s Romana was steelier than her predecessor. But she was never what she becomes after so many years in the hands of the Daleks. It’s like they sanded off all the softness that used to cover that steel core. I liked that softness. When she smiled, I smiled. I find it hard to picture this Romana smiling at all.
I suppose the idea is that it’s interesting to witness Romana evolving as a character, but it’s a direction I don’t much care for. So count me as largely uninterested.
Then we move on to Neverland. I liked this story a lot. Romana has taken up the mantle of President once again, and she is very much the no-nonsense commander in chief here. I want to love the scenes where she interacts with the Doctor (both in this and in The Apocalypse Element), but they just kinda break my heart. I still see Tom and Lalla frolicking through Paris in my mind, and when I hear the edge in her voice when Romana addresses the Doctor, I become the saddest of pandas.
I do, however, love Romana as President. Presidents are supposed to be a bit stern and tough and large-and-in-charge. She does that quite well. Having watched her handle the 4th Doctor for several years, there’s no question she’s a Time Lady who knows how to Get Things Done. I’m able to ignore some of the emotional scar tissue when she’s facing off with Coordinator Vansell, because I can picture pre-damage Romana doing it. In those scenes, I’m just punching the air and rooting for her to give him what-for!
It’s a bummer she (and the CIA) were so thoroughly duped by the myth of Zagreus that they fell into Sentris’ trap, but it was a pretty good trap, so I feel like it could’ve happened to anybody. And we do get some rather nice scenes of the Doctor and Romana working together to get themselves out of trouble. I was still sad at the friction between them, but I managed to half ignore it, half chalk it up to the fact they haven’t been palling around for centuries now. Romana hasn’t regenerated since we last saw her on screen, but she’s lived a good long time. Even if she hadn’t been captured by Daleks, she would have changed somewhat.
As I said, Zagreus was kind of a bonus-listen, but I really couldn’t help myself after the cliffhanger at the end of Neverland.°° Romana is in this one too, and her attitude toward the Doctor is, if anything, even more painful here. There’s a line where she tells Charley if they can’t split Zagreus from the Doctor, they’ll have to kill him. The words “kill him” were uttered with such intensity they bordered on delight. As if she’d been waiting for decades to do just this, and she’s finally got an excuse. It felt all kinds of wrong.
Of course, they don’t kill the Doctor, and instead she ends up sending him off to an alternate universe instead. I was hoping for a bit more softening during their farewell scene, but there is very little. I can probably count on one hand the nostalgic/kind/soft words uttered by Lalla Ward in reference to the Doctor in Neverland and Zagreus put together. Saddening.
So while my feelings about Big Finish-Romana aren’t exactly warm and fuzzy, I’m really glad Darren suggested this topic. I fear I may be slipping down that slippery slope that is Doctor Who audio drama. After I finished Zagreus, I realized I needed to know what happened next. I haven’t bought the next release yet, but it’s on my to-do list.
And as promised, there will be another Romana post coming at some point down the road. As I said, Darren also suggested I listen to some of the Gallifrey series, which features both Romana and Leela. I really didn’t like Romana’s attitude toward Leela in Zagreus. Her level of pomposity was far too high for me to enjoy. I hate it when “good” characters look down on other good characters. Seriously Romana, calling Leela a “savage” in such a rude tone was just Not Cool. By the end of the story I thought I saw a glimmer of something approaching respect, and I’ve heard really good things about their interactions in later adventures, so I’m keen to check them out. If only they were available as downloads. Grumble grumble.°°°
About the Patron:
Darren (@InkyD on Twitter) doesn’t write a blog, and he’s a consumer of quality podcasts rather than a creator of them. He does have a cool accent though, apparently. He’s told that a couple of times a week at least. It’s because he was born in Portsmouth, England and moved to the USA in 2008, via Kentucky and now flat, flat Illinois. Proud to be a geek, lover of cats (did you know the Humane Society wants volunteers to come in and just pet cats? He signed up.), player of chess, worker of mainframes, and with an embarrassingly high IQ, he is not actually a super-villain (yet). He became the sole moderator of the Big Finish subreddit (not affiliated with Big Finish), after falling in love with their Doctor Who audios. If he actually does become a super-villain, I might try out for the sidekick spot.
*It’s hard to make declarative statements like that, when my idea of “favorite” changes depending on what I’m watching or how I’m feeling at any given moment. That said, regardless how I’m feeling, or what I’m watching, she’s always right up there near the top.
**It feels weird to say that. It almost feels like I’m insulting Mary Tamm’s Romana, but I assure you I’m not. Saying one version of Romana is more friendly and open than the other is not saying Romana 1 wasn’t friendly or open. I strongly feel she was. But those weren’t the aspects of her personality that characterized her as much as I feel they do Romana 2. Am I sounding a little defensive here? Yes. I fear I am. But I’ve seen the well-meaning backlash all too often. Saying one thing doesn’t make all other things unpossible people! Bottom line: both Romanas are great.
***The other reason I used to waffle back and forth about my favorite Romana was I’d be swayed one way or the other by my parents. One of the funniest recurring arguments they’ve been having for over 30 years is which Romana is superior. My dad is a staunch Mary Tamm defender, while my mom champions Lalla Ward all the way. Golly I love my family!
°I will also listen to some of the Gallifrey series, but those aren’t available as downloads, so getting a hold of them will take me a bit longer.
°°I wonder if Darren knew that would happen. Did I fall into his trap just like Romana fell for Sentris’? If so, it’s one I’m happy to be in.
°°°I have an aversion to physical stuff so having to buy CDs makes me itchy. Not to mention how much shipping things to Canada royally sucks. Maybe I’ll hold out for my next DW convention and just hit up the dealers room and hope they have what I need.