Fandom: Doctor Who
Spoilers: Seasons 16-18, the Time War, plus various books and the Gallifrey audio series.
Notes: Probably contains more behind-the-scenes info than most reflections, due to the nature of the series and the way characters were created and written. Bear with me.
The Doctor, "The Ribos Operation"
"It's funny, you know, but before I met you, I was even willing to be impressed."
Romana, "The Ribos Operation"
When we first see Romana, it's from the Doctor's point of view. He's on the floor, looking up. Silver sandals, grecian white dress, cheekbones that deserve their own religion -- and a facial expression that tells you that she knows she's prettier than you, and in a moment she'll prove she's smarter, too.
Her full name is Romanadvoratrelundar, but don't worry about remembering it. She'll answer to Romana. Or Fred. She's a Time Lord, she's a genius, she's young and keen to please, and she expects you to be impressed.
The background, version one:
Having left his previous assistant, the primitive Leela, on his home planet of Gallifrey, the Doctor is happily travelling through time and space with his robot dog, K9 for company. Until he is given a mission of cosmic importance -- finding and assembling the scattered pieces of the Key to Time -- and an assistant to go with it: the haughty, brilliant Romanadvoratrelundar -- a Time Lord who can more than match him for knowledge and ego, if not experience.
The background, version two:
When Louise Jameson left Doctor Who in 1978, the producers wanted to replace her with a new kind of companion -- a woman who would be an equal for the Doctor in every way but experience. An ice queen who would provide a foil for Tom Baker.
Like a certain blonde companion of recent years (and, it must be pointed out, just about every other companion), Romana was touted as something new.
"The Doctor's assistants were in the background, but I am being given a chance to create a personality." (Mary Tamm)
"Romana is just out of [university], but the Doctor hasn't been to university for 500 years. He resents being told what to do by a young girl." (Producer Graham Williams)
(Both from a 1978 article.)
"What about my name?"
"It's too long. By the time I've called 'Look out...' What's your name?"
"By the time I've called that out, you could be dead. I'll call you 'Romana'."
"I don't like 'Romana'!"
"It's either 'Romana' or 'Fred'!"
"All right. Call me 'Fred'."
"Good. Come on, Romana."
The Doctor and Romana, "The Ribos Operation"
In those days, audiences were told little about the backgrounds and personal lives of the Doctor's assistants. In her introductory episode, we learn that Romana has recently graduated from the Academy with a Triple-First (the Doctor, by comparison, passed with 51% on his second attempt, and he is not overly happy to find that Romana knows it). She is contemplating further studies (including, perhaps, a thesis on the Doctor's psychologial dysfunctions). She claims to be "nearly 140", although a season later she says she's 125. (Fanwank: it would not be implausible for her to have exaggerated her age to the Doctor. Maybe the legal drinking age on Gallifrey is 135. Or maybe it just doesn't matter that much.) And until now, she has never left Gallifrey.
Nevertheless, she acquits herself well in her first outing and in subsequent adventures. True, she nearly gets eaten by an alien
"This is a forbidden object."
"That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?"
"Strangers are forbidden."
"I did come with the Doctor."
"Who is the..."
"Ah, now don't tell me. Doctors are forbidden as well."
Romana and a guard exchange Douglas Adams-scripted banter, "The Pirate Planet"
Romana was conceived as an arrogant ice queen, but as her demeanour quickly softened -- partially because Mary Tamm couldn't sustain the theatrical haughtiness of her first performance, and partially because the writers found it difficult to write for such an aloof character.
More worrying, though, was the way her character's independence declined. She never quite degenerated to the level of "screamer", but the Doctor Who formula was strongly based on a companion in peril-rescue by Doctor formula, and after her initial stories, this pattern came to the fore.
Said Mary Tamm in 1983: "Romana was ... a very independent lady. It wasn't the usual little-girl-lost tagging behind the Doctor. But towards the end of my year on the show, the scripts tapered back to the little-girl-lost and I didn't want to do it anymore."
This is not to say that Romana's character ceased to be entertaining, but in four consecutive stories she is (a) driven off a cliff by an alien masquerading as the Doctor, and later "sacrificed" to an alien god, (b) twists her ankle and is abducted by an evil count, (c) tied to a rock as a sacrifice to a squid-god (she screams mightily as she is harrassed by a man in a tentacle suit) and (d) genteely tortured (in a G-rated tea-time fashion) by a guy in a skull-mask. It's a pattern, y'know? (Although I have been reminded that in "The Androids of Tara", in addition to twisting her ankle and being abducted by an evil count, she also goes off and saves the princess, while the Doctor and the prince stand around looking a bit useless.)
But still. In her final story, "The Armageddon Factor", she looks up -- she is on her knees, furious, scared and dignified -- and she says, "I'm not afraid to die."
Later, with the Key to Time assembled, including the final component -- a human woman -- it is Romana who loudly rages against the injustice of it. "She was a living being, and now what is she? A component!" Sometimes, with other companions, the Doctor is written as the sole voice of moral authority. Here, Romana takes that role, a significant development for a character whose journey would lead her to independence.
Doctor Who has always relied on the Doctor's ability to change bodies whenever the current body is injured or aged, or when the actors become bored or senile. When Mary Tamm abruptly quit, producers took advantage of the regeneration conceit to replace her with Lalla Ward, who had just guest starred in "The Armageddon Factor". As Princess Astra, she had been listless and dull, but she had the increasingly rare skill of getting along with Tom Baker. Mary Tamm, in the "Armageddon Factor" commentary, claims she joked about giving the role to Lalla over lunch one day, while Doctor Who: The Eighties claims producers initially considered making Ward's companion a human archaeologist from the future. (In which case, this would have been a much shorter reflection.) At the same time, though, the initial character bible for Romana had referred to the regeneration ability as a future opportunity. Douglas Adams, the 17th season's script editor, allegedly considered letting a different actress play the role in each story.
In any event, the story we get in "Destiny of the Daleks" opens like this: Off-screen, Romana decides, apparently spontaneously, to regenerate. She appears to have more control over the process than the Doctor does, for the experience is free of trauma, and she even gets to choose her own body -- in this case, that of Astra. The Doctor objects that she can't go around wearing other people's bodies, so she cycles through three increasingly bizarre bodies -- one is small and blue, one is very, very tall, and the other looks like a bloke in a frock. And none of them are paid to speak, so finally Romana appeals to the Doctor's vanity by dressing as him, and is allowed to keep her plagiarised body.
For twenty-six years, the fandom asked, "How could Romana waste three regenerations like that?" Then, in 2005, we learnt that Time Lords have a fifteen-hour window in which they can grow new hands and presumably fix any bits they don't like. Naturally, all the arguments, fanwanks and blood feuds were instantly abandoned and peace reigned over the world. Really.
"It sounds very complicated, I know, but for a Time Lord it's all very simple." (Lalla Ward, here)
Ward's Romana is different from Tamm's, and for many (although not all) viewers, it is with Romana II that the character truly comes together. She's far more relaxed, more willing to play up to the Doctor's eccentricities and happy to indulge in a few herself. She famously spends a story skipping through Paris, hand in hand with the Doctor, wearing a school uniform. With Douglas Adams as script editor, season 17 is light and frequently silly, and Ward's Romana surveys it all with amused detachment.
"Is that all you can say - 'no eyebrows'? We're talking about the Mona Lisa. It's the ... you're right! She hasn't got any eyebrows!"
Romana and the Doctor visit Paris, "City of Death"
"I don't think we should interfere."
"Interfere? Of course we should interfere! Always do what you're best at, that's what I say."
Romana and the Doctor, "Nightmare of Eden"
The easy banter between the Doctor and Romana is one of the hallmarks of their time together. Baker and Tamm made a conscious decision to play their roles as Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, but Baker and Ward are more like William Powell and Myrna Loy in space -- less combatative and more appreciative of each other's considerable quirks. The actors were briefly married after they left the series ("It was a good idea at the time," Ward told DWM in 1994), but whole stories exist where real life disputes carried over into filming and Baker doesn't even look at her. The Real Life Thing just makes things awkward and interferes with normal shipping activities. Well, mine, anyway.
"The Doctor is never allowed to fall in love." (Lalla Ward, here)
I'm not going to go into shipping here, because nostalgia_lj has already written a perfectly awesome ship manifesto, but ... well, if there's one classic series companion with whom the Doctor could plausibly have fallen in love -- while avoiding the logical and emotional pitfalls of a Time Lord/human (or whatever) relationship -- it's Romana. So there.
"You know what I don't understand?"
"I expect so."
Duggan and Romana, "City of Death"
Setting aside her relationship with the Doctor, who is Romana? She is reserved with strangers, but never lost for words. In "City of Death" she seems downright fascinated by Duggan, the dim, likable detective who is sucked into the chaos surrounding the Doctor. She gives you a smile when you're introduced, but she's watching to see what you're hiding. In season 18's "State of Decay", she seems oblivious to the, uh, less than savoury attention she seems to attract from the vampire queen Camilla. (The dangers of doing a Hammer pastiche in a family show.)
Sometimes she appears untouchable: possessed by hyper-evolved spiders in "Full Circle", she is spouting technobabble within seconds of her recovery. Taken prisoner in "City of Death" and "Shada", she co-operates just enough to keep herself alive, and then starts plotting a bit of sabotage and escape.
In "Horns of Nimon", the camp romp that ended season 17, she ends up defending a shipload of children from an alien minotaur, while the Doctor messes about with jellybabies and bad jokes. In a narrative sense, she becomes the Doctor, encapsulation her entire narrative arc.
And where does she go from there? Season 18 marked a shift in the series -- it was to be the last for Baker and Ward, a new producer had taken over and the Adams-inspired jokes and absurdity of season 17 were gone. Everything is comparatively subdued, including the characters.
Romana, "Full Circle"
The summons had been abrupt, explaining nothing. Romana sensed she knew the reason for it - at least in part. She was the reason. She knew this with a certainty that made her deeply melancholy.
It was not just freedom that the Doctor offered. It was adventure. It was wonderment. It was, ultimately, a new and deeper wisdom.
From the novelisation of "Full Circle" by Andrew Smith
In "Full Circle", we see Romana in distress for the first time. She is being called back to Gallifrey, to resume a life of detached observation, academic studies and silly fibreglass hats. At last, her facade is cracked and we see what she truly values: freedom, practical knowledge, adventure. She nearly laughs with joy when she discovers that, instead of arriving on Gallifrey, the TARDIS has been pulled into a whole separate universe. And she chooses to stay -- alone but for K9 and a handful of alien allies -- to free a race of enslaved time-sensitive leonoids.
The last we see of Romana on the screen, she is standing in the white, half-finished landscape that marks the division between universes. She is watching the TARDIS dematerialise. Then she walks away, into her own life.
And then. Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989, and instantly spawned a series of hydra-like spin-offs in other media. Romana reappeared in the Virgin novel Blood Harvest, which ended with her return to Gallifrey. "I suppose I'm just a Gallifrey girl at heart," she says, instantly wiping out her own character arc. And as the series progresses, we catch glimpses of her. She goes into politics and -- apparently with no particular effort on her part -- winds up as President of Gallifrey.
Why? Who knows. The President does get a particularly lovely fibreglass hat. And a giant collar. And the assorted bling of Rassilon.
The Doctor, The Shadows of Avalon by Paul Cornell
In later novels -- after the BBC had reclaimed its right to publish pro-fic -- Gallifrey is threatened by Mysterious Forces of Evil. In order to better fight them, Romana regenerates for the second time. The third Romana is physically based on Louise Brooks, with a Prydonian seal tattooed on her ankle, a treasure trove of shiny jewellery and a vast collection of glittery nail-polish, and an unfortunate tendency to manipulate the Doctor and his friends for her own means. She adopts silly titles like War Queen and prances around flirting with guards and not admitting women to the high council because she doesn't want competition.
'Please, Doctor, don't be so boring. I'm simply a servant of history.' ... Romana sighed and stepped up to him, reaching out to put a serious hand on his shoulder. 'I must do my best for the people of Gallifrey. That thought got me through this regeneration with my marbles intact. Perhaps that's the curse of the Presidency, you see, that you literally become someone for whom that office is everything. It's so beastly.' She lowered her head to avoid his gaze. 'No, I don't know all the plans of what happened here in my name, in pursuit of my plan. But I'm not going to apologise for them, either.' She wandered over to the chaise lounge and toyed with a cushion. 'When I say that I serve history, perhaps I should rather say that I am its slave.'"
The Doctor and Romana, The Shadows of Avalon by Paul Cornell
The mixture of coyness and ruthlessness had the potential to be intriguing, but the character reads like an assemblage of habits, catchphrases and plot devices, with a couple of female stereotypes thrown in for good. Presumably Romana III has fans (somewhere), but asking the audience to accept her as the next step in Romana's development was a bit much.
Which brings us to the Big Finish audios, which present a completely contradictory post-series story for Romana. Well. Some people try to reconcile the two universes, but they're fighting a losing battle and you can just handwave the whole thing and say, "Time war changed it", so it doesn't really matter.
In the BF canon, Romana still became president, but within weeks of her appointment, she was abducted by Daleks and enslaved for twenty years ("The Apocalypse Element"). As you can imagine, this did not make her happy. She rescued herself, reclaimed her position and helped the Doctor fight off a Dalek invasion, but she's not quite the same Romana. When next we meet her ("Neverland"), she's more waspish than we are accustomed to seeing, and this is a trend that continues through the rest of her Big Finish appearances. Her presidency is marred by infighting, terrorism, possession by an ancient evil, a civil war and her own bad decisions, and she ends up stripped of her title and effectively sent into exile.
This is, in fact, quite awesome.
And what does the future hold for Romana? Well, not a lot -- according to current canon, she's dead. Or possibly still in another dimension. Either way, she's not likely to appear on our screens any time soon.
In the meantime, you may wish to check out these highly useful links:
otp_probably - for Doctor/Romana fics and Romana in general.
Dromana Estates - small archive of Doctor/Romana fic
Big Finish - Gallifrey - official site for the Gallifrey audio series.
The Sartorial Adventures of a Time Lady - part one - part two - part three - my own very important series of posts about Romana's costumes.
The Official Doctor Who Site - exactly what it says on the tin.