Soph Watches Classic Doctor Who – The Romans

By Sophie Iles

I must be honest and say I’ve been excited to write about this serial for a very long time. All in all, this is one of my favourites and one of the first serials I saw! It’s fun, engaging, slightly different in tone at times and perhaps more akin to the comedy I am used to the new doctor who series. Also, it’s a historical, which are becoming my favourites rather quickly. Also, considering how much Ian and Barbara go through in this episode, the Doctor and Vicki also get caught up in a murderous plot. It’s probably no wonder why it’s a personal favourite.

Let’s have a look and see what this four parter has to offer us. Warning: the answer is a lot.

Ian, Barbara, Vicki and the Doctor in their ‘rented’ Roman Villa.

What happens exactly?:

After the TARDIS has its own cliffhanger moment, there’s a time skip to the TARDIS team spending time in a Roman Villa. It’s 64AD. Vicki is bored of spending all this time doing so little, whilst Ian and Barbara are enjoying time relaxing after all their adventures. The Doctor finally decides to go on a trip to Rome and Vicki goes with him. Ian and Barbara are not invited, after being asked if they wanted to leave the villa. A sneaky trick. Even so, the pair don’t really mind, they’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the villa.

Until they’re kidnapped by Slave Traders. They believed there to be four of them in the Villa, after seeing Barbara and Vicki at the market, but take the two of them to be sold.

From this point onwards, Vicki and Doctor are unaware of their story, a story of their own occurs when they find a dead old man on the road to Rome, who conveniently looks like the Doctor. He’s mistaken for him by a Roman Centurion, because he was holding the dead man’s lyre. He’s taken to Emperor Nero’s court with Vicki in tow.

The Doctor being mistaken for Maximus Pettulion.

Meanwhile, still slaves Ian and Barbara are separated when Ian is sold to be a slaver on a ship, leaving Barbara alone to be courted off to Rome to be sold at auction as ‘The British Woman’. She is bought by a man who works in Nero’s court, Tavius, hoping to get her into a better slaver’s role after seeing her take care of another woman on the road.

The Doctor and Vicki are taken to Rome, but on arrival, the same assassin that killed the old man is ordered to again — by the very same Roman Centurion they originally met. The Doctor however can take care of himself, and the assassin ends up falling to his death out the window. Whoever the old man had been, there was undoubtedly more to him than meets the eye.

Ian is rowing on a slave ship, but tries with his friend Delos to get away. It’s only when they are finally hit with a storm that they decide to use the swaying to their advantage, taking on the slave master, and letting the ship get wrecked on the rocks. Ian wakes up on the beach, having been saved by Delos, but when his friend suggests they go together away from Rome, Ian is determined to reach Rome and find Barbara.

Barbara meanwhile, unaware that The Doctor is also at court with Vicki, is the slave for the Empress, but Emperor Nero, a selfish impish man, clearly wants her for himself, and chases her about his palace for what could be considered humorous effect. Luckily he never actually catches her properly, due to the intrusion of his wife.

The Doctor, masquerading as this old man, Maximus Pettulian is apparently the best lyre play in all of Rome, is made to perform at a banquet. The Doctor decides to trick all of them, by pretending to play but telling the crowd that only the best musical minds would be able to hear his work. He’s met with outstanding applause, and The Emperor is so shocked and appalled and hateful towards him, he plans on having him put to death in the gladiator arena with the lions.

There’s also more going on at the banquet too, Nero’s wife Poppaea, assuming Barbara is trying to take her place, goes o the her royal herbalist, asking her to make a poison to kill her new slave. Unaware that Vicki has befriended Locasta. When the poison has been made, Vicki makes sure to swap the drinks, so that it’s not Barbara that is to be poisoned, but Nero. The Doctor makes sure Nero is warned, and therefore saves his life. With Barbara still alive, the herbalist is sentenced to death by the empress, and Nero seems unfazed by the now death of his servant he asked to test his poisoned drink.

Vicki inquiring about Locasta’s work…

Meanwhile, on reaching Rome, Ian and Delos are caught again by the slavers, so they are put in cages, being told they will have to fight as gladiators.

Nero is determined to get to Barbara, so he takes her with him to the gladiator arena to watch some fighting, unaware they’re going to be watching Ian and Delos being forced to fight each other. When Barbara realises it’s Ian she screams, and Delos doesn’t kill Ian like he’s supposed to and they both turn on the guards. Despite this, Nero takes Barbara as his hostage and back to the palace, and Ian promises to come get her, before running again into the night to safety.

The Doctor is then found by Tavius, the man who has been kind to Barbara this whole time, and listening to her worries once he’d bought her out of the slavers market. It turns out the real Marcus Pettulian was going to murder Nero, whilst Tavius, on Barbara’s information about how Marcus was going to be put to the arena tells the Doctor this information.

The Doctor and Vicki then look at the map of Rome that Nero has made, but by mistake, The Doctor’s glasses caught in sunlight sets fire to the map, to Nero’s dismay. This however, triggers the mad idea to burn down Rome so he can create his new one. It’s with this in mind the Doctor and Vicki decide to leave.

The Doctor accidentally causing history, but setting fire to Nero’s blueprints….

Meanwhile, Ian and Delos, guided by Tavius are reunited with Barbara, when Nero invites men to be paid to burn down his palace. Barbara and Ian reunite with a hug, and they rush out of Rome, hoping to get back to the villa as soon as they can.

When they do get back, they can finally rest and relax again, and when the Doctor and Vicki return, it looks as though Ian and Barbara have barely moved, despite their protests that they had been made slaves.

They decide they’ve had enough of their holiday and get back into the TARDIS, but they soon discover that something seems very wrong indeed, and the Doctor is determined to find out what it is….

What didn’t work:

Honestly, the few main problems with the episode are usually due to lack of time and/or lack of budget. In the scene where the Doctor and Vicki are in the banquet and he is force to play for everyone, they are sitting around tables, something we all know is not the way that Roman’s held their banquets.

The commentary with the designer actually explained this away, they all knew it was inaccurate, but there was no way to get the cameras and the people around in that space in an accurate roman banquet setting, so perhaps this time I’ll forgive them for that little inaccuracy.

The last shot of Rome burning is a bit odd, and lacklustre considering the build up of the moment, but again, explained with the fact that they’d only been told that shot was in the show a few days before. The fact they rustled up anything at all that even resembles a burning city does show one, just how creative these people are, and two anything can be created under pressure.

Barbara trying to keep on her toes with Emperor Nero around…

The last problem I have, and perhaps it’s a personal thing, is the way Nero’s leeching and chasing Barbara through corridors is seen as comedic. It is not something we could get away with now, in 2017 and then on into 2018. It might have been accepted in the early 2000’s, there’s some questionable popular comedy out at that time that would never make the light of day now. My only consolidation is that Nero’s actor, Derek Francis had been good friends with Jacqueline Hill’s husband, and perhaps the gag had been thought up between them. At the time, he was well known for the Carry On films, and perhaps it was that, and Dennis Spooner’s influence and that fact Verity Lambert wanted to try a different angle that made for this to be a comedic moment.

But watching Barbara get chased around by Nero for me is actually incredibly disturbing, and I was just willing for Ian to show up the entire time and save her!  

What worked:

The sets in this serial are fantastic, great use of stock footage and all the costumes that BBC drama already had to hand. Our main cast look wonderful in their togas, and for me it’s just a joy to see them for that first episode relaxed and content. Before this, Ian and Barbara spent every episode falling into danger. This is the first time that they have appeared to have a holiday and a much deserved one.

Vicki and the Doctor in cahoots with their secret about Marcus Pettulion.

Vicki is wonderful. A ball of energy, excited to see things and have adventures. She’s not seen what Ian and Barbara have yet, she’s buzzing to get things going, another reason why she’s a good companion with William Hartnell’s doctor. He’s incredibly tender and warm to her, in ways he wasn’t with Susan at times. As a character building moment, is this because he regrets how he snapped at his granddaughter, or does he know that this tact wouldn’t work with Vicki? It’s hard to tell.

I have quite a few favourite scenes, but I can’t not talk about the villa scene with Ian and Barbara, enjoying eating grapes and drinking wine. They are teachers out of time, enjoying a well earned rest. The chemistry between William Russell and Jacqueline Hill will always impress on me just how good friends they were in real life. I also love, in relation to the Reign of Terror where Ian makes a comment about how Barbara’s hair isn’t suited to the time, she gets back at Ian by combing his hair into that of the times here in in Rome. It makes for a delightful scene of comedy.

Alas of course, everything goes sour after all that, and their two journeys, being sold as slaves and separated (the first time I watched it Barbara’s far off look when Ian was taken away from her broke my heart) was very dramatic. The hope that everyone will be reunited as soon as they could was all I had with me. Ian on a rowboat, and Barbara in Nero’s palace. Not to mention every time she almost found the Doctor, I knew it was just there to make me angry as they could have been together much sooner.

Ian’s fight scenes as a gladiator were amazing too, worked out with his fellow actor, who played his fellow slave Delos. Compared to the Aztecs fight scene which was lacking in places, they clearly learnt from their mistakes of the first series. Now, every blow feels pretty powerful. I’m so glad that they finally got the fight scenes right.  

Speaking of fight scenes, he has some amazing moments in this serial too, particularly his fight scene with the assassin Ascaris which is both awesome and ridiculous. The actor obviously threw himself about to make that scene work and it’s delightful to watch and how they carry it out is marvellous. I also love all his scenes with just Vicki, particularly when he realises that he is the reason for The Great Fire of Rome:

VICKI: Isn’t it strange to think that people will read about that in books for thousands and thousands of years and here am I sitting here actually watching it. It’s a pity they got it all wrong.
DOCTOR: Hmm? Got it all wrong? What do you mean, child, hmm?
VICKI: Well, they didn’t mention you.
DOCTOR: Of course not. Why should they?
VICKI: Well, it was you who gave Nero the idea, wasn’t it?
DOCTOR: I? Gave him?
VICKI: Honestly, Doctor, and after that long talk you gave me about not meddling with history, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
DOCTOR: It’s got nothing to do with me.
VICKI: You burnt his drawings.
DOCTOR: Oh, yes, an accident.
VICKI: Well, maybe it was but if you hadn’t
DOCTOR: Well, he could have, he could have, he would have been told someone else. You can’t possibly accuse me of that.
VICKI: All right, you have it your way, I’ll have it mine.
DOCTOR: Now look here, young lady, lets settle this. Insinuating that all this is my fault. Hmm? My fault. (He starts to chuckle in realisation)

As I mentioned before, all in all it’s a fantastic serial. The plot is well woven, the characters shine and have some amazing moments and is a good length at four episodes. You can really feel the shift in writing with Dennis Spooner in charge, and it really was a fantastic serial. If you haven’t watched it yet, I highly recommend that you do!

I’ll be back next year with The Web Planet. Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!