Oh, something else I forgot to tell you. I think I poisoned Nero.
Fresh off a literal cliffhanger of an ending in “The Rescue,” the tipping TARDIS lands on its side . . . and no one seems to care. After our time travellers flail about on the TARDIS, we find them lounging in ancient Rome, in a villa they’ve somehow managed to take over in its owner’s absence. They themselves have become “The Romans” (Story Production Code M).
Gradually it becomes obvious that a month has passed since the Doctor’s poor landing, and having for once not landed in a terrible situation that requires immediate action, everyone decides to take a holiday, leaving the TARDIS stuck on its side in a ditch. While the jump from the crashed TARDIS to our Roman revelers seems a bit jarring, the discontinuity allows for Vicki to have been integrated into the daily routine behind the scenes. She is at ease with everyone, particularly the Doctor, with whom she shares a blend of nonchalant curiosity and optimism. Throughout the story, Vicki will follow the Doctor around, accepting orders yet not allowing the Doctor to take himself too seriously. Where Susan had a certain reverence for her grandfather, Vicki respects the Doctor but retains a very real independent streak.
Still, we can’t have a Doctor Who story without something happening beyond character development (the thin plot of “The Rescue” notwithstanding), so the travellers split up (of course) and intrigues abound. All roads, indeed, lead to Rome.
The Doctor decides to take a vacation from Ian and Barbara, heading off with Vicki to re-visit Rome, another call out to the Doctor’s pre-history that is becoming more and more common as the series begins to develop a full mythology of its own. William Hartnell throws himself into this script with uncommon gusto. He revels in playing the First Doctor here as a gourmand, an epicure, a faux lyre player. To date, this is the most animated we have seen the Doctor, and his interactions with both Maureen O’Brien as Vicki and Derek Francis as Nero sparkle. He’s having fun as an actor, and it shows.
One can speculate that the Doctor not only wanted some time on his own (albeit with Vicki) but also wanted to give Ian and Barbara some time on their own. The two teachers’ relationship is still not formalized in any sense, but after this story, with their quite familiar manner with one another, I think it’s fair to say that Amy and Rory were not the first couple to cohabitate on the TARDIS.
Indeed, it’s their joking, close relationship that provides the narrative strength of this story, which veers wildly between the farcical and the dramatic. When the slave traders capture Ian and Barbara from the villa after the Doctor and Vicki have left for Rome, the companions experience the very real possibility of being left behind in time. The Doctor will have no way of knowing where they’ve gone or why. In all stories to date, the inevitable separation of the companions from the Doctor has involved one party or the other having at least an awareness that something has gone wrong. But here, there seems no hope that even the Doctor could find Ian and Barbara after they are captured and sold, separately, into slavery.
Their fear is worsened by their separation, and it’s when they are broken apart that one realizes the depth of feeling they share. Together, they could handle being stranded in time; apart, that fate becomes intolerable.
So, we take one of the most dramatic moments in the series’ history, where every companion’s worst fear is realized, and pair it with slapstick close encounters and Benny Hill-style bedroom chases. Right, then.
Bizarrely, it works. Despite the absurdity of Vicki and the Doctor walking by the slave market a moment before Barbara is brought out for sale, despite the whimsical nature of the Doctor interrupting Nero as he chases Barbara through the palace halls, the light tone in this story functions to diffuse the otherwise dark tale. The Doctor never accepts that he is in danger, even as he is impersonating a lyre player who was to assassinate Nero and who is to be fed to the lions. Though the Doctor’s ability to get out of tight spots has been established previously, “The Romans” gives us a sense of the Doctor being, if not infallible, at least imperturbable. As Ian notes,
I’ve got a friend who specializes in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way.
Even when the travellers are reunited, the absurdity of their parallel adventures in Rome are laughed at rather than dwelled over. This story is the most fun story so far, and makes no pretense about it. I would not want an entire series of stories like this, but seeing the Doctor and his companions relax and enjoy one another’s company is worth the price of admission in this one.
Derek Francis plays Nero with wild aplomb, perhaps too far over the top but still, just barely, within the realm of the plausible, at least as far as the thumbnail sketch of Nero most people hold. And indeed, when you have Nero, you have Rome burning. And, as it turns out, it’s the Doctor’s fault.
While it certainly wouldn’t be the first (or last) time the Doctor interferes with history, he spends much of the story haranguing Vicki not to attempt to change anything before, by accident, inspiring Nero to burn down Rome by setting Nero’s plans for rebuilding Rome ablaze with his glasses. Nero is taken by the flames and sees his opportunity to engage in some urban redevelopment.
Vicki, rightly, calls the Doctor on his inadvertent meddling, causing the Doctor to fume. After a few Hartnell-ized lines in which he sputters about having done no such thing, he pauses, looks over a flaming Rome, and seems rather chuffed with himself for having played a very real role in Rome’s demise. His laughter over the incident blends in a fade cut to Nero laughing and playing the lyre with flames superimposed around him.
And that’s the only real problem I have with the story’s light tone. The Doctor has not wavered from this strong belief in noninterference before (though that noninterference only pertains to Earth history, not alien history, which he could seemingly care less about), and the belief is written off as a bit of a joke.
We also see a much more muscular Doctor in this story. Where in “The Rescue” the Doctor is thoroughly manhandled by Bennett before being saved by the last remaining members of the Dido, here he parries a sword-wielding attacker with a lyre, outmuscling him and smacking him about with an amphora. A month of rest has obviously done the Doctor some good! He further proclaims that he is quite handy with his, er, hands:
You know, I am so constantly outwitting the opposition I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the arts, the gentle art, of fisticuffs.
In terms of mythos continuity, the Doctor’s violence is purely, again, in self-defense, but here his facility for fisticuffs is established. Also brought into canon is the ability of the TARDIS to take off from any angle. And we go yet another story without the companions being referred to as such.
As our intrepid travellers leave behind a fiery Rome, they decide to change out of their Roman finery and wonder why the Doctor has spent an hour fiddling with the TARDIS controls. Vicki can’t even comprehend that the Doctor might not know how to fly the TARDIS, but Ian realizes that something is wrong, or at least more wrong than usual. The Doctor confesses that they’re somehow trapped. Perhaps in a web? . . .
(Previous Episode: The Rescue)
(Next Episode: The Web Planet)
Post 12 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project