The Romans is the fourth story of the second season of Doctor Who (12th overall). It features William Hartnell’s Doctor with Barbara, Ian, and Vicki as his companions.
The episode begins with the TARDIS materializing and then tumbling off a ledge. However, the next scene shows the travelers on a vacation in ancient Rome. The TARDIS is okay, and they are staying in a “borrowed” villa, not far from Rome. Vicki, however, is getting restless; she was promised adventure and wants to be involved in something exciting. The Doctor then decides that he wants to travel into Rome. The others want to come with him, but he will only take Vicki, leaving Barbara and Ian to relax in the villa until they get back.
Of course, the relaxing vacation soon comes to an end. Just after the Doctor and Vicki leave, Ian and Barbara are kidnapped by slave traders. They fought the slave traders, and it looked like they might win, until Barbara accidentally hits Ian over the head with a vase, knocking him unconscious. Ian becomes a galley-slave, but Barbara ends up in Rome to be sold in a slave auction. Ian winds up escaping from the ship with another slave when the ship wrecks in a bad storm. He heads to Rome to find Barbara, who was sold to Tavius, who is in charge of purchasing slaves for the emperor Nero.
The Doctor and Vicki have had an eventful journey as well. They come across the body of a man, just off the road, and the Doctor stops to investigate. The Doctor picks up the dead man’s lyre and is still holding it when they see a centurion poking around in the brush along the road with his sword. He sees the travelers and assumes that the Doctor is Maximus Pettulian, the dead lyre player. He tells the Doctor that he has been sent to find him because Emperor Nero is expecting Maximus. The Doctor cannot resist the opportunity to meet the emperor, so he continues to pass himself off as Maximus Pettulian, even though he suspects that there may be danger ahead.
As you can see, all four characters end up in Rome, even though they take different paths to get there. When we meet Nero, he is played as a comedic figure. He is incredibly vain and self-centered. The Doctor plays off of this weakness to great comedic effect to hide the fact that he cannot, in fact, play the lyre. Once he even fools Nero with a variation of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” telling a banquet full of people that only the most sophisticated ears can hear the tune he is about to play (while he actually never plays a single note). No one, especially not Nero, will admit that they cannot hear the tune. There is also a segment that plays like a scene out of a farce, with Nero chasing Barbara all over the palace, but running into the Doctor and Vicki instead. The Doctor and Vicki keep just missing seeing Barbara as they unintentionally get in Nero’s way.
The Doctor continues to be a rather changed man. He seems to genuinely enjoy Vicki’s company. He is also far more active. When he is attacked by an assassin meant of Maximus Pettulian, he fights the attacker off himself, and boasts of his fighting ability to Vicki afterwords. This is the first time the Doctor has actually used physical prowess to defeat an enemy. He also continues to be more clever than everyone else around him. He is no longer just the cranky old man who needs saving.
The character of Vicki also develops further. She is a spirited girl who enjoys adventure. She seems unable to just stand on the sidelines and watch events unfold. She wants adventure, and enjoys being in the middle of things, even if they are dangerous.
Overall, I enjoyed this episode. It was by far the most comedic of the episodes yet. The different story lines kept the action moving, and it was clever in the ways that it brought the characters to the same place, but yet kept them apart until the end. The only problem that I had was that there was an awful lot of death for such a comedic story. It ends with the Doctor being unintentionally responsible for giving Nero the idea of burning Rome to the ground. He and Vicki sit and watch Rome burn from a distance, marveling that they are watching history unfold. There seemed to be other events that they could enjoy watching, rather than a disaster in which people die. Still, the tone is kept light throughout, and I felt the comedy worked in the story. I’ll admit though, that I rather enjoy the historical episodes, even though I know they weren’t as popular as the alien stories.