Written by Dennis Spooner
Directed by Christopher Barry
Ian finds himself a slave on a Roman ship. Barbara is sold to Nero’s wife, and The Doctor must somehow pretend to be a famous lyre player without actually playing the lyre.
“I am constantly outwitting the opposition I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the arts of fisticuffs.”
The episode starts with a rather entertaining fight sequence. The assassin tries to kill The Doctor, only to find that The Doctor is a surprisingly good fighter. Apparently this incarnation of The Doctor also knows Venusian Akido.
One of the strengths of these early stories, a strength that I never realized until watching them in order, is how well-developed Ian and Barbara were as companions. I think it becomes striking in The Romans due to the comedy aspect of this story. While I enjoy the show trying something different, I prefer the slave story to the comedic story. I think this is largely due to the comedic story making some significant changes to history, particularly where Nero is concerned. What Spooner gets right is Nero’s love of performing on the lyre. The actual portrayal of Nero does not quite reflect who he was. Yes, he was self-involved but he wasn’t the idiot this story makes him out to be. With all the potential of setting a story in Rome, it seems a mild shame that they focused primarily on comedy.
But back to the well-developed characters, one of the clichés of the Hartnell era is that the companions were often split up. Each character pursued their own story, often involving them trying to get back to The TARDIS. I don’t mind this format so much because it forces the writers to create strong characters. If each character must sustain their own sub-plot, then they need to be strong enough to carry it. Ian and Barbara were. Susan and Vicki…sadly, not so much. I think Vicki has a bit more charm than Susan, but she is not strong enough (at this point) to be on her own. In this story, she is paired with The Doctor, which works rather well for her.
I loved this story when I first watched it. This time around, it isn’t impressing me as much. I find myself most interested in watching Ian be the adventuring hero. The rest of the story, I could do with out.