This was not a serial I expected to enjoy when I bought the Rescue/Romans boxset, and I am sure is a story several fans will be surprised to see so high in my list of enjoyed stories. Yet it is deservedly in the top fifty classic Doctor Who adventures for me, a charming story that is both well told and engaging in equal measure!
The TARDIS crew land in the ancient Roman empire, having just rescued Vicki in the previous adventure. By a series of extraordinary coincidences, all four travellers find themselves at the court of Caesar Nero, where the Doctor is mistaken for the renowned lyre player Maximus Pettulian; the Doctor and Vikki having elected to travel to Rome, and Ian and Barbara after being kidnapped by slave traders from the villa the travellers had been staying in.
This story caused uproar at the time as it very much plays out as a farce rather than a serious historical drama, in sharp contrast to Season 1 historical adventures Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror. It is reputed that Hartnell’s performance came in for particular ire, occasionally playing the clown, and on one occasion jokingly wrestling with a would-be assassin. Far from lowering the tone, I feel the farcical aspect is a necessary remedy to what would otherwise be a grim tale. Nero was one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants of the Roman empire, a facet more than alluded to in this tale when he orders Ian to battle a gladiator for nothing more than his own entertainment.
The net result is that despite several grim features: the dehumanising sight of Barbara sold into personal slavery; Ian rowing on a slave galley; Nero’s wife Poppea trying to poison Barbara when she attracts the unwelcome attentions of the lascivious Nero; the tale works and is enjoyable. There is plenty of black humour – Nero orders his food taster to sample his wine when warned by the Doctor that it is poisoned, and when the slave dies, observes dispassionately: “So, he was right.” Strangely this black humour is accented by the slapstick – Nero’s comical chasing of Barbara around the palace making us laugh at his absurdity rather than cringe at his creepiness for example. The pièce de résistance is of course when the Doctor mimicks the tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, pretending to play his lyre before Nero while insisting only those of refinement will be able to hear the melody.
The highest compliment I can pay this adventure is that it would not at all have been out of place if it featured in modern Doctor Who. The story is a fantastic adventure, wonderfully told, and with great and engaging characters. It has aged surprisingly well, and it is wonderful that this classic Hartnell adventure was not lost in the 70s.
Coming up next … “Wonderful chaps. All of them.”