Who Review – The Romans

Posted by Richo On March 8, 2012 ADD COMMENTS

Welcome to the Tenth Instalment of Who Review, my ongoing quest to watch and review all available episodes of SF’s longest running television series, Doctor Who. This week, the Doctor takes another trip back into Earth’s past, visiting 64AD in The Romans.

For a complete listing of all Who Review articles, please click here – Who Review Archive


The Romans (4 Episodes)


16 January – 6 February 1965


William Hartnell



Barbara Wright

Ian Chesterton


After the TARDIS becomes stuck at the bottom of a cliff, the crew choose to take a much-needed holiday. They’ve landed in the roman countryside in 64AD, during the reign of Emperor Nero. Finding an unoccupied villa whose owner is campaigning in Gaul, they while away their days in the luxurious splendour of their surroundings.

While Ian and the Doctor relax, Barbara and Vicki head to the local town marketplace where they are spotted by two slavers. The slavers mark them as potential targets and gather information about them from the local marketeers.

Once Barbara and Vicki have returned to the villa, the Doctor declares that he is heading to Rome. He chooses to take Vicki with him, hoping to fulfil her desire for exploration and adventure. Ian and Barbara ask to come with him but he refuses.

The relationship between the Doctor and Vicki is beginning to develop early on in The Romans.

It’s very different to the Susan/Doctor relationship from the earlier episodes, although the paternal element is still present. However, Vicki has a naivety that is in contrast to Susan’s more knowledgeable and independent nature. This is reflected in how the Doctor treats her, more as a young child than a woman in her late teens.

After the Doctor and Vicki depart, the villa is attacked by the slavers, who overpower Ian and Barbara. Ian is sold to a local slave owner, while Barbara is taken to Rome to be sold at the market. In Rome, she is bought in open auction for the astonishing amount of 10,000 sesterces by Tavius, a highly placed member of the court of Emperor Nero. Installed in the Emperor’s palace, she becomes handmaiden to Nero’s second wife, Empress Poppaea Sabine.

Meanwhile, Ian is installed on his owner’s ship as an oarsman. A storm destroys the vessel and Ian and fellow slave Delos wash up on the shore. They make their way to Rome, where they are eventually captured and taken to be trained as gladiators to battle in the Roman Circus.

Along the Road to Rome, the Doctor and Vicki find a body of a murdered travelling musician, the lyre player Maximus Pettulian, whose skill is rumoured to be unparalleled. The Doctor takes Pettulian’s lyre and is mistaken for the dead musician by a passing Centurion. The Centurion explains that he has been dispatched to find Pettulian, who is late for an engagement in Rome. The Centurion accompanies the Doctor and Vicki to Assysium, where he secures them lodgings at a local inn.

The Centurion then makes contact with Ascaris, a mute assassin who killed the real Pettulian, and we learn that the Centurion arranged the murder on Emperor Nero’s behalf. Nero pays handsomely for the deaths of any musician who may be his equal or superior in talent.

The Centurion, believing Ascaris has failed in his task, sends him to kill the Doctor. Breaking into the Doctor’s room, Ascaris attempts to kill him, but the Doctor fends him off with a flurry of fighting moves, and when Vicki intervenes, Ascaris tumbles out a window and flees.

This is the first time we’ve seen evidence of the Doctor’s fighting prowess. Before this, most of the fighting was handled by Ian, whose role in the series seems to be geared around performing the action sequences that the Doctor can’t. It’s a refreshing change to see the Doctor handling himself well in a fight, something that becomes far more common in later seasons.

Concluding that the Centurion was in league with the assassin, the Doctor decides to maintain his ruse as Maximus Pettulian and head for Rome. There, he meets Tavius, who implies that Maximus Pettulian is part of some unnamed conspiracy. The conspiracy is confirmed when the Centurion who arranged Pettulian’s death is himself murdered, with Tavius being the implied killer.

The Doctor also meets Nero, who arranges a banquet in his honour at which he must play for the attendants. Nero has also taken a liking to Barbara. He pursues her romantically, even going so far as to literally chase her through the palace. This draws the ire of the Empress, who, fearing she may lose her position to Barbara, plots to poison her at the banquet. Fortunately, Vicki learns of the plot and switches goblets, resulting in the poisoned chalice being given to Nero. Fortunately, the Doctor discovers what Vicki has done and manages to save the Emperor. Nero then tests the Doctor’s statement by having his aide drink the poison.

In these scenes we see the more comedic side of writer Dennis Spooner come to the forefront. It’s an interesting balance he seeks between the more serious court intrigue and the sometimes farcical, sometimes black comedy moments scattered throughout the story. Some of these moments fall flat, such as the scenes of Nero chasing Barbara around the palace. Others are incredibly clever and work beautifully.

The most impressive of these moments is the Doctor’s performance at the banquet. Unable to play the instrument, he advises Nero and the banquet guests that only those with the most sensitive and perceptive hearing will be able to discern the subtle melody he will play. He then proceeds to play nothing, gently strumming the strings so as to produce no sound while maintain the illusion that he is playing the lyre.  The audience erupts in applause, as no one in attendance is willing to acknowledge that they heard nothing. Nero is furious, though, believing the Doctor is mocking him, and secretly arranges to have him fed to the lions.

The banquet scene perfectly illustrates Spooner’s concept of the Doctor. His version of the character maintains the incredible intelligence we see in other episodes, but adds a more mischievous and playful element to his personality. At times, this aspect of the character threatens to overshadow the more serious, analytical nature of the character. There are several moments in The Romans when the doctor appears almost giddy.

Still angered, Nero takes Barbara to the Arena, where Ian and Delos are forced to battle one another for his amusement. Rather than kill one another, Delos and Ian instead stage an escape.  They’re successful, but Ian is unable to free Barbara. Realising that Ian will probably return to free Barbara, Nero and his soldiers prepare an ambush for him at the palace.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has discovered Nero’s architectural designs for a new Rome and is studying them when Tavius arrives. Tavius warns the Doctor that Nero is planning to kill him, and finally reveals the conspiracy that he and Maximus Pettulian were involved in: the assassination of Nero himself.

Nero enters and the Doctor uses his reading glasses to sneakily magnify the sun and set fire to Nero’s architectural plans. The fire gives Nero an idea; he will burn Rome to the ground so that he can rebuild it in his image. He spares the Doctor’s life, thanking him for the inspiration.

At this point, certain elements of the storyline come together in a subtle but effective way. The suggestion, at least as I see it, is that everything the Doctor has done since departing the villa was planned, from his finding Maximus and picking up his lyre through his deliberate antagonisation of Nero at the banquet to his setting fire to Nero’s plans. If this was Dennis Spooner’s intent then it’s an inspired piece of writing and an excellent character moment for the Doctor.

Nero assembles a gang to create the fires that will destroy the city. Sneaking into the palace as part of the mob, Ian and Delos are met by Tavius, who helps them reunite with Barbara.  Together, they flee Rome and make their way back to the villa. As Rome burns and Nero plays his lyre, the Doctor and Vicki use the ensuing chaos to stage their own escape from the city.

By the time Vicki and the Doctor arrive at the villa, Ian and Barbara have cleaned themselves up, leading the Doctor to mistakenly assume that they never left. On that lighthearted note, they depart in the TARDIS, but the time machine is drawn in by an unknown force and lands on a strange planet.

The Romans is an entertaining historical storyline. Unlike some of the other historical episodes, most notably The Aztecs, this storyline highlights numerous elements of the culture it is spotlighting, both good and bad. At times, the humour falls flat or overstays its welcome, but for the most part it is an effective tool to offset some of the more serious elements of the story.


The Doctor is more mischievous and cunning here than has been presented in past episodes, and he takes a certain childish glee in some of his schemes and machinations. The change in personality is slight, though, and William Hartnell seems to revel in those moments, making them both believable and entertaining.


The relationship between the Doctor and Vicki is beginning to develop nicely, although Vicki as an individual still needs some work. At times, she comes across as a poor man’s Susan, filling the role of surrogate granddaughter to the Doctor but not developing much beyond that role.


Nero (as played by Derek Francis) is a strange combination of farcical comedy, melodrama and maliciousness. At times, I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of his antics, while other times he was genuinely evil or maniacally insane. It’s a credit to Francis that his performance can balance out these qualities, although at times the different aspects of his personality can be jarring.


The Romans is an entertaining, if somewhat flawed, historical storyline. It infuses an added layer of humour into the series to mixed success.

3 Lukes.


The TARDIS has been drawn by a mysterious force to an unknown planet. What secrets lie hidden on The Web Planet?

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