Doctor Who #54: The Slave Traders

"Oh, the child, she travels with me. She keeps her eye on all the Lyres!"TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 1 of The Romans, available on DVD (packaged with The Rescue). First aired Jan.16 1965.

IN THIS ONE... After a month in a Roman villa, Ian and Barbara are captured by slave traders. Meanwhile, the Doctor is mistaken for a murdered musician and invited to Nero's.

REVIEW: It's Doctor Who's first comedy historical! And it's a lovely start to one of my favorite Hartnell stories. The sets and costumes are of course wonderful, that's a given for a BBC production, but it still needs to be said. Prop stores being what they are, Doctor Who in Ancient Rome was a given, and Ian even has fun doing lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, as if acknowledging what the show is riffing on. Unusually, a month has passed since the previous episode's cliffhanger, rare down time for a well-traveled crew, slumming it in a "borrowed" villa. Well-traveled except for Vicki, who's rather disappointed that she's not having "adventures" or even getting out of the sticks. Famous last words, surely.

That's when "plot" starts happening, of course, and for my money, it's as good a set-up for a historical as any. The Doctor is mistaken for a famous lyre player, which gives him a ticket straight to a historical celeb in Nero. But it's also entry into a Court intrigue story, with the Doctor/Maximus Pettulian as assassination target (from the one sore point in the episode, the mute "brigand-acting" Barry Jackson as Ascaris). Ian and Barbara, sold out by a petty textile merchant to slave traders, are soon separated so they can explore different aspects of the Roman experience. It's a very efficient use of the setting.

But the real magic is in the light comedy of the character moments which are well contrasted with the jeopardy in the last few minutes. Ian and Barbara are having a jolly old time (see Theories for more) and are wonderful together. When they're captured, they're basically on a bender (oh, that Roman wine!). We've never seen TARDISeers so relaxed. And it may explain how Barbara ends up smashing pottery on Ian's head by mistake. Discussion of menus adds a bit of texture (and makes me wonder if the ant eggs are a conscious reference to the next story), and funny lines abound. Some eras of Doctor Who are big on puns and verbal comedy, but not Hartnell's. It may well seem overdone in the future, but here, it's a highlight. The Doctor is quick to grab the opportunity to meet a famous figure from history, improvising his way into a dangerous situation when he can't even remember what his name is supposed to be. And Vicki, though she cautions him, goes along, finding it all very amusing. We're right there with you, Vicki.

THEORIES: When fandom discusses The Romans, Barbara and Ian are usually described as "post-coital". Hard to swim against the current there. If you're looking for an off-screen romance between the two characters, this is your best starting point. They flirt, Barbara compliments Ian's appearance, she plays with his hair... It's all very sweet. When Ian starts reciting poetry, and she bitterly says it might have been a mistake, we wouldn't be far off in seeing this not as disapproval for his cod-Shakespeare, but for not getting similar attention.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The chemistry between the characters are at an all-time high, the light comedy is wonderful indeed, and yet doesn't detract from the very real dangers the TARDIS crew faces. Can't wait for the rest.

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