Doctor Who #55: All Roads Lead to Rome

"Beautiful, beautiful! Did you not hear that, my child? That instant composition?"TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 2 of The Romans. First aired Jan.23 1965.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor and Vicki meet Nero, Barbara is bought into the Emperor's household, and Ian is shipwrecked and is recaptured in Rome.

REVIEW: This is the second story in a row to present the first Doctor as a formidable fighter and Hartnell throws himself into the moves with glee. We're far removed from the aching Doctor of the first season. The music echoes his delight, and makes it clear we're in a comedy. The danger is real enough, but we're invited not to look too closely at how our heroes get out of it. They are comic heroes so Lady Fortune is with them the whole way through. At least, when it matters. Otherwise, she makes sure the separated characters never actually meet, a pattern of missed connections that both keep the story going and provide amusement. The Doctor and Vicki finally meet mad, mercurial Nero, showing once again how much chemistry the two have. Perversely, Susan could never have done what Vicki does here, relishing the opportunity to manipulate the Emperor with absurd flattery. Both Maureen O'Brien and William Hartnell are great at comedy, and it's a pity Hartnell didn't get to do more in the first season. Derek Francis as Nero gives us just a small taste of his quality here, and it's already delicious. Like everything surrounding the Doctor in The Romans, he's at once comic and dangerous.

The other threads are not so humorous, of course. Barbara is at first thrown in a cell with a coughing woman bound for the circus. There's no doubt here that this is a remorseless culture. When the slave buyer Tavius comes to inspect her, we immediately see him as a creepy villain. We're wrong though. Once he buys her for Nero, there's the sense that he was probably the only man at the auction with pure intentions. And yet, can we trust someone who deals in slaves? And one who seems to have a hand in the murder of the centurion who tried to have Maximus/the Doctor killed. It puts him on the side of our heroes, but it's still murder. He doesn't abuse Barbara, quite the contrary, but she's not quick to trust him. That's our girl.

Divorced from Barbara, Ian likewise has little of the fun he had in the previous episode, though he does find a loyal friend in a fellow slave called Delos. They escape a stick footage galley during a stock footage storm with a mixture of cunning, strength and luck, only to be captured again, in Rome, to perhaps face stock footage lions. I make fun, but only the latter don't mesh very well with the new footage. During the storm, for example, water is thrown into the galley set and it's all very atmospheric and believable. A good action beat for the action hero of the series, on his tour of the Roman experience. Gladiators are next!

REWATCHABILITY: High - Ian's adventure at sea is exciting, Barbara's plight is dramatic, and the Doctor and Vicki's courtly intrigue is highly amusing. What more can we ask from an episode of Doctor Who?

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