Doctor Who #57: Inferno

"If I 'go down well', I might even make it my farewell performance. You see, I’ve always wanted to be considered as an artist of 'some taste'! Generally regarded as, er, well... er, 'palatable'."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 4 of The Romans. First aired Feb.6 1965.

IN THIS ONE... The Doctor gives Nero the idea to burn down Rome, so he does. Our heroes all escape in the confusion.

REVIEW: The violence that's always been part of this serial bubbles over in the final episode. It's still wickedly funny, but we're getting too close to some outrage happening to one of the heroes. Case in point, Nero stabbing a guard for not fighting hard enough. We might smile at his callousness, but Barbara certainly does not. In fact, Jacqueline Hill makes us feel her shock, distaste and desperation quite strongly. The Doctor is still laughing, making myriad puns about being eaten by lions, ruining Nero's joke, but he's found out he replaced an assassin (it must be an advantage to not look the part) and was meant to kill the emperor, so he picks that moment to leave Rome. Even Tavius gets a hard slap from Poppaea, the terror. And in the end, Delos rams a torch right in someone's face. This is a violent world and no longer the right place for a romp.

And yet it ends the same way it began, with all our characters in the villa, relaxing and taking playful jabs at each other. Barbara doesn't want to admit she was the one who smashed an urn over Ian's head, and there are some chuckles there, as there are in the reversal of roles about which character is slave to the other. Their chemistry is strong, and in the earlier shot of Barbara, Juliet-like, at a balcony, we almost get a confirmation that director Christopher Barry thought of these two as lovers. And of course, the two double acts never actually meet in Rome! And so there's the obligatory but amusing scene in which Ian and Barbara are accused of being lazy and not having moved an inch since the other two left.

The episode wouldn't be complete without Nero "fiddling" as Rome burns. That's your money shot. And of course, there's the fun of the Doctor having given Nero the idea to put the city to the torch (see Theories). The sequence is made more energetic by the use of live fire, handled by the actors even, which creates malevolent shadows on the video thanks to bright lights' effect on old-fashioned tube cameras (I used to give my time to the local public access television when I was a teenager, and know the technology well). Tavius turning out to be an early Christian is a nice touch, but unnecessary (can't we have a "good" Roman?). And my friends who are History nerds will be angry with me if I don't mention that he really should be holding a fish and not a cross at this particular time. And now Sevcharia is captain of the guard. He certainly gets around.

THEORIES: Tracking how History works... In the previous episode, the Doctor panics when he thinks Vicki will change history by poisoning Nero, so he stops it. Has he put History back on track, or was he PART of History? Consider the serial's ending as well. The Doctor sets fire to Nova Roma's plans with his glasses and gives Nero the idea to burn down Rome. Did he cause it, or as he at first tells Vicki, someone else would have done it if he hadn't? Though he says the latter, he seems to fancy the notion of the former. This is a good story to watch in parallel with Series 4's The Fires of Pompeii where the 10th Doctor denies having anything to do with the burning of Rome (ha!). In Pompeii, he likewise refuses to change a "fixed point", but seems to cause that fixed point to happen. From these two Roman stories, we might understand that time travelers ARE a part of History and may cause the events we know are "written". When History IS changed in a story, we'll have to examine just what allows a change to actually happen. Time travel alone does not seem to cause a paradox.

VERSIONS: The Target novelization by Donald Cotton doesn't use the episodes' narrative structure. Instead, it takes the form of letters, journals and diaries from the pen of almost every character in the story.

REWATCHABILITY: High - The comedy gets more acidic until History catches up with us and all hell breaks loose... and then, we get the relief of a return to comedy. I'm actually sorry to be leaving the era, its mood and its characters.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - Rewatching The Romans is a confirmation of it being one of my favorite Hartnell stories (indeed, one of my favorite Doctor Who stories, period). It's funny, features fun performances from both the guest stars and the regulars, and uses Ancient Rome to its fullest potential. Vicki has quickly proven herself to be a benefit to the show and a breath of fresh air.

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