Given that Doctor Who was still a relatively new television programme in 1965, the producers were more willing to play around with the different genres that the show could go to. They had already done pure historical adventures as well as seeing the show travel into the furthest reaches of the future, but The Romans is something different entirely, it takes the Doctor to Rome in 64AD and we meet the mad emperor, Nero. What is different about this tale is that it takes the historical setting and uses it as the backdrop for high comedy and thrills.
What is evident here is that, by the third story in the second series, the original intention to teach viewers about science and history had begun to be pushed to the wayside. Author, Dennis Spooner is not particular careful in his depictions of Roman life and changing Nero's age who was in his twenties at the time of the fire in Rome and was not middle aged as this story would try to suggest. And what is also different about this story is the fact that it is the first instance that it is the Doctor who causes a major historical event, he is the one who gives Nero the idea to burn Rome...
In a cliff-hanger that was used occasionally in the early years, the story begins from where the previous story left us, the TARDIS falling off a cliff in ancient Italy. When this story begins we see the TARDIS crashed at an awkward angle and then we cut away to see the Doctor's companion Ian lying down apparently unconscious. But in a really clever twist for the show at the time, the story has cut to several weeks after the TARDIS incident. The TARDIS crew are all fine and enjoying a little holiday during the time of the Romans. It is the first time we catch a glimpse of what the crew get up to between adventures when they are apparently killing time rather than travelling head long through it. What is also interesting is that we get to see Ian and Barbara in more relaxed circumstances and, in a mature move for the show in 1965, we get dialogue and little moments between the pair that suggests that they might be becoming more than just good friends. Unfortunately, we will never know if this was always the intention or some new development but a lot of fans believe they began to fall for each other when they first burst into the TARDIS two years previously in An Unearthly Child. But what is clear is that Amy Pond and Rory Williams weren't the first lovers in the TARDIS!
We also have a new face in the TARDIS crew who gets her first proper Who adventure. Vicki, played with brilliance by Maureen O'Brien, joined the TARDIS crew in the previous adventure, The Rescue after the spaceship she was travelling on board crashed on the planet Dido. After helping the Doctor, Ian and Barbara to defeat the baddies on that world, she realised that, with her father having died in the crash, she had no one and nowhere to go so she was invited on board. In many ways, Maureen O'Brien had the hardest job of all. She had to replace the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan who had left two stories previously. O'Brien steps up to the challenge and succeeds in making Vicki totally brilliant with her younger and more humorous outlook on life inspiring characters like Zoe, Sarah Jane and Amy Pond. And her line in this story. "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, I think I've poisoned Nero," always makes me chuckle!
By the time The Romans comes along, Vicki has obviously had sufficient time to get over any trauma she might have suffered on Dido and she appears to be enjoying herself during the Roman Empire. She is clearly enjoying her new life as a slightly entitled teenager, going fabric shopping with Barbara who is going to make her a new dress from Roman materials. But Vicki is bored. With the Doctor basically getting them into the Roman equivalent of suburbia, she is longing for adventure. And she doesn't have long to wait...
As eccentric and secretively as ever, the Doctor suddenly announces he has the intention of going on a trip to Rome, which comes as a surprise and he agrees to take Vicki along with him. You'll notice that Ian and Barbara agree to stay behind a little too enthusiastically! But they are kidnapped by slave traders and eventually sold. Each group of characters get a different story which neatly tie up together in the end. Ian's story isn't too different from what we have recently seen in Spartacus as he is sold a oarsman on a ship, chained to a galley before being shipwrecked in a storm and then ends up slated to fight in an arena against lions.
Barbara's story seems to be headed in a similar direction when fate intervenes and she is sold as a personal servant to Nero's wife. But her story is just as dangerous as Ian's when she ends up caught between Nero's lustfulness and his wife's jealously. In a comedic moment, Nero chases her throughout his palace with his randy intentions and this results in Barbara ending up on his wife's 'To Murder' list. In 1965, the chase scenes were probably more innocent. But with todays changing views it doesn't come across so well. And for poor Barbara it must have been horrible. Chased through the halls belonging to most powerful man in the world with the intention of raping her and then his wife wanting to kill her for it and not him.
It is a relief that the Doctor and Vicki get a far lighter time in Rome. The Doctor spends the whole story dancing dangerously close to death but giggles the whole way through it. The humour we see in the Doctor and Vicki plot is a lot darker and more wicked and where the previous series' story, The Aztecs was intent on showing us that culture's fixation on death, The Romans settles for the Doctor and Vicki meeting Locusta, the official poisoner who is only too pleased about her role in the proud and long standing Roman tradition. And you can say what you like about the character of Nero here but I think he is played to perfection by Derek Francis who manages to simultaneously be an oafish buffoon whose sheer stupidity exposes to him to some very well deserved humiliation and a psychotic bully who uses his position of power to do anything he wants and tramples over those who try to get in his way. Credit must be given to Francis who manages to balance both these aspects extremely well and makes Nero so enjoyable to watch. He even manages to deliver lines like, "I'll kill you over and over again," sound both funny and at the same time, really chilling.
The Doctor spends much of this story walking almost blindly into the jaws of death apparently completely oblivious to his impending doom. Several of the best moments from The Romans come from scenes where the Doctor flips the turns the table on the idea that the doddery old man who is both defenceless and has no idea what is going on was in control of the situation at all times. William Hartnell clearly makes the most of the script, probably due to the comedic elements given that what made him famous was his comedy roles. He cheers with delight as he throws an armed assassin out of his bedroom window and smiles with glee when he is asked to play the lyre when he clearly has no idea how to play it. So what is his solution? He doesn't play the lyre in order to save his life in the banquet scene. But his crowning moment in this serial is when he is told that he will be fed to lions and he gets to spout out a series of crazy puns about eating and being mauled to death in his speech. As he gives his speech, all the time he has his glasses hidden behind his back which catch the direct sunlight and reflect it onto a pile of papers in his room. But this brings up an interesting question. Given how manipulative the Doctor would one day become as he literally used his companion Ace as a pawn in a cosmic game of chess with Fenric, did the Doctor actually mean to set fire to the city? We are probably meant to believe that it is a complete accident. But it is also completely possible that he knew exactly what he was doing. Given this question it makes us wonder if the Doctor is changing his attitude towards history, should he let it pan out, or should he give a little helping push in the right direction?
It wasn't too long before this story that the Doctor told Barbara in The Aztecs, "You can't change history, not one line!" But the Doctor very clearly does change history giving Nero the idea of burning Rome to the ground while he played the fiddle right in the middle of it! Watching The Romans multiple times, you can see that there is plenty of evidence that the sole reason the Doctor lands in Rome, is with the purpose of burning it down or at least giving Nero the idea to do it. This theory certainly fits into the idea that the Doctor isn't as harmless as lets on. Perhaps the biggest fault of those early series is that the Doctor can't pilot the TARDIS well enough to let him land in one time and place, otherwise he could have gotten Ian and Barbara back to London in the 1960s but for all his irascibility, he is basically lonely.
But why would the Doctor want to set Rome on fire and why is he so gleeful when he discovers that he has done so? He has, in effect, caused damage on an incalculable scale and sentenced thousands to death. Maybe it is something like the idea of killing Hitler to stop the holocaust, where his actions stopped some greater evil from occurring, that is a time travel chestnut that has been used before. Or was he so caught up in his grand scheme that he didn't think about the consequences of his actions? If, in The Aztecs, you were taught that you shouldn't change history then this story proves him wrong, you can change history. It is when this new darker streak in the Doctor's nature is brought to a conclusion in the story from the end of this series, The Time Meddler, we are confronted with the idea that how and why we change is history is far more important than the fact that you can...