The Romans was the fourth story in season two of Doctor Who. It was the first story to have its main plot handled with strong comedic elements as well as dramatic. It was filmed in the same block as The Rescue, with the same production team working on both.
The Romans saw the first use of stock footage for a cliffhanger, in this case, a lion. Part three, “Conspiracy”, was broadcast on the same day as Winston Churchill’s funeral, explaining the dip in viewing figures.
David Whitaker was, by this time, seeing stories with historical figures as a liability. Despite this, The Romans was intended as the third of three historical tales, following the Spanish Armada and the American Civil War. It appears to have been Verity Lambert who convinced him to script this story as a comedy. (REF: About Time 1)
This was also the first time a major actor requested to be on Doctor Who. Here Derek Francis was given the role of Nero.
Episode 1: The Slave Traders
The four travelers materialize on the edge of a cliff. Before the Doctor has time to take off again, the TARDIS falls from the cliff, crashing to the ground.
A month later the four friends are in Rome living in the lap of luxury. The Doctor, Ian and Barbara are content, but Vicki is beginning to tire of the life of a Roman and seeks adventure. As she talks to Barbara about the adventures she was promised, a man lurks threateningly in the bushes. The two women find themselves in a market where they are seen by two suspicious looking Romans, Didius and Sevcheria. The men speak of some sort of crime they intend to do in the village. The two women are overheard talking about London by an old market stall owner. The two Romans bribe the woman for information about Barbara and Vicki. She states that they spoke of London and have been in the area for the last month house sitting for Flavius Giscard, who is away campaigning in Gaul. The two men set off with this information. As they leave, so does an old lyre player named Maximus Pettulian. He does not get very far before he is attacked on the road out of the village and killed by the sinister man who observed Vicki and Barbara earlier in the day.
Back at the house of Giscard the other travelers ask the Doctor if they should go back and check the TARDIS, but the Doctor says that the craft will be perfectly safe without it being constantly checked upon. The Doctor asks if they are getting restless and anxious to leave. Barbara and Ian state they are perfectly happy but Vicki yearns for adventure. Spontaneously the Doctor states that he plans to leave for Rome as soon as he can and that Vicki can come with him. When Barbara asks to come, the Doctor reacts crossly, stating that he doesn’t need a nurse maid. As soon as the two are packed, they leave Ian and Barbara alone in the villa. Didius and Sevcheria plot a siege on the villa later that night. As Ian and Barbara relax they are set upon by the two men. The two friends put up a gallant fight but Barbara accidentally catches Ian on the head with a jug which was meant for Sevcheria and knocks him unconscious. Ian and Barbara are carried away by the two men.
On the road out of the village, the Doctor and Vicki come across the body of Maximus Pettulian. They are surprised by a centurion who has his sword drawn. He notices the Doctor is holding the old man’s harp and asks if it belongs to him. When the Doctor answers noncommittally, the centurion states that he has been sent out to look for the lyre player by his master, Nero. Unable to resist the temptation the Doctor passes himself off as Pettulian in order to meet Nero. The centurion leads him and Vicki away.
Outside the villa, Ian and Barbara are tied up to a slave cart as they discuss how to escape. Barbara’s primary concern is the Doctor and Vicki not knowing where they have been taken and leaving on the TARDIS. Didius and Secheria do business with a slave owner who wants to buy Barbara, but they refuse, saying that the woman will get a higher price in Rome. The man says he does not plan to go to Rome but will take three men — including Ian. As Ian is led away a distraught Barbara is even more fearful now she is away from him.
In the camp of the centurion, the assassin is summoned to the centurion who berates him, saying that his orders were not carried out and that Pettulian lives. He says that he will give the assassin one last chance and directs him to where the Doctor is asleep. The assassin approaches the door with his dagger drawn.
Episode 2: All Roads Lead to Rome
The assassin attacks the Doctor, who fights him off before Vicki comes in and pushes him out of an open window. After the Doctor boasts of his abilities in fisticuffs, Vicki informs him that the centurion who brought them thus far on their journey to Rome has disappeared. The Doctor rightly assumes that he is the reason for the death of the real Pettulian and the recent attack. The Doctor assures Vicki that they are to stay there one further night and then go on to Rome to meet Nero themselves. Vicki is unsure if this is a good idea, but the Doctor persuades her.
Meanwhile Barbara has already been thrown in jail in Rome, awaiting an auction wherein she will be sold to the highest bidder. She is put in the same cell as a woman who has a bad cough and is clearly ill. Barbara comforts her and speaks of Ian who will come and save them.
Ian himself is on a slave ship and has been for the last five days, manning the oars. He speaks to a friend he has made in the journey by the name of Delos. They have struck up a plan and now that they are near land they try to put it into action. Delos plays dead and Ian calls one of the slave drivers. However, their plan is seen to be fake and they are forced to work twice as hard for the indiscretion.
Back in the prison Barbara is approached by a well dressed man named Tavius who wants to buy Barbara. He states that he will look after her. When Barbara asks if this means she will get her freedom he says that she will still be a slave but a slave that is treated humanely. She turns this down. When the guard comes round, Tavius offers to buy her directly. The guard informs him that she is to be sold at auction and no amount of money will convince him otherwise. The guard gives Barbara a fine dress to wear for the auction. When she asks what will happen to the other woman, the guard says that she is to be given to the circus as she is useless for auction in the state that she is in. Barbara looks concerned.
Ian’s ship seems to have hit a storm, and as the slave driver forces the men to row harder in order to get to land, the ship starts to take on water. As it does Ian and Delos break free and overpower the slave driver, but the ship sinks. Ian wakes on the beach alongside Delos. Delos states they are not far from the centre of Rome, and Ian intends to go and look for Barbara. Delos offers to come with him and they set off together.
By this time the Doctor and Vicki have arrived in Rome and are looking around. Vicki observes some kind of auction and asks the Doctor what they are auctioning. The Doctor sees that it is a slave auction and moves Vicki on so as not to explain to her what it is. As they turn and leave, Barbara walks onto the podium. She is the first to be auctioned. After a few negligible offers, the highest reaching 2500 sesterces, Tavius arrives and bids 10,000 sesterces, successfully buying Barbara. He explains to Barbara that he is a representative of Nero and, after seeing that she was kind and beautiful when she was looking after the ill woman in prison, he bought her to serve under Nero. Barbara expresses her thanks but says she intends to run away. Tavius warns her against such an action as an escaped slave is always sentenced to death. Barbara says she has to take that chance. Their conversation is interrupted when a messenger sends for Tavius, saying that Pettulian has arrived. Tavius hurries away and meets the Doctor, thinking him to be Pettulian. Looking suspicious, Tavius explains to the Doctor that the problem they have has been sorted out and that “he” has been put in the apodyterium. The Doctor goes along with this, not knowing to what Tavius alludes. Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Nero. Nero is introduced to the Doctor and instantly asks the “musician” to play for him. The Doctor says he would much rather hear Nero play first. Flattered, Nero does so and the Doctor copies him. Nero is flattered by this and says he will meet the Doctor later for a further conversation. The Doctor and Vicki explore and find their way to the apodyterium to discover what it was that Tavius meant. After some exploration they find the dead body of the centurion that accosted them originally.
Meanwhile Ian and Delos arrive in Rome. However, it isn’t long before they are re-arrested and sent to the same prison where Barbara was held. They are informed that they are lucky as usually escaped prisoners are sent to death but instead they are to be trained as gladiators and fight for their survival. Delos and Ian wonder who they are to fight, and as they look out the window they see many lions feasting on flesh.
Episode 3: Conspiracy
It becomes apparent to the Doctor that Tavius had the centurion murdered and that he too is expected to fulfil some sort of action. He goes along with Tavius’ demands as if he knows all about the plans but remains clueless.
Nero decides the Doctor must fulfil an obligation too, and organises a banquet in his honour at which he must play the lyre. He also takes a shine to Barbara and starts to pursue her romantically — and literally — much to the anger of Empress Poppaea. She warns Barbara off Nero, stating that she has been the Empress for many years and does not intend to see a competitor take the role. However, when she sees Nero manhandling Barbara later she decides more drastic action is to be taken.
Meanwhile Vicki has befriended the court poisoner Locusta, who informs Vicki that she is in constant use as there is always intrigue going on in court. She also alludes to the fact that she feels her greatest calling will be one day to poison Nero himself.
The Doctor has taken Nero to a sauna to try to extract some information from him about the conspiracy in which the Doctor appears to have embroiled himself. Nero knows nothing of this. He informs the Doctor that he is ordered to play at the banquet tonight — much to the Doctor’s dismay.
Vicki’s conversation has been interrupted by Poppaea. As Vicki hides under the desk she learns that Poppaea is jealous of a slave girl and wants her poisoned. As Poppaea takes Locusta out to show her the slave girl, Vicki climbs out from under the desk and switches the cups so that it will be Nero who receives the poison.
In the banqueting hall Nero is flirting with Barbara and gives her a gold bracelet, hoping for a kiss in return. They are interrupted by a servant presenting two goblets of wine for the pair. In another part of the hall Vicki has informed a shocked Doctor that she has poisoned Nero as he and Poppaea are an evil couple and should be stopped. He informs her that rewriting history is strictly against the rules of time travel and swiftly stops Nero from drinking the wine. Nero is most thankful to the Doctor for saving his life. However, Nero has a slave drink the wine to test it.
Poppaea is furious with the mix up which sees Barbara stay alive and, thinking it a mistake of Locusta’s, sends her to the jail.
Later that evening at the banquet Tavius explains that “all is in place for tomorrow” to the Doctor, to which he responds cryptically. The Doctor is soon called upon by Nero to play the lyre. The Doctor explains to the gathered masses that the style of music that he plays is so fine and so delicate that only the most sensitive and cultured ears can appreciate it truly. He then proceeds to mime the process of playing the lyre whilst the conceited masses pretend to be able to hear it. When the Doctor finishes, his performance is met with wild applause. When he sits down he explains to Vicki that it is similar to The Emperor’s New Clothes, a story idea which he claims to have given to Hans Christian Andersen. The reception given to the Doctor has made Nero insanely envious of him and he intends to give him his comeuppance. He rushes off to his room to change but encounters Barbara and takes her with him. He explains that they are going to the arena as he has a plan — but also wants to see a fight to make him feel better.
At the jail Ian and Delos have been informed that they are to fight each other to the death at the next fight. Delos regrettably informs Ian that he will kill him if he has to as some slaves are freed from captivity if they impress Nero in battle.
Outside in the arena Nero and Barbara are in place for the fight and Nero explains to the jail keeper that he wants Maximus Pettulian to play at the arena. However, half way during the show the lions will be let loose on him due to the fact that Pettulian is the only man in Rome to prove a larger spectacle than Nero. This conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the combatants. Barbara is shocked to see Ian as one of the gladiators. The two men fight. Ian disarms Delos but refuses to kill him. They fight again, and Delos disarms Ian and raises his sword to cut off Ian’s head.
Part 4: Inferno
Delos has a change of heart and turns on Nero, attacking him instead of slaying Ian. Nero’s guards fight with Delos and Ian, who manage to escape with Ian telling Barbara that he will come back for her. Nero overhears this and plans to use Barbara as bait to catch the two renegade gladiators.
Meanwhile back at the palace Poppaea orders Tavius to dismiss Barbara, stating that she is a nuisance. When Tavius says that Nero is fond of her, Poppaea slaps him. As he leaves the room he comes across Barbara, who says that her friend Ian is coming to pick her up. Tavius states that he was under orders to let her go anyway so all will be well. As they talk Barbara notices that guards are being placed around the palace in order to wait for Ian. Tavius says that he will find a way of smuggling Ian in safely. Barbara also mentions to Tavius that a musician by the name of Maximus Pettulian is to be assassinated by Nero at the arena tomorrow and asks whether he could stop this from happening too. He agrees to do so.
In another section of the palace the Doctor and Vicki have stumbled across the plans that Nero has made for a new Rome. Tavius comes to them warning them of Nero’s plans. He also states that the assassination of Nero will have to be pushed forward to tonight. The Doctor is bewildered by this and Tavius alludes to the fact that Pettulian was coming to Rome in order to murder Nero. A bewildered Doctor states that he and Vicki must leave that night in order to avoid both his and Nero’s assassinations. They are interrupted when Nero enters, stating that the Doctor must play at the arena the following night. The Doctor agrees. However, he is holding his spectacles at such an angle as to set fire to the plans of new Rome on the table. Nero is initially furious and says the Doctor will be eaten by alligators, but then realizes that by burning down Rome he would be able to build his planned version. He congratulates the Doctor for giving him this idea. Nero decides to set this plan in action that night. He summons a group of men to the palace. As they make their way in, Ian and Delos, who have been hiding in the bushes, join them in order to sneak past the guards. The men are informed that they will be paid handsomely to run through the town and burn Rome to the ground. As they are receiving this information, Tavius gets Ian and reunites him with Barbara. As the men run from the palace to wreak havoc, Ian and Barbara slip out with them to return to the villa and Delos stops a guard with a torch.
The Doctor and Vicki have also escaped and are heading across the fields when they see Rome burning. Vicki makes the Doctor realize that he has had an effect on history and inspired Nero to burn down Rome. This concept genuinely shocks the Doctor as he realizes that his time-travelling has had an effect on Earth’s history.
Ian and Barbara arrive back at the villa first and change back into some more comfortable clothes. They soon fall asleep, only to be awoken by the Doctor, who assumes they have been lazing around since his departure. He refuses to let the couple get a word in edge ways before heading off to the TARDIS.
Once there Vicki fills Ian and Barbara in on their adventures, with neither of the party aware of how closely linked their two adventures were. Vicki asks Ian and Barbara where they are going next. They answer that the Doctor doesn’t necessarily have full control of his ship so their destinations are all but random. Vicki doesn’t believe them and goes with Barbara to get changed. Ian approaches a puzzled Doctor who informs him that something appears to be dragging them down to an anonymous planet.