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Recap / Doctor Who S2 E4 "The Romans"

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I've got a friend who specialises in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way.

The one where Vicki nearly kills Nero. Accidentally.

Written by Dennis Spooner. This four-episode serial first aired from January 16 to February 6, 1965.

Episodes: "The Slave Traders", "All Roads Lead to Rome", "Conspiracy", "Inferno".

Fun with the Romans, as the TARDIS crew arrives during the reign of Nero and takes a little holiday at a villa outside Rome. The Doctor quickly gets bored and heads off into the city with Vicki while Ian and Barbara stay behind - only to be kidnapped by slave traders.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is mistaken for a famous musician and ordered to play the lyre for Nero, and goes through ever more ridiculous zany schemes to avoid having to reveal he can't play a note - at one point claiming that only the most musically-attuned ear can even hear his playing, before silently waving his fingers in front of the instrument.

Ian is sold as a galley slave while Barbara ends up as a servant at Nero's palace. Ian escapes when his ship is wrecked and heads to Rome to try and rescue Barbara, but is recaptured and made into a gladiator.

Eventually Ian escapes again and is reunited with Barbara, while the Doctor and Vicki make their escape after the Doctor accidentally sets fire to Nero's plans for the new city of Rome, giving him an idea about how to clear the space.


  • Artistic Licence – History: Tavius is shown clutching a cross pendant, indicating that he is a Christian. However, at the time of Nero, Christians would have used the ichthys (stylised fish) as a symbol. The cross, reminiscent of Jesus' torture and death, would have been viewed negatively by early Christians. On the other hand, very few viewers (especially children) would likely have recognised the symbol in 1965, as it was before the modern popular revival that took place during the 70s and 80s.
  • Anachronism Stew: The map of Rome that the Doctor examines in Nero's palace clearly shows the city ringed by the Aurelian Walls which weren't built until the late 3rd Century.
  • Ancient Rome: A more humorous take.
  • Assassin Outclassin': The Doctor runs rings around the mute assassin Ascaris sent to kill him, and ultimately ends up shoving him out of a window.
  • Beard of Sorrow: It's more "Stubble of Sorrow" since it doesn't have much time to grow, but after getting sold into slavery Ian begins growing one. If you ignore the fact that it's born from some of the worst days he has experienced in his travels so far it doesn't look that bad on him.
  • Been There, Shaped History: The Doctor accidentally gives Nero the idea to burn Rome.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: The Doctor meets Emperor Nero and inadvertently inspires him to burn down Rome.
  • Big Bad: Emperor Nero.
  • Black Comedy: Barbara is made a slave with no rights or ability to get home to her own time, and Nero attempts to rape her multiple times (even chasing her down the corridors while she screams), and it's all treated as the horrible fate it is, and yet all Played for Laughs.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Emperor Nero's repeated attempts to rape Barbara, and then his attempts to blame Barbara for it whenever his wife calls him out on it. A lot of this is an attempt to deal with Deliberate Values Dissonance - the historical Emperor Nero certainly was a rapist - in a way that isn't absolutely traumatic to the family audience, but special mention must be given to a particularly dated scene where the Doctor sees Nero running after the screaming and traumatised Barbara, smiles, and affectionately remarks "What an extraordinary fellow."
  • Blofeld Ploy: After an unsuccessful attempt to break her out, Barbara is held by a guard. Nero advances on her with a sword, stabs... and the guard drops dead.
    Nero: He didn't fight hard enough.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: "Oh something else I forgot to tell you: I think I've poisoned Nero."
  • Breather Episode: The Romans was deliberately written to be the show's first comedic story, specifically parodying the 1951 film adaptation of Quo Vadis. Compared to the two preceding serials, it's presented more like a farce than a drama, with slapstick fight scenes, sharp dialogue and much mistaking of identity. This odd-seeming choice was made to increase the dramatic range of the series.
  • The Caligula: Caesar Nero.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The bracelet Nero gives Barbara will come into play in the next serial.
  • Decadent Court: It's Emperor Nero, what else would you expect?
  • Double Entendre: "Close your eyes and Nero will give you a big surprise".
  • Did They or Didn't They?: Ian and Barbara, alone in the villa. The first episode opens with them lying luxuriously on couches feeding each other grapes, and they later end up mock-wrestling in a way that suggests that they no longer have any sense of mutual personal space.
  • Gag Echo: In the first episode, Ian and Barbara are drinking in the villa. During a refill, Ian mentions there's no ice and Barbara says "there's some in the fridge." He actually starts to go until he realises she's joking and they share a laugh. During the last episode, when the two get back to the villa, Barbara says that she's hungry and wonders if there's any food in the house. Ian tells her to look in the fridge. Barbara starts to go look, then realises the joke and hits Ian with a pillow.
  • Gladiator Games: What Ian's trying to avoid.
  • Good Old Fisticuffs: In Ian's absence, the Doctor gets a much-appreciated opportunity to practise his own skills at the noble art.
  • Grapes of Luxury: Barbara feeds Ian grapes in the opening scene.
  • Historical Domain Character: Nero, Poppaea, Locusta...
  • Large Ham: Ian turns out to be one when he decides to give an impromptu recital of Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar.
  • Made a Slave: Barbara is overheard loudly talking about how she and the rest of her companions are from Britannia. Not too soon afterwards, she and Ian are kidnapped and sold into slavery. While being British was advantageous in the 1960s, in the time of Pax Romana, not so much!
  • Master Poisoner: Locusta
  • Missed Him by That Much: In the middle two episodes, the Doctor and Vicki repeatedly almost bump into Barbara, who would have been very glad to see them. In the end, they only meet her back at the villa and never realise she was in Rome at all.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: The Doctor is mistaken for the famous lyre player Maximus Pettulian.
  • Mood Whiplash: All over the place. One minute the gang is lounging around a luxurious house sleeping and eating grapes, the next minute Ian and Barbara are sold into slavery. Ian's storyline is particularly grim, involving slave labour and duelling to the death, and it can be a bit jarring when cut back and forth between the wacky comedy of the Doctor trying to fool Nero.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
    • Barbara's heart was in the right place when she tried to attack the intruders in the villa, but hitting Ian on the head with an urn didn't exactly help them.
    • The Doctor accidentally gives Nero the idea to burn Rome. And has a Squee reaction.
  • Noodle Incident: The Doctor recalls a couple: not only has he been to Rome before (an ad-lib by William Hartnell) but he also claims he trained the "Mountain Mauler of Montana" (presumably a famous boxer or wrestler, and implied to be beyond Vicki's home time period of the late 25th century).
  • Parody Episode: The serial was written with the intent of lampooning the 1951 film adaptation of Quo Vadis.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Unusual in that the goblets are switched by a third party (Vicki).
  • Psychopathic Man Child: Nero.
  • Psychotic Smirk: The Doctor gives one after having just shown Nero up in court.
  • Real Event, Fictional Cause: The Doctor accidentally inspires Nero to burn Rome.
  • Running Gag:
    • "It's in the fridge."
    • In the first few episodes, the Doctor keeps forgetting the name of the man he is supposed to be impersonating.
  • Self-Offence: Barbara hits Ian over the head with an urn while trying to hit the intruders. When they return to the villa, Ian at first blames the men, until Barbara admits it was she who knocked him out.
  • Shoot the Dog: Tavius and the actual Petullian's plan is to assassinate Nero because he's nuts and an emperor.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: After Barbara gives him a haircut, Ian quotes Julius Caesar.
    Ian: Friends, Romans, countrymen! Lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
    Barbara: Oh boy, that was a mistake.
  • Slave Galley: Ian and Delos are sent into one.
  • Squee: Vicki's reaction when the Doctor says she can come to Rome with him. She does it again when she sees Nero for the first time.
  • Token Good Teammate: Tavius, as he is a Christian.
  • Trope Maker: See Artistic Licence – Religion above for an in-universe example.
  • Visible Boom Mic: During the third episode, a boom mike drops into the shot during the scene in which Nero and his wife pick out jewellery (this is also visible in the DVD featurette What Has The Romans Done for Us?)
  • While Rome Burns: Nero shows why he's the Trope Namer in his last scene.
  • You Have Failed Me: The Emperor’s wife has Master Poisoner Locusta poison a goblet to get rid of Barbara, who she sees as a home-wrecker. But after a Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo results in a random servant dying, Locusta is thrown to the lions by the Empress.
  • Zany Scheme: Everything the Doctor does to keep people from finding out he can't play the lyre. Inspired by The Emperor's New Clothes.