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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Doctor Who: The Romans

Serial Title: The Romans
Series: 2
Episodes: 4
The Slave Traders
All Roads Lead to Rome

Doctor: William Hartnell
Companions: Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Vicki Pallister (Maureen O'brien)

In a very random little opening, the TARDIS materializes on the edge of a cliff, then promptly teeters over the edge and falls off, knocking about everyone inside. (NFS: They're just tryin to keep it interesting!)

One month later...

The TARDIS crew, after their tumble, were soon able to right the TARDIS but, decided that they required a much needed vacation from time and space travel, and so they have been renting a villa here, where they landed- Italy, 64 AD... the Roman Empire. Toga-clad, they laze about and enjoy the fruits of the vineyard- at least until Ian and Barbara are captured as slaves, and the Doctor, having just left on a journey to show Vicki Rome, discovers a elderly murdered minstrel- and is mistaken for him by a searching centurion.

Unluckily for the Doctor, the centurion was secretly searching for the body to make sure the assassination of Maximus Pettulian, the lyre player whom he now believes the Doctor to be, was carried out successfully. Since Pettulian appears to be very much alive and still on his way to an audience with Nero, the centurion sends a mute to kill him, whom the Doctor thoroughly trounces... continuing on to Rome.

Barbara is purchased as a household slave by a kindly member of Nero's household, Tavius, who saw her kindness and compassion to another slave and took pity on her. Ian, meanwhile, becomes a slave on a galley, rowing below decks in backbreaking agony.

As the Doctor plays a series of Emperor's-New-Clothes gambits to both flatter Nero and hide the fact that he has no talent on the lute, Barbara catches the eye of Nero (NFS: More of that "everyone thinks Barbara is hot" stuff.)- and the ire of Nero's jealous wife. The wife has the royal poisoner prepare a brew to kill Barbara, but Vicki discovers this (without becoming aware of Barbara's presence or involvement), switching the drinks quite knowingly and maliciously... the odd little child wants to kill Nero! But she gloats about it to the Doctor, who preserves history just in time by warning the Caesar. (NFS: She's from the future...and she was pretty much raised by a dude who murdered his entire crew...what do you expect?)

Meanwhile, a terrible storm sinks Ian's galley, and he and another slave, Delos, manage to escape and swim to shore. Though his companion wants to flee north to another nation, Ian is resolute in his desire to return to Rome and rescue Barbara, and Delos decides to accompany him. Unfortunately, they are shortly caught... and sentenced to a very short career as gladiators, to be fed to the lions in the Colosseum... a fate that Nero, humiliated by one of the Doctor's lute-faking gambits, now also plans for 'Petullion.'

Nero takes Barbara for an afternoon's light entertainment- a private battle to the death in his own little arena. Ian and Delos are set against each other, but, inspired by Ian's resolve not to kill him even if he is victorious, a victorious Delos spares Ian's life, instead attacking the guards- both flee and escape.

The Doctor finally intuits that he- or rather Pettulian- was sent on a mission to assassinate Nero. He also discovers Nero's plans for a new Rome- and inadvertently inspires Nero to use fire as his tool of destroying the old Rome to make way for it. The distracted Nero does not pursue plans to take "Pettulian's" life, and the Doctor and Vicki slip silently away.

Ian and Delos sneak into the palace with the street thugs hired to spread the fire, re-unite with Barbara, and escape, aided by Tavius- revealed to be an underground Christian living in the Caeser's household.

Rome burns, Nero fidd-... er... lutes, and the two groups of TARDIS crew retreat into the countryside- Ian and Barbara arriving back first, collapsing, exhausted onto the sedans... where the Doctor and Vicki, returning, find them, believing that they have been lounging about in luxury, never having left the villa, ever since the Doctor left them. Despite their protestations that they have been involved in incredible adventures, the Doctor and Vicki will not believe a chagrined, but resigned, Ian and Barbara.

Another good one in a row. This serial was well-written, and, though not as good as the previous entry, and sometimes a little silly, did well with the humor, character interactions, etc. The Doctor's part in the story was quite interesting, and though the farce nature and near-misses of the story could be occasionally aggravating, it was overall a fun story.

Little character bits here and there made this one, I feel- Ian and Barbara's bantering relationship growing closer, The Doctor and Vicki's almost Tennant-and-Rose-like glee at witnessing history (and their slightly alien perspective allowing them to derive such glee even from witnessing what we would consider a gruesome tragedy), the slave-manager's ending revelation as a member of the Christian underground in Rome; not blatant or even a plot element throughout the story, but a nice touch of retroactive motivation explanation (why else would there be such a 'good Samaritan,' going to the lengths he was in Nero's court, unless he had a deeper reason for what he was doing? Turns out he did!) and a nice reminder that greater things were going on throughout the Roman empire than were witnessed in Nero's court. It served to hint at what we saw being just one small aspect of a far larger tapestry of people, places, and events that make up the richness of history.

Overall, the slightly frustrating ending (the usual comedy/sitcom/fantasy movie stuff about a great adventure that no one believes you've had) and occasional bits of silly humor don't detract, I feel, from the genuinely good humor- from Barbara's chagrined realization that Ian is going to be strutting around fancying himself a Roman insufferably for hours now, to the 'fridge' gag banter, to even the oddly amusing dark humor of Nero offing his annoying slave by getting him to test the supposedly poisoned wine. (NFS: Oddly amusing? Now you are starting to sound like Vicki.)

A final thought... what was up with Vicki? Just a childish mischievousness? Air-headed ditziness? Complete ignorance of the consequences of her actions? She just blithely, almost gigglingly announces that she thinks she's just poisoned emperor Nero... the Doctor rightly scolds her and rushes off to prevent history from being altered... but what was she THINKING in the first place? Wouldn't the smarter thing have been to replace the poisoned wine or spill it out and half-and-half it with the other wine, rendering both harmless? (Assuming you washed it to get rid of trace elements of the poison first, of course... ;-) )

Great moments:
The Doctor's defeating of a mute assassin so handily that he laughs at the poor mute, as well as his Nero-appeasing gambits. Also, the ending revelation of Tavius

All in all, 4.25 out of 5 Shrunken TARDISes. Not the best of the best, but very good. (NFS: I think I might have given it 5, I really remember this one and remember it was really funny and held my interest almost the entire time.)

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