The Doctor and his new companion, Vikki, get caught up in a murderous conspiracy while visiting ancient Rome and Barbara and Ian are caught by slavers and sent into servitude.
This is an odd quadrangle of episodes and probably one of the more humorous outings of the show so far. What’s better is that the humor is actually funny this time around – the Doctor assuming the identity of a musician who, unbeknownst to the Doctor, was also an assassin was just delightful fun with William Hartnell continuing to shake the chains of the Grumpy Old Man Doctor. Vikki is also a welcome change as her wide-eyed nativity is far removed from Susan’s never-ending screaming.
I say that the episodes are odd because, on one hand, you’ve got a funny and light-hearted adventure with the Doctor and Vikki trying to maneuver and scam Emperor Nero while, at the same time, you’ve got a rather dreary and heavy-handed story about slavery and the struggles of Ian who escapes and tries to evade his captures while Barbara ends up in Nero’s palace and finds herself the target of Nero’s lustful advances. The pairing of the two stories just doesn’t work especially when Barbara’s story goes from being a drama to a comedy in a single instance. The balance is just way off and makes the slavery story seem extremely inappropriate.
I would have even been fine, mind you, if the slavery story had been played for laughs like the assassin story. Granted, it would have been cringy, but it would have been a lot less awkward. The only thing about the slaver story that worked for me – and actually made the episodes better in retrospect – is that all four episodes go by and neither the A plot or B plot become aware of each other even though they are sometimes happening only a room away from each other. They orbit, occasionally influence, but never actually interact with each other. To me, that’s great storytelling and oddly funny. It also helps the pacing along as there is more than enough story to occupy all four episodes without anything becoming repetitive.
While the drama doesn’t work, the comedy does. The Doctor’s story is hilarious and fun. Derek Francis masterfully plays Nero as the proverbial emperor with no clothes so much so that I could see him as perhaps the inspiration of Dom DeLuise’ Caesar in History of the World Part One. I loved every minute this guy was on camera.
While half of the episode is a borderline failure, the other half is an unmitigated success and, when put together, they tell a pretty entertaining story with some deep flaws, but those flaws cannot stand against this serial’s strengths.