Doctor Who: The Romans 3, Conspiracy

This is episode 3 out of 4 of the Willian Hartnell-era story 'The Romans', so, unsurprisingly, it's chiefly composed of padding and marking time to get to episode four, though the titular 'conspiracy' seems to be ticking away in the background.

Poor old Ian is about to be sent to 'fight' lions in the arena - which, one suspects, adds up to being fed to them. Meanwhile, Nero wander around his (Golden?) house, picking on slaves, and the Doctor is trying to work out whether there's a conspiracy afoot.

Next, we get to meet Poppaea. She is youngish but not very young, blonde, sophisticated and her relationship with Nero seems to resemble Margo and Jerry from The Good Life as much as anything else (only not as nice!). Barbara is presented to her, and Poppaea declares grandly that she likes being Empress and does not wish this situation to change, though how she expects Barbara to protect herself from Nero, I'm not sure. Barbara is immediately chased down a corridor by Nero, who is stopped when he runs into Vicki, who once again just misses seeing Barbara. Nero catches up to Barbara again, but this time is stopped by the Doctor, who also doesn't see her. The whole thing looks distinctly like a French farce; the Doctor laughs at Nero's behaviour and the music seems to be suggesting that we should be laughing too.

Vicki, meanwhile, has stumbled across the court poisoner (who, ironically, looks not unlike Sian Phillips as Livia in I, Claudius). Vicki is cheerfully informed that everyone expects the family of Caesar to murder each other. This is starting to look like something out of Farscape (minus the puppets) and the series has strayed into presenting us with the pop-cultural view of Rome, rather than anything resembling Roman history. It is true that there was a period (later, during the third century) where emperors took to murdering each other at an alarming rate. It is also true that various historians - Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius - occasionally imply, infer or downright accuse members of the Julio-Claudian imperial family of murdering each other (a subject covered in great detail by I, Claudius - perhaps the writers of this episode had read the book). However, Tacitus and Suetonius never once imply that all this murder and poison is OK or expected - bad emperors are marked by their bloodthirstiness, Nero being one of the worst, and good emperors leave the poisoning to their wives. If any of them did have a 'court poisoner', it wouldn't be an official position (though they might employ a known poisoner like Martina). This scene seems to spring from the basic notion that Roman emperors had a tendency to bump each other off, but without any more in depth understanding of how Roman society really worked. And yes, I know, it's only Doctor Who, but before I get accused of nit-picking, it is worth bearing in mind that these early historical stories were supposed to educate children as well as entertain them.

They have got one thing right though - poisoning is woman's work. Men were expected to kill each other in much more macho ways, while women were forced to resort to poison, being physically weaker.

Nero continues to chase Barbara, demanding 'a kiss', while the Doctor and Poppaea listen to her screams from outside the door. The Doctor doesn't even try to help, but wanders off, but Poppaea walks in and allows Barabara to leave, while Nero insists that she was chasing him.

The woman in the cell next to Ian is the one who was helped by Barbara, and she tells him that Barbara has been sold. The Doctor and Nero organise his first concert while in the baths, while Poppaea decides to poison Barbara, still convinced that she wants to be Empress (unlikely, since even Nero was unlikely to marry a slave or freedwoman, whatever Suetonius says about secret wedding ceremonies between Nero and a male slave).

Nero and Barbara are about to have a drink, when Vicki tells the Doctor, quite calmly, that she thinks, in trying to save the unknown slave Poppaea wanted to poison, that she's poisoned Nero. I know Nero's horrible, but she is way too calm and collected about this (though she has managed to save Barbara, who drank first and would have died if Vicki hadn't switched the goblets). The Doctor objects on the grounds that this will mess up history, and stops Nero from drinking. Nero tests this by making a slave drink and the slave immediately collapses, bug-eyed.

Poppaea sends the poisoner to the arena for failing to do her job, and we cut to the feast that evening (Nero stuffing himself with grapes, of course, because This Is What Romans Do!). Bizarrely, everyone is eating sitting at regular dining chairs and waist-height dining tables (perhaps they've been ordering furniture from that strange carpenter from Galilee?!). This is especially weird since Ian and Barbara seemed to be reclining correctly in the first episode. The Doctor is ordered to play, and pretends to pluck the strings while actually making no noise - and somehow, everyone feels this is OK. He explains to Vicki that it's an 'Emperor's New Clothes' situation but really, this is getting far too silly, plus it's thoroughly annoyed Nero, who doesn't like being laughed at and doesn't like other people getting applause.

Nero drags Barbara off to the gladiatorial school, where Ian and his friend are to be forced to fight each other, just like in Star Trek. This theme often crops up in fictitious gladiatorial situations (Roman or otherwise) presumably because writers like the drama and moral dilemma of it, but I suspect it never, or very rarely, happened in reality - if you're watching a fight to the death (and they weren't fought to the death nearly as often as TV would have you believe) you want your gladiators to really go at each other, not feel conflicted about it.

Nero and Barbara seem to be enjoying a private show, and after Ian has refused to kill his friend, the friend gets the better of him, Nero orders his head to be cut off, and Barbara suddenly realises who it is - cue end credits. The next episode is called 'Inferno', so no prizes for guessing what that's about!

Unfortuately, after two pretty good episodes, this one is something of a let-down. The 'comedy' is no longer funny but in places rather offensive, since it stems from Nero's pursuit of Barbara, but I suppose that's understandable given that we are in the era of the Carry On. Less excusable, though, is the Doctor's ridiculous 'Emperor's New Clothes' act; even Nero would never be that drunk or that stupid, and the Doctor looks considerably less intelligent for trying it. Meanwhile the 'court poisoner' is also straying perilously close to the edge of plausibility and Vicki's untroubled approach to her attempted regicide (emp-icide? impicide? hmm!) is utterly strange. Only Ian's storyline remains compelling, and even that is stretched a bit by the insistence on the melodramatic 'let's make the friends fight each other to the death' trope, though perhaps this idea had not been quite so over-used in 1965.

I have reasonably high hopes for the next episode, though, which should end in a lot of flame and fiddling, and in which our heroes will finally stop just missing each other in corridors and be reunited!


  1. I watched these before seeing 'The Fires of Pompeii' with Tennant/Tate in 2008. I loved the tiny reference the writers gave to these stories in that 2008 episode. The trailer for the current series seems to indicate that the new Doctor will also be returning to Rome! Can't wait!! :)

    H Niyazi

  2. Re: Everyone sitting at dining tables to eat.

    The studio wasn't big enough to have all the required actors reclining properly, so they had to have them sitting around tables instead. It was the only way they would all fit!

  3. Interesting... wonder why they didn't just do the I, Claudius thing and only show the top two or three tables


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