Doctor Who: The Romans 4, Inferno

This post has been edited because I managed to refer to 'Ian' as 'Steven' approximately 50% of the time - whoops! (And thanks Tony!). I am choosing to blame this on Doctor Who itself, rather than on one of my occasional Complete Brain Malfunctions - for surely here is proof, if proof were needed, that Steven is simply Ian without Barbara.

We pick up where we left off, with Ian about to be killed by his friend in a private gladiatorial combat on Nero's orders. But, of course, Ian's friend is far too nice and noble for that and refuses, attacking Nero, and the two of them attack the guards, which quite pleases Nero, who enjoys this as much as the fight. Ian recognises Barbara and she tries to run away with them but Nero stops her, and is now Very Cross Indeed. Nero orders his guard to capture Ian and the other gladiator, or the guard will die.

Poppaea has had enough of Barbara too and orders her to be removed, again, threatening to kill the slave-master if he doesn't obey. Luckily, Barbara then asks him to help her get away with Ian, so he agrees to help her. Barbara tells him Nero has plans for 'Maximus' in the arena...

The Doctor and Vicki have found Nero's plans for how he is going to rebuild Rome after he's set fire to it; the Doctor tells Vicki how Nero started the fire so he could re-build and she dismissively says that she knows all about that. The slave-master appears to warn 'Maximus' - the Doctor - that Nero plans to have the lions set on him in the arena, and he'd better kill Nero quickly; it turns out that the assassins were sent to kill the real Maximus because he was planning to assassinate Nero and his allies, including the slave-master, have been helping him. The Doctor decides a swift exit as soon as it's dark is the best solution.

Nero comes in and while he and the Doctor talk about the upcoming arena performance, the Doctor stands with his hands behind his back, and his spectacles in his hands, resting over Nero's parchment with the plans on it. As they talk, a beam of sunlight comes through the window and shines through the Doctor's glasses onto the parchment, setting it on fire. (There's a nice detail here by the way. The plans say 'Nova Roma, Nero Fecit' in Latin, meaning 'New Rome, Nero made it'). When Nero finally notices he is furious and barks orders for an elaborate death for the Doctor and Vicki. He wants them put on an island in the arena, with water all around and alligators in the water, and the water level rising - 'and the alligators will get you!' By an uncanny coincidence, this is almost exactly the way Flavia nearly dies in The Gladiators from Capua, which I reviewed the other day! The difference, of course, is that Flavia was in the Flavian amphitheatre/Colosseum, which is an appropriately grand venue for such a spectacle. I'm not sure what facilities there were for such grand things before, though to be fair it probably was possible (I seem to remember Caligula doing some fairly dramatic things involving sea-battles).

Remains of an amphitheatre in Roman Salona, near Split, Croatia. Plus excellent view of the cement works behind!

Abruptly, however, Nero changes his mind - for it's just come to him that he will be able to build his new Rome if he sets fire to the old one. Nice one, Doctor. Apparently, the Doctor did this deliberately, so that he and Vicki could get away, though it's possible he's just trying to reassure Vicki. I hope so, because rather a lot of people died in the fire and plenty of Christians were fed to the lions afterwards because they were blamed for the fire, so giving Nero the idea does not seem ethically justificable just to get the Doctor and Vicki out of a tight corner.

The slave-master finds Ian - not sure how he knows him, perhaps he's psychic - and gets him in, while Nero tries to decide what to name the new Rome. Barbara and Ian are reunited, which is nice and all four of our heroes look for a way out while Nero orders a small crowd to start fires. The slave-master wishes Barbara good luck and reveals his motivation for helping her, as he is clutching a small cross (perhaps he assumed that Barbara was a fellow Christian, or wanted to help her because she seemed like she might be a good convert). This does not bode well for him in the near future, unfortunately. Ian's friend will accompany them some of the way, and go home.

The Doctor and Vicki have made it outside of the city and Vicki gets excited about seeing her 'first real sight of history' - the fire. Um, yes Vicki - quite a lot of people are dying in there, I'm not sure you should look so happy about it. The Doctor insists the parchment-burning was an accident and the fire isn't his fault, which is a bit of a relief, but then he starts laughing maniacally, which is less good.

And Nero fiddles - well, plays the lyre - while Rome burns, obviously.

Ian and Barbara have made it back to the villa and realise quickly that the Doctor and Vicki are still absent, and Ian repeats his fridge joke. Then it emerges that Barbara accidentally hit Ian on the head and much UST-filled running about ensues. Ian then sits back to exclaim 'O tempora! O mores!' which means roughly 'Oh the times! Oh the fashions/customs!' - Wikipedia has a brief history here.

The Doctor and Vicki finally turn up and refuse to listen to Ian and Barbara's attempts to tell them anything. Ian pinches some valuables and they all head back into the TARDIS and disappear with a sound that can't possibly be anything to do with the brakes because they're taking off. Vicki and Barbara run off to change while the Doctor tells Ian they're being dragged down... and the credits tell us they're going to the Web Planet! du du duuuh!

I enjoyed these episodes, but I think the biggest problem with them is the attempt to make them 'comedy' episodes. The Great Fire of Rome, slavery, gladiatorial combat and so on are not subjects for comedy drama - broad comedy can make fun of these things (things like The Life of Brian and Carry on Cleo) but comedy drama, in which our heroes' peril is supposed to be taken seriously, really needs to take the attempted rape of the heroine or the accidental mass murder of the hero a bit more seriously than this.

For this reason, Ian's story works best because there are no attempts at farcical comedy and he has very little contact with Nero. The first episode is also my favourite, because there the comedy works and is genuinely funny, since none of our heroes are yet in mortal danger.

All this is not to say a 'comedy' Roman episode couldn't work, it's just that this tends to make fun of the wrong things. The new series has more or less perfected the art of switching between comedy and drama or high tragedy and in fact this is its default position, yesterday's 'Vampires in Venice' being a pretty good example. So it might be quite possible to do a funny episode on the same themes, if it was done with more sensitivity, but it just doesn't quite work here. Vicki and the Doctor's total lack of concern about the fire they are partly responsible for just brings it all further down, and I found myself very much wanting to re-watch Catherine Tate's beautiful, emotional performance in 'The Fires of Pompeii'.

However, all of that notwithstanding, these episodes are good fun and Ian and Barbara's story was exciting and engaging. I was also very relieved that Ian's friend got away, I was a bit worried he was going to be sacrificed for our heroes to get away. This is possibly where the old series has an advantage over the new one - New Who writers would, I suspect, have been unable to resist the temptation to raise the body count and increase the sense of tragedy by killing him off, and sometimes it's nice to see a bit of restraint and a few more living incidental characters at the end of the story.

One final note of interest - just like 60s Star Trek, 60s Doctor Who is much more positive towards Christianity than New Doctor Who. This is, of course, part of the much wider changes between the 60s, in which Roman-set films frequently viewed things from a Christian view-point, and now, when we have Agora, which tells the story of a Christian mob murdering a pagan philosopher, but no corresponding films about ancient persecutions of Christians like Perpetua. The episode, however, skims over the impending first great persecution of Christians that followed, which might have seen the end of the kindly slave-master who helped Barbara.


  1. In 1066 and All That mode, for 'Steven' read 'Ian', passim.

  2. Ack! Will edit pronto - never post while tired and suffering from a nasty cold...

  3. I'm not sure, but I think prior to the Colosseum, arena events were usually held in something that was knocked together temporarily for the show. That was certainly the case for theater performances until Pompey came along and built a structure specifically for the purpose. I suppose they might have used the Circus, too. In any case, I doubt they had the facilities for something that elaborate.

    I think the sea-battle thing you are thinking of was Claudius, rather than Caligula. He staged a huge mock naval battle, but that was in a lake that was scheduled to be drained. IIRC, it didn't go well.

  4. Yes, up until Pompey's theatre I think everything was in temporary things or the Circus Maximus - what I'm not sure about is what sort of facilities they had in between Pompey's theatre and the Colosseum... Dave, are you reading this? Any thoughts?!

    The Interweb - specifically, a limited preview on Google Books of a book called Ancient Rome: An Introductory History by Paul Zoch - reckons Caligula staged a mock naval battle on the Fucine Lake before draining it coz it was flooding local farms, but it doesn't cite any primary sources, so I remain uncertain! That may - or may not - have been what I was thinking of. Sorry for the lack of proper investigation, I've been waitressing all day and I need to do some work and get some dinner! :)

  5. Claudius drained the Fucine lake, and it is described in Suetonius.

    As for facilities between Pompey's theatre/portico and the Colosseum, and if you are specifically talking about water being used, then there were the naumachiae of Caesar and Augustus (? Pliny on this?). The Regionary Catalogues say there were 5 naumachiae in Region 14 - i.e. on the other side of the Tiber. Some of these have been tentatively identified on the Forma Urbis Romae.

    Nero is supposed to have given a naval battle in a theatre, but I can't think which one (maybe his revolving 'amphitheatre'). There is a text about two out-of-towners coming to marvel at Nero's new fancy theatre, but the reference escapes me. I fear it is something blindlingly obvious. The ampthitheatre of Statilius Taurus (the first stone one, 29 BC) was probably a good choice. Near to the Tiber, easy to flood, drain and dry. Anyway, plenty of options to choose from. Lots of buildings for spectacles constructed in late first century BC around the Campus Martius.

    In other news, reports from Rome yesterday that part of the Colosseum marble panelling collapsed overnight.


  6. Thanks Dave!

    Bad news about the Colosseum though :(


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