“Got a funny side to it hasn’t it?” – Ian
Right from the start, this story shows it will not take the normal route. After such a big fall in the cliff hanger, we think Ian must be lying unconscious and hurt—that is until he suddenly bites a huge bunch of grapes and we learn that he and the others have actually been fine for weeks relaxing in an exquisite Roman villa. What follows is one of the most screwball-comedy-like episodes of the series with playful banter and sight gags, puns, narrow misses, and farce. The scenes with Nero are especially played for laughs. (Our first glimpse of him is at his grand entrance in the palace when he enters with a loud belch!) The comedy is broad to the point that Nero’s filandering assault of Barbara and the death of a servant by poison are all played to comic effect.
Of course maybe it’s good that the writing has such a light side when you consider the background subject matter is so dark and heavy. As Barbara points out in fear for her and Ian’s life when captured: “Have you any idea how the Roman’s treated their slaves?” There thus remains just enough serious danger—principally in Ian’s saga trying to reunite with Barbara—to keep the story grounded. It’s fairly unbelievable that Ian survives such a rough encounter as both being a galley slave and taking on Roman guards and gladiators in sword battle. Thus far he has not only done this but also taken on the premier warrior of the Aztecs, blood thirsty cavemen, French Revolutionary guards, and Dalek slaves and won each time. One wonders what kind of evening hobbies Ian had as a school teacher to be in such fighting shape! It’s also interesting again that he cites the Doctor as inspiration: “I’ve got a friend who specialises in trouble. He dives in and usually finds a way. I think I’ll take a leaf out of his book for once.”
Besides its comic aspects, one of the other hallmarks of the story is how it is made clear that both Ian and Barbara survive their deadly encounters principally because of their kindness and friendship to others. This becomes a norm for much of the series thereafter—often the people the Doctor’s companions assist out of the goodness of their hearts become the same ones that are key to their rescue in the end. It’s shown when Barbara’s kindness to a slave spurs the women to help Ian find her or when Ian’s friendship with a fellow slave in the galley later ends up saving his life. But in this story it’s also explicitly stated as the reason that Tavius rescues Barbara from the worst kind of slavery. (I also find it rather interesting that they later highlight the fact that he is a secret Christian—explaining much in his treatment of slaves according to Biblical tradition.)
While the story over all is much of an inconsequential run-around, it’s fairly pleasing to watch in the end if you accept the light touch as just for fun. Some of my favorites include:
- Vicki and Ian after one of the Doctor’s tirades: “It’s alright living here but, its boring! No wonder he gets irritable.” “Huh! That’s got nothing to do with living here, believe me!”
- The Doctor puns about in his impostor role as a harpist: “Oh, the child, she travels with me. She keeps her eye on all the Lyres!!”
- All of Ian and Barbara’s playful scenes
- “Yes, but I promise you, I shall try to make it a roaring success… something they can really get their teeth into…I’ve always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste” — and seemingly a hundred other hints the Doctor gives that he knows Nero wants to throw him to the lions.
Best unsettling moments:
It’s rather startling when a suddenly steely Nero seems to drive a sword straight into Barbara’s stomach—till we see the guard fall dead and realize he was the target. (Also unsettling that we can see that the heretofore comical Nero obviously takes pleasure in Barbara’s fearful scream when she thought she had just been stabbed.)
- The Doctor has a direct effect on history (but obviously knows what he’s doing)
- Our heroes have a long and relaxing vacation (but even they knew it couldn’t last!)
- First use of the term materialization (and it’s even pointed out as being the ‘correct’ word we should use)
While the light-hearted story and serious action are fairly well-balanced for much of the story, there are a few times where it falls a bit tone-deaf. Within a minute of one campy death by Nero’s faithful servant, for example, we see the empress having another person realistically dragged screaming to her death in the arena. The fact that Vicki’s playful actions unknowingly gets the lady who befriended her killed in such a fashion makes this point in the story quite cringe-worthy. It’s also seems a bit of a mistake that the slave trader somehow suddenly becomes the person in charge of the emperor’s guards?