January 28: "All Roads Lead to Rome" / "Conspiracy"

(The Romans episodes 2 & 3)

Oh, it turned out with another lovely fight!  William Hartnell gets another opportunity to flex his action muscles, engaging his would-be assassin in an energetic scuffle which ends up with the attacker pitched out the window.  "You know, I am so constantly outwitting the opposition, I tend to forget the delights and satisfaction of the arts, the gentle art of fisticuffs," he proclaims afterwards.

But ultimately "All Roads Lead to Rome" is largely a setting-up episode: Ian is a slave on a galley ship which is destroyed in a storm, allowing him to make his way to Rome, where he's recaptured and sent to the gladiator school; Barbara is sold into slavery as a member of Caesar Nero's staff; and the Doctor and Vicki make their way to Rome to meet Nero.  There are some nice moments -- particularly when the Doctor, upon first encountering Nero, flatters him so immensely that he manages to avoid playing the lyre.  But really, this is about putting all the pieces into the right places.

Tavius tells the Doctor everything is ready, while Vicki
looks on. ("Conspiracy") ©BBC
"Conspiracy", by contrast, is where things really take off.  This is by far the funniest episode of Doctor Who yet.  The Doctor is embroiled in a conspiracy about which he knows nothing, while Barbara is chased around the palace by Emperor Nero, who then tries to play the innocent when caught by his wife, Poppea (played by the beautiful Kay Patrick).  "Oh, I'm so sorry," says Nero innocently to Barbara, who he's chased to the floor of his bedroom; "I didn't know you were there.  Did you want something?"  Derek Francis plays Nero more as a big kid than any sort of tyrant or powerful ruler, and it makes him not only more sympathetic but also much funnier.

Meanwhile, as Barbara is repeatedly chased around the palace, the Doctor and Vicki, in best farce tradition, keep just missing her, entering rooms as she's leaving.  The Doctor, of course, has to figure out how to play the lyre in front of a large audience, which he ultimately does by miming playing, after asserting that "the music is so soft, so delicate, that only those with keen perceptive hearing, will be able to distinguish this melodious charm of music."  This leads to enraptured listening to silence, where no one is willing to admit that they can't hear anything.  "He's all right, but he's not all that good," complains Nero.  And Vicki meets up with the court poisoner, Locusta, and switches a poisoned cup from being given to a servant (in reality Barbara, although Vicki doesn't know that) to Caesar Nero himself.  "His wife was going to murder some poor slave or other and I didn't see why that should happen, so I thought...  Well, I swapped the drinks round," Vicki says, causing the Doctor to burst in and warn Nero, who subsequently, in possibly the funniest part of the episode, summons his annoying servant Tigilinus over and has him drink the poison.  When he dies, Derek Francis looks thoughtfully at the camera and says, "He was right."  Trust me, it plays much better than it reads.

The only one who doesn't get to do any larking about is Ian, who's stuck in a cell contemplating fighting his new friend Delos in the gladiator arena.    When he's finally called out to do it, at the end of the episode, he sees Barbara watching but still has to fight (in what's really a very good fight, particularly for a studio session -- you can tell they put a lot of practice into it).  And then, at the end of the episode, he loses...