This is a purely “’historical” adventure, meaning a Doctor Who story set in Earth’s past which (aside from time travel) contains no other sci-fi elements. These sorts of adventures were fairly common in the Hartnell era, but by the time of the Troughton era, this type of story had been abandoned after “The Highlanders”. Aside from one brief return to the format with 1982’s “Black Orchid”, every trip into Earth’s history since then has inevitably involved aliens or some such lurking behind the scenes.
These historical stories were adopted as part of the series original mandate to have an educational element in the stories to teach about history and science (hence also the inclusion of two companions who were science and history teachers respectively). Most of the historical stories no longer exist in the BBC archives in their entirety, only “ the Aztecs” (which Retro TV seems to skipped broadcasting for some reason), this story, and “The Gunfighters” remain completely intact.
The main reason why these stories seem to have been abandoned was due to poor ratings compared the sci fi stories. This is a shame since human history alone can more than provide for plenty of interesting and dangerous situations for the TARDIS crew to contend with without having to constantly throw in aliens. These types of stories also tend look better and come off as being less “’cheesy” because this sort of tale, (which is basically a period costume drama) fell well within the comfort zone of the BBC and most of the actors involved. In other words, this is what the BBC excelled at producing at this time, whereas sci fi was not.
So how does this particular story stack up? I think it works rather well. It’s a more lighthearted and comedic story than most; we don’t tend to associate the First Doctor with comedy as he is inevitably described as being arrogant and irritable, but here we see that he actually excels at comedy when placed in the right kind of situation.
When the story opens, the TARDIS crew (decked out in full Roman regalia) has already been chill’in in the Ancient Roman countryside for about a month. They’re staying in an empty villa belonging to a wealthy Roman who has gone off to war. The Doctor has gotten tired of hanging out and raiding the wine cellar and wants to travel to Rome itself (interestingly, he makes a comment in this scene that seems to indicate that the Doctor has already been there before in some unseen adventure) and Vicki wants to tag along.
They leave Barbara and Ian behind to continue to get wasted on wine (are we to seriously believe that in an entire month of sitting around and getting drunk that Ian and Barbara have not hooked up at least once?) and carry on with their toga party. Unfortunately, a group of slavers have come to the villa to capture and enslave Barbara and Vicki (who caught their eye at a market in an earlier scene). Ian tries to fight them off and is pretty successful, until Barbara accidentally knocks him out with a vase intended for one of the slavers. Barbara and Ian are then captured and sent off to Rome as slaves.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Vicki happen across the dead body of an old man with a lyre hidden in the bushes alongside the road to Rome. When the Doctor spots a soldier searching the nearby bushes, he picks up the lyre and takes the place of the murdered man, whom he discovers from the soldier is a famous musician that is supposed to soon be playing for the Emperor, Nero. The Doctor takes his place to solve the mystery of who killed the man and why. A rather dangerous decision, but entirely in keeping with the First Doctor’s characteristic of having an insatiable curiosity that gets him and his companions into trouble. Of course, the Doctor can’t really play a lyre, so this is going to eventually prove rather problematic for him!
Ian ends up as a galley slave, and Barbara ends up as a slave in Nero’s palace. Ian eventually escapes when his ship is wrecked, but ends up being recaptured and becoming a gladiator. The Doctor evades several more attempts on his life, even soundly kicking the butt of one of his assailants (who says that the First Doctor was a helpless and weak old man?) and also ends up at Nero’s palace. However, he and Vicki never run into Barbara there throughout the whole story, narrowly missing each other on a number of occasions. Barbara spends much of the story being chased around by a randy Nero, and the Doctor discovers that the musician he is posing as was involved in a plot to assassinate the Emperor.
When the Doctor can no longer stall on having to perform for Nero, he cleverly uses a variation on “the emperor’s new clothes” idea to cover up the fact that he can’t play the lyre. He tells the audience that the notes of his newest composition are so subtle that only those with the most sensitive hearing can appreciate it, which works in way but also backfires on him to some extent. The Emperor is now so jealous of the Doctor’s performance that he wants him killed! The Doctor escapes his death sentence when he accidentally gives Nero the idea of burning Rome (so he can rebuild it according to his own designs). In the ensuing chaos resulting from the fire, all of our parties escape and get back to the TARDIS (which fell off the side of a cliff in the previous story and so is now sitting on its side – we find out for the first time in this story that it can take off from any position) and escaping.
Overall this story is a pretty amusing romp. It is surprisingly historically accurate. Sure, it takes the position that Nero not only started the Great Fire of Rome, but also played the lyre (sorry, gang, despite the expression fiddles had not yet been invented) while it burned, which is considered by some historians to be untrue – but it also can’t be proven that it isn’t what happened. Of course, they couldn’t portray Nero in his full freakish glory, but I encourage all readers to look up his Wikipedia entry and discover what a weirdo this Emperor truly was!