As soon as the TARDIS lands, it falls over in a pit. Next time we see the crew the Doctor and Ian are in a Roman villa dressed in togas and eating grapes while reclining on sofas. They’ve been resting in a small village miles away from Rome for more than a month and telling the locals that they are “villa-setting” for a Roman general off on campaign in Gaul. On their way to the village marketplace, Vicki complains to Barbara about the lack of adventure, but Barbara advises her to be thankful for the vacation. Unfortunately, they are spotted by two slave traders, Didius and Sevcheria. They assume from eavesdropping on their conversation that Barbara and Vicki are Britons and thus superb candidates for slavery. The Doctor decides to head off to explore Rome and invites the bored Vicki to accompany him, but, irritated at Ian and Barbara, tells them that if they want to go to Rome they can go themselves. That night Sevcheria and Didius invade the villa and abduct Ian and Barbara.
On the way to Rome, the Doctor and Vicki find the corpse of a musician. Vicki thinks the man was killed by robbers, but the Doctor disagrees, noticing that the musician’s lyre was left next to the body. A centurion comes across the Doctor while he’s holding the lyre and mistakes him for Maximus Pettulian, the murdered musician. Suspecting that the centurion knows something about the murder, the Doctor plays along, and finds out that Pettulian has been scheduled to perform at the court of Emperor Nero. While staying the night at Assysium, the centurion confronts the mute assassin, Ascaris, who killed the real Pettulian. The centurion chides him for failing to carry out his orders to kill the musician and tells him to rectify his “mistake.” The Doctor fights off Ascaris, who flees through a window, and Vicki finds that the centurion has left too. Despite Vicki’s misgivings, the Doctor decides to keep heading on to Nero’s court. Meanwhile Ian is immediately sold and placed as a rower on a galley while Barbara is taken to be sold at a slave auction in Rome. Barbara is purchased by a man named Tavius, who felt Barbara was worth helping because he saw her being kind to another slave. Tavius tells Barbara that he works for the imperial court and that she will be assigned to be a servant to Nero’s wife Poppaea, the cushiest position a slave could hope for. Although he’s sympathetic to Barbara’s plight, he also warns her that any attempt to escape would also lead to an automatic death sentence. Ian is saved when a severe storm sinks his ship; only him and a fellow slave he befriended, Delos, survive. Despite Delos’ protests, Ian vows to go to Rome and try to find Barbara, and Delos agrees to accompany him. Their expedition is cut short as at Rome both Ian and Delos are promptly arrested and condemned to fight in the arena. Ian quickly finds out that their opponents will be live lions.
Vicki and the Doctor are brought before the Emperor, who right away orders the Doctor to play. Cleverly the Doctor claims he can’t play unless he takes inspiration from Nero’s performance, flattering him and avoiding a concert. From several conversations with Tavius and finding that he had the centurion who previously tried to kill him murdered, the Doctor deduces that Tavius is convinced he’s supposed to play a key role in a conspiracy against Nero. Barbara finds that her job isn’t as comfortable as Tavius promised; Nero wants her as a lover and Poppaea suspects that Barbara will prove to be a serious rival. Vicki stumbles across the lab of the official poisoner of the court and later eavesdrops as Poppaea purchases a poison from her to put in Barbara’s drink at a major banquet planned tonight. Vicki confesses to the Doctor that she switched the poisoned drink meant for the “slave” with Nero’s drink. Warning Vicki that she cannot change history, the Doctor rushes over to warn Nero about the poison. Later Nero asks the Doctor to perform for his guests at the banquet. The Doctor pulls an “emperor’s new clothes” trick on Nero by telling him he composed a new piece that could only be heard by “the most sensitive ear” and proceeds to “play” the lyre without making any sound. The trick backfires, though, by exciting Nero’s resentment. He also plans to take out his anger by having an impromptu fight at the arena – and ordering Delos and Ian to instead fight each other to the death for his personal amusement. Also he arranges to have lions set on the Doctor during his next performance.
During the fight, Delos gets the upper hand but refuses to kill Ian and instead tries to assassinate Nero. During the resulting confusion with Nero’s guards, Ian and Delos escape and Nero figures out that Barbara knows Ian. He kills a guard in front of a terrified Barbara because “he didn’t fight hard enough.” Fearing for her life and realizing that Nero is using her to trap Ian, Barbara turns to Tavius, who was just ordered by Poppaea to get rid of Barbara. Tavius promises to help Barbara escape with Ian while also warning him what Nero plans for “Pettulian.” Elsewhere the Doctor and Vicki come across Nero’s plans for “New Rome.” Tavius interrupts “Pettulian” about the plan and says he must assassinate Nero right away. After Tavius leaves, Nero comes in and asks him to perform in the arena. In their conversation the Doctor shocks Nero by dropping hints that he knows exactly what Nero is planning, but while they talk the Doctor accidentally sets fire to Nero’s plans. At first Nero is enraged, but starts screaming “Brilliant! Brilliant!” once he realizes he can rebuild the city however he wants if he sets fire to it. During the confusion that night caused by Nero starting fires across Rome, Delos flees to go to his home in Greece and Ian and Barbara, after the latter is rescued from the palace, head back to the villa. Barbara and Ian arrive at there with the Doctor and Vicki showing up later, so the Doctor and Vicki assume that Barbara and Ian had been resting idly at the villa the entire time. Later, while the Doctor pilots the TARDIS, Vicki asks the others if the Doctor actually knows how to fly it. Barbara answers, “Yes”, and Ian adds, “Sort of.” Vicki notes, though, that the Doctor has been at the controls for hours. Concerned, Ian asks the Doctor if anything is wrong. He replies that the TARDIS has been caught in some kind of field and is being dragged down…
The Doctor: “I am so constantly outwitting the opposition I tend to forget the arts…the gentle arts of fisticuffs.”
The Doctor claims that he personally taught the “Mountain Mauler of Montana” how to fight. (I think it’s actually meant to be a reference to the boxer Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler of Colorado, which would place the Doctor in the northwestern United States around the 1910s, but in my admittedly brief search I haven’t found any verification of this theory.)
There isn’t an extended discussion of time travel theory in this serial as there was in “The Aztecs”, but when Vicki jokes that the Doctor is responsible for the Great Fire of Rome the Doctor replies that if he didn’t give Nero the idea to try to burn down Rome someone else would have. This is completely consistent with what we’ve seen in the “historicals” so far; history cannot be changed because some other event or circumstance would cause the “to-be-changed” event to occur anyway or prevent the time traveler from carrying out their purpose. This is actually similar in a way to Igor Novikov and Paul Horwich’s thoughts on the possibility of temporal paradoxes.
All the past “historicals” we’ve seen so far fudged historical fact, but this is probably the first “historical” that eschewed most attempts at historical accuracy. The Rome and the Nero presented here are taken straight from the popular imagination, fueled by the lurid and sometimes borderline surreal accounts left by Suetonius and Tacitus (the scene where the Doctor fools Nero by playing on his artistic vanity really sounds like an anecdote Tacitus would have written down). At least they showed Nero playing a lyre while Rome burned, rather than a fiddle. Another novelty in this serial is that, for the most part, it’s meant to be funny. Rather than the expected “crew getting separated and then meeting together” aspect, the Doctor and Vicki keep narrowly missing Barbara in Nero’s palace. Except for Barbara and Ian’s traumatic escapades, there’s rarely any real sense of danger, and the Doctor comes across as being more in control of the situation than ever before. I suppose following two subsequent serials that involved the near-genocides of entire races the showrunners thought the audience deserved a break in the tension, even if such a break still involved the prospect of a sick elderly slave being fed to lions and a man being impaled on a sword.
Unfortunately, the seriousness of Ian and Barbara’s side of the serial does undercut the farcical elements. Also while almost all of the other “historicals” tended to have some thematic bonus – “Marco Polo” had both the titular historical figure and Lady Ping Ciao struggle successfully against the burdensome obligations placed on them, “The Aztecs” raised the question of whether or not historical atrocities could or should be prevented and the dilemma of what one person can do against a barbaric practice embraced by their culture, and even “The Reign of Terror” benefited somewhat from trying to convey what it’s like to live when politics are literally a matter of life and death – but, even though this episode skirts around the cruelty of Roman slavery and of the style of autocracy practiced by Nero, there’s no real room for any thematic explorations to go and the plot feels rather thin as a result. Still, it is a fun, cleanly paced serial, and Derek Francis, who was a veteran of the “Carry On” series, pulls off a pretty good Nero.