The literal cliffhanger from the previous episode (which saw a lovely model TARDIS falling down a ravine) is negated here in the most offhand way – although this very much fits in with the tone of the episode. We open on a close-up of Ian, apparently unconscious, but it then becomes clear that he’s simply closed his eyes for a moment – he’s relaxing on a couch and is decadently maneuvering a whole bunch of grapes towards his mouth.
The Doctor has shamelessly moved into a villa on the outskirts on Imperial Rome (luckily for them, the owners are away). It’s clear they’ve spent a few months here, doing nothing but overindulging in both food and drink (quite where all this comes from is a mystery that’s never solved – either the unfortunate householder had an extensive larder and wine-cellar which they’ve ruthlessly plundered or the Doctor has a large supply of Roman currency aboard the TARDIS).
Although Ian and Barbara are enjoying this unexpected lull, Vicki is bored. Vicki’s written here as rather more childlike than she’d later become – for example, she’s so keen to get to the market she tugs Barbara along and later reacts with glee when the Doctor agrees to take her to Rome – but as she’s such a novice time-traveller, that’s reasonable enough.
As for the Doctor, he also seems to be tiring of this inactive life and, with Vicki in tow, heads for Rome. The Romans was Doctor Who‘s first overtly comic script and it’s clear that Hartnell’s in his element. It would have been a story that demanded even more concentration from him than usual – the interplay between characters only works if the dialogue is delivered accurately (something that he sometimes had trouble with) but there’s no real problems in this episode.
After the Doctor and Vicki depart for Rome, Ian and Barbara remain behind at the villa. William Russell has the chance to essay a few lines of Julius Caesar and narcissistically preen at his appearance, whilst Barbara is able to get in a few decent gags (like asking him to get some ice from the non-existent fridge). As per the rest of the episode this chugs along comedically but events soon take a darker turn.
Two slave-traders, Sevcheria (Derek Francis) and Didius (Nicholas Evans), capture Ian and Barbara and intend to make a healthy profit out of them. The fight scene is a comic one – Barbara accidentally knocks out Ian, rather than Sevcheria – but after that the reality of their situation hits home. Chained up together, then separated, Ian and Barbara face an uncertain future.
Meanwhile the Doctor and Vicki find a murdered man in the bushes at the side of the road leading to Rome. It clearly wasn’t robbery as his lyre wasn’t taken, so it remains a mystery (for a while at least) what the motive could have been. The man was Maximus Pettulian from Corinth, whose skill as a musician was talked about even in Rome. As luck would have it, he bore a certain resemblance to the Doctor and so the Doctor decides to assume his identity – since Pettulian was en-route to play for Nero, it’s a golden opportunity to meet the emperor.
Amongst the many nice little touches peppered throughout this episode, watch for the look between Hartnell and O’Brien after the Doctor confides to the Centurion (who’s appeared to escort Pettulian to Rome) that Vicki “keeps her eye on all the lyres”!
Until Nero appears in episode two the story never quite kicks into first gear, but there’s still plenty to enjoy in The Slave Traders.