Arguably the first step in the phasing out of the historicals (sigh), The Romans is the first story which isn't concerned with historical accuracy, if at all, which somewhat goes against the 'educational' remit of the series at this point. It's pretty gutsy of Verity Lambert to follow the addition of a new cast member with two highly experimental stories (this and The Web Planet) - both have successes and failures, but in different areas. But then both are nothing alike.
It's AD 64 and the TARDIS crew is having a (very) well deserved holiday in a villa. I wish these more casual scenes had happened more often, it makes the characters seem more real to converse for a while and let us get to know them instead of diving straight into the plot. At least it should be - the Doctor is amazingly camp, and at times doesn't seem like the Doctor at all, Ian and Barbara are unusually flirty with each other (although personally I loved this). Funny that Vicki, the new character, is the most in-character, and I liked that she wanted to move on as she wants to go on adventures in the TARDIS, unaware that the rest of them haven't had a chance to relax since they started travelling.
Part of what I like about the early part of this story is that I don't know where its going. There's no mystery, the TARDIS isn't inaccessible or broken down, in fact we have the Doctor and Vicki heading off to Rome just because they feel like it. The way the plot unfolds is a delightful change from the norm, and its very carefully done considering it branches off with some subplots treated more seriously than others. Ian and Barbara are captured by slave traders and separated as they begin their lives as slaves, quite a horrific prospect (although I suspect by now they're used to dealing with horrific prospects), while the Doctor and Vicki find a dead lyre player who was supposed to play for the Emperor Nero, who is written here as a purely comic character impossible to take seriously. Once he is introduced, the story turns into a farce, but aside from the Doctor's giggling fits, it's credible as a piece of drama until then, and it's less jarring to cut from Barbara being sold as a slave to the Centurion blasting the assassin for not killing Pettulian than anything involving Nero.
As the plot unfolds, we learn the Doctor, in the guise of Pettulian, is supposed to kill Nero. However the plot is only there because there has to be a plot. In the remaining episodes we're treated to Nero lusting after Barbara and chasing her around, near misses between Barbara and the Doctor and Vicki, who don't realise that the other is nearby, while the Doctor investigates a conspiracy in Nero's court. So is it funny? This isn't normally important but given historical accuracy is out the window, as is drama, it's the only pertinent question remaining. Some of the humour fails - Jacqueline Hill isn't so good at the comedy, I have to say, and Nero chasing her around is embarrassing. As a result, Poppea just seems pathetic for plotting to kill Barbara. Anything involving the Doctor generally works, and the way he gets out of giving himself away by playing the lyre terribly is very funny.
In the meantime, Ian misses out on the action, with another subplot that leads to Rome, as he gets shipwrecked and ends up training as a gladiator with Delos. It's quite odd to see Ian sidelined so much, only to coincidentally meet up with everybody later, but we've already had many similar Ian subplots, and done better, that this seems to be only there to include him in the story somehow. The best part of it was seeing Ian and Delos having to fight each other after forming a friendship, but the drama of this is somewhat undermined by the farce of the scenes surrounding it.
The machinations of the conspiracy plot against Nero are still interesting despite not being treated seriously. Tavius is a good character, and I liked that despite initially seeming like a good samaritan he turned out to have good points and bad points about him. Tigellinus only had a bit part but I see there's been lots of discussion about him, but I don't know much about this period in Roman history (or any period actually) so perhaps that's why the historical inconsistencies don't bother me. In fact this has been such a sore point with some that I'm wondering if I'm being unfairly lenient towards it.
The conclusion is quite weird. The Doctor gives Nero the idea to burn down Rome so he can build a new one. Nothing is really resolved, Nero just burns down Rome while the TARDIS regulars leave and return to the villa, with a nice moment where the Doctor laughs at Ian and Barbara thinking they've been there doing nothing all that time. It's a satisfying end to a story where the plot wasn't really that important anyway.
One of the main things I didn't like about this story was that despite it being Vicki's first proper story as a member of the TARDIS crew, she didn't really have anything to do and being separated from the regulars the new dynamic between the regulars didn't have a chance to develop, and being paired with an out-of-character Doctor only made things worse. She just seemed to tag along with the Doctor laughing at his antics.
The Romans is a hard story to come to a conclusion on. It's a story that could have worked while also tying in with what we know of the period and being played straight, but I'm an advocate of the show trying new things and this was new at the time, and arguably is still unique. I like funny, and although not all of the humour works, the funny bits are really funny, and since it's a comedy, that's enough for me. As long as the show doesn't go there too often!
Horror quotient - What's horror?
Comedy quotient - The funniest story yet.
Drama quotient - The drama suffers, but it's not a dramatic story.
It seems to be marmite on this board, and I do see why others hate it. I think it's a bit too hit and miss to be a classic, but this is my favourite of the season so far.