Like the Paternoster Gang and the Diaries of River Song, this is another set of Big Finish audios based on a secondary but popular character from Doctor Who.
First, a bit of backstory.
Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) was traveling with the 11th Doctor when he was not merely killed, but his entire existence erased so that no one but the Doctor remembered him. Not even his fiancée Amy Pond, although she was sometimes very sad without knowing why.
But Rory wasn’t gone very long. A couple of episodes later, when the Doctor and Amy were at Stonehenge in 120 CE waiting for a large and mysterious box called the Pandorica to open, Rory returned as an Auton in the form of a Roman centurion–plastic body, but looking just like the old Rory and containing a human mind that remembered being a British man in the 21st-century. Let’s not go into the hows and whys of that. It’s a bit complicated.
The fatally injured but not-quite-dead Amy ended up being placed inside the Pandorica for more than 1800 years, held in stasis until the giant box was opened by her younger self and she was healed. The Doctor jumped straight on ahead to arrange this event in 1996, but plastic Centurion Rory opted to remain with the Pandorica in Roman Britain and protect Amy through the passing centuries. By the time they met again in 1996, the Lone Centurion had grown into a figure of legend.
So, what was Rory up to between 120 and 1996? This trio of comedic audio stories fills us in on the early days of his adventures, beginning in Rome.
Rory is brought to Rome at some point in the 2nd century AD, probably not very long after the Doctor left him. He’s no longer a Centurion, but a captive Brit intended for the Coliseum. One of the running jokes in this series is that Rory is not a physically burly guy, but since he’s an Auton, he’s much stronger than he looks and wins fights against the best gladiators in the city. But he doesn’t mind taking a spear to the chest if it helps his opponent look good.
It’s after surviving one of these gladiatorial combats that Rory catches the eye of the Lady Augusta, wife of the unnamed Emperor. She hires him to be the Emperor’s bodyguard.
The Emperor has a passion for the theater, and it’s during a performance of his own extremely bad adaptation of the death of Agamemnon that an assassination attempt occurs; a sharp sword replaces a blunt and retractable blade during the murder scene. Rory is there to notice the sword-switch and save the Emperor’s life, but the person responsible for the stage props is immediately suspected, arrested, and condemned to a nasty public death in the Coliseum. It’s up to Rory to rescue her by entering the arena as a gladiator one more time.
At the end of a number of twists and turns, the Empress reveals that she knows not just about Rory’s indestructible qualities, but about his connection to a large and mysterious box that was brought back to Rome at the same time that he was. She knows the whereabouts of the Pandorica. It’s stored in a vault somewhere, a treasure she doesn’t care about, but as long as Rory does care about it, he’s stuck in her service.
This first story ends with Augusta announcing that she has “an exciting new job for you.”
The Unwilling Assassin
Rory’s new job as the Empress’s assassin keeps him busy. She’s a short-tempered woman who wants a lot of people killed, not just those who are political threats like her late husband’s brother and his mistress, but for trivial reasons like spilling her wine at a banquet or personal slights. But Rory’s a kind-hearted guy who doesn’t want to kill anybody. Instead of murdering the people he’s been assigned to kill, Rory gives them money and arranges to fake their deaths while they get out of Rome.
This strategy works at first, but the Empress’s chief spy has been watching him and noticing the lack of bodies. Also, some of the people he hasn’t killed aren’t very good at playing dead and go around Rome on their usual business when they should be in hiding.
In both of these stories, a soothsayer has been hanging around, writing bad poems and making ominous predictions. In “Gladiator,” he tried to warn the Emperor about the danger he was in; now, the soothsayer is saying that the Empress won’t last long, and he doesn’t seem disappointed about it. In a nice little nod to the Doctor Who episodes this audio series is based on, he’s the only person who mentions that there are no longer any stars in the sky (the Universe sort of ended in 120). When Augusta declares that he has to go, she follows up personally to be sure that Rory carries this job through. But things don’t work out as planned. and one of the Empress’s earlier assassination plots rebounds to work against her.
I would say that the first two stories were amusing; I enjoyed them, but I didn’t laugh out loud until this third story. Even so, it’s also the most serious and the most sentimental of the three.
With the Empress gone, there’s a power vacuum in Rome and the man who has gained has a reputation for being impossible to kill is pushed forward to become the next Emperor. Sure, it’s a step up from centurion, gladiator, or imperial assassin, but Rory’s not any happier in his new job. There’s more to being Emperor than just lying around and eating grapes, as he soon discovers, but his position gives him the opportunity to recover and protect the Pandorica–which is all that really matters to him.
One of his first acts as Emperor is to consecrate a shrine to his personal household deity, Amelia, “the goddess of ponds and other small bodies of water.” He uses this as a retreat to get away from everyone who annoys him: The imperial cook who desperately wants the new Emperor to throw banquets and constantly follows him around suggesting delicacies; General Marinus, who wants to be the power behind the throne and insists on discussing troop deployments along the Empire’s border while Rory refuses to risk men’s lives in unnecessary battles: Lady Juliana, widow of the previous Emperor’s late brother, who’s pushing for Rory to adopt her son Hilarius and make the unpromising boy his heir. Not to mention the imperial guards and the guys who blow their trumpets and shout “Hail, Caesar!” every time he appears.
While he’s alone in his shrine with its sacred pond and the chickens and ducks he’s supposed to be sacrificing, Rory talks to Amy about what’s been going on, how he misses her, and how she would have enjoyed ruling Rome more than he does. These monologues are sweet, touching, and funny, and my favorite thing in this set of stories.
But this is no way to run an Empire, and there are assassination attempts against him almost from his first day. Poisons have no effect on Rory–he’s ingested several types in the course of this series already–but he refuses to eat anyway. The scorpion in his sandal doesn’t work either, and the arrow in his chest is likewise ineffective.
There’s one way he can be destroyed: by fire. Rory didn’t pay enough attention to his history to be certain when Nero’s burning of Rome and the eruption of Vesuvius happened (the Doctor was present at both), but he foolishly makes a list of other places he should avoid over the next couple of millennia: London in 1666, Chicago in the 1800s, San Francisco during the earthquake, London again during the Blitz… although he will be there for that last one.
His frustrated enemies don’t understand these references to future events, but the list gives them a clue how to get rid of him. There’s an upcoming festival to honor Vulcan (“not the god of logic and pointy ears–I’m pretty certain about that”), which involves bonfires in the city. The Emperor is expected to preside.
With this trial by fire before him, Rory has to face some hard realities about ruling an Empire: You can’t be a nice guy. You have to have the army on your side, and if your enemies want to harm you, you may not be their only target. Marinus even tells him bluntly that he could be a good emperor if he has a few people killed–starting with himself, Juliana, and Hilarius–but is that the kind of man Rory wants to be?