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Psychic powers and
stone beasts run riot
in old Pompeii, but
can Donna dare the
Doctor to change
12TH APRIL 2008
With all the hype surrounding the revived series’ first shoot abroad (in Rome’s Cinecittà), many Doctor Who fans certainly had high hopes for The Fires of Pompeii; high hopes that, I’m pleased to say, will no doubt have been utterly satisfied by this spectacular and staggeringly dramatic episode.
“We’re in Pompeii. And it’s volcano day.”
I don’t think that James Moran’s script could have had a better pre-title sequence; the writer strikes the perfect balance between having Donna revel in the magic of the past and setting up the bleak narrative that it is to follow. The hilarity of Donna trying to get her head around the intricacies of the TARDIS’ translation circuits (“You have to think of difficult questions, don’t you?”) is juxtaposed beautifully with the first rumblings of Vesuvius, and the Doctor’s grim realisation about where and when they are. The Doctor’s final, doom-laden line then bleeds seamlessly into the howl of Murray Gold’s revamped title music with all the ferocity
of an old-school cliffhanger.
The Fires of Pompeii is populated with a whole host of distinctive characters that are deli-ghtfully brought to life by some of Britain’s most distinguished actors. However, even with a cast list that contains names such as actor-directors Peter Capaldi (Peep Show, Skins) and Phil Davis (Robin of Sherwood, Ashes to Ashes), there are two performers that outshine the rest every step of the way – David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
“You fought her off with a water pistol. I bloody love you.”
Last week’s episode Partners in Crime showed us just how comical Doctor Who could be with Donna as the Doctor’s companion, and this week the same sort of humour is still there to be found, albeit slightly tempered. Whereas in Partners in Crime Russell T Davies used comedy as a vehicle to once again get Donna over with the audience, Moran didn’t need to do the same here. Whilst we may still have the odd “TK Maximus” / “This prattling voice will cease forever…” gag to chuckle at, not to mention scenes where the Doctor and Donna are mistaken for husband and wife and then brother and sister, the comparatively dark subject matter of this episode ensures that The Fires of Pompeii has a much more traditional feel than its immediate predecessor.
Indeed, Donna comes across very well in this episode, Moran’s script giving Tate the oppo-rtunity to leave the “shouting fishwife” of previous episodes well and truly behind her as she establishes herself as the Doctor’s counsel; the Doctor’s conscience. Her yearning to save the people of Pompeii mirrors original companion Barbara’s desire to save the Aztecs but, of course, she can’t. She mustn’t.
There is far more to enjoy about this episode though than Donna’s rage against the inevitable. The Sibylline Sister-hood lends the episode a markedly eerie quality, evoking
memories of the infamous Sisterhood of Karn first seen
in the old Tom Baker serial, The Brain of Morbius. What
really makes this Sisterhood stand out for me though are
the eyes drawn on their back of their hands which, when
held up in front of their faces as they peer into the future,
appear extremely unsettling.
Moran also uses this Sisterhood to make the distinction
between Donna and the preceding companions explicit –
Donna is a grown-up. She won’t be bossed around by
the Doctor, nor will she stand around screaming her lungs
sore when she is in danger. I love the scene where she is
about to be sacrificed by the Sisterhood - there are no
screams and no tears; just blind rage. That’s our Donna!
“The people of Pompeii are turning to stone before the volcano...”
Furthermore, the Pyrovile creatures are realised superbly by the production team. The ‘adult’ versions have the look of Sauron from The Lord of the Rings movies about them; very nasty. And, even though they are essentially mute, their menace is two-fold as they are not merely threatening in the traditional, lurid sense. They are also frightening in the sense that they are made of people, and so in a way they are no different from the Cybermen.
The town augur, Lucius Petrus Dextrus, is a textbook Doctor Who baddie. A Roman with a stone arm being controlled by alien rock monsters - what could be better than that? Davis’ contemptuous performance is simply the icing on the cake.
“The prophecies of women are limited and dull. Only the men folk have the capacity for true perception.”
However, Moran’s Pompeii is populated with as many benevolent souls as it is malignant ones. The most exceptional are clearly Caecilius and Metella, and their two teenage issue Quintus and Evelina. This Roman family is quite literally lifted from the pages of a textbook - the Cambridge Latin Course Book I, to be precise – but even so I was struck by just how remarkably similar their lives are to ours. The family squabbles; the sibling rivalry; the work headaches… inspired characterisation by Moran.
What I really like about this family though is that
each member – with the possible exception of
Metella – is critical to the story in some fashion.
Quintus proves himself to be something of an
unlikely hero when he assists the Doctor, even
helping him to neutralise a Pyrovile at one point; whilst his father is responsible for involving
the Doctor in Pompeii’s affairs to begin with. And Evelina, who is wonderfully brought to life
by Francesca Fowler – no stranger to Rome, having starred in a 2005 episode of the HBO
television series – is ‘blessed’ with the gift of sight and ‘selected’ by the Sisterhood.
“…even the word Doctor is false. Your real name is hidden, it burns in the stars,
in the cascade of Medusa herself. You are a Lord, sir. A Lord of time.”
I particularly like how, chiefly in the early part of the episode, Fowler plays Evelina really quite enigmatically. At times, she’s a normal, pleasant young girl who will happily have a natter to Donna, yet at others she shows her much darker side; the side presumably corrupted by the Sisterhood.
Moran also uses Evelina – and Lucius too, for that matter – to further build up the sense of intrigue surrounding the Doctor in the same way that Kevin Clarke used Lady Peinforte in Silver Nemesis. There is something essentially disquieting about the way that Evelina and Lucius are able to simply look through time and reveal secrets about the Doctor’s subjective past and future. Evelina even makes a veiled reference to the Doctor’s sealing of the rift at the Medusa Cascade in the Time War, and the manner in which she speaks of it makes it seem like she can see a hell of a lot more besides.
“Some things are fixed. Some things are in flux. Pompeii is fixed. That is how I see the universe.
Every waking second I can see what is; what was; what could be; and what must not.
That’s the burden of the Time Lords, Donna. And I’m the only one left.”
For Tennant’s part, The Fires of Pompeii is an unexpectedly heavy story for the Doctor so early in the season. It’s certainly on a par with Gridlock last year in terms of its weight. In this episode, Moran manages to do what no other Doctor Who television writer has ever done in that he takes this cloudy, indistinct power that Time Lords have over time and makes it make sense. In the series’ mythology, there are so very many ‘time sensitive’ races that possess time travel technology, yet only the Time Lords seem able to meddle so deftly; only the Time Lords can see all the threads that bind the universe together, mutable and otherwise. This is why the Doctor can pull on one string here and another there, yet not dare to tug on others for fear of the whole tapestry of the universe coming unravelled around him. He knows the power of time.
“There is no volcano. Vesuvius is never going to erupt… That’s the choice, Donna.
It’s Pompeii or the world. If Pompeii is destroyed then it’s not just history, it’s me.”
But what is so truly brilliant about Moran’s story is that here the Doctor has got it wrong. His knowledge of time tells him that Vesuvius erupts on the day of the Vulcanalia in 79AD - he has seen the reverberations of the disaster in the future; hell, he was even there in Pompeii, back in his seventh incarnation, desperately trying to locate his lost TARDIS and flee from the eruption which he knows happens. But the eruption of Vesuvius is no different than, say, the extinction of the dinosaurs or the Great Fire of London, in that it is merely an undesirable consequence of the Doctor’s necessary actions. In using Vesuvius to destroy the Pyroviles, the Doctor himself becomes a part of what he refers to as a “fixed point” in the web of time;
a critical component in the timeline. And so the choice – “the most terrible choice” – that the Doctor has to make is a complete no-brainer, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him to push that button and send twenty thousand innocent people to their deaths.
Tennant is superb throughout this episode, but never more so than in those final moments inside the TARDIS as Donna begs him to “just save someone”. Considering that previously the Doctor has regularly exercised such limited discretion as he does here when he saves Caecilius and his family, in a sense it’s troubling that he was initially prepared to leave these people to die when he demonstrably had the power to save them. But that’s what happens when the Doctor is travelling alone, left to his own devices. The human element slips away and we are left with a Time Lord, an injured caveman and a rock. The little people cease to matter. That’s why the Doctor needs someone; a point skilfully and emotively illustrated by the writer in this episode’s final scenes.
“You were right. Sometimes I need someone. Welcome aboard.”
On a final note, The Fires of Pompeii also teases us with a few snippets of what is to come later in the season. Lucius refers to a “she” (presumably Rose) returning, and also makes a rather cryptic comment about Donna having something on her back. And just where has the heaven of Pyrovilia gone? So many unanswered questions.
In summary, I don’t see how The Fires of Pompeii can fail to go down as one the revived series’ greatest triumphs. The haunting score is one of Gold’s very best for the series, and the quality of the CGI on show is nothing short of magnificent - Vesuvius finally erupting is astonishingly well done. And, whilst the heart of Moran’s story may have been torn straight out of John Lucarotti’s 1964 four-parter The Aztecs, that fundamental dilemma that each of the Doctor’s companions faces when they are transported back into their relative past has never been portrayed as gracefully or as explosively as it is here. In short, a classic.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
As odd as it is to think of Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford running about in Pompeii at the same time as David Tennant and Catherine Tate, the events of this story are concurrent with those depicted in the Big Finish audio drama The First of Vulcan, in which the seventh Doctor and Mel find themselves stranded in Pompeii on Volcano Day. Indeed, as the Doctor had witnessed the destruction of Pompeii first-hand in his seventh incarnation, in this episode he has good reason for believing that the eruption of Vesuvius is a “fixed point” in history...
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