THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

Big Finish Productions
The Fires of Vulcan

Written by Steve Lyons Cover image
Format Compact Disc
Running Time 90 mins
Released 2000
Continuity Between Delta and the Bannermen and
Dragonfire

Starring Sylvestor McCoy and Bonnie Langford
Also featuring Gemma Bissix, Nicky Goldie, Andy Coleman, Lisa Hollander, Steven Wickham, Robert Curbishly, Anthony Keetch and Karen Henson

Synopsis: The Doctor and Mel find themselves in Pompeii at the time of the great eruption.


Reviews

Big Finish "Season Two" Ends With a Bang! by Peter Niemeyer 25/9/00

In the same vein as The Marian Conspiracy, The Fires of Vulcan was another excellent purely historical adventure. It took a standard historical story situation (imminent destruction approaching that we know about but the people in history don't) and added a new dimension to it... namely that the Doctor believes the destruction of Pompei will have disasterous consequences for himself and Mel as well. I liked this device because it made the Doctor and Mel more invested in what was going on because they had literally become a part of it.

The characterization of the Doctor was interesting. I don't think this story would have worked for any Doctor prior to McCoy. For this story to work, the Doctor needed to be aloof and myserious, which of course the 7th Doctor is in spades. His demeanor for most of the story was something I was unaccustomed to, but I felt it worked nicely.

Hats off to Bonnie Langford! Mel joins Ace as the only companion who was as good or better in audio as on the small screen. Mel was also an excellent choice of companion for this story. It needed one who was more willing to question the Doctor's decisions and even go against his advice. This quirky, head-strong behavior is exactly what I associate to Mel. In my mind, this story is a great example of how a companion can be given something meaningful to do when not holding onto the Doctor's coattails. I hope we don't have to wait too long for Langford's second return to Big Finish.

The normal round of kudos must be extended to the supporting cast and special effects. Some of the scenes had so many background voices in them! Large numbers of extras were always beyond Doctor Who's television budget, so I'm glad that someone realized the audio format can compensate for this rather easily and effectively.

My only criticism, and it's a minor one, is that so many of the characters in Pompei put this blind faith into their gods, and neither the Doctor nor Mel really challenged the irrationality of this thinking. In my mind, it would have been very Doctor Who for the Doctor or Mel to ask, "How do you know that a given event was caused by the gods and not just happenstance? And how do you know that a given event means the gods were displeased? And how do you know what they were displeased with?" The way the story started, I expected this conversation to come up at some point. But it never did. Still, in the face of everything they did right, I'm willing to let this slide by.

Okay, I admit that Big Finish doesn't have "seasons" in any strict sense. But given that I've gotten my subscriptions in six-story installments, and given that Doctor Who averaged about six serials per season, it seems like an easy way to subdivide their work. "Season Two" (stories 7 through 12) didn't fair quite as well as the "Season One" (stories 1 through 6). There were good stories (The Genocide Machine, The Spectre of Lanyon Moor), but there were unimaginative stories (Red Dawn, The Apocalypse Element) and one dreadful one (Winter for the Adept). I was starting to reconsider my decision to renew my subscription. But The Fire of Vulcan was very well done. Even if Big Finish gets it right only half the time, that half is good enough for me that it's still worth the money.

Final score for Fires: 9 out of 10.


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 31/10/00

Not too dissimilar in style to the early Hartnell historical tales, The Fires Of Vulcan by Steve Lyons is a fascinating yarn, with a clever plot twist. Using time travel and its consequences as the central theme to the story gives it an extra dimension that simply makes it all the more compelling. Here we have a brooding Seventh Doctor, who knows his fate and that of Pompeii; this serves Sylvester McCoy very well and he is at his best here. So too poor maligned Mel; Bonnie Langford is actually a great actress and Steve Lyons has seen that the best of Melanie`s characteristics are used well; notably her honesty and optimism. This is a refreshing change from Ace`s angst, Nyssa`s whining and Evelyn`s sarcasm.

The Fires Of Vulcan is best compared to The Massacre and like that story it is populated with a well rounded cast supporting of characters; from Aglae the child prostitute to Murranus the gladiator they are all a joy to behold. Most impressive of all are the background effects, Big Finish rise to the occasion exceeding the standards they set in The Apocalypse Element.

If there is one gripe I have, it is with the tale's ending, something I guessed before it happened, as if Steve Lyons is working around it, as opposed to tackling it head on. This doesn`t detract from the best part of four episodes however and if the trailer for The Shadow Of The Scourge is anything to go by, it looks like Big Finish could be extending their winning streak by some margin.


Great Balls of Stonkingly Good Who by Julian Shortman 19/12/00

After sadly feeling the need to give The Apocolypse Elephant a right panning (I even listened to the first episode again last night and it's still pants), I'm very pleased to be in the genuine position of being ready to give The Fires of Vulcan top marks for being one of the best BIG FINISH audios yet. So what made this one so superior to the aforementioned Elephant?

Whilst not wishing to dwell too much on direct comparisons, I'll deal with just one - pace. The Fires of Vulcan gave me time - time to soak up the atmosphere and setting of Pompeii. Time to really get interested and involved in the three dimensional characters (rather than thinking "Oh dear, that's a shame," when an OAP of Gallifrey bites the dust under Dalek firepower), and time to let my imagination work around the whole thing. Which is in my opinion one of the beauties of audio which I hope Big Finish will use time and time again. I recall my disappointment when I finally got to see Inferno on BBC Video, and discovered of course, that the scary lava sequences I'd imagined from the Target book many years earlier, weren't quite so convincing done in CSO. Although Season 24 had a higher effects budget (most of it wasted on Time and the Rani in my opinion), they would still have been hard pressed to have pulled off Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii in the way it's handled in this story. My imagination had a field day with fiery rocks and ash raining down from the sky, earthquakes, the gladiator's arena and the TARDIS slowly being buried. And the depth of thought given to character, atmosphere and setting added layers of colour to the vivid images.

I must also congratulate Steve Lyons for tackling what must be one of the most difficult seasons to slot a story into. There's not been many a time (actually now I come to count, I can't think of anyone) when I've heard someone extol the virtues of Season 24. A good friend of mine actually recalls with shame and embarressment how he foolishly showed Dragonfire as the first sampling of Who to a friend who'd never watched it. And I know I get similar feelings of cringing from the stories in that season. I would hazard a guess that Sylvester McCoy might even cringe a little now if he re-watched some of those early performances. So to slot a story into this really demanded something special. I don't remember Mel shining as a likeable character in Season 24. However, the way she's handled in the audio really brings out the best in her character. To be frank, the character of squeaky clean, healthy freak and a bit naive in etiquette Mel is still not one that appeals to me. But in the restraints of this character, she actually comes out very, very well in this story. I found myself caring about what was happening to her, rather than hoping the malevolent rubber ducks would hurry up and strangle/drown her, for whining over four episodes about getting to have a swim.

The Doctor was handled particularly well - credit again to Mr.Lyons. This was not the scheming, planning and seemingly all-knowing 7th Doctor we saw him develop into later in Seasons 25/6 and even more so in Virgin's NA. Accepting that during his time with Mel, the 7th Doctor was still discovering his persona, we get a fallible and sometimes weak 7th Doctor, who feels played with and manipulated at many times in this story, rather than being the player and manipulator of events around him. Not only is this very refreshing in a 7th Doctor adventure, but it also adds a pile of suspense to the story when we're really shaken to believe that this time the Doctor most definitely didn't have it all sussed out in advance of the TARDIS landing. Sylvester plays the Doctor a billion times more maturely and confidently than I ever recall him doing in Season 24 (to say he's happily settled in the role I think would be a gross understatment) and I warmed to this stage of the 7th Doctor immensley.

I must also congratulate Big Finish for choosing to do a second purely historical Who - and PLEASE consider doing another one (with Peter this time perhaps? Or even Tom Baker? Is he ever going to agree to do a Big Finish?). The Marian Conspiracy and The Fires of Vulcan are excellent proof that solid, interesting, exciting and engaging historical Who's did not die out slowly after the Daleks poked their plungers on screen, and that a well researched historical with the Doctor woven in can result in a fantastic story. The Fires of Vulcan also added in the Doctor's own personal time paradox dilemma - and it was handled brilliantly. It had me guessing right up until the last minute, and the conclusion did not disappoint.

I was also very impressed with the music - where as the intense scripting/talking of The Apocolypse Element left little room for more than a drum roll, the pace of The Fires of Vulcan allowed for some genuine composition which I thought added much to the atmosphere. It's nice to see a story where there's enough scope allowed for music to play a role too.

I had only one minor niggle - and that was with a member of the supporting cast. I have no qualms with good actors being used more than once in the efforts of Big Finish, but when I found myself thinking, "Hello? What's Professor Holywell from Phantasmagoria doing in Pompeii," I soon realised the connection. If you're in another Big Finish Steven, please choose to use a distinctly different voice. Thanks.

However, the above 'twas as I said, a mere minor niggle in what was overall a piece of excellent Who. Congrats to all, and roll on the next historical!


What A Cheeky Little Sod by Robert Thomas 15/2/01

First of all I must say that I like historicals more often than not and am pleased that Big Finish make regular trips to the past, this being about the fifth. This however is without a doubt the most ambitious yet. I have to confess to being a big Steve Lyons fan and look forward to all the stuff he puts out.

On with the story, first of all I'm going to be controvershal, I like season 24 and whatever people say, as a seven year old it got me hooked. However this story is a lot more serious and has a very good twist in its plot. Due to this plot we get to see the seventh Doctor in emotions we are used to, but he isn't and seems at odds with the depression he has. Mel on the other hand is chirpy and her exploration of the culture, people and city of Pompeii is amoungst the best in the story.

There are a lot of good moments such as when the pace finally picks up and the scene in the priestesses home. However I would have prefered it if the entire god sub-plot had been dropped. There is also one thing that nagged me, why The Doctor went back to the inn near the end.

Now, I'm going to discuss the ending, be warned it is going to annoy all listeners. I wont give it away but think about the scene in 'Neighbours' when Daffney died with Des by her bedside. The ending is clever but made me think, 'Steve Lyons, you cheeky little sod.' When my sister heard it however she thought 'OI LYONS, NO, MAJOR COP-OUT.' The ending will annoy people but its a question of how much and it spoils a really good story.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 22/4/01

This is absolutely riveting stuff! Steve Lyons has written a historical story that fairly races along.

It's easy to follow, you get wrapped up in the metropolis that is Pompeii. It educates too in the way of all the best stories – the Pompeii account is woven into the narrative in an unassuming way. It doesn’t feel like a History lesson. The religious aspect of Roman life and a way of life far different than our own is portrayed realistically, with no judgements. Like the author's own The Witch Hunters it weaves a story around familiar events in an extremely fascinating way.

The characters are rich in personality. The dialogue between them the best of all the Big Finish tales. Aglae is probably the best. A fine female supporting character. The rest are superb too though – Valeria, the Tavern owner. Eumachia, the rich power hungry Roman. Marranus, a towering presence – the Gladiator. The regular cast of the Doctor and Mel are excellent too. I didn’t mind Bonnie Langford on TV, so was one of the few it seems who looked forward to this audio. Her character is better, more interesting than it was on TV – she has some great material, that’s why. The Doctor, portrayed by Sylvestor McCoy, starts out quite broody – but he gets his act together and is the more whimsical portrayal of his 1st year.

The impending disaster that is Vesuvius is the stories trump card. The Doctor and Mel are painfully aware of the doom that awaits, yet are helpless. Who will survive? Will the Doctor be able to get his TARDIS back? (rather ingenuously solved this one – had to replay the tape a few times to get all the pieces in place!).

Big Finish enhance the story in many wonderful ways. The seagulls are a constant part of the early episodes – taking you away to the seaside. Episode 3 begins with the greatest downpour I have heard. I vote for storms in every Big Finish play – it certainly makes for great atmosphere! The prelude to the actual erupting of the volcano is magnificent. There is a sense of “the calm before the storm” beautifully portrayed. When the volcano does erupt we are treated to explosions galore and chaos throughout Pompeii. You really feel you are in the middle of the most horrendous natural disaster imaginable. All the action is supplemented by the best musical score of the whole Big Finish catalogue.

This is classic Who – a better example of a Historical Dr Who I defy you to find. 10/10


A Review by John Seavey 19/11/03

This one was just a very tough slog to get through, for a wide variety of reasons. Mostly, I think, because the Doctor and Mel never really do anything. In the old Hartnell historicals, the Doctor and his companions would get separated from the TARDIS and then get involved in history, affecting the great events in some small but significant way and steering them on course. Here, the Doctor and Mel get separated from the TARDIS (which by now feels like a huge cliche), but instead of getting involved in history, they just run around Pompeii for a while dithering about how to get the TARDIS back without disturbing the course of history, and running into artificial obstacles to keep them from getting it back before two hours of running time have gone by. (Steve Lyons even admits, in The Audio Scripts: Volume One, that the whole subplot of the gladiator arena and the Doctor getting captured was added simply to pad out the running time.) Apart from a little moral angsting, there's not much that prevents this from being a very strained runaround.

And that wouldn't necessarily be a disaster, except that Steve Lyons is writing it. His strengths as a writer lie in taking an idea and bringing it from Point A to Point Z with minimal diversion... however, here, Point Z is also Point A, which means that all the diversions are minimal. There are very few jokes, no really interesting characters, and pretty much everything exists to get the Doctor and Mel out of the TARDIS, into trouble, out of trouble, and back into the TARDIS. Since we know they'll do all four of those things before the story begins, the whole thing feels flat.

Not really a bad audio, but not memorable, either.


A Review by Ron Mallett 25/7/07

This is a very fine attempt at a "modern" historical. Written by Steve Lyons, this audio drama would have been well suited to the historical rich television of the sixties as there is both an educational and "visual" feel to the story. The "visual" element is achieved more through the sometimes, stilted language, typical of early Big Finish productions (as later stories have taken full advantage of elaborate "sound-scapes" to help create the illusion). I find this approach most satisfying and there is something about the way it has been written that makes it both quite literate and satisfying as a drama.

The most convincing cliffhanger is the climax of part 3. There are a couple of clangers in that department, the worst being the end of part 2. Still, the story is well structured, even if the Doctor's depression seems too easily dispelled and there is a bit of the old "run-around" element that was the worst element of the sometimes "padded" adventures on TV. This story is a little slow to gather pace, but when it does during the third part, all is forgiven.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this story is the way in which modern value systems clash with those of another age. We see Mel perplexed at how close-minded and easily lead some of the supporting characters are, to the extent that they ironically threaten their own lives (of course in an age of superstition, ignorance an no mass-education... well it is supposed to open people's minds... stop sniggering and don't be cynical!). This has often been a fascinating aspect of time-travel touched on as early as The Aztecs on TV (ie. Barbara's crusade to save the Aztecs as a people from their own savagery) and again in Genesys, a New Adventure novel by John Peel (Ace disapproves of a young prostitute's occupation and even more her acquiescing attitude towards her own station in life). Unfortunately that's the kind of depth of characterisation that you won't find in the new series as it requires brains and has nothing at all to do with sex.

Back to The Fires of Vulcan (a-hem!). All the performances are strong but none aside from the regulars are particularly noteworthy. Once again Bonnie Langford steals the show, proving what an excellent companion she was and how she could have continued to grow if she had been allowed to play the part more like herself and been given better material to boot! McCoy gives a loveable, yet somehow darker interpretation that seems more akin to his later season. It is interesting that even with the McCoy/Langford pairing, the production team push towards the sombre interpretation of the 7th Doctor rather than the brilliant fool which scuttled throughout season 24 until perhaps the "excellent" (I use that term in a relative sense of course) Dragonfire by Ian Briggs.

The whole production proves how much potential there has always been in a Pompeii/Who story. Perhaps during the later Hartnell era there was a feeling that the Roman world had been covered in Denis Spooner's light-hearted TV story - but like many others I suggest it was quite unsatisfying (apart from that magical and touching revelation of the true motives behind the altruistic actions of Tavius at the end of part four where he can be seen clutching a small cross; that marvellous moment has been forever burned into my memory). It is yet another tragedy that historicals fell out of favour after Troughton's initial stories. A story set in Pompeii with Troughton and Hines might have been a irresistible classic - although the "glimpse of the future" aspect of the story and its resolution would have been unthinkable, simply on the grounds that the Doctor would have needed to have been an expert pilot of the TARDIS which (despite suggestions in The Two Doctors) he was not. No, I think just having it buried in the rubble after an earthquake would have been sufficient to keep the travellers around for four to six parts. Which is not to say that this story might not have worked in the eighties pretty much just as it is, although as audiences had become more demanding by then, the effects, settings and costumes required would have challenged the miserable budgets of season 24 and beyond!

So, enjoyable, thought provoking, a neat little package that truly erupts with some magic moments towards the end.


A Review by Leslie McMurtry 25/9/12

The opening scene, which takes place in 1980, reminds me of Liz Shaw/Five story from the Short Trips range, though I can't remember the title. I only wish UNIT officer Muriel Frost and Professor Scalini had been used more in this story, rather than just as bookends. Other than that, the opening was great; Lyons grabs the listener from the get-go.

There's a curious nuancing in the story that takes place, practically, because of its original setting as a later Ace story; instead, with Mel, the Doctor is very mercurial. It's strange to see him certain of his doom in season 24. What I love about this play is the way Lyons (almost) never jumps from plot point to plot point: everything is progressed in a logical fashion that makes it seem that much more naturalistic. For example, though the Doctor has much more serious reasons for discouraging Mel from staying in Pompeii, he gives her four perfectly legitimate ones: she's not dressed for the time and place, "the Romans are quite a barbarous people", we have a habit of attracting trouble and "no good can come of meddling in your own history" (the last, of course, reminding us of that ultimate adventure, The Aztecs).

Although Mel is confused and frustrated by the Doctor's darker turn, she decides to stick around. I love that graffiti plays an important part in The Fires of Vulcan. Lyons is wonderful at adding the history in, not too overtly and not sloppily. Parts of the play are quite funny. My favorite gag - and it's the most shocking one! - is when Aglae takes her newfound friend Mel to her workplace, the Lupanar. This is a hilarious moment that works so well on audio, as Mel puzzles over the symbols on the sign - are they really what she thinks they are? "It bespeaks the nature of the Lupanar." Once Mel, embarrassed but unfazed, gathers Aglae's meaning, Aglae has the dreaminess to ask, "Do you not also serve your master [the Doctor] in this manner?" AS IF!

But Lyons has an affection for Mel and has picked out the best bits of her character while playing with the more stereotypical aspects (like her vegetarianism). Mel befriending Aglae, for example, is perfectly in character. She's assertive but shuns violence, argumentative and acerbic, but really very kind. It makes it all the more amusing that the Doctor almost loses her in a game of dice to the boorish gladiator Murranus. Actually, almost all of the Roman/Greek characters - Aglae, Murranus and Valeria the Greek innkeeper, particularly - are very strong, likeable, and feel like flesh and blood (and are not nearly so annoying as the family in The Fires of Pompeii). The antagonists Celsinus and Eumachia are slightly less well-rounded.

The play made a very big deal about the futility of the offerings made to various gods so that Pompeii would not be destroyed (obviously they didn't work). However, the Doctor says, "it's not for me to judge your culture". Mel obviously reacts in a similar way to Donna against the injustice: "Can't we do something?" Interestingly, in contrast to the Tenth Doctor and Donna actually scooping the family up in the TARDIS and taking them to safety, in this story Mel and the Doctor tell people to save themselves but we have no idea whether they make it to safety or not. The fourth part has wonderful suspense, though the narrative bypasses the final carnage (difficult to do on audio anyway) for the twist at the end.