The Fires of Pompeii
|Production Code||Series Four Episode Two|
|Dates||Apr 12 2008|
With David Tennant,
Written by James Moran Directed by Colin Teague
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: The Doctor and Donna travel to Pompeii, the night before Mount Vesuvius erupts. When they arrive in A.D. 79, they discover psychic powers and beasts of stone running riot in the streets of old Pompeii.|
Off the Telly by Mike Morris 25/7/08
As I write this, I know a few things that change my reading of it slightly. I know, for example, that Russell T. Davies is going. I know that Series 4 finally produced something worthwhile, even if it took a hell of a long time to happen. I know that Catherine Tate's performance has improved to the point where I consider her to be a thoroughly mediocre actress, but she is at least an actress of some description rather than a celebrity who looks like she wandered aimlessly onto a television set while looking for the loo. I feel rather more upbeat about the programme than I did after, say, The Doctor's Daughter aired.
The result is that what looked, not so long ago, like a harbinger of doom now just seems like a dodgy story. It isn't smug, inward-looking and just plain stupid, like certain other episodes I could mention (I'll give you a clue; it was on before this one). What it is, is...
Well what is, is... um... just really rather bad. That's pretty much the limit of my insight, really. The Fires of Pompeii is a mess, not just in the sense that there's far too much plot going on, but also in that it seems bizarrely unsure of how to arrive at what it wants to do. It's got monsters stomping around, but I still haven't worked out where they came from. And it's got true gifts of prophecy that seems to belong to another script entirely. This is written by James Moran, who wrote a taut little episode of Torchwood, so the confusion at play here is a surprise.
There is, at the centre of the script, the story's USP; a Big Moral Dilemma (or BMD, which I'm going to call it for short, since acronyms are 'in' these days) which I'll return to later. First...
Hang on, there's a question... is the Big Moral Dilemma at the centre of the script at all? One might imagine that it started out that way, because the alternative is that James Moran pitched a pastiche historical comedy romp - and we know that Gareth Roberts has got the monopoly on those at the moment. The fact remains that, overall, The Fires of Pompeii has no idea what it's supposed to be. It parachutes a Tragedy element into the story at the very end, but before that there's no hint of anything of the sort.
We've got aliens and monsters, for example. But... for pity's sake, why? What are they for? You've already got soothsayers and sisterhoods, and a great big exploding volcano... do you really need some big monster-things made of stone? There's a subplot involving some printed circuits that Phil Davis seems very worried about, but it just seems to fizzle out of the story half-way through. There's a woman inhaling magic vapours to gain the gift of prophecy, but since it seems to be in the possession of every Tom, Dick and Harry, you can't help but wonder why she's bothering. And there's some rather impressive shots of an exploding CG mountain, although they do have the side-effect of making the director forget that he's supposed to be directing a human tragedy rather than an action movie.
It's also got Peter Capaldi, which should be enough to make the thing watchable all by itself. If you wanted to pitch me an episode, then the words "The Doctor goes somewhere-or-other and meets Peter Capaldi" should do it. But he's unforgivably underused, and plays a character so bland that you wonder why they bothered casting him at all if they were going to neuter him so.
But if you want to know the main problem with The Fires of Pompeii, it's that the viewer never once believes that they're actually in Pompeii. It doesn't convince as a real environment at all. It's hard to shake the belief that we're actually in Rome - not "Rome the ancient seat of civilisation", I hasten to add, but "Rome the slightly-rubbish TV series, that was basically Dallas in togas". And so you're back to where you were last week: the Doctor and Catherine Tate TM wandering around a television programme.
One of the more irritating traits of Rome was the way it felt compelled top give all the characters contemporary dialogue, presumably to show that the Romans were all like us really. Of course, the interesting thing about the Romans is that they weren't like us, so it was never anything but tiresome when you had characters suddenly exclaiming "bollocks" (It should be noted that it was Russell T. Davies who first used this technique, when he wrote Casanova - that is, if you ignore Amadeus, which is a pretty big ask now I come to think of it). Anyway, having teenagers whine "Oh dad, all the girls in Rome are wearing skirts like this" has pretty much the same effect: it punctures the environment and reminds you that you're watching a television programme. They might have got away with it if they'd applied the logic throughout, but when you've got Lucius saying "Only the menfolk have the true gift of prophecy" and that teenage kid saying "oh muuum, I'll tidy my room laterrrrr" (well not quite, but nearly), then the obvious inconsistencies bring the whole world crashing down. And that's even before you take Phil Cornwell saying "lovely jubbly" into account.
So after what can be charitably described as a mish-mash, we get to the BMD bit. And the thing here is...
Dammit, difficult to discuss without spoilers. So I'll take a parallel. About a year ago there was a film called Right at Your Door, which was all built around a similarly Big Dilemma. In that case, the scenario was that a man is at home when dirty bombs start going off around the city, whereupon his wife comes home. They're deeply in love, but she may be irradiated. Does he let her in and risk his life, or leave her outside?
Hopefully, the central problem with the film is obvious. You'd open the door. And if anyone takes more than thirty seconds to open the door, they're a horrible person and you want them to die of irradiation anyway. There simply isn't a difficult dilemma at all, and so it is here - only more so. The Doctor's choice is aesthetically difficult, sure, but it's actually a very easy call if you consider it in abstract terms. Of course, the aesthetics might be enough (not a dilemma, more a horrible-action-he-has-to-take-for-the-greater-good). But that means relying on Catherine Tate to carry off convincing tragedy, and she just looks like a nine year-old throwing a tantrum because she's not allowed any more Fanta.
Besides which... it's almost impossible to care about the fate of Pompeii when the story has so spectacularly failed to convince us we're in Pompeii anyway. Now, if the Doctor was presented with a way where he could save Pompeii, but where he wasn't allowed or wasn't willing, then we've got a proper drama (like The Aztecs but with higher stakes, basically). It's also a drama with a genuinely difficult choice to make on the part of the writer. Instead we get something that's rather pat and easy, an attempt at depth that's been carefully calibrated to avoid presenting the audience with anything to actually think about. Don't worry guys, we just want to make you go "aw". We don't want to actually challenge you or anything.
This is what really annoys me about The Fires of Pompeii: it seems to have a genuine contempt for its audience in just about every respect. The direction is misjudged, as what should be an intimate personal drama is shot like a disaster movie to prevent Mr and Mrs Clod turning over; the monsters seem to be included because, y'know, Doctor Who viewers want that sort of thing; we're given contemporary speech patterns to stop things getting too difficult, presumably; and - like Partners in Crime - the camera flies all over the place, as if terrified that a locked-off shot will cause fizzy-drink-addicted kiddies to turn over and watch C-Beebies instead. "Dumbing down" is what this is usually called, but that's a little misleading. The Fires of Pompeii isn't dumb, it just assumes that its viewers are.
The cast is variable - that girl kid is a fairly convincing vapour-addicted waif, but the boy is too drippy to sustain any interest. The Sisterhood of Karn (or whatever they're pretending to be this time) are fine, even if no one manages to looks as enjoyably bonkers as Ohica did in The Brain of Morbius. Both Capaldi (as already stated) and Davis are sadly underused, and indeed there seems to be little enough reason to have Lucius in the script at all. The boy Tennant tries hard, again, and manages to make even some of the duff scenes tolerable... although I wish he'd stop doing that "hey, look how fast I can talk" thing.
Catherine Tate is abysmal. Full dissection of her performance will happen when I review Planet of the Ood, honest.
Ultimately, though, my accusations of contempt are probably excessive (but not so excessive that I'm going to delete them, you might notice). The story is just misjudged and badly-executed, a series of poor decisions taken that up to a mess. Moran is a smart writer and will hopefully rise above this when they give him another go (hey, they asked Stephen Greenhorn back, so surely everyone gets two cracks at the whip), but you can't get away from the central problem; that The Fires of Pompeii is an absolute stinker.
A Review by Joe Sparks 19/8/08
This is my first review for the site so first I need to apologise if I stray from reviewing conventions. Secondly, I need to make an admission that I am a child of the New Series (being born when the series was off-air) and as such do not review it through the lens of experiencing the Classic Series which I feel often occurs when New Series episodes are reviewed. Moving away from this, I would like to declare I very much like The Fires of Pompeii as a Doctor Who story, which seems to be against the general tide of opinion. For me, the episode combines an interesting story, great effects and monsters and one of the most likeable Doctor/companion pairings I've seen.
I shall start with the story. The Doctor and Donna arrive in Pompeii on the eve of the eruption of Vesuvius. However, in encountering the Sybilline Sisterhood, a soothsaying female cult, they realise alien activity is involved. So far, so standard, but what raises this story over the similarly themed The Shakespeare Code of series 3 is the better use of historical characters and setting. Where we had a fairly vain Shakespeare and some gibberish about witch-like aliens trying to escape into our world (it's been a while since I've seen the episode if you can't tell), here we have a varied and sympathetic supporting cast and an actual historical disaster to add a bit of impending doom and tension. The Pyrovile are interesting creatures and their design works very well in the story, providing genuine menace and strength. Their story and their plan are hardly original (I could see comparisons with The Time Warrior: an alien race arriving on ancient earth) but is less outlandish and more believable than some of the plots Doctor Who provides us with. Where the story leads to - the choice the Doctor must ultimately make between the destruction of Pompeii and its population or allowing the Pyrovile plan to succeed - is truly dramatic and heartbreaking. I have rarely seen episodes with this much at stake; Tennant, and indeed Tate, handle the scene brilliantly.
There are some truly fantastic Doctor moments in this episode. I loved the use of the water pistol and his banter with Donna ("I'm Spartacus"/"And so am I"). The script of this episode was criticised for these comedy moments and other Roman jokes, but in my mind this reflects what the Tenth Doctor is all about. He's humorous and likes to use his supreme knowledge and foresight to have a little fun sometimes. I see nothing wrong with that. Donna, meanwhile, is one of my favourite companions. I'll hold my hands up and say I had reservations about her return; I had no problem with her in The Runaway Bride, but wasn't entirely sure how she would fit in as a regular. I'm glad to be proved wrong. Donna genuinely challenges the Doctor in a way Rose and Martha never did and probably wouldn't have if this episode had fallen in their time. Even better, when she does challenge him, she doesn't take no for an answer and will keep trying if she believes it is the right thing. The whole reason the Doctor travels with human companions is for this sort of perspective and with Donna he gets it big time. The episode, indeed the series, benefits from her return.
I do have quibbles with this episode. Peter Capaldi is a very good actor (if anyone has seen The Thick of It they will know what I mean) but does seem rather wasted here when I think of roles he could have had. Phil Davis, meanwhile, suffers from some awful dialogue and a poor final scene. Indeed the scene showing him climbing Vesuvius is a real low point of the episode, so clearly shot in Wales and really undermining the fantastic location work from earlier in the episode.
However, these are minor quibbles and haven't changed my opinion on this story. A strong second episode, where Partners in Crime was rather weak, beginning what I would call the best series since the revival.
A Review by Joe Ford 6/9/08
Whilst I believe he may be the most intelligent, incisive and interesting reviewer on this site, I cannot disagree with Mike Morris more about his assessment of The Fires of Pompeii, Catherine Tate and the opening episodes of season four more. Following on from the brilliantly absurd 21st-Century-comic-book opener Partners in Crime, The Fires of Pompeii burst onto our screens and destroyed any impression that the show was coasting on its own success. This is a powerhouse episode, one that sees everybody working at the top of their game to produce a piece that will be remembered long after the Russell T Davies era is considered an "intriguing beginning to the second phase of Doctor Who".
The production certainly deserves much praise. I find Mike's opinion that you never believe that you are Pompeii difficult to believe. It is easy enough to bring to life, say, a scientific base tacked onto a rock in the path of a black hole (The Impossible Planet) with a few CGI shots, but Pompeii is brought to life in beautiful cinemascope, dazzling colours and images that will linger in the mind. To convince the viewer they have been transported back in time, you need to see some culture, some domesticity and some politics. The marketplace, the Caecilius household and the temple of the Sibylline provides some glorious background colour. I could share Donna's delight at exploring such a rich period of history. The move to shoot in Italy for the street scenes was smart, it gives the "corridor" sequences (which, let's face it, they are) a depth and scale rarely seen in the series.
Mike's right, The Fires of Pompeii isn't dumb and, given the glutton of reality TV shows and celebrity chef spectaculars that are clogging up the schedules these days, a script that displays a strong morality play such as this should be commended. Don't get me wrong, I would not recommend Fires of Pompeii simply because it offers an alternative to the standard dross on TV, but I genuinely think this story exhibits an intelligence that is hard to criticise. I hardly think that mentioning the imminent eruption of Vesuvius deserves a spoiler warning since this is a genuine historical event and the one year spoiler rule, quite frankly, has been long passed. The ways that the script tackles the sticky subject of foreknowledge of such a cataclysmic event is admirable. Especially so, considering it is Donna who becomes the voice of the people. I realise there are many people who were appalled to see Catherine Tate back in the show but the effort that has gone into turning her character into more than just a cipher is extraordinary and the groundwork is all done here. We appreciate Donna's ethical dilemma; she knows that the people she is walking amongst are going to die in a day and wants desperately to warn them. It brings her into conflict with the Doctor is a fresh way, and Donna argues her case intelligently (I love her statement about rescuing people from the modern day - which of course is history to the Doctor). The Doctor's vague explanations are frustrating at first and we totally side with Donna. Brilliantly, inevitably (like Adric's death), we know the death toll cannot be avoided as it is a fixed point in history (and I cannot see Doctor Who being so brave as to re-write history) and I have to admit I was completely won over by Donna when she is forced to experience the true horror of history. Her reaction to the devastation broke my heart on the original transmission. Mike makes the mistake of suggesting we should be witnessing the dilemma from the Doctor's point of view, when seeing it from Donna's is far more emotionally involving. Certainly, I find the grief of a woman watching women and children dying challenging television. I would also strongly disagree with the criticism of Tate's performance, but more on that later.
Is The Fires of Pompeii too cluttered? I don't think so. This is a spectacular setting and it deserves a spectacular story. There are so many layers to the story: the family tragedy, the cult prophecies, Donna's learning curve, the alien threat. Running the risk of sounding like a plaque in Tate Modern, this works on so many levels. Yes I would like one day for Doctor Who to produce a historical that relies on its setting to produce all the drama (but to be honest I feel that Human Nature/Family of Blood are the closest we are going to get to a straight historical these days) but without the alien threat the BIG DECISION the Doctor has to make at the climax would not be possible. Beyond providing the story with some good-old-fashioned thrills (I adore the scene where the Pyroville crumbles), there is the additional fear that history might genuinely be changed because of the alien interference, and alternatively that pleasing Doctor Who ability to give a historical event a science fiction explanation. Mind you, at this rate it would appear that every major disaster has some extraterrestrial cause; we humans have done nought to deserve the rich history we enjoy! Plus the Pyroville presence and back-story adds to the overall season arc, giving the machinations in the explosive two part finale even more repercussions.
Badly executed? Are you having a laugh? This is one of the most lavishly produced and expensive Doctor Who productions. Or is that the point of the remark? Should we tell a story of Vesuvius erupting by setting the entire story within one room and marking the event with some stock molten lava footage (Inferno) and a paper-mache volcano with some cigarette smoke wisping from the top? Of course the last ten minutes is filmed like a feature film, this is event television and needs to be spread across the screen like a vision of death. I was quite surprised the production team went as far as they did; the fall of Pompeii is presented in a far more graphic manner than I would have imagined. Some of the landscape shots are breathtaking and seeing the cloud of ash tear through the streets through the eyes of Caecilius and his family is very effective. You also have a terrific musical score which gives the episode another dramatic kick up the rear end; I loved the vocals that accompanied the Sisterhood.
I don't feel the need to defend Catherine Tate's performance, simply because I think it is good enough to speak for itself. Along with Forest of the Dead and Turn Left, Fires of Pompeii is Donna's (and Tate's) showcase episode and it is during these more adult dramas that the decision to cast an older companion shines. She makes The Fires of Pompeii special for me, by complementing the epic drama with a very human reaction to it. If you dumped me in the middle of this story I think I would make the decisions and have the same reactions as Donna. Tate might seem a little overbearing when she initially confronts the Doctor about their knowledge of the future but her (intriguingly shot) scene with Evalena, pleading for her to leave Pompeii, is beautifully performed. It is not Donna's reaction to the destruction that makes the climax of this story so memorable but her reaction to the Doctor. Tate's anger and defiance in the TARDIS scenes are of an intensity that Piper and Agyeman were never allowed to bring to the role. Flashbacks to The Massacre popped into my mind during these scenes. The moment the Doctor realises that Donna's no-nonsense attitude complements him and makes him a better person comes at exactly the same time that the audience realises the same thing. Tate's very simple "Yeah" speaks volumes. There are several other moments peppered about that click just perfectly (Her "Don't you dare!" to the threat of the blade of a knife and her "You fought her off! With a water pistol! I bloody love you!"). To be fair, I adored Catherine Tate before she joined the Doctor Who bandwagon, but her nuanced performance in this story won me over completely.
There are so many terrific scenes. The direction of the scene in the Temple with the close-to-absolutely-gross makeup of the Mother Superior character is terrifying. Spoilers are rife when Lucius and Evalena try and out sooth-say each other. The line "There is something on your back" is spat with such conviction me and Simon were discussing it for weeks. The Doctor strolling into the TARDIS amidst devastation is an image to remember for a long time. You have to love a story that handles so many elements but still has time to take the piss out of the Welsh.
Phil Davies gets to chew the scenery in superb style as Lucius and chew he does. With relish. It's a marvellous OTT performance that manages to light up the screen with some delicious dialogue but still remains slightly menacing. Peter Capaldi adds another human element to the story, a warm fuzzy performance ("There's lovely") that hardly challenges the actor but still allows him to perform in one of the most dramatic Whos ever. He's got a guest spot on Torchwood shortly so that should keep any one who is disappointed he wasn't the villain happy.
How can I praise this story enough? David Tennant continues to impress in his third year, unleashing an anger here that is rarely expressed. The Tenth Doctor might go down in history as the most emotional Doctor of all time (well except for the gloriously theatrical sixth Doctor of course) but, let's face it, he's one of the most watchable too. The moment he and Donna make the decision together is one of my absolute favourites in the entire run of Doctor Who.
Gorgeous to look at, thrilling, dramatic, emotional and featuring the Doctor and his companion at the top of their game. Some new Doctor Who adventures are gripping when you first watch them but lose something with repeated viewings. The Fires of Pompeii is special. One to be remembered.
A Review by Finn Clark 7/7/09
A bit over-ambitious, methinks. That's a good fault to have, but for me this episode doesn't quite succeed at pulling off the full range of its emotional journey. A little more focus and a little less waffle at the beginning might have helped me like it a lot more.
The first ten minutes are a bit silly and deliberately undermining one's sense of the historical era. Yes, I get the joke. It's even quite a good joke, with "Celtic" getting a laugh from me later in the episode. However, in no way does this feel like ancient times when you've got street sellers saying "Lovely jubbly", gags about modern art and whiny teenagers arguing with their parents. I didn't hate it, but I think you'd strengthen the episode if you cut everything before the Doctor walking in to see Caecilius.
After that, things get more dramatic. Phil Davis shows up as Lucius Petrus Dextus and improves the episode no end by glowering. Wow, Lucius is intense. There's nothing in the script that says Davis had to play him turned up to eleven all the time, but I'm delighted that he did. He sets a new tone for the story and somehow the episode seems to step up to match him. I loved the scene where the soothsayers turn the tables on the Doctor and Donna, after which the story just keeps getting more dangerous as it tries to make us forget that it was ever messing around with Only Fools And Horses meet Up Pompeii. From here on, I was watching happily with no complaints. The Sybilline Sisterhood are freaky cool. The introduction of the alien elements is also nicely handled. The Pyroviles look stunning, helped a lot by their size.
I have niggles, of course. That first Pyrovile is destroyed by a laughably small amount of water. Maybe some of it got inside, turned to steam and made his internal force fields go pop? If that's all it takes to kill one of them, I'd like to see them in the rain.
Nevertheless this is a much more interesting and evocative story than I thought on first viewing. This time, I knew to put aside my memory of those first ten minutes. The production is so well done that one forgets how well done it is. Filmed in Rome at the Cinecitta studios, remember? There are also interesting snippets of insight, such as pre-Vesuvius Latin not having a word for "volcano". I liked that. It's also worth pointing out that it's a bit of a format break for New Who, filling the slot that had previously been reserved for the Celebrity Historical. Okay, yes, there would still be The Unicorn and the Wasp later in the series, but I like the fact that we've gone back 2000 years to a non-English speaking environment. In fact, I liked their depiction of Pompeii so much that I'd have liked to see more of it. Slow down. Do the JNT tourist thing. Make us go "wow". The Roman Empire is a culture that's been dissected in a million academic disciplines, so it's not as if there wasn't more they could have shown us. We've already cut out the first ten or fifteen minutes, so there's plenty of screen time to fill.
Then the episode changes again. Of course, the groundwork has been laid, albeit in a gabbled street scene in which you'd practically need subtitles to catch all of Tennant's lines. Nevertheless, this episode is asking a serious question that hadn't been asked before in the TV show. Okay, yes, there's The Aztecs, but these days Hartnell's answer won't fly. Donna kills that possible solution just in her first scene. There's a powerful core to this story, with an added twist to make it ten times more interesting. It's not just the usual fluff. Donna pleading with the Doctor is truly stirring stuff, played to the hilt by both actors. "Just save someone." That must have put tears in a few eyes.
The execution is a bit hit-and-miss, mind you. I loved Tennant's "Come with me", but I wish they hadn't continued with the handclasp on swelling music. Tennant looked awesome. End on him. Besides, why should Caecillius have to take his hand in the first place? It's not like they're in a gravity well or anything. After that, I don't mind the scene of everyone standing on the hillside, but it's a tribute to Peter Capaldi's performance that he just about redeems an appalling stinker of a line. Yes, I'm sure that's what I'd do if I saw the fiery destruction of my entire world. Invent a new word. Sure I would. Nevertheless, those are isolated moments that can't derail what remains a powerful ending. They're annoying, yes, but in my opinion the bigger problem is the fact that this little 45-minute episode saw fit to faff around for its first ten minutes instead of laying groundwork for where the story's really going. Phil Cornwell's stallholder for instance barely even registered as a real person rather than as a reference to Del Boy.
Tennant talks too fast. I'm a fan of his performance, but he talks too fast. No, really. I rewound the DVD twice, but I still can't tell what he says before Lucius's line about praying in Celtic. Admittedly, he's always had a tendency to gabble, but for the first time he's partnered with a companion who can snap out the lines as quickly as him. Meanwhile, Catherine Tate gives a wonderful, heartbreaking performance, on to which is bolted some rubbish. When she's bringing us down to Earth, she's magnificent. She nails the important scenes so well that you'll think she's the best companion ever. However what in the name of all goodness are those "this is fantastic" line readings? Is Donna Noble taking the piss? I'm honestly tempted to propose that as a fan theory. I'm also not wild about "You have got to be kidding me", although I suppose she suffers there from going up against Eccleston's delivery of the same line in Bad Wolf. This is an actress who's wonderfully real and powerful within a certain range, but rather mannered and strange when venturing outside it.
Oh, and I liked her cleavage when she leaned forward in that dress.
I admire the foreshadowings of the rest of the season. "She is returning." "There is something on your back." Evelina even mentions the Medusa Cascade, while of course Pyrovilia is one of the stolen worlds. Rewatching this season might be a completely new experience when you know what's coming and I'm looking forward to it.
Overall, much better than I thought at the time. Unfortunately there's an even better one buried inside it, if you think about what might have been if they'd cut down on the gags and groanworthy Murray Gold moments. I'm imagining a less frantic and more focused episode here, although I can't deny that the jokes are quite funny. Maybe they'd have gone for it more wholeheartedly had it come later in the season. Me, I think it's in many ways an impressive achievement, but also a missed opportunity. However, I'm sure many people adore it with every fibre of their being and I wouldn't dream of arguing with them. If you're ready for what it's saying, it'll hit you like a train.
A Review by Jamie Beckwith 10/6/10
A new companion (sort of) and so the series once again gets the chance to address the whole question of the moral responsabilities of a time traveller in the past. This one grasps the nettle full on, by having the Doctor and Donna arrive in Pompeii. Donna of course wants to save everyone and thinks that's what the Doctor is here to do, not expecting him to want to high tail it back to the TARDIS and get the heck out of there.
It's a fascinating dilemma for sure and the Doctor's explanation about there being fixed points in the time/space continuum whilst the rest is in flux is satisfactory enough and gives the writers their carte blanche to just make it up as they go along; nothing new there. Donna really comes into her own here; most of my misgivings had been dispelled by the first episode and any lingering totally evaporated in this one. She doesn't just meekly accept the Doctor's explanation and challenges him every step of the way rather than accept the status quo.
And talking of Latin, the episode rather cheekily plays around with the convention of the TARDIS automatically translating languages, with the Doctor and Donna sounding Celtic whenever they actually speak Latin ("Ahhh caveat emptor"), which I found quite amusing. The "I'm Spartacus" joke also made me laugh out loud.
The human face of Pompeii is shown through your average Roman nuclear family: Dad Caecilius (played by the fantastic Peter Capaldi from The Thick of It) as stern but loving father and the town's main man for marble; fussy wife Metella; teenage son Quintus who goes out drinking and hanging around with the bad crowd (ie Christians!); and daughter Evelina who has the gift of pregonition. It's through this utterly mundane family that we get to understand, as Donna has so astutely, that these were real flesh-and-blood people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Doctor's interest is piqued when he sees futuristic technology carved into the marble at the request of the City Auger and that the seers foretell nothing eventful about to happen. This leads to a dizzying and powerful scene with the rising music and the rapid cuts between all all the characters as a wealth of information comes out as the seers correctly identify the Doctor and Donna as being out of time. "She is returning." Well we can all guess who that is; more chillingly cryptic, Donna is told "There is something on your back." (I don't usually go in for fanwank but it's worth noting that in Donna's very first meeting with the Doctor there's also a giant spider involved...)
There are aliens afoot, Pyrophiles, beings made of stone and magma, who plan to convert the energy from Vesuvius and use it to seize power of the planet and build a new empire. When Donna questions why they don't just power up their ship to return home, it's revealed their planet is lost. Given that the Adipose's planet in episode one was also lost, methinks it's the beginning of this season's Bad Wolf/Vote Saxon arc. That along with the second mention in a row of the Shadow Proclamation (an organisation? a species? most likely not just the name of a treaty as I first thought) leaves me intrigued.
By having the aliens about to change history, the main dilemma of the story is brought home in heartbreaking a manner. Pompeii isn't just history; the Doctor has to cause Vesuvius to erupt in order to save the day and restore the future. Donna finally comes to understand his terrible burden and the risks of time travel. Like all the best companions, she steps up to the plate and refuses to let the Doctor be alone; they make the decision together and they both pull the "off" lever (hee hee ok it's not actually called that!).
The special effects of Vesuvius erupting and consuming the town are amongst the best the season has seen. I guess I should also mention at this point the stunning sets. Actually filming at Cinecitta studios adds an air of authenticity to the episode; I really felt we saw an entire town on display. As Pompeii falls, it's presented with all the due panic and dread that it should be; the last 10 minutes or so are desperately bleak as the sky falls in on the inhabitants, with the Doctor and Donna powerless to do anything. It's Donna who suffers the most, screaming at people not to go to the beach (She'd obviously watched that documentary on BBC4) and lingering behind almost at her peril as Caecilius and his family huddle together in the hauntingly familiar poses we've come to associate with the remains of Pompeii.
There is a small chance of redemption at the episodes conclusion. Personally, I think the show could have been a bit braver and stuck to its guns, but this is Saturday night teatime viewing and, in terms of the fiction, Donna is going to have to want to keep travelling with the Doctor so it's perhaps understandable that Donna's pleas to the Doctor - that even if he can't save the town he at least save someone - are finally heeded and Caecilius and co are saved. It does perhaps undercut the central theme a little; after all, why those 4, why not someone else, but I think the younger audience at least would have been relieved. Donna has earned her place in the TARDIS for sure.
The very end was a bit too Star Trek:Voyager for my liking. For some reason, perhaps because of the unexpected appearance of a familiar face last week, I genuinely expected for a moment Captain Jack to pop up at the end. But no joy.
Are you having me on? Are we in Epcot? by Evan Weston 6/12/15
The Russell T Davies "third episode historical" continues into his fourth and final series with Doctor Who, but, unlike its predecessors (all of which earned a B grade), The Fires of Pompeii is pretty much rubbish. Oh, there are some cool monsters and explosions and a moral dilemma that we'll get to, but this story takes what Partners in Crime did wrong and puts it on an entirely new plane of bad. I called Partners in Crime a typical Series 4 story; The Fires of Pompeii fits that descriptor much more accurately.
The Doctor whisks Donna off to Rome on her first TARDIS adventure, and, in the tradition of his previous companions' first trips, something goes horribly wrong. It seems the Doctor has instead landed in Pompeii, just in time for Mt. Vesuvius to drown the city in lava. Right here, we have some significant problems. The Doctor, by all accounts a genius and according to this very script quite knowledgeable about the period, has absolutely no idea that he's in Pompeii until he sees the volcano. And, as big and indicative of a plot hole as this may seem, you really can't blame him. The sets for this one are just dreadful, some of the worst we've seen on new Who, and you can't go and blame low budget like you could for some of the cheap-looking Series 1 episodes. The story appears to be set in the BBC studios sometime during the 1980s, before the sets were upgraded to reflect some semblance of modern production design. The thing looks more like a botched version of the 1599 London from The Shakespeare Code than Pompeii. The costumes are all painfully obvious, and everything seems to be conveniently located according to the needs of the script. It's a harbinger of the stupid to come.
We also have Catherine Tate mouthing off every which way. She's a mixed bag here, but decidedly more to the negative than she was in Partners in Crime. Her indignant rage at the Sisterhood following her capture is both classic Donna and wildly out of character, if that makes any sense. Donna goes from being fascinated and somewhat scared by what she's seeing - an appropriate reaction - to angry temp mode in the blink of an eye. It happens a lot, and it's quite annoying. A lot of the acting is weak, in fact, with Phillip Davis hamming it up as the evil augur Lucius, and every member of the Sisterhood trying to one-up him. Even the wonderful Karen Gillan, here in a bit part before her big casting in Series 5, speaks in a voice that is distinctly not hers, and it's profoundly annoying. David Tennant is by far the best performer here, lending gravity and sanity to the proceedings that is often lost. The other saving grace is, in another weird bit of foreshadowing, Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi, whose Roman merchant Caecilius is underdeveloped but feels at least properly characterized.
And crumble it does. The Fires of Pompeii is a mess of plot threads that have no hope of ever going anywhere, and really there isn't much going on. Magma creatures called Pyroviles settled under the Earth with no way of returning home (as Davros has stolen their planet, though we don't know that yet) and so decided to infect the local soothsayers with their rock-spewings to create an army. I think? It's almost as dumb as "evil alien nanny dupes the British public into birthing her client's babies by marketing their eggs as diet pills." We've also got the subplot of the Caecilius family, with four characters who never go much of anywhere. Writer James Moran does manage to pull a nice twist, though - you think Evelina is the one that'll end up being a plot device, when in fact Quintus arrives in time to save the script.
My backhanded compliment here just serves to reinforce what a poor job Moran does with this story. Even the dialogue is stupid. We have First Century Romans prattling on like modern people, thanks to the handy-dandy TARDIS translation device, which also seems to have the effect of making indigenous people sound like morons. The humor, especially from Tate, is tedious and dull, and the dialogue is ruthlessly bad throughout, either serving to functionally advance the plot or to hint at character development that never comes. The story is also told without a hint of irony, taking itself extremely seriously throughout its stone-people-with-hand-eyes plot.
This tone is obviously attempted to lend gravity to the conclusion, which is actually almost successful. The Doctor discovers that he's the one who sets off the volcano, in order to save the whole world from burning at the hands of the Pyroviles. While the choice isn't difficult, the toll it takes on the Doctor's character is profound and felt. It's the best part of The Fires of Pompeii, with Tennant's stone cold glare penetrating through the screen as he reflects on the destruction he's caused. However, it's eventually ruined by two factors. One, the episode's tone is never one of grave seriousness because the plot, acting and dialogue are so ridiculously silly in the preceding 30 minutes, making the ending feel abrupt and tacked on (though it was clearly where Moran's idea began). Two, the script attempts to slither its way into a happy ending by saving Caecilius and his family at the end, thanks to Donna's yelping. A story called The Fires of Pompeii really shouldn't have a happy ending, and rescuing Caecilius in an attempt to lift hearts goes against both the show's and the Doctor's codes. The "household gods" tribute at the end is mortifyingly misguided, as well. The Doctor should never be worshipped unironically.
This episode is really a mess, but, fortunately, I managed to crack a few grins while laboring through it. While the sets are trash, the Pyroviles look great; clearly this week's budget went into the CGI and not the production design. They are physically imposing, blend well into the physical plane and genuinely intimidate on screen. Some of Colin Teague's direction is quite good. He chooses a lot of long shots in order to widen the scope, and it works well, for the most part. He doesn't quite handle the disaster-movie-ending well, but the direction overall is certainly adequate, as is Murray Gold's score. I did smile at the Celtic jokes, as well.
Really, though, the whole episode might have been better in Celtic. The Fires of Pompeii can be summed up by Caecilius' line as he looks out on the destruction: "The great god Vulcan must be enraged! It's so volcanic! It's like some sort of... dramatic pause... VOLCANO!" I shouldn't have to list all of the things wrong with this piece of dialogue, but it basically spells out the problems with this episode. It's obvious yet convoluted, serious yet preposterous and overall a really weak effort by all. Just a run-of-the-mill Series 4 episode, I suppose.