Doctor Who The Fires of Pompeii

 soothsayer

The Fires of Pompeii is an old Doctor Who standby – the psuedo historical. Quite why it couldn’t have been a proper historical without alien involvement is not clear. Perhaps the story of Pompeii itself is not enough to keep an audience engaged for 45 minutes any more. So far all the stories set in the Earth’s past have always had some sort of alien involvement and really do I think that they missed something by not doing a pure historical adventure in this case.

Catherine Tate continues to impress as Donna with her impassioned plea to the Doctor at the end of the episode about not leaving all of the Pompeians to die, even if he could only say one or two, particularly the ones that they had got to know during the episode. It would have been very cruel of the Doctor to leave Caecillius and his family to die.

You could argue that they didn’t really know any of the other people so they might not have felt as guilty leaving them to die as if they just gone off and left Caecillius and family to die who they did actually know and quite liked. As it is known that there were survivors of Pompeii I am sure that the Doctor just saving four of them will not make that much of a difference and it wasn’t as if Donna wanted to save the whole populace of the city (which admittedly she did right at the beginning of the episode).

I know the Doctor said, way back in the The Azetcs, that you cannot rewrite a single line of history, but in this case history happened as it should have done – Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius, so nothing untoward happened really.

I also laughed when Donna stood up to the high priestess, when she was about to plunge a dagger into her. It sounds like just the sort of thing Donna would do because she doesn’t take any shit from anyone, not even a knife wielding maniac hell bent on killing her. I don’t think any other companion would have done that, but Donna would have done, and she did. I think that probably gave the Doctor the chance that he needed to rescue her, because it probably shocked the high priestess that someone had stood up to her, as it is unlikely that that happened very often.

Peter Capaldi was very good as family man, and marble specialist, Caecillus; Phil Davis was quite good (if a little shouty, and more than a little bit Steptoe) as the augor Lucius Dextrus, but Phil Cornwell was a bit silly in his role as a stall holder, but then again if you are going to cast Phil Cornwell in a role like this one then you will get exactly what you got here.

The effects work in this episode was excellent and the final shots of Mount Vesuvius erupting at the end of the episode and the money shot of the entire city being covered in molten lava were amongst the most accomplished effects shots seen in the series so far. It was better than those used in the Supervolcano docudrama they made a few years ago, and those were bloody good. The rock monsters weren’t that badly done either.

I had to cringe when the Doctor pulled out a waterpistol from his coat to threaten the rock monsters with, and not just because I thought that he was reaching for his sonic screwdriver, but a water pistol. I know that I have often likened the tenth Doctor to a schoolboy, but that was pretty ridiculous when you think about. I mean how old is the Doctor? Five! Having said that, though, it was worth it for Donna’s retort!

There was a quite a lot of humour in this episode (the Doctor introducing himself as Spartacus and Donna saying that she was called Spartacus as well; the line about TK Maximus; a scene virtually lifted from The City of Death where the TARDIS is viewed as a piece of modern art) as well as the drama about the impending doom of Pompeii, but I would say that the level of humour is about the same as in Partners in Crime and it does not all come from Catherine Tate at all, as a few people have said.

A friend of mine is really against Catherine Tate being in Doctor Who and has gone as far as saying that the show is being harmed by being bought down to her level, rather than her coming up to our level or something to that effect. Whatever our level is, of course.

James Moran did a good job with this, only his second television script, and like his episode of Torchwood (Sleeper) there were plenty of jokes mixed in with the drama of the piece, but not at the expense of it I would say.

What the hell was all that about at the end with a piercing blue light emanating from the TARDIS when it returned to save Caecillius and his family? I don’t remember that happening normally when the TARDIS door opens.

The episode certainly looked expensive and lavish (much like the HBO Rome series was), and they really used their filming in the Cinecitta studios to their best advantage as it really looked different to any other episode of the series. If you thought The Shakespeare Code looked like it was expensive then The Fires of Pompeii looks like a Hollywood blockbuster by comparison.

They also took a lead from that series in their portrayal of Roman life replete with modern sounding slang from the inhabitants of Rome, and the normal, everyday worries that the citizens have and where children are much like the children of today in particular in the scene at the end of the episode when Caecillius chides his daughter for going out in a short dress, or when he is telling his son off at the beginning for hanging out with the wrong sort of people. There was another link in the form of Francesca Fowler, who played Evellina in this episode, who also appeared in Rome.

I had to laugh when Donna asked an obvious question about the TARDIS translation circuits when she asked what they would hear when you used the actual language that they were speaking in the place they had landed, something not even the Doctor knew, although why would he, and, to be honest, why would he care?

Of course when the Doctor and Donna spoke any Latin it sounded Welsh for some unknown reason. Aside from Rose no-one has ever really commented on the fact that everyone seems to speak English whenever they travelled to a place where they obviously wouldn’t have spoken English, such as in The Masque of Mandragora and, of course, The Romans (another story referenced in this episode). Oh, yes, and for some odd reason the people of Pompeii had a variety of accents from Cockney (the stallholder, Dextrus) to Scottish (Caecillius), perhaps the TARDIS has an accent filter built into the translation circuits!

I wonder if the Doctor’s initial thought of getting the hell out of there was more motivated by the fact that he knew that he was also there in an earlier incarnation of a gurning Scottish dwarf with a screeching redheaded assistant, than the fact that they were soon to be covered in ash and volcanic rock?

The Fires of Pompeii was another triumph for the revamped Doctor Who, and was much more like an episode of early Doctor Who, than any episode of the current series have been. I must admit that I wasn’t all that impressed by it, after my first viewing, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more the second time around.