Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

Donna: 'You fought it off with a water pistol! I bloody love you!'

At the heart of tonight's episode was a question which has plagued the fictional time traveller since time immemorial: is it permissible to risk the future in order to save the past? For the Doctor, an old hand at these sorts of conundrums, the answer was a resounding no. For Donna, a relative newcomer to wide-scale catastrophe, the question raised all manner of complex considerations, and provided a stark introduction to the moral quagmire of time tourism.

Donna also managed to ask and answer the question that's perplexed Doctor Who fans for decades: if the TARDIS translates English into Latin, and vice versa, then what would happen if someone spoke Latin and wanted it to be heard as such ? The answer: nobody would have a clue what they were talking about. Phil Cornell's stallholder thought Donna was speaking Celtic. But why would the TARDIS assign random accents to different speakers? Cornell's stallholder spoke with a definite cockney twang.

Russell T. Davies got the idea for a story based in Pompeii after watching the BBC documentary Pompeii: The Last Day. The episode itself was filmed at Cinecittà studios, Rome, was the first time the revived show had taken its cast abroad, and the results pretty much speak for themselves. Using the sets from the cancelled HBO/BBC series Rome, the episode positively reeks of authenticity. Admittedly, the street sellers are somewhat less than kosher, but they at least provide comic relief.

The Mill did a terrific job of breathing life into the Pyrovile, and those shots of Mount Vesuvius exploding, and the Doctor and Donna trying to outrun the ash clouds were spectacularly effective. Even the prosthetic department excelled at making the immature pyrovile look horrific, but it was that final shot of Pompeii being destroyed by fire, while a small group of survivors looked on, that made the episode look truly epic. They must have spent half the budget on those shots alone—and it was totally worth it.

I was also pleasantly surprised by just how good an actress Catherine Tate is. Her handling of the story's weightier elements was spot on: from her horror at the looming destruction of the city, to her helplessness at her own impotence, she turned in a complex, competent performance. And obviously her comedic timing is impeccable. James Moran's script was choc-o-block full of linguistic gags, and they were all delivered with enthusiastic aplomb by Tennant and Tate. I'm not so sure the visual gags worked as well. Where did the Doctor get a water pistol from at such short notice ? (And 2000 years before they were invented?) TK Maximus, perhaps?

The Doctor/companion dynamic has been noticeably different this year. Both Rose and Martha have questioned the Doctor's wisdom before, but when it comes to being headstrong, Donna's in a class of her own. She was utterly disinterested in the Doctor's 'fixed point in time' bollocks—all she cared about was the impending carnage of Volcano Day, and to the Doctor's credit, rather than ignoring the plight of Caecilius and Co. (with some hefty prompting from Donna), he went back and saved them all. Which only goes to show that the Doctor is at his best with someone there to remind him of what's important.

And she's returning, is she? Is there really only the Doctor who doesn't know who 'she' is?

Other Thoughts:

—The story was supposed to be a part of the show's first season, but was replaced in the running order by 'Boom Town'. Which does makes you wonder how the episode would have fared with Billie and Chris at the helm.

—The Doctor's joke that Donna's was from Barcelona was a tip of the hat to 70's British comedy show Fawlty Towers.

—This was Karen Gillan's first appearance on the show. She later becomes the Eleventh Doctor's full-time companion, but tonight she played a heavily made-up soothsayer.

Torchwood fans will no doubt have recognised Peter Capaldi as Caecilius. Capaldi played Mr Frobisher in the 'Children of Earth' mini-series, before going on to land the role of the Doctor in 2013.

—The Doctor presumably spoke to Lucius in Latin, meaning his pun on the likeness of the words 'sun' and 'son' wouldn't have made sense. In Latin, the two words sound quite different.

—What happened to the TARDIS' chameleon circuit? How comes Caecilius could see it in order to buy it?

Billie says...

I'm almost ashamed to admit that this one got to me. I loved Donna in this episode. She simply could not deal with the concept of twenty thousand people dying, and couldn't stop trying to do something about it. She made the Doctor see that one family instead of the big picture. Just save someone.

And I liked the rest of the episode, too. Maybe it was the superior sets and the clever dialogue on top of the tremendous tragedy. Maybe it was the cool-looking volcano aliens. Maybe it was Tate and Tennant, who ran around Pompeii in tandem and bounced lines off each other like they'd been working together forever. I liked the Latin/Celtic continuing joke. I liked the family and their household gods. I even liked the water pistol, illogical as it was.

Didn't Captain Jack say back in season one that he often pulled his con in Pompeii on Volcano Day? Too bad they didn't run into him.

Quotes:

Donna: "Should I change my clothes?"
The Doctor: "Nah, anything goes in Rome. It's like Soho, only bigger."

Donna: "Have you been here before?"
Doctor: "Yes, I have, and before you ask, that fire had nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit."

Caecilius: "Who are you?"
Doctor: "I am... Spartacus."
Donna: "And so am I."
Caecilius: "Mr and Mrs Spartacus?"
The Doctor: "Oh, no no no no no, we're not married."
Caecilius: "Oh, brother and sister? Yes, of course, you look very much alike."
Doctor and Donna: "Really?"

The Doctor: "Did you think of moving away? Oh no, then again, San Francisco."
Caecilius: "That's a new restaurant in Naples, isn't it?"
---
Four moor peaces eye rote, sea hear.

6 comments:

shawnlunn2002 said...

Without a doubt one of my favourite episodes and yeah, it got to me.

It was nice to see Donna ground the Doctor and argue for him to save one person. Only too bad this would later go wrong for him in The Waters Of Mars.

Catherine Tate's acting was wonderful, she even blew David Tennant out of the water. Doctor/Donna are one of the best partnership on any TV show, not just this one.

Interesting fact is that David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Karen Gillan were three out of five actors that actually did get to film in Rome.

These reviews are coming wonderful now that there's only three and a half weeks for The End Of Time.

daniel c w said...

@"What happened to the TARDIS' chameleon circuit? How comes Caecilius could see it in order to buy it?"

I assume it works the same way, as the Tardis' keys did in "The Sound Of Drums".
Everybody can see the Tardis, if it somehow catches the viewers attention.

Paul Kelly said...

Hello Daniel,

Not a bad theory. But why would the TARDIS want to catch Caecilius' attention? He wanted to buy it as a work of art. The perception filter is supposed to shift perception away from the TARDIS and stop this kind of thing from happening.

daniel c w said...

Hi Paul:
I did not mean to say, that the Tardis wanted to be seen.

As far as I understand it everybody can see the Tardis, if he wants to, or is somehow strongly looking for it.
Caecilius was looking for everything generic, that could serve as Art, therefore seeing the Tardis was not outruled.

Patryk said...

Can't pass up foreshadowing with truth telling oracles in the story, but aren't they going overboard with it this season?

We've got Rose/something on your back/dissapearing bees/ending song all in the 1st 3 episodes. Add to that Karen Gillian as some sort of meta-foreshadowing.

Hard to remember everything for future reference while watching the eps with a fever. Stpid flu.

Michael Colvin said...

Loved the pithy dynamic between the Doctor and Donna. Loved how the oracles could get things right and still say it in their own words. Loved idea of people turning to stone. Loved that the Doctor knew he had to destroy Pompeii in order to make things right. And Loved Loved Donna's reaction to the water pistol. Those pockets of his do really have everything, don't they?

Not certain if the brooding brother added anything to the storyline.