Burn, Baby, Burn!
(The Fires of Pompeii Reviewed)

I’m feeling much better today, after crashing yesterday afternoon. I’m eating, and the joint pain appears to be on the wane. Vivian is still quite lethargic, though she did eat half a hamburger and other stuff this evening. I’ll probably be taking her to see the doctor tomorrow morning, unless she shows a remarkable recovery.

I think I know what the doctor is going to say: Vivian has the flu, just make sure she keeps taking in fluids and rests up. Children’s motrin seems to take the edge off things. Still, it will be a comfort to have a doctor say those things than just having us guestimate.

I was well enough last night to check out the latest episode of the Doctor Who revivial, entitled The Fires of Pompeii. I was looking forward to this tale, because of how well the show does historicals (especially with The Shakespeare Code) and early reports about how Donna tests the Doctor’s statements that people who die in history can’t be saved.

I was a bit disappointed, however. The story has a good foundation and, on paper, is quite compelling. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sympathize with the characters, and so much appears to have been packed into this tale that nothing gets the attention it deserves.

For those who don’t wish to be spoiled, don’t click on the link to take you further. The rest of you, click the link to read the rest of the review.

Fires of Pompeii

For her first journey on board the TARDIS, the Doctor decides to take Donna to Rome, and ends up getting the destination a little wrong. Congratulations to Donna for figuring it out (recognizing Vesuvius as being not near Rome), and congratulations to the Doctor for, upon realizing that they’re in Pompeii on “volcano day”, hot footing it back to the TARDIS as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for the duo, by landing their ship inside a market stall, they left it vulnerable to being sold. As a means of forcing the Doctor to stick around, I thought this was very elegantly handled.

Similarly, I appreciated the fact that the Doctor’s first priority in the first few minutes is getting the heck out of there, despite Donna’s insistence that they try to save people from the coming explosion. We get a picture of how the Doctor views his actions in history, of how Pompeii is a fixed point that can’t be stopped, whereas London in 2008 is still in flux. I don’t pretend to understand that, and neither does Donna, and the theory takes a bit of a hit when the Doctor spots a marble-based circuit board.

Something is happening in Pompeii that isn’t part of the history books. The Doctor comes to the uncomfortable conclusion that, if Pompeii is a fixed point in history, he’s the one who fixes it. And with Donna demanding that they try and save the people marked for death, the Doctor has to choose between making history run its course and killing 20,000 people, or doing nothing and allowing the Earth to be destroyed.

It’s not fair to the episode itself, but I cannot help but compare The Fires of Pompeii to The Shakespeare Code. From the second season onward, it seems to be the tradition that the second episode of the season is the nominal historical episode. The Shakespeare Code is, in my opinion, the most successful of the three historical episodes of this slot, and I believe it’s because the story focused on a particularly strong character (William Shakespeare). The story was simpler, but gave more for the audience to hold onto and identify with. Everything on screen worked towards its theme and the result was a satisfying whole.

The Fires of Pompeii doesn’t have nearly as strong a character to ground the story around. There is a typical Roman family, there’s a bevy of soothsayers, there’s a religious cult, and there’s magma monsters, but none are developed more than just your basic stock characters. The dialogue of the villains was a little heavy handed, and there was just no sense of the art that one usually finds in a more nuanced Doctor Who episode.

Part of the problem may be that there’s too much plot for the 45 minutes, here. The pace of this tale is rather breakneck, and not in a good way. Opportunities for atmosphere or character development are shoved aside, and even the dialogue is delivered so fast as to be hard to follow on occasion. It was a bit of a struggle to get into this tale, and so it was a bit of a struggle to care.

There remains much to recommend The Fires of Pompeii: David Tennant and Catherine Tate continue their on screen chemistry, and I’d like to thank the production crew for emphasizing the brother/sister relationship. Donna is turning out to be a wonderful companion who doesn’t easily scream. Her fiery tongue while she’s tied down on the sacrificial alter is a joy to behold. The two are still feeling each other out, but Donna at least is starting to understand just how cool the Doctor is:

Donna: You beat her back with a water pistol?! I bloody love you!

But I also love how Donna isn’t willing to take everything seriously:

The Doctor: I am Spartacus.
Donna: And so am I.

There was also a good moment when two soothsayers start going on about the Doctor’s history and his near future. It was a remarkably simple but effective bit of plotting. Having one soothsayer mysteriously spout things about the Doctor’s past and present that he shouldn’t know has been done before, but two? The widespread presence of accurate soothsayers in Pompeii really emphasized the extent of the problem and generated some genuine chills.

And on a technical level, The Fires of Pompeii is quite strong. Director Colin Teague gives us some strong visuals, and the decision to film on the set of Rome pays dividends. The special effects of the stone creatures were very realistic, and the monsters were impressive. That said, I found parts of this episode rather unrealistic. For example, the Doctor and Donna head into the heart of a volcano and don’t seem to break a sweat, much less get charred. And being blown free of the volcano, far enough to be saved, but without being so much as bruised, also challenged my suspension of disbelief.

More importantly, the moral dilemma that’s supposed to be at the heart of this episode is also overshadowed by the action of the rest of the tale, so much so that I know a few people who feel that it was hammered in for the sake of it. There are some missed opportunities here. How much cooler would it have been if, while the Doctor is fretting over having to kill 20,000 people in Pompeii, Donna absolved him from that choice and pulled the lever herself? And that could be done with Donna still trying (fruitlessly) to tell the frightened residents where to run.

The Fires of Pompeii is not a failure, but I’m still left with the sense that the show can do better. Still, we have a good foundation here based on the TARDIS team, and I continue to look forward to next week’s episode.

Random Fires of Pompeii Notes

  • A lot of people have noticed the reference to the Medusa Cascade, which is something the Master referred to last season, but I am more interested to notice that this is the second time this season that the Doctor has referred to the Shadow Proclaimation? This dates right back to Rose although, in Rose, it seemed to be describing some form of treaty. Here and in Partners in Crime, it seemed to describe an actual group. Hmm… Could these guys be Time Lord lite?
  • People have also caught the “Rose” reference in this episode, based on the soothsayers’ predictions. Hmm… Still not sure where they’re going with this, but I am intrigued. I hope they don’t overuse this, though, and turn this into season four’s Torchwood where’s Waldo.
blog comments powered by Disqus