Noise to Signal

Login disabled.

Doctor Who - Fires of Pompeii

Series 4 of New Who continues apace, with what seems to be almost universally considered a vast improvement on last week's opener. That's not to say it was without its problems, though, so this week Julian Hazeldine and Michael Lacey both take a look at James Moran's first Who effort in this week's double review.

Review by Julian Hazeldine

The sheer visual splendour of this episode is undeniable. Russell T Davies has admitted in interviews that he set last year’s Christmas special on a Titanic-themed spaceship as he feared that the challenge of depicting the actual vessel would be beyond his production team. The Fires Of Pompeii has no such safety net, but Colin Teague and his colleagues rise to the challenge magnificently. The awkwardness of Rome’s sets being recycled is overcome with a good-natured in-joke, and the story’s shuttling between Wales and Italy is barely noticeable.

The Doctor, there
The Doctor, there

Although the high concept of the episode is to use the inquisitive Ms Noble as an excuse to nail down the reasons why the Doctor doesn’t seek to avert real life tragedies, this doesn’t prevent an interesting A-story developing. Rather than labour the point, and show Donna being denounced in the streets as a apocalypse-preaching lunatic, James Moran emphases the superstition of the times, suggesting that it would be this factor that would thwart any attempt to save the citizens. Sensibly borrowing from Lance Parkin’s acclaimed audio drama Spare Parts, he presents events from the eyes of an ordinary family. The involvement of the Caecilius & Co is extremely well constructed, firstly through the gentle cliché of their having come into possession of the TARDIS, but then as a means of moving the main plot forward. Rather than being fixated on the city’s fate, the story takes time to embrace its roman setting, with political skulduggery and the paterfamilias concept worked into the plot. Up to the twenty-five minute mark, the story is superb, with the only weak point being its magma monsters. The dictat that historicals must feature enemies derived from their setting is becoming a severe irritant, although the Doctor’s holding off the Pyroviles with a water pistol is a delight. Much more interesting are the semi-historical Sibylline cult, with their simple but effective telepathic gimmick, and the accuracy of the city’s soothsayers is a brilliant way of introducing an air of unease.

Unfortunately, at this point, things start to go awry. The quarry-based excursion to Mt Vesuvius is a rather odd direction for the story to take, completely removing the personal drama that has so far characterised the episode in favour of an uncomplicated run-around. It’s easy to understand the production team’s reasoning here- I watched the initial transmission of The Shakespeare Code with a group of young relatives, who proceeded to gradually loose interest in the mixture of wordplay and rock star spooffery. However, even if this episode had been constructed as a pure historical, it would have still offered the most visually impressive climax of any episode of Doctor Who to date- the forced injection of action here feels rather unnecessary.

Even more seriously, the clarity of events of the story’s opening is completely absent from its finale. The conclusion of the episode suffers from the same poor storytelling that blighted Moran’s work on Torchwood earlier this year. As events are depicted on screen, the Doctor behaves in an inexplicable and callous fashion, initially leaving the episode’s guest stars to a horrific fate, before returning to assist them on a whim. As with Sleeper, it’s possible to mentally reconstruct the intended message. The Doctor has been thinking in terms of the absolute barriers that prevent his saving Gallifrey and his people. On realising this, he decides that he can risk the slight interference that Donna suggests, while letting the general path of history take its course. Unlike Gridlock, which also traced some dubious behaviour by the Doctor to the trauma of the Time War, there is no foreshadowing of the fate of the Time Lords playing on the Doctor’s mind, and its impact is drowned out in the barrage of fire and ash. The epilogue to the episode, showing how the saved family have come to worship the Doctor as a god, redeems matters slightly. There’s a deliberate contrast with Martha’s claims in The Last Of The Time Lords that the Doctor “never asks to be thanked”, and a not very subtle hint that this slight alteration to the web of time has set a disturbing train of events in motion. Hopefully, we’ll see this strand re-emerge as the series continues.

Had the initial focus of the episode been maintained, this story could have been an all-time classic. Unfortunately, the story’s ending is swamped by the enormity of its task.

Three Stars

Review by Michael Lacey

Episode Two of this series is a vast improvement on last week, thankfully. There's a very old-Who vibe to proceedings, Catherine Tate does lurch into that voice at points but there are also signs of her character being of some use after all, the guest stars are great, everything more or less makes sense. The Fires Of Pompeii stands as an above average rather than great episode due to some jarringly stupid elements and wonky pacing.

Peter Capaldi, there
Peter Capaldi, there

First up, how did Pete Capaldi and a red-haired woman manage to have one pale, willowy daughter and one son who looks nothing like any of them? He looks like he might actually be from Pompeii, which seems a pointless concession to reason when you've already had Phil Cornwell as a cockney market trader, in Pompeii. The Tardis-translation thing means that this makes a basic sort of sense, but the episode makes the mistake of examining this bit of hokey sci-fi logic and picking holes in it for comic effect. If you want to have an episode-long verbal running joke a la Shakespeare Code or the werewolf one, does it really have to be one that makes one of the basic elements of your programmes internal logic look frankly stupid? And having raised the issue of language translations being a difficult business, why pepper the rest of the script with tricksy language and dual-meaning puns? It's very distracting. The Shakespeare Code, which seems like an obvious comparison, whilst occasionally lapsing into Harry Potter-quoting silliness, came across as a reasonably intelligent and well researched episode. Fires Of Pompeii is better at maintaining a serious face, but just isn't as clever as it thinks it is. A "Six Months Later" epilogue, which could have been an emotional coda to the episode, is just a stupid tacked on happy ending which closes with one of the stupidest images Who has managed to date.

What's up with Series Four and scenes that go on for way too long? Last week Donna and Steve Zissou chatting about nothing-all for about six minutes, and this week all that Mary Poppins shit with Pete Capaldis "family". It's crucial to the climax of the episode that we empathise with these people, but they're rubbish, and I already can't buy into the notion of them being a family in any way at all because they all look like Latin textbook illustrations apart from the son who looks like Enrique Iglesias.

Just as all this stupidity is getting too much, some great big fucking monsters made of rock appear and things start to improve. The stupid rock escape pod thing? Not even going to complain, because there was big rock monsters and great big explosions to distract me. Then Donna did something that Martha didn't really manage - established a believable relationship with The Doctor. It's kind of nice that the production team has realised it wasn't just that Rose was a sexy bird who asked appropriate questions, it was the fact that her relationship with The Doctor was co-dependant which engaged audiences (not even really the romance). It's nice to have that kind of dynamic back instead of giving The Doctor an actual fawning lapdog, and that they've redefined it somewhat as Donna being necessary to stop The Doctor from like, going on killing sprees. But still, did it have to be Catherine fucking Tate? Ughhhh. A character can serve the same PURPOSE as Rose without needing to be COCKNEY and SORT OF, YOU KNOW, COMMON. Take note, BBC. So I am slightly more convinced than previously that Donna might be sort of worthwhile, but I still don't *like* her, and with her "what d'you do for fun? go down the shops? hang out wiv yer mates? EAT CHIPZZZZ?" segment, I remembered how patronisingly this series has always handled it's depiction of ver-working-class, who are only ever allowed to be shown eating CHIPS or PIZZA, and preferably going "OOH LOVELY CHIPS LOVELY PIZZA! WE'RE JUST LIKE *YOU*!" over and over while half chewed food flies out of their mouth and down their face and they make smutty expressions at eachother.

Still, that's me complaining about the series as a whole again, rather than reviewing this episode. The climax is well-set up and dramatic, and the "omg we're going to diee" moment is effectively underplayed. The volcano explosion looks brilliant (the effects department is the only bit of Who that has really consistently gone from strength to strength), but all the should-we-or-shouldn't-we rescue Pete Capaldi's family stuff and him slowly coining the word volcano ("it's like some kind of ...volcano!" wasn't even the worst line of the episode) made me want to eat piss with boredom. A piece of effects-laden fluff like this needs to make its point then get off the stage, rather than fanny about with these dud emotional crescendos. Save it for Moffatt. Does the episode succeed on its own terms? No. Is it fun to watch rock monsters smash shit about and watch great characters actors bellow portentously about Gallifrey and their own psychic powers? Well, yeah, obviously.

I nearly forgot about that events in flux / fixed events thing. I still can't decide if it's super-awesome or super-lame and I can't be bothered, but getting specific about The Doctors super-powers and time-vision seems to go against the series' spirit of mystery for the sake of the plot of one episode that really only needed the following plot anyway - ROCK MONSTER SMASH UP LATIN TEXTBOOK. BOOOOOOOM.

3 Stars

About this entry


Since the episode aired, I've managed to figure out exactly what it was I hated about it. They've undone all of The Doctor's character development in Series Three, in order to maintain the dynamic from The Runaway Bride. In Bride, the Doctor had just lost Rose, which made him much darker and ruthless, which is why he kills all the spiderbabies, and why Donna says he needs someone to stop him. That's all fine.

But slowly over the course of Series Three, Martha performs this task and gradually restores him to his old compassionate self, to the extent that he forgives The Master for everything and refuses to let him die. And yet when Donna comes back, his character is reset back to how it was when they first met, simply because RTD wanted to maintain that same relationship from Bride - with Donna acting as The Doctor's moral conscience and ensuring he does the right thing. And that's what I object to; the fact that they've transferred The Doctor's morals and compassion over to Donna. It's a cheap way of defining her character, and The Doctor's character suffers as a result. There's no way The Doctor of Last of the Time Lords would have run straight past a cowering family. He leaves them to die simply so Donna can tell him not to, which is just wrong.

By Ian Symes
April 17, 2008 @ 11:05 am

reply / #

But that exact dynamic - including spiderbaby reference - was refuted in the last episode. Given that it was an actual Davies script, doesn't that somewhat contradict the idea that "RTD wanted to maintain that same relationship from Bride"?

More reasonable, surely, to say that Moran took his cues from Bride (team-written show, you have to start somewhere) and Davies then failed to correct the error in tone?

Which is not to say I agree with the point on this ep - I don't - but I did think Partners in Crime made a deliberate attempt to show the Doctor HAD changed. Which makes this episode a step back (from your POV, at least) rather than an RTD through-line of character regression.

By Andrew
April 17, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

reply / #

Yeah, I was wrong to cite RTD in that post. I hope I'm wrong and it turns out to be a one-off, and that the rest of the series continues with the new dynamic glimpsed in Partners in Crime; your suggestion that it was Moran's decision and it didn't get corrected certainly makes more sense. Doesn't bode well for the series as a whole if individual episodes have different characterisation, though. I can't forgive Fires of Pompeii for what it did with the Doctor's character, but I'm willing to hope it won't be repeated.

By Ian Symes
April 17, 2008 @ 1:22 pm

reply / #

I liked "Fires..." a lot. Unlike a lot of Who episodes (in fact a lot of TV generally) it managed to keep me completely involved and engaged from start to finish. I thought the atmosphere worked well (obvious but good use of the old "Rome" sets), the acting was generally adequate, the "feel" was about right (a sense of Saturday-evening fun as opposed to the stupid CBBC feel of "Partners in Crime") and the serious stuff was surprisingly well-handled. I liked the monsters too - a big improvement over the dreadful CGI of the adipose. I also thought that the period details were handled well - particularly the Roman tendency to superstition. At no point did the Doctor try and explain that he was an alien because the Romans had no point of reference to understand any such thing (they had the same problem with the pyrovile) - it was all "gods" to them and the Doctor essentially went along with it. I also liked the fact that someone made a Roman-era drama set in provincial Roman Italy without anyone mentioning the emperor or the senate or even (except at the end) Rome itself.

There were a few problems, such as the pyrovile monster being defeated by a bucket of water which dampened (if you'll forgive the pun) any real sense of menace and, as Julian notes, the volcano-quarry "run around" felt a bit unnecessary and a "break" from the established feel of the episode but overall I thought it was an easy 4-star effort.

I have to take you both up on a couple of points.

Julian :

"As events are depicted on screen, the Doctor behaves in an inexplicable and callous fashion, initially leaving the episode’s guest stars to a horrific fate, before returning to assist them on a whim."

Except it's neither callous nor inexplicable: the Doctor understands that he can't affect the course of "true" events and he's evidently extremely troubled by it. He sees sacrificing 20,000 Pompeiians as necessary to save the Earth but it's not an easy choice given the Doctor's general outlook; we can see he hates having to do it. It's Donna's pleading along with his sense of guilt which, I think, makes him decide to save the family rather than a whim; and even then he seems to suspect he's possibly doing something wrong.


"A "Six Months Later" epilogue, which could have been an emotional coda to the episode, is just a stupid tacked on happy ending which closes with one of the stupidest images Who has managed to date."

In what way was it "stupid"? The Doctor and Donna become the "household gods" because, well, the family couldn't understand their having been anything but gods given the superstitious way the romans looked at the world (hence also Peter Capaldi only being able to understand the volcano as an expression of Vulcan's rage, as the Romans did at the time). Two strangely-dressed people save a family from certain death using their "temple", hence they must be gods and hence a shrine is set-up to worship them. It makes perfect sense both in the context of the story and the actual history of Roman pagan religion.

By Zagrebo
April 17, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

reply / #

"There's no way The Doctor of Last of the Time Lords would have run straight past a cowering family. He leaves them to die simply so Donna can tell him not to, which is just wrong."

Isn't it less that he's just leaving a family to die and more that he's avoiding altering any part of a fixed aspect of Earth's history? Like I said, I got the impression that the Doctor felt that even saving a single family might be too much but it was Donna's pleading and his own concience that persuaded him towards the "one little family won't hurt..." argument. I think the Doctor's actions have to be seen in the context of his fierce insistance that he can't go back and change things (hence his bringing up Gallifrey's fate when Donna pleads with him) rather than a lack of compassion.

By Zagrebo
April 17, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

reply / #

> the pyrovile monster being defeated by a bucket of water

Two buckets, actually - thrown at the same time. (I know, I know, huge difference.) :-)

> I thought it was an easy 4-star effort.

Me too.

> Isn't it less that he's just leaving a family to die and more that he's avoiding altering any part of a fixed aspect of Earth's history?

That's how I took it. (I know part of the debate has been that they may have survived the volcano anyway, but I figure if they're 'home-is-safe' types, as their household gods and final action of cowering as a family suggest, they would certainly have died.)

In fact there's an argument that he KNOWS saving them will have a knock-on effect, if you see it as an action relating to the Doctor's 'curse' of time-knowledge. (Which I bloody love.)

I look at it like this: There's nothing to stop an episode later on exploring the harm caused by this gesture of compassion. And if that's a reasonable, valid storyline to include, then the character's decision to leave them behind is equally valid. (Something Julian's review also kinda touched on.)

Nice reviews, chaps. Disagree that the episode become an uncomplicated run-around (or, at least, that this was detrimental - the 'fixed/flux' and 'make a choice' moments both came out during these scenes, and they're already some of my favourite new Who moments). In fact on the second watching I was even more impressed with the structure, how well everything was connected and balanced.

> Does the episode succeed on its own terms? No

Or, as I would have phrased it, 'yes'. :-)

Kicked the shit out of The Shakespeare Code...and a great many others. Not keen on the 'volcano' line at the end - fine sentiment, but over-written - but I'm half-and-half on the coda.

I hate the format itself - any final scene that starts with 'six months later' is almost inevitably going to be a smug illustration of something you should have done right in the previous scene - but making them household gods totally worked. For all the reasons discussed above, but also for the young actor's performance - delivering the same line as he did at the start of the show, but this time with genuine (but not OTT) gratitude. Performance enhanced a neat - if ill-placed - idea.

By Andrew
April 17, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

reply / #

> Kicked the shit out of The Shakespeare Code

I agree with that.

I wouldn't be too hasty in slagging off the coda because there's a chance it holds more significance. The Doctor's actions in this episode could have serious repercussions.

By performingmonkey
April 17, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

reply / #


>Donna's pleading makes... him decide to save the family rather than a whim

Moran modelled the family on real people, from a particulary well presevered house in Pompeii, but it's unknown whether the real family perished. While the episode fully establishes that the destruction of Pompeii is required, both to maintain temporal reality as we know it and to destroy the Pyroviles, the writer hasn't given us a compelling reason why Caecilius and his family in particular had to be sacrificed. Donna didn't give the Doctor any new information when she pleaded with him, which I felt rather undercut his actions- there was never any claim that these four deaths were a key part of the historically recorded tragedy, as the Doctor seemed to assume. It was for this reason that I had issues with the Doctor running past the family.

By Julian Hazeldine
April 17, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

reply / #

This is why Who is set in a fictional version of our world. Caecilius and his family surviving doesn't have to already be set as historical fact. Anything goes.

By performingmonkey
April 18, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

reply / #

>Moran modelled the family on real people

Well, it's worth pointing out that "Caecilius" is the only name who was known to have actually existed in Pompeii - and he was a banker, not a marble dealer as in the episode. Metella and Quintus were inventions for the Cambridge Latin Course - and the girl was created for the episode. Unless you mean that he's mentioned elsewhere that he modelled them on a completely different family, I'm not sure.

But yes, your other points, I wholly agree with - a number of people survived the disaster, and the Doctor had no indication that this particular family weren't among them, nor that their particular deaths were such a "fixed point".

By Seb
April 18, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

reply / #

Some of this stuff reminds me of one of the better episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, with the HoloDoc - the one where he has a nervous breakdown because he chose a cast member over a redshirt when he had time to save one or the other but not both.

Maybe The Doctor, here, just didn't want to make the call over who lived and who died.

By Random
April 19, 2008 @ 4:04 am

reply / #

> a number of people survived the disaster, and the Doctor had no indication that this particular family weren't among them

Apart from their cowering in the corner, making no attempt at escape. There's no reason why he couldn't have detailed knowledge of who was meant to escape, either - he did mention earlier how he carries the burden of knowing these types of things.

By Jonathan Capps
April 19, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

reply / #