...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Day 2659: DOCTOR WHO: The Fires of Pompeii


This week Dr Who was up a volcano. Well, been there and done that!

Look: here is a piece of MOUNT VESUVIUS to PROVE it!

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Don't panic though – I haven't pulled the VITAL PLUG that is holding the magma in check; Daddy collected it years ago when, like Mr Dr David, he went to visit the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum!

Mr Dr David said it was quite LIFE AFFIRMING to be up on top of a live volcano. But that is because he is a MANIAC who likes to do his own stunts.

Powerful, exciting and moving, this was a corker of an episode, and Alex was even more blown away than I was. If there's a problem with this, it's only that it leaves you wondering how the back end of series thirty is going to be as good.

It was another long episode, but one packed with incident: humour, action, horror, tragedy and redemption. One of the series' best teasers, showing off ancient Pompeii while the Doctor and Donna's relationship is charming and funny, finishes with the great dramatic reveal of Vesuvius. This meant the episode starts by first fooling us into thinking it would be a "hunt the TARDIS"/"race against time" plot only to resolve this within minutes and instead introducing two, seemingly divergent, plots concerning the prophecy of the Sisterhood and the stone circuits that Lucius Petrus Dextrous is having made, before revealing that they are actually two aspects of the same plot, but then effectively wrapping up the "alien threat" forty minutes in so as to devote the last ten entirely to giving the eruption the sense of scale and tragedy that it deserved.

There's also time for a moment or two of toying with the continuity, tying up one or two points in an interesting and – for the series – finally consistent way. A brief nod to "The Romans" in the teaser is a fun throwaway; in fact, it's the sort of thing that the Doctor often says (q.v. the Titanic in "The Invasion of Time") and it's just a nice nod for the fans that we've seen that past adventure. And there's the old, old question of "how does the TARDIS translate deliberate use of foreign language?" resolved by saying yes, it really does translate it into a different foreign language, hilariously choosing to make a Welsh joke out of it. You might want to think about what this means for stories like "The Reign of Terror" where we hear the Doctor address locals in (in that case) French and what that might mean for the translation convention.

But all of this is used to wrap up two very big moral dilemmas. First, Donna's question: "why can't the Doctor change Earth's history?" And second: "how can you choose between twenty-thousand deaths and the whole world?"

What is interesting is that, although they do what is probably the right thing in the end, both Donna and the Doctor are morally compromised in different ways. The Doctor won't intervene to save the citizens of Pompeii because he sees the bigger picture, when Donna just thinks he should save them; conversely, the second dilemma, when the bigger picture requires him to intervene the fact that can see the consequences paralyses him and he needs Donna to almost give him permission, or at least to share in the decision – and the culpability – before he can push the lever and trigger the volcano.

Both cases emphasis the difference between the Time Lord perspective and the human, and illustrate why Donna is right that he needs a human companion, both to remind him of the little things and to let him get past the cosmic.

Needless to say by now, David Tennant is brilliant. But what a magnificent, strong and ultimately heart-rending performance from Catherine Tate: she is really very good at being a companion. And what a good companion Donna is. There's the moment when she gets kidnapped by the Sisters – if you watch you realise that she's fetched a bucket to fight off the Pyrovile foot-soldier; then there's her reaction to being placed on a sacrificial slab – fury not fear; but then there's her compassion for the Doctor's decision, and acknowledgement that in spite of the consequences for Pompeii that they have to save the world. But she still doesn’t give up trying to save those people, almost despairing when they won't listen to her and worse the Doctor won't listen to her, but she forces him to in the end.

With the exception of a cameo for Dead Ringer's Phil Cornwall, our interaction with "ordinary" Pompeiians is entirely through the family of Caecilius (yes, by now everyone must know they're named after the family in the Cambridge Latin Course, just as Lucius Petrus Dextrous has a "stone right arm" in best Asterix tradition). Plus a quite impressive number of extras for the "and now you all get incinerated" scenes. Peter Capaldi is a marvellous actor, starting off as almost comic relief, with the "Up Pompeii" antics of rushing to stop everything toppling over in the earthquakes and the ticking off of his children; but shading into seriousness as the dark night comes and then the full horror of the volcanic eruption. Francesca Fowler as Evelina, daughter of the house and signed-up seeress, is also marvellous and spooky. The commentary reveals she was genuinely unwell for the day of filming the "duelling prophets" scene but I think she really makes it add to her performance, as she is supposed to look wasted and wan. Meanwhile, young Qunitus's toga already has its own appreciation thread on Outpost Gallifrey.

That duelling scene, though, was an early flash of just how brilliant this episodes was about to get – and there's a nice directorial touch as the camera angles twist more and more out of true as the two seers reveal more and more that they shouldn't know.

Speculation has got to attach to the meaning of Lucius' specific – and guaranteed accurate – prophecies for the Doctor ("she is coming back" has got to mean Rose, hasn't it?) and Donna ("there is something on your back", the most obvious and sinister suggestion is one of a Queen Spider from Metebelis III, previously seen on Sarah Jane's back in "Planet of the Spiders", and Donna already has a spidery connection with the Racnoss, but surely it means something else?). There is also a second mention for the Medusa Cascade (after "Last of the Time Lords" when the Master referred to the Doctor sealing the rift there). Specifically Evelina tells that the Doctor's real name burns in the Cascade of Medusa, leading some to think that that is where Gallifrey is, or was, and where it burned, particularly since the Doctor "burns in the centre of time", again possibly meaning Gallifrey.

Lucius, played by Phil Davis, is a great Doctor Who villain – or even James Bond villain with his volcano lair! As with Peter Capaldi's Caecilius, it's a performance that shades over the course of the programme, starting gruff but also impressed by the Doctor, but then growing more sinister and dark as his Pyrovile masters gradually take him over so that he finally goes right over the top in the climax. Mind you, when you're stood next to an imaginary stone titan then "large" is the only way to go.

The Pyroviles themselves are another spectacular success from the CG workshops of the Mill. Admittedly, they more than a little resemble the "live action" Transformers from last year's movie, done in stone – though I did like the "Centurion's Helmet" look to the heads. Most impressive is the one that steps out of the mountainside to greet the Cult of Vulcan: impressive not because it's merely "large" but because it's done in daylight and looks completely credible in the scene.

Like the Adipose in "Partners in Crime", the Pyroviles have "lost" their planet. Lucius describes it as both "gone" and "taken", while last week Ms Foster said she wasn't interested in the politics. These remarks together might suggest that the planets are either being conquered, perhaps in the rise of a new Dalek Empire, or literally disappearing, falling through cracks in time. The possibility occurs that if Rose is able to return to our universe then someone has cracked open the walls between realities and these planets might be falling into the Void as a consequence.

Lawrence Miles raises the criticism – and it's not completely an unreasonable one – that modern Who can't seem to visit the past without aliens/monsters showing up. By "modern" of course, he's referring to all Doctor Who since Innes Lloyd took over as producer in 1966 and decided that "The Highlanders" was quite enough of that sort of thing. (OK, "Black Orchid" excepted.) And it ought to be remarked that the Doctor can't arrive in the present or the future without having a similar problem. But the point still stands: could the Doctor visit the past and just have an "isn't this different!" kind of story?

To an extent you could, but I think that it's telling that the great era of the "historical" was in the 1960s when nothing else on television was doing the same. When the BBC costume drama era arrived in Colour in the early Seventies, the Doctor was exiled to Earth to find other things to do with his time; while the time-travel adventures of the Fourth Doctor are all Hammer Horror pastiches rather than genuine history, and even he gives up visiting Earth's past after "Horror of Fang Rock". It's a great strength of the new series that they've found a way to get back to those adventures in history. Remember in today's television age, you can watch just about any historical period you want, thanks to "Rome", "The Tudors", any number of nineteenth century vehicles for Dame Judi Dench, or just old fashioned UK Gold; Doctor Who has to have a unique selling point to get in the audience and let's face it, that's the monsters. In a series that is much more allegory and fairy story these days, you need to have the bogey man (or the id) up there on screen getting what for.

On the other hand, of course, it is possible to do a (nearly) "pure" historical in Pompeii because it's been done before.

The Big Finish adventure "The Fires of Vulcan" features Sylvester McCoy's Seventh incarnation of the Time Lord, alongside the rehabilitated Mel played by Bonnie Langford, also arriving in Pompeii the day before the volcano's eruption.

What is actually very pleasing is that the TV adventure in no way tramples over the audio; in fact it is perfectly possible for both to be taking place at the same time

Where the TV has the Sisterhood of the Sybil and Lucius's Cult of Vulcan, the audio has the worship of Isis and the priestess of the Trinity (that's Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). If the city is supposed to be awash with rumours of the arrival of the Seventh Doctor's blue wooden temple, well all the more reason for Caecilius to be conned into buying the Tenth Doctor's TARDIS as a piece of "modern art". (Though surely also a reference to the classic John Cleese and Eleanor Bron scene in "City of Death", and mustn't Russell be kicking himself that "David Agnew" got that title first!)

And there are points where they almost seem to be referencing each other: Donna spots an Amphitheatre and suggests gathering everyone there to warn them; if they had they might have seen the Seventh Doctor's confrontation with Muranus the gladiator. (Although actually that was the day after.) Equally, one of the reasons that "honest and boring as they come" Mel is thought to be a liar is because she starts predicting Vesuvius' eruption but none of the Augurs have foreseen it, a dismissal out of hand that almost speaks to the "gift of Pompeii" that all their prophets speak the truth.

Most intriguingly, one of the Sisters reports to her order "the tall one calls us mad" – odd way to distinguish between the Doctor and Donna, surely "the man" and "the woman" would do, unless… are they perhaps also keeping watch over another visitor from a Blue Box? A short one?

Perhaps that is why they focus on Donna and the Tenth Doctor (who then start to meddle in their affairs, while Doctor Seven and Mel are quietly trying to find the TARDIS).

So, if you accept that both adventures can take place, consider that it might go deeper than that. In "The Fires of Vulcan", the Doctor cheats time: when he arrives he already knows (because UNIT told him in his fifth incarnation) that the TARDIS is destined to be buried in Pompeii by the Vesuvian eruption. At the start of the story he is very accepting of this, but by the end Mel convinces him that there has to be a hope, so they sit out the eruption in the TARDIS and wait for the ash to settle and solidify before dematerialising and rematerialising in the same gap 1901 years later.

Mel even asks what this will mean for the web of time, and the Doctor says to leave that for another day.

But he's still cheated time, using his foreknowledge to change the outcome, and that sort of thing creates "weak spots" in history, at least according to "Father's Day". So maybe that is why Vesuvius was able to blow a hole in the continuum. Is it, in fact, possible, that it is the Seventh Doctor's adventure that makes it possible for the Tenth Doctor's adventure to take place at all?

Just a slight shame, then, that there wasn't a moment where – in the background perhaps, you could see a man in a straw hat and paisley tie running past the other way, followed by a redhead.

Next time… Ood 'ave thought it; that "I'm Spartacus" joke prefigures a slave revolt next week. The Sensorites' next-door neighbours are back and they don't look happy on the "Planet of the Ood".

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