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.
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.
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.
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.