The Fires of Pompeii

Holistic Review: I'm very frustrated that they passed up the opportunity to do a pure historical, but if Pompeii-with-rock-monsters was required, this is a fantastic effort: it's got wonderful atmosphere, an engaging and wide-ranging plot, and an opportunity for Catherine Tate to demonstrate that she can do way more than just comedy.

Back in August 2007, we were given a hint as to the nature of this episode when, purely by chance, Variety (later elaborated on by the Sun) reported that part of the Cinecittà studios had been damaged by a fire, which had delayed filming on a Doctor Who episode set in ancient Rome. The idea of a trip back to ancient Rome was really exciting — after all, this is the first time we've visited the Roman Empire since The Romans way back in 1964 — and while I was idly pondering why they might choose to set an episode in Rome, I suddenly had a brainwave that made me giddy. Could it be possible, I wondered to myself, that they might actually set the story in Pompeii? I figured it was an outside shot, but the mere idea thrilled me to bits.

I was, you see, quite enamored with Pompeii, because the Doctor had visited the city before in The Fires of Vulcan, which just happens to be one of my all-time-favorite stories. For those who aren't familiar with it, The Fires of Vulcan (by Steve Lyons, clearly trying to make amends to me for his 1995 novel Head Games) was an audio adventure released by Big Finish in 2000, and starred Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford as the seventh Doctor and Mel. The plot is as follows: Having learned some time ago that the TARDIS was destined to be buried in the explosion at Pompeii, the Doctor becomes morose and defeatist when the TARDIS finally materializes there; but Mel, upon learning of the TARDIS' apparent fate, refuses to take it lying down and resolves to find a way out of the situation whether or not the Doctor is willing to help. It's a fantastic story for several reasons. One: the setting is ideal for a Doctor Who adventure, full of foreboding and the sinking feeling that no matter what they do, the Doctor and Mel aren't going to be able to escape history. Two: the nature of the setting means that the tension builds throughout, as the impending explosion grows closer and closer, and finally, at the end of part three, Vesuvius erupts, leading to a part four full of raining ash and smoke and terror. Three: as anyone who knows me can tell you — or, indeed, any of you who have read my reviews of the era — I'm a rabid fan of Bonnie Langford's Mel. Up until this point, few people really got what a great companion she had been, although a couple of novels had gone some way toward showing people just how much potential she had. But The Fires of Vulcan — marking Bonnie's first actual return to Doctor Who since Mel's departure (unless you count the Dimensions in Time charity special) — was (re)written for Mel exceedingly well, with the entire plot hinging on her unflagging optimism and determination, and as a result, fandom at large began to re-evaluate the character. Finally: it's a historical. Not the pseudo-historicals with sci-fi elements that have become so popular ever since The Time Meddler back in 1966, but a pure historical. Back in the Hartnell days, during Verity Lambert's tenure as producer, they were all the rage, but when Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis took over in 1966, they decided — based on their perception that the viewing audience generally preferred the futuristic stories — to phase them out as soon as possible. The result being, The Highlanders in 1967 was the last true historical involving a genuine historical event. (1982's Black Orchid often squeaks into this category on the virtue of it not containing any sci-fi elements, but neither does it contain any actual historical events; as such it's more of a period drama than a historical.) In recent years, however, the historical genre has also seen a re-evaluation, with modern viewers finding a lot to like about these stories. Ranging from the dramatic to the comedic, stories like The Aztecs and The Romans and The Massacre have had praise lavished upon them recently, and there's a sense that modern fandom, at any rate, is ready to try out historicals again. Big Finish tapped into this trend, with The Marian Conspiracy in March 2000, and their second historical story was The Fires of Vulcan. They've done many others since, including The Church and the Crown in 2002, and Catch-1782 (another period drama) and The Council of Nicaea in 2005. So, clearly, it's a burgeoning trend, the appeal of which is plonking the Doctor and his companions down in an interesting historical era, and watching how they deal with the culture and avoid whatever dangers await them — there's the threat of having your heart cut out in The Aztecs, the guillotine in The Reign of Terror, the Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve in The Massacre, and all-out war in The Highlanders. And of course, in The Fires of Vulcan, there's the massive eruption of Vesuvius.

The production team have been oddly dancing around this fact — there's no mention of it in Doctor Who Confidential and no acknowledgements given in the closing credits — but it seems almost certain that this story was inspired by The Fires of Vulcan. I mean, not only is the setting the same, but the title is practically identical too, as are some of the themes, and Vulcan gets mentioned several times (yay!). Plus, both of them involve a Scottish Doctor racing around Pompeii with his redheaded companion, who puts on a stola partway through. And of course I was expecting changes, just as there were with Dalek (from the audio Jubilee), Rise of the Cybermen (from the audio Spare Parts) and Human Nature (from the novel of the same name). But I was really hoping that, finally, the production team might say: this is a setting that can stand up completely on its own, without the need to bring in any sci-fi elements to grab viewers. After all, the eruption at Pompeii is really popular right now, what with there having been a highly-rated BBC documentary (Pompeii: The Last Day) on the very event in 2003. And The Fires of Vulcan didn't need any monsters at all to make an impression, even at twice the length of The Fires of Pompeii. Instead, it focused on several very complex questions. With events conspiring to drag them back to Pompeii again and again, can the Doctor and Mel escape or will they be killed in the eruption? Is it possible for them to try to change the course of destiny, even when it seems inevitable that they're going to die in Pompeii? Should they warn the residents and try to save as many of them as possible, or must they let history take its course?

You can, I'm sure, imagine my utter delight when a month later — on September 24 — my deepest wish was confirmed: our Roman story was indeed set in Pompeii on the eve of Vesuvius' eruption. So, my feeling when I finally learned that Russell T. Davies wanted "Pompeii, with rock monsters!" in this story? My heart absolutely sank. And I thought to myself: if they can't make a decent historical out of either the Titanic or Pompeii, two events which have so much inbuilt tension and human emotion right there to be utilized... then I give up. Clearly this production team has no interest in reviving the historical genre, believing instead that today's audience requires monsters in every story in order to be entertained. The really sad thing is that, thanks to The Fires of Vulcan, I know how well a Pompeii historical can be done, so it's really hard to look past that when I'm evaluating this story. And I have to wonder: if The Fires of Vulcan had never been made, and I'd never salivated at the idea of a Pompeii historical onscreen, how would I have felt about The Fires of Pompeii on its own merits? The thing is, I think I would have loved it unreservedly. So now that I've got this big weight of frustration off my chest, and I've come to terms with the fact that this is not a historical and I'm probably not going to get a historical... I'm going to try to step back and evaluate this story more objectively. After all, I shouldn't be unfair: maybe they wanted to distance themselves from Vulcan. Just understand that I'll be drawing comparisons between the two from time to time, because it's nearly impossible not to, when I'm such a fan of the original.

So, what did I love about this story? Well, a lot.

Catherine Tate continues her ascendance to greatness, as Donna — standing up to the Doctor and looking at the small picture and refusing to let him just accept the situation without even trying to change it — does Mel very, very proud. Of course their first instinct, once they realize they're in Pompeii, is to race straight back to the TARDIS, but naturally it's disappeared (although it proves much easier to re-obtain than in The Fires of Vulcan... here, they could escape at any time, and it's only the presence of aliens that persuades the Doctor to stick around). But then, once they take a moment to regroup, Donna realizes that she could gather everyone together and warn them — a very moral and conscientious response for someone who knows the tragedy that's about to occur. Throughout the story, she continues to challenge the Doctor's blasé attitude about the need to let everyone die, and repeatedly expresses her intention to try to save as many people as possible, no matter what the Doctor thinks. But when it turns out that they have to destroy Pompeii to save the world, Donna is right there to support him sympathetically, without regard for what happens to her personally, and she even helps him push the lever so that the Doctor doesn't have to take sole responsibility for Pompeii's eradication.

Donna continues to be quicker on the draw than we were originally led to expect. She doesn't take long to figure out that they're not in Rome but Pompeii, she comes up with a theory about the purpose of the Pyroviles' escape pod, and she generally fails to exhibit any "stupid" behavior, which perhaps is a necessary change now that she's an official companion (it's certainly not a bad change). As always with the revival, I love Donna's glee at finding herself back in (what she thinks is) ancient Rome, as well as the big hug she gives the Doctor for bringing her there. And as much as she rages and blusters at the sisterhood as she's about to be sacrificed, the look on her face when she realizes that the Doctor has come to rescue her speaks volumes. Despite all this closeness, for once there's no hint that either of them wants to be more than just friends, and I love that. Donna and the Doctor can even touch hands and smile at one another, and it doesn't seem romantic, just like a deep bond of friendship. It's perfect, and it's what I've been craving.

I also have to say that I love her purple-and-blue top at the start of the story, and I'm thrilled beyond measure that she gets to change into period clothing — on top of which, it turns out to be a lovely amethyst-colored stola. (Instead of Mel, here it's Evelina who's wearing yellow.) Tate gives so many good line deliveries, the best of which I'll save for below; but included among them are "Don't get clever in Latin!", "What time does Vesuvius erupt? When's it due?", "Donna, human, no! I don't need your permission!", "No, we're not together.", "It's stone.", and "Nice to see you laugh though."

David Tennant gets to play angry-Doctor again, as the Doctor is confronted with a situation that he knows he cannot change and a loudmouthed companion who demands that he do it anyway. His inability to change history, and his clear frustration at that fact, is beautifully portrayed in his arguments with Donna. Tennant seems really energetic in this story — in particular, watch the way he vaults up to Lucius' window with great agility! His facial expressions are great during the scene in which the Doctor and Caecilius discuss the soothsayers. Among his other deliveries, I really liked "It doesn't look like it to me.", the hilariously punny "Don't get yourselves in a lava!", "You were right. Sometimes I need someone. Welcome aboard." and, probably my favorite, "Well, that's all right. Just us girls!"

I really like our central guest characters, a mundane Pompeiian family not so different from those in our own time. Peter Capaldi is just superb as Caecilius. He has a look about him that suggests to me that he could have played a villain very easily, but he makes Caecilius so very likeable and funny. He gives a great delivery to "I'm a little bit peckish. Get me some ants in honey, there's a good man. Ooh — maybe a dormouse?" (eww! but his wink thereafter is great), "How's your head, sunshine? How's your head?", and "If you want marble, I'm your man." Tracey Childs' Metella is such a modern housewife; she disapproves of her husband's taste in art, she dotes on her daughter and has great hopes for her future, while taking her lazy son to task for his lack of drive or manners. I particularly love Capaldi and Childs' reactions as they watch Pompeii being buried in ash, and Capaldi sobs, "All those people!"

Francois Pandolfo is highly entertaining as Quintus, as much of a layabout as you'd ever find in an ordinary suburban family these days. He moans "Get off!" and "Give us a break!" when his family gives him a hard time, he's reluctant to apologize, he's more worried about his hangover than the effects of an earthquake, he's jealous about his sister's family status but not particularly encouraged to work any harder himself, and he perks up at the mention of vestal virgins. I love the shot of him apparently trying to get at his mother's wine goblet (either that, or she's relieving him of it!). But he's not all laissez-faire; for all his jealousy of Evelina's preferential treatment, he's concerned for his well-being, and upset at the way his mother seems to be jeopardizing her health. I really love his insincere delivery of "Sorry, household gods." and the moment at the end, when he squeezes his sister's hand to comfort her. The final member of the family — and apparently the only one not lifted from the Cambridge Latin Course books — is the frail and second-sighted Evelina, played by Francesca Fowler. She does a great job of balancing 'delicate' and 'powerful', particularly in the scene in which a fume-sick Evelina reads the Doctor and Donna's futures. Among her great line deliveries: "The sun will rise, the sun will set. Nothing special at all.", "The most terrible choice!" and "The future is changing!"

Each member of the family gets to play an important role in the story, particularly Caecilius; Evelina, who provides the link to the Sybilline Sisterhood; and Quintus, who accompanies the Doctor into Lucius' house. The very cool thing is that by the end, their narrow escape from Pompeii — and their encounter with the Doctor — has truly changed their family for the better, particularly the kids. Evelina is now looking healthier, having apparently recovered in full from her petrification, and she's going out on the town with her friends in a trendy little dress. Quintus, having decided to take full advantage of life, is even more changed — he's dutifully respecting the family religion, he's even pursuing a career in medicine, and he's made his mother proud.

The Sybilline Sisterhood, representing one of the many cults that flourished throughout the Roman Empire, bear a cozy familiarity to the Sisterhood of Karn from 1976's The Brain of Morbius: both are secretive all-female religious groups with formidable mental powers, who depend on geothermal vents and flames for their abilities, and wear red robes and facial markings. And they're worked into the plot rather like the Mentiads from 1978's The Pirate Planet, another sect of mental-power practitioners who increase their numbers by recruiting sensitive members of the general populace. Neither of these influences makes them seem unoriginal, however; instead they fit perfectly into the atmosphere of ancient Pompeii, with their bright scarlet robes making a beautiful contrast with the brown buildings and streets, much like the red-cloaked ninja monks from Tooth and Claw. I also love their makeup, with the pale faces and bright red lips, facial tattoos and the very creepy eye markings on the back of their hands. Their movements are beautifully choreographed, and they're very well synchronized. Of the sisters, I was especially fond of Sasha Behar as Spurrina, especially on the line "Yes, a knife that now welcomes you!" (just watch her face!). Victoria Wicks has to endure some pretty impressive rock makeup as the High Priestess, and her performance is excellent at suggesting that the petrification process actually does hurt quite a lot, but she's become able to bear it and is trying not to show the pain.

As the town augur, Lucius Petrus Dextrus (love that name) is an interesting character, although he's a little too full of himself and of, well, evil, for me to really warm to him. However, I was vastly amused by the scene in which the Doctor matches him for senseless nuggets of wisdom: "Damn. Very clever, sir." And Phil Davis really works his brows.

One of the things I love about James Moran's script is that it isn't just content to wander the streets and buildings of Pompeii, as The Fires of Vulcan largely was. Here, not only do we get to infiltrate a secretive Roman sisterhood, but we also get to go down into the volcanic hypocausts and even into the heart of Vesuvius itself. Now that's ambitious! (I'm a little surprised that Donna didn't think to ask the Doctor what would happen if Vesuvius blew while they were down there! And, come to that, why didn't the lava come up through the hypocausts in the city? Was it too far away? since, after all, the lava apparently never reached Pompeii overland.) But the very best thing about his script, undoubtedly, is the big moral dilemma at the end. Because the Pyroviles' energy converter is siphoning off the energy and pressure in the magma chamber, it's keeping Vesuvius from erupting, but it will also enable the Pyroviles to take over the world and boil the Earth's seas away. In order to save the world, the Doctor must disable the converter, and allow Vesuvius to erupt — meaning that he personally will be responsible for the destruction of Pompeii, and Herculaneum, and the other communities in the region. This is a terrible twist, but a wonderful script moment, which pretty nearly justifies the presence of aliens in the story, and is certainly something that The Fires of Vulcan didn't attempt.

I'm totally enamored with Colin Teague's direction. Maybe the Italian location and the detailed set inspired him, but wow, he really has fun with his camerawork here. He even utilizes a technique that I've never seen before, but that I really liked — there's an occasional slight blurry movement to the actors during the climax, first as the eruption starts, and again as the TARDIS lurches with the Doctor and Donna inside. Another scene that really impressed me was the constant slow zoom and tilted angles (and the subtle lighting) as Evelina and Lucius are double-teaming the Doctor and Donna with their prophecies. Then we have the really cool montage with lots of overlays as Evelina transmits Donna's "prophecy" to the sisterhood. And my favorite shot: the dramatic pan as the Doctor and Donna hare away from Vesuvius, which is sending a lavaflow and a cloud of ash down after them. These were all just stunning moments, but far from the only ones that caught my attention. I loved the way he zooms the camera out right after the title sequence, his gorgeous shot of the entire Sybilline temple as Thalina bows, the shot through the grating into the hypocaust, the very creepy shots of the seers holding their eye-tattooed hands over their faces (the eye markings look so freakishly large), the filming on the mountainside as Lucius and his men bring the marble circuit carvings to the Pyrovile, the ash cloud covering up the sun, Caecilius reaching up to grasp the Doctor's hand, and the ash cloud enveloping Pompeii as screams echo in the background. Between Moran's script and Teague's directing, The Fires of Pompeii does a superb job of not being just about the monsters, but also about the human cost of the tragedy, and it hammers home the inability of the population to escape in time, and the terror they felt as they knew they were about to die.

Murray Gold's music doesn't particularly stand out here, and it certainly doesn't immediately evoke the Roman era, but it's nice: I especially like the music as Donna is trying to persuade Evelina to leave town.

After the effects disappointment of Partners in Crime, we have a major upswing here. Even if they're not 100% realistic, they're all convincing enough to be believable, and that's what matters. The Pyroviles, for a start, look amazing, particularly their burning eyes and mouth and the way they breathe flames. I absolutely love them. (And, as monsters, they're a perfect fit for the setting, which I think always enhances a story.) The moment when one of the Pyroviles starts stomping down an incline in Vesuvius and sends a burst of rock particles flying upward looks flawless. Other great effects include the hypocaust in Caecilius' house breaking open to release the Pyrovile, the major domo (Rhombus?) burning up in the Pyrovile's breath, the subtle scorchmark left on the floor and the side of the pool after Rhombus has been incinerated, the Pyrovile breathing fire onto the escape pod, and the spectacular eruption of Vesuvius. The sets also deserve a special mention for being breathtaking. Filming at Cinecittà was a very wise move, as the sets from Rome provide a lot of great scope and interesting angles. But the set-design folks who dressed it really outdid themselves; the detail in the background of the shots is amazing and impossible to take in, both in the streets and in Caecilius' beautiful house with interiors of different-colored marble. And I love that they remembered to put Latin graffiti on the walls! Excellent.

Minor points:

No, Pompeii will indeed never be forgotten. I've often read about the eruption of Vesuvius and the story of Pompeii, and thought what a fascinating incident in history it is, but that's so clinical and detached. It's shows like Doctor Who that help us empathize with how horribly the people suffered, and allow us to connect in some small way with their lives. I suppose it sounds sappy, but it's nice to think that the doomed residents of Pompeii aren't just museum pieces or footnotes in a history book, but through programs like this, we can remember them as real people and mourn their passing. On that level, The Fires of Pompeii is a resounding success. It never gets schmaltzy, but it is touching.

So, my final scorecard: Pompeii and Vulcan tie for companion involvement (and that's saying a lot). Vulcan has the edge for historical atmosphere and tension, while Pompeii takes the lead in plot twists. For personalizing the tragedy and involving the audience, we have another tie, although I think Pompeii's got a slight edge on the issue of trying to save the townsfolk. So I think I'm going to call this a draw. Two excellent stories set in Pompeii that approach the material from two different, but not entirely divergent, directions. Neither one cancels the other out of history (the Doctor and Mel could conceivably be running around this Pompeii too; I must admit that part of me was hoping to see a redhead in a yellow stola racing through the background of a shot!) and both are thoroughly enjoyable for their own unique reasons.

In short: The Fires of Pompeii is an engaging and engrossing tale with great scripting, an entertaining plot and lively characters. On one hand, we have an ordinary family confronting the horrific destruction of their city; and on the other, we have a tale of alien invasion, with impressive and memorable monsters, and an unimaginable choice forced upon the Doctor. Donna becomes a moral crusader who pleads with the Doctor to do the right thing, and the whole tale is told with such emotion that you can't help but love it. I think that, in time, as my disappointment over its pseudo-historical status fades, I'll start to love it unreservedly, because The Fires of Pompeii has the makings of a truly classic episode, with lots of fun moments and a great emotional heart.

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