Monday, 19 July 2010

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

“You must excuse my friend. She’s from Barcelona.”

It’s ancient Rome again. Gosh, how nostalgic. Particularly as we get an oblique reference to a certain incident with a magnifying glass. But then again, token aliens apart this is very much in the tradition of those early historicals from days gone by. You could almost say it’s a remake of The Aztecs. It’s a stretch, yes, but not that much of one. Our heroes even get briefly separated from the Ship- er, TARDIS, just like old times. Although I’ll grant you that Donna and Barbara do have slightly different personalities.

Oh, look at that young actress playing the sneaky priestess in the teaser. I understand she’s called Karen Gillan. There’s no particular reason I mention that, of course.

Anyway, this is brilliant, even if it doesn’t quite manage to explore the ethics and issues of interference in historical events as it seems to promise. For a start it looks great; from the sets to the Pyroviles, surely the finest CGI creations yet seen with their superb design, right down to the Roman helmets. And the script, from James Moran, is brilliant. We get some lovely subverting of tropes here- I love Donna’s “You have got to be kidding me!” when about to be sacrificed; this sort of thing never happened in The Stones of Blood. Catherine Tate is particularly brilliant here, and already has nigh-perfect chemistry with David Tennant. I love the Spartacus stuff, and their mutual insistence that they’re definitely not married.

On the subject of the Pyroviles, incidentally; I notice that’s the second implied missing planet in as many weeks. They’re getting their season arcs started early these days.

It’s nice to finally see some traditional style Sibylline priestesses in Doctor Who (well, I suppose there’s The Brain of Morbius, even down to the clothing). They’re one of the great archetypes of the classical world, familiar to me from the likes of I Clavdivs and various historical novels by the likes of Gore Vidal, Marguerite Yourcenar etc etc and rather pleasingly the history of the Sibylline prophecies is so vague that writers can do as they like with them. On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of men in the Classical world acting as augurs (entrails excepted), great character though this Lucius is. I’d assumed Apollo preferred inhabiting the larynxes of women. No doubt some bizarre fetish. These gods, eh?

The fact we have augury allows our characters from earth’s past to know things about our heroes, of course. The word “Gallifrey” is suitably shocking to hear. And most interesting of all of course is “Daughter of London, there is something on your back.”

Oh, and the entire family at the centre of the episode are brilliant. It’s rather admirable how these characters are made to anchor everything together so it all fits inside forty-five minutes, something which feels quite astounding considering all the stuff that’s packed into this episode. The entire family pretty much had me at “Positions!” but Peter Capaldi in particular is great. But then, he is Peter Capaldi, so it’s only to be expected.

Still, there’s a problem with this episode. Sort of. Because even this is great in terms of character and drama in the way it’s used- which is, after all, the main thing. But the whole “explanation” of why some historic events doesn’t really work. We may now know for the first time about “fixed points in time” but this doesn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know back in Season One, as this is just another form of words for telling us that the Doctor can alter some historical events and not others. We knew that.

It says a lot for the excellence of the writing and characterisation here because the scenes between the Doctor and Donna arguing over whether to save people or not work superbly, even though they don’t really work. I particularly love the way this further develops the “lonely god” theme of the Doctor’s occasional aloof arrogance and (as the Doctor admits at the end) that he needs Donna to stop him. That’s why the final scene is so brilliant; the Doctor ends up not being a lonely god as he has Donna there with him. I hope that libation is ginger beer.

But… is it actually impossible for the Doctor to interfere or does he not want to? If the former, why doesn’t he just say so? If the latter, it’s hard to conclude that he isn’t just being an utter shit. And surely, this being a fixed point in time, the Pyroviles should be no more able to alter history than the Doctor. None of it works. And yet it’s great drama. It’s so brilliant that the two of them press the button together.

So, even though there’s a massive and fundamental flaw here the story still gets a 5/5 anyway for being so damned great. One other quibble, though; shouldn’t this be placed a bit later in the season? This is Donna’s first proper full trip in the TARDIS. It should really have been something a bit less heavy and more fun for her.

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