(Spoilers for The Fires of Pompeii and the whole of Series 4 ahead.)After two home-bound adventures, Donna's first trip in time and space brings her and the Doctor to Pompeii, the day before Vesuvius' fateful eruption. Fateful. As in fate. Indeed, the second episode of Series 4 more obviously advances the destiny motif more subtly started in Partners in Crime. If Partners hid it in "coincidence", Pompeii deals with proper "prophecy".
In fact, it's rather an important theme of the 4th series, whether we mean the Ood's self-fulfilled threat, the mythical Eden of The Doctor's Daughter, the inevitable fate of Agatha Christie, the unknowable future of the Doctor in Silence in the Library, the soothsayer in Turn Left, Dalek Caan's mad ramblings in Journey's End, or the prophecies of this episode. Pompeii actually tells us how precognition can be possible in the Whoniverse: "The explosion was so powerful, it cracked open a rift in time. Just for a second. That's what gave you the gift of prophecy. It echoed back..." This isn't far off from the explanation of Gwyneth's powers in The Unquiet Dead, and is exactly the sort of reasoning behind Donna hearing Doctor Blue's heartbeat in The Stolen Earth. And so the beginning sets up the end.
The Doctor's dilemma is part and parcel of this. He calls Pompeii a fixed point in time, in other words, something that should not be changed. He's aware of this and explains the burden of the Time Lords as seeing "what is, what was, what could be, what must not" (similar to The Parting of the Ways) and in the end is forced to make the eruption happen. He and Donna become the direct cause of the eruption, even if the Pyroviles are really to blame. And this is how destiny works for a time traveler. Vesusvius was "destined" to erupt, and yet the Doctor could have prevented it. Things that happen in the future, are nonetheless "destined" to happen. Time seen from the outside is "fixed", even if we're not aware of that part of it. That's how the "future" can have echoes in the "past" - both exist "simultaneously" in a sense. Obviously, since there are non-fixed points, it's a lot more complicated than that...
Though each Series has used foreshadowing to set up its finale (Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Saxon), this one uses actual, true blue oracles to give us what seem like riddles at first, but will come into their own on second viewings. Of the things we're supposed to be watching for...
Dusty Rose: "She is returning." Though you might make the argument this could equally mean Donna being forcibly returned home.
Back problems: "There is something on your back." Obviously Turn Left's giant bug isn't there right now, but Lucius Dextrus foresees its presence.
They call it foreshadowing: "Even the word 'Doctor' is false. Your real name is hidden. It burns in the stars of the cascade of Medusa herself." Obviously a reference to to the site of the finale, but what does it MEAN? How can his name burn in the Medusa Cascade? Well, we find out later that he went there are a 90-year-old youth. When he was still using his real name? Or did the Cascade have something to do with the Time War (reference to burning).
One prediction that was coming true at the time was my own that Donna would be a great companion. Tate is very effective here, hitting the right notes both in comedy and drama. Just like at the end of The Runaway Bride, she sparks the Doctor's compassion. More than a year later, he admits that she was right. He needs someone, someone to humanize him. She's also great on her own, mind you. She befriends Evelina and gathers as much crucial information as the Doctor does, and her anger at winding up about to be sacrificed brings "feisty" to a whole other level.
Yes, there are some weaker elements, like the whole Latin/Celtic translation humor and the Roman sitcom family that at times pull you out of the drama (and yet can be quite enjoyable in the right mindset). Lots of great moment as well, like the Doctor fighting off Pyroviles with a water pistol, the epic proverb duel between him and Dextrus, and the beautiful set design.
(More) things to watch out for
Donna's Destiny: By Journey's End, the Doctor has to be able to say that people all across space and time are singing songs of Donna Noble. At least one family does, as the Pompeii survivors' household gods have been converted into Donna and the Doctor by a TARDIS temple.
They call it foreshadowing: The Doctor and Donna are mistaken for brother and sister and told they look very much alike, prefiguring their DNA exchange in Journey's End.
Are you my mummy?: Breathing in Pyrovile skin flakes results in the oracles slowly turning into stone (and into Pyroviles themselves), another example of the abiogenesis that heralds Doctor Blue's metacrisis. Jeff R. took me to task last week for implying that the transformation motif was always a positive one. He's right, there are also transformations into less forms, but note that the Doctor fights against one type and not the other. The Doctor encourages change, but a specific kind of change.
Where's my planet?: Pyrovillia was "taken" and is now "lost", which is why the Pyroviles left, eventually crashed on Earth and now have no home to return to.
The reference section: "Volcano Day" was of course coined by Captain Jack in The Empty Child, though it would appear he never actually used Pompeii to con anyone or else he would have stumbled upon the Pyroviles and/or been around this episode. It's possible he was there and the Doctor didn't want to tempt a paradox. The Doctor himself previously visited Pompeii in the Big Finish audio The Fires of Vulcan (7th Doctor and Mel), which starts out similarly, but has no Pyroviles. Has this story thus been de-canonized like Human Nature? Well, I guess it's possible that it occurs elsewhere in town. Be a shame to lose it, it does more for Mel than any of her tv stories. The Doctor also mentions his role in Rome burning from The Romans.
Next Monday: Oodles of Ood.