Doctor Who #794: The Fires of Pompeii

"That's how I see the universe. Every waking second, I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That's the burden of a Time Lord."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Apr.12 2008.

IN THIS ONE... You can't stop Vesuvius from erupting, even if lava aliens are responsible.

REVIEW: The Fires of Pompeii, AKA where Steven Moffat apparently does all his casting since Karen Gillen has now been joined by Peter Capaldi as guest artists who became regulars, shows 80s Who how to actually make the most out of going abroad for filming. Why did no one think of going to Cinecittà Studios before? Great for a Roman holiday, in every sense of the word. The episode isn't flashy about it, and perhaps we just don't think much about the "authentic" Roman sets because the CG is so spectacular (so it must all be CG) or there's a good old quarry scene (so the sets must be in Cardiff too). Or the location is robbed of its authenticity by the anachronistic language the locals use. It's strange how historicals lose their potency when everyone is talking too modern an idiom. A lot of the dialog locals speak is meant as a gag - Latin phrases as Celtic, the TARDIS as modern art, marble inspections, the Doctor and Donna as "household gods", and the undeliverable origin of the word "volcano" - and those characters that don't need to do gags (the seers) seem too speak in loftier, more classical English, like the characters in historicals of old. This isn't the real Pompeii, but the Asterix version. Still, nice evocative music, cool monsters, etc. It looks and sounds pretty great.

Nevertheless, the site of one of history's most famous disasters is a great one for both tension and human drama. If many of the guest characters tend towards caricature - I find the augur particularly one-dimensional with his fortune cookie wisdom - the regulars are in top form. The Doctor is funny, bold (a water gun?!) and when faced with a reminder of burning Gallifrey, dead serious, evasive and wounded. We can't blame him, not when he realizes he CAUSED this fixed point in time; that without him, Vesuvius would not have exploded (though the Pyroviles would have claimed the Earth), and so events force him to be the one who presses the trigger and kills 20,000 people. Not the only one though. Donna chooses the share that burden with him, pushes down at the same time he does. Even though she was the one screaming at him the whole time to rewrite history (not one line, Donna!), to save all those people. Even after it's all gone boom, she's still in the streets, trying to steer people the right way, with no thought to her own safety, and she appeals to the Doctor to save SOMEone, ANYone. Yes, Pompeii perished and must forever perish, but nothing says no one escaped, that no one witnessed it. And so he saves one family, and the Doctor tells Donna she was right, not about saving a few souls, but about him needing someone, someone to keep him "human", in effect, someone to keep him from become what his people did, what he ran away from. A nice call-back to the last moments of The Runaway Bride. And if anyone was still unsure whether Catherine Tate had the stuff to be a companion, this is the episode that set them straight. She's a wonderful presence, as good with comedy as she is with high drama, and quite touching.

As with Partners in Crime, you can get your meme bingo card out and check a heck of a lot of the season's RTD-approved leitmotifs - a missing planet, something on Donna's back, songs of Donna Noble, Rose returning, the Medusa Cascade, and so on. It's a bit much, and actually distracting once you know all the secrets.

THEORIES: So was Captain Jack present during these events? Jack originated the phrase "volcano day", telling the apparently true story of how he would con time agents by selling them pieces of anachronistic tech then letting his useless kit get blown up in some historically-recorded explosion before they could check it out, Vesuvius being one such spot. Let's say he's there. If we also take the extracanonical stories as true, then the Doctor is also present in his 7th incarnation with Mel (The Fires of Vulcan has the same basic set-up as this episode's, though on Pyroviles), and then later with Ace (in The Algebra of Ice). The reason I bring this is up is that this episode marks the first time events have been called a "fixed point in time". Previously, this turn of phrase was used to refer to Jack himself. Now obviously, on a purely narrative level, a fixed point is simply an event we the audience know happened. The Doctor can undo Pompeii because we know it to be part of history. Simple. We can extend that definition to mean that if any time traveler present knows of these events, then they cannot be prevented. Donna and the Doctor both know what happens to Pompeii, it would be a paradox to change it. In other words, the Doctor can only try to change events if he doesn't know anything about them, or indeed, if he knows them to be wrong because, for example, his travels have shown Earth was not destroyed in the 21st century. But there seems to be more to it than that. Someone suggested Jack was a human fixed point not so much because he couldn't die, but because he was a "complex space-time event" whose timeline had overlapped too many times. Could oft-visited spacetime coordinates be "fixed" in part for the same reason? There's a tangle of personal timelines that would create egregious paradoxes if events were undone. In Pompeii's case, not only is it part of Donna's history, but the Doctor's been there (is there) three times, and Jack at least once, if not more. It's a big knot in time, and can't be undone by pulling at a single string. If the Doctor doesn't react well to Jack in Utopia, it may be that he's a tangle compromising his ability to interfere with events.

VERSIONS: Deleted scenes on the DVD show the Doctor and Donna deciding to stay and investigate, and more conversation between Donna and Evelina.

My original review, Just Soothsayin', discusses at length the place of prophecy in Series 4.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - The regulars are spot-on, and the look of the episode is gorgeous. Shame about some of the weaker comic bits.


Timothy S. Brannan said...

This is why Donna is one of the best companions ever. She may not be the smartest, or prettiest, the most aware, or any other -est you can think of. Donna is the most human. She cares. She keeps the Doctor grounded.

Not just trying to save the people but walking down the streets excited that she was speaking Latin in Ancient "Rome", well Pompeii, but still.

Anonymous said...

Donna may not have been all those things (though personally I found her way better-looking than most of the eye-candy companions), but beyond being so thoroughly human, she is the best god damn temp in the entire universe. Which just dawned on me, that's why she's a perfect fit for the TARDIS: every destination is a new position with a new set of objectives, you have to get up to speed almost instantly, and you have to expect the unexpected at all times. Plus she's good at running. Seriously, there is an outrageous amount of running involved.

Siskoid said...

That's a brilliant analysis!


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