“Fires of Pompeii” – Review: Redux

Lucius “Who are you?”
The Doctor “I am… Spartacus.”
Donna Noble “And so am I.”

The Fires of Pompeii

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And this tale of Donna’s first trip back in time in the TARDIS is now noteworthy for two of its cameo appearances. Not only do we get Karen Gillan (future companion) putting in a appearance, akin to Freema’s turn in “Army of Ghosts” / “Doomsday”, but we also get a future Doctor with Peter Capaldi’s first dip into the Doctor Who universe as Caecilius (akin, I suppose, to Colin Baker’s Commander Maxill in “Arc of Infinity”). Just from the pre-credit sequence, you could determine that, if nothing else, we were in for a visual treat with The Fires of Pompeii as the sets at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome were sumptuous and gave a depth and richness to the exterior shots that was a cut above 95% of any other dramas you care to mention. The other hints from that sequence of what was in store, came from the dialogue between Tennant and Tate, here we had the snappy dialogue and shared punchlines for the inevitable Latin gags that were evenly distributed between the two protagonists. The odd thing about the those first few minutes was that the mini-cliffhanger only served to reveal that they were not in Rome and that the mountain was about to blow its top… I think we got that from the title.

After the newly arranged title music, which I still don’t think really needed messing with, we were introduced to the family of Caecilius (and, as I found out in DW Confidential, it was no mere coincidence that the memories of long forgotten Latin lessons from my early teens were being resurrected). The family dynamic seemed very 21st century rather than 1st, to wit “Aww, Dad, leave us alone”and suchlike.  Not that I speak with any knowledge of how 1st century Pompeiian families would have interacted but I felt that the scenes of the family banter when the son got up with a hangover were strangely juxtaposed with setting. It probably worked well at engaging with the casual viewer but the more discerning might’ve demanded more.

However, the story slipped effortlessly into top gear with the arrival of the city auger, Lucius (played by the ever sneering, Phil Davis) and suddenly the prophecies and insight of both he and Evelina, the daughter of Caecilius, let us know that there was a lot more going on than just a big volcano. Of course, an accurate fortune teller is the perfect opportunity at this early point in the series to dangle a carrot for one of those “story arcs” that we know and begrudgingly admire. “She is returning” he tells the Doctor in what we assume is a reference to Rose’s surprise re-appearance and most strangely of all, Lucius tells the Daughter of London “There is something on your back”. Donna’s response of “What does that mean?” is one we all shared at the time. Just to add to the mix, we get further mentions of the Medusa Cascade and the Shadow Proclaimation.

The action continued at a breakneck speed with the monsters soon being revealed as Pyroviles who were a little too susceptible to the power of a water pistol to be a real menace but who nonetheless looked quite amazing both as the full-on magma creatures and the partially converted citizens of Pompeii. Donna was kidnapped and recused in the blink of an eye as the travellers escaped to the inside of the mountain itself where the crux of the action took place. As the scale of the problem was revealed, the Doctor and Donna faced a choice of blowing up the mountain and causing the destruction of Pompeii or allowing the Pyrovile’s plan to succeed, temporarily saving Pompeii but risking something far worse. Of course, their conquest of Earth would always have been averted in the event of the short, sharp shower but 9 out of 10 viewers who expressed a preference wouldn’t let that get in the way of cracking good story.

As the episode concluded, we saw a genuine and touching moment of bonding between Donna and the Doctor as, yet again, the Doctor reaslises that he works much better with someone alongside him, although for such a clever bloke you’d think he finally work this out at some point.  However, this was not before we’d seen some of the best effects shots that I can ever recall on the programme: the eruption of Vesuvius and the onrushing pyroclastic flow that was observed by the TARDIS crew and the rescued family of Caecilius from a safe distance was nothing short of amazing. Catherine Tate continues to impress and surprise in this refreshed Doctor / Companion dynamic and her fearlessness either in the face of the Time Lord’s belligerence or under the sacrificial knife of the sisterhood is a refreshing and welcome change.  After just two instalments, it’s hard to believe that there was ever any controversy at all and a few posted comments of apology are probably in order from many of her doubters.  In previous years, the first few episodes have generally seen the series getting into its stride but I have to confess that this year’s offering do seem to have, in the words of Phil Collinson, raised the bar again.

Highlight: The Mill’s special effects

Lowlight: Monsters being contained by a squirt from a water pistol

Talking Point: What does everyone think about Peter Capaldi

Demon’s Run Rating: 17 out of 20

Original BBC1 Broadcast: 12th April 2008

Marathon Status: Series Four hitting its straps

  1. October 8th, 2013

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