TARDIS File 04-02: The Fires of Pompeii

TARDIS File 04-02: The Fires of Pompeii

The Big Idea: The Doctor mistakenly takes Donna to Pompeii where the duo become embroiled in the lives of an ordinary local family, the Sybilline sisterhood and the ethics and responsibilities of history.

What’s So Great…

  • Donna, Donna, Donna. Catherine Tate displays an amazing range as she effortlessly shifts between sarcastic wise-acre and moral compass for the Doctor and the viewer. Her attempts to warn the unsuspecting citizens of Pompeii of the oncoming disaster is heartbreaking, particularly at the climax of the story. And her chemistry with David Tennant is delightful and moving—and boy does she move the Doctor
  • David Tennant is at his most Doctor-ly. Witness the priceless scene where he brandishes a squirt gun against the pyrovile, or using the magic coin trick to illicit the help of Quintus. The pain in his eyes as he realizes what history is calling him to do is soul-wrenching
  • The story elicits a feeling of a traditional old-school Doctor Who: one can imagine the episode told as a Hartnell historical minus the rock beasties and modern domestic vernacular or as a Tom Baker quasi-historical with Sarah under the knife of the Sisterhood and menaced by polystyrene pyrovile
  • It’s a nice twist to have the Doctor and his companion’s true identities exposed, so utterly, early on in the story, to the point where even the time travellers are mystified by some of the details
  • You have to love the way Donna questions the most basic Doctor Who assumptions and the answers therein: if the TARDIS translates her English into Latin, what happens if she speaks Latin (answer: it sounds Welsh, the source of a brilliant running gag); and why can some things in history be changed and not others?

Some Quick Bits of Trivia: A liberal dose of pop culture references can be found throughout the episode. The line of dialogue, “You must excuse my friend, she’s from Barcelona” references a popular catchphrase oft-uttered in the 1970s BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers (as an apology for the hapless bellboy Manuel). Donna’s T.K. Maxximus reference to Evelina is a cute little nod to the discount department T.K. Maxx found in the UK, Ireland and Germany. The Doctor and Donna both claim to be named Spartacus, a clever echo from the Hollywood epic of the same name (where all the slaves declare themselves Spartacus as an act of defiance against Rome). The family— Caecilius (an actual historical figure, whose home still partially stands in Pompeii today), his wife Metala and their son Quintus, were the characters in a series of textbooks to teach Latin to British students. James Moran used them and added daughter Evelina, a creaton of his own.

The Fires of Pompeii was filmed at the Cinecitt� studios in Rome in September 2007—the first production abroad (other than some special effects-related filming for the New York-based Dalek story last year) since 1985’s The Two Doctors. Cinecitt� has a huge ancient Roman backlot, used most recently for the series Rome, and provided most of the exteriors in this episode (not all: the scenes in the outskirts of Pompeii were filmed in Wales!)

Things to Geek Out About…

  • Where to start! The Doctor alludes to the events of the 1965 classic serial The Romans, admitting a little responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, which was depicted at the end of that story
  • After Lucius declares, “She is returning,” viewers can be forgiven, after last weeks shocking cameo, for getting a tad excited over what this might possibly mean?
  • And then Evelina throws in, “your name is spread across the cascade of Medusa”. Attentive viewers will remember that the Master reminisced about the Doctor “single- handedly closing the cascade” during Last of the Time Lords
  • The Shadow Proclamation gets name-dropped yet again this season
  • And say, isn’t this the second planet that’s gone missing in as many episodes? Time to invest in some AllUniverse theft insurance.
  • Speaking of nods to the classic series, once again the TARDIS is referred to as modern art (the last time was in 1979’s City of Death during a hilarious scene with John Cleese and Eleanor Bron.
  • The term “Volcano Day” was coined by Captain Jack Harkness in The Doctor Dances. It was the one day to not visit Pompeii, for obvious reasons, although a good place (and time) to dump foreign objects you didn’t want to be found later.
  • The story provides an answer to a question Doctor Who fans have wondered for some time: why can the Doctor interfere in some instances but not in others. The answer is that some events are fixed and immovable and others are in flux. It’s an interesting idea…

Not to Complain But… Epic storylines and plotting often suffers short-shift when squeezed into a forty-five minute format. The whole story rushed by so quickly it was hard to get a handle on all its composite parts.

All Things Considered… Warning: Don’t watch this story without a full box of Kleenex!

Whatever its flaws may be, The Fires of Pompeii packs a whallop with regards to big weighty character moments and choices. Catherine Tate continues to impress as Donna and whatever else is going on in this episode, her growing relationship with the Doctor is what counts. The most telling moment comes when the Doctor shares with Donna that he’s the last of the Timelords, late in the story. We’ve seen him do this with Rose (the brilliance of the “chips” scene in End of the World), and Martha darn near went on strike at the end of Gridlock to drag it out him in an equally powerful scene). But how does Donna respond to this painful admission? She reminds him of all the people who are about to die now. Now. Donna continues to surprise. This is a character with strong convictions, and love her or hate her, she makes the Doctor face himself, makes him see the here and the now. He needs her. Desperately.

As mentioned earlier, the rest of the story feels very traditional, albeit with certain epic proportions. At times there were bits that felt like The Lord of the Rings (the Pyrovile fell like what Saruman might have concocted in his furnaces) or the Harry Potter films. Who would have thought in the days of the classic serial Inferno that we’d ever see the day when a volcano would convincing devastate an entire city in the shadow of the TARDIS. And yet, maybe there’s a bit of jadedness that can set in as we get a little comfortable with it all.

And what about having the inhabitants of ancient Pompeii speaking like they’ve walked off the set of EastEnders? While it was laid on a little thick here and there, it did help to make the viewer’s connection to Caecilius’ family a little more immediate.

Line of the week: “You fought her off with a water pistol? I bloody love you!”

Index of TARDIS Files

TARDIS File prepared by Scott Clarke

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