Sunday, April 20, 2008

Doctor Who - Fires of Pompeii

This is more like it ... a 'proper' Doctor Who romp in time with some neat, original monsters, some great ideas, and a backdrop about as big as you can make it!

It's surprising in a way that Doctor Who hasn't 'done' Pompeii and Vesuvius before. It would seem to be a fairly obvious period in history to visit. (And before you all start adding comments pointing out the audio play ... I'm talking about Doctor Who on telly). Perhaps it is because the whole concept is just so big that a meagre television budget has not up to now been able to cope.

The Doctor and Donna arrive in what they think is Rome, but what they soon realise is actually Pompeii. I'm not sure how the Doctor knows what the date is though, and therefore how he knows that the following day will be 'Volcano day'.

I like how the threads follow through in this episode. A member of the spooky sisterhood of Sybilline is following them as she has seen the TARDIS and knows that their legends speak of its arrival. Realising that they have to get out of there, the Doctor is purturbed to find the TARDIS missing, sold by a cheeky cockney market trader. I liked this character, and liked the use of Phil Cornwall to play him - the sort of small guest star role which really works in the series. So the Doctor and Donna head off to the house of Caecilius and his family as they have bought it as 'modern art', perhaps reflecting an in-joke on John Cleese and Eleanor Bron's similar summation in City of Death.

Of course I never studied anything as exotic as Latin at school so the whole 'joke' about Caecilius and his wife Metella, their son Quintus and their daughter Evelina and them being in the Latin text books passed me by. My son picked it though ... and pointed out that there was actually no daughter, and actually he was a Banker of some sort and not a marble merchant.

But none of this matters because they are actually great characters and work well in the narrative to ground it and provide a base of sorts for the Doctor. That is, assuming he stays as he just wants to get out of there. But there is something creepy living under the house in the heating system ... and then Lucius arrives. Lucius is official prophet for the rulers and has commissioned Caecilius to make him a marble slab with what looks for all the world like a printed circuit on it. Of course the Doctor is intrigued and so decides to hang around a little longer.

But now Lucius and Evelina (who is a seer-in-training) seem to know who the Doctor is and from where he comes. There is a prediction for the Doctor: She is returning ... and for Donna: something is on your back ... but what does all this mean? Is 'she' Rose? Is there a giant Metebelis spider on Donna's back? We shall have to wait to find out. This is a great sequence, brilliantly acted and with complementary music ... very effective indeed.

The plot thickens as we discover that Evelina's arm is turning to stone and the Doctor realises that they are breathing in rock from the volcano through the heating systems ... so he and Quintus break into Lucius' house that night and find more of the circuit stones - seems to be an energy convertor ... and Lucius' arm is made of stone!! Wow. This is getting better and better as the Doctor and Quintus are chased by something under the ground which then bursts out in Caecilius's house revealing itself as some sort of lava powered rock monster straight out of Transformers or Bionicles.

What a great creature! Roary and frightening, it is defeated with a couple of buckets of water which cool it and make it shatter to pieces. Brilliantly done.

Meantime though Donna has been kidnapped by the Sybilline for daring to have an alternate prophecy, strapped to a slab and is about to be executed before the Doctor wanders in. I wondered how he knew where she was or how to get there ... but soon he is facing off against the High Priestess who is almost completely made of stone, and who reveals that the creatures inhabiting her body are Pyrovile ...

I loved the Sybilline here. Although reminiscent of the Sisterhood of Karn in The Brain of Morbius, they were handled differently. I thought the make up and costumes were startling, and the idea of the eye on the backs of their hands was inspired, giving an eerie insect-like appearance to them as they summoned their powers.

So the Doctor and Donna hold them off with a water pistol (nice touch) and head down into the mountain to confront the aliens in their underground lair. It's now that the Doctor explains to Donna that to him, some history is fixed, while some is in flux, and only he can tell the difference. Convenient I thought, but at least we had an explanation as I was getting a little tired with the 'cannot change history' line when all it ever seemed to apply to was past Earth history ... what about the history of everywhere he ever goes - whether it's in the past or not is relative to where you observe it from ... the present will always be someone's past ...

The Doctor and Donna dodge lumbering Pyroviles and make for a pod thing in the middle of a cavern. Once inside, the Doctor realises that the volcano won't erupt as the Pyroviles are using the power to take over the world! He can stop them, but then Pompeii will be destroyed. But does he have the right ... Ok, he didn't say that ... but I can't have been the only person to have thought that he would ... It's all timey wimey stuff with rifts in time and goodness knows what else.

So the Doctor and Donna together push the lever which will signal the eruption of Vesuvius. And so it does, and the escape pod is thrown out of the mountain and crashes outside. Some questions around this ... given that the Pyroviles were about 20 feet tall if not more, why did they have a human-sized escape pod in the first place? And why only one? And so convenient that the controls to stop them were all inside ...

The Doctor and Donna hurry back through Pompeii to try and get back to the TARDIS as all hell erupts around them. These sequences are all the more impressive for knowing that the crew only had 2 days to record them all! They really are effective at showing the chaos and panic in the ancient city ...

But then the Doctor won't save Caecilius's family ... and heads straight off, leaving Donna to plead with him to save at least one person ... This all really didn't ring true. I think it's the show trying to emphasise that the Doctor is still scarred from the unseen Time War, and the implication is that if he shows 'weakness' and saves people, then it behooves him to answer as to why he didn't save people before when his own planet was destroyed. Unfortunately this disregard for life just makes him look callous ... and this isn't good. Especially when, after saving the family, there are no recriminations as a result.

And so we leave the family looking down on Pompeii as it is slowly buried in ash. I could have done without the epilogue ending. The Doctor and Donna become Household Gods? I don't think so. This could probably have been cut and a couple more elements of explanation about the Pyroviles added in earlier ...

Overall I loved this episode. It's grand and epic in many ways, and the whole team pulled out all the stops to make it work. It's a shame that the Pyrovile don't have a 'voice' or a lead character to develop them though. We hear them talking through the hapless stone High Priestess, and that's pretty eerie, but the creatures we see are lumbering, roaring, mindless monsters ... alien races always work best when they are characterised and are not just insane maurauding creatures. It would have been nice for the beings to have spoken and to have been intelligent, just maybe looking for a home. But this was skipped over.

The costumes and sets, the acting, even the music worked well. It was a wonderful rollercoaster ride from start to end, which mostly made sense.

Next week ... we're back in Ood-ville for more tentacled treats.


Sam Stone said...

A vivid, inspired and accurate commentary and review of the episode. I agree with all you say. Overall I'm thinking this series has really started to carve a new and interesting dimention to the legend of Doctor Who.

Anonymous said...

This episode really endeared Donna to me, I love how she was so insistent on saving people, she was still pretty loud, but I felt in a much less obnoxious way than in the Xmas episode. Yay for Cambridge Latin course characters! Lucius was in fact the first name of Caecilius in the books, but he was never referred to as such.

(Matthew again)

Barbara Davies said...

The problem I have with the current reincarnation of Dr Who is that most of the adventures seem to take place in real time i.e. have an elapsed time of 45 minutes, which is simply too fast to be believable. I suppose this is down to the format though. When you had a run of 4 episodes, with a week in between each one, things seemed more credible, somehow.

Colin White said...

You know you are a Doctor Who fan when you think of a giant Metebelis spider as Lucius predicts 'something is on your back' for Donna.

Anonymous said...

You're right David, a dramatic episode with some great SFX. Donna is more appealing as a humanising factor in the Doctor's adventures than a bellowing nitwit.

I do wish we didn't need to reminded of the Doctor's survivor's guilt even in when its handled so well in this episode.

In "Rose" it looks likely that our hero has been doing good since the end of the Time War & not bound up in an orgy of self-indulgent self-analysis. So why should he turn into such a fatalist now?

(Incidently,personally I'm not convinced Gallifrey & the Timelords have perished ... RTD loves deus ex machina; think about it.

Speculation abounds that the next season of specials may end on a cliffhanger -so could an apparently dead Doctor be saved by his race ? They want to influence the universe but want to do so in a secretive way. Why not fake existinction ? If the Master can hide from the Doctor why not the High Council at the very least?

We're supposed to imagine the Emperor Dalek is more resourceful than probably the most technologically advanced species in the Who canon ?

One of the key plot elements of Buffy spinoff Angel was "The Powers That Be"- a deliberately vague spiritual pantheon in control of the eponymous hero's destiny. Perhaps the new incarnation of the TL's would be a sort of shadowy group with an elaborate masterplan for the Doctor. Modern who is written as a rebel, a lone "romantic" hero and a champion for the disenfranchised.
Why not give him a system to fight against?

I'm probably wrong though! On the evidence the recent Sontaran story we'll have to settle for stories like plots to poison the little bits of foil on top of bottles of milk by the Ice warriors. )