The second episode of the new season of Doctor Who, The Fires of Pompeii, was quite impressive. Here are some of my thoughts:
Quick Synopsis: The Doctor takes Donna to what he thinks is ancient Rome, but is actually Pompeii – the day before it is supposed to be destroyed. Several local Pompeiian sooth-sayers seem remarkably well-informed about certain aspects of the future – and the Doctor – but they don’t seem to know what is supposed to happen on the very next day. The Doctor discovers an outside influence on the volcano, and is forced to make a terrible choice – while Donna comes to grips with the reality of traveling in history.
Plot: There were some interesting elements to this story, but overall it was fairly straightforward. There is a small conceit used to keep the Doctor and Donna in Pompeii, even though the Doctor would much rather make a beeline straight for the time vortex. The use of the volcano as a power source is nothing new, and the way that the (future) eruption causes disruptions in time is somewhat reminiscent of the classic Pertwee story Inferno. The story also makes a clever allusion back to The Romans, a classic Hartnell story. The knowledge that the soothsayers possess of the Doctor is a little astonishing, and there are a couple of items dropped in the conversation that fulfill the “lets foreshadow the season arc in every episode” requirement.
A truly important point in this story has to do with the way that the Doctor perceives time. We have known for quite a while that the Doctor – indeed, Time Lords as biological entities – have a unique perspective of and relationship with time. They don’t just use their machines to travel across it, they actually perceive time differently than other races. There’s a concept in the old Virgin novels of species becoming “time-aware,” and this is as good a description as I can think of. The Doctor has the ability to sense when a situation is fixed in history, or if there is some “slack” in time to allow him to meddle. A question that pops into mind is that if this is the case, then why all the hew and cry from the Time Lords in earlier seasons about the Doctor’s meddling? Answer: ret-con (retroactive continuity) – the current series has managed to work a very important aspect of the Doctor’s nature into his very biology, and I for one think it’s a good idea.
Characterization: Donna took the role of the gallant savior in this episode, trying the convince the Doctor and the people of Pompeii that they didn’t need to die in the upcoming cataclysm. I thought this was actually pretty understandable – it’s one thing to understand a historical event from the perspective of books or even films, but to be in the middle of it, to see a crying child in the street and know that they will soon be dead and that you can’t really do anything about it – that’s rough.
The Doctor expresses some agony over his “big decision” at the end of the episode, but in fact there’s no decision to make there at all. The problem was essentially that he was choosing between Pompeii and The Planet – and that’s a false choice. If he had chosen to spare Pompeii, it still would have been destroyed. Again, this isn’t made any easier by the fact that he’d just spent the previous day in the city, meeting its people, but at the same time it’s just a dumb move to make him agonize over a choice that isn’t a choice at all.
The guest stars in this episode did pretty well. I’m not going to single out any actor names, but it was interesting seeing an ancient Roman family interacting with modern turns of phrase but around concepts and ideas that were very much in place in the ancient world. The evil sooth-sayer did a pretty good job of chewing up the scenery, as any good Doctor Who villain should.
Effects: Normally I wouldn’t call this aspect of an episode out, but it’s worth saying that The Fires of Pompeii has some of the best effects so far in the new Doctor Who series. The design and implementation of the bad guys is quite impressive, and their secret underground lair – with liquid hot magma – was pretty spectacular. The actual explosion of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii were amazingly well-done. For an episode where 90% of the action took place on period sets, the few inclusions of effects work were excellent.
Overall, I really enjoyed The Fires of Pompeii, and next week it looks like Tim McInnery takes on the Ood.