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Doctor Who 4[XXX].2: The Fires of Pompeii

April 13th, 2008 (02:24 am)
current music: Vaughan Williams: Wasps overture, Tallis fantasia, and various (Haitink)

I thought this was very good indeed, and happily admit to having been swayed by the fan-pleasing references such as the Doctor disclaiming all responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, and Caecilius's hailing of the TARDIS as a work of modern art, Peter Capaldi echoing the lines of John Cleese from City of Death, one comedy icon following another, in a story which could stake a much better claim to the title of its 1979 predecessor.

My fear was that this story was going to sidestep the theme reiterated in the publicity; that the Doctor, faced with 'volcano day', as Captain Jack first put it in The Doctor Dances, would have the chance to reiterate his line from back in The Aztecs in 1964, "You cannot change history! Not one line!" only to find that actually this Pompeii wasn't Pompeii really, or was infested by aliens so it was right to see it destroyed. The episode came close to the latter course but incorporated the intervention of the Pyroviles into its system of causality as perceived by a Time Lord. It's already well-established that one of the themes of this series of Doctor Who is that concepts introduced in 2005 are being brought back and developed; so the Doctor's claim to the vortex-saturated Rose in The Parting of the Ways, that he can see everything there is and ever was, is now confirmed and developed. The Doctor's perception becomes complex and vast; the texture of the universe is such that there is more potential for choice and change at some points than at others, and Pompeii is one of the others where (in this case) everyone has to die. This becomes a handy point to refer back to the Time War, which is going to become very important again this series; and to the specific loss felt by the Doctor. When directing David Tennant's first block of episodes, James Hawes (not seen on Doctor Who since, I think) said that it was still important that the Doctor was a war-damaged individual, even though David Tennant's performance was generally lighter than that by Christopher Eccleston. This came through in force here.

One of the tropes of the mid-1970s Doctor Who with which I first became obsessed was possession and physical transformation. Noah, Winlett, Keeler and the Cult of Demnos all went the same way, turning into one insect, two plants and a whole sect of light-creatures. Having seen the High Priestess screech "Pyrovile!" in the trailer at the end of Voyage of the Damned, I wasn't prepared for finding her mind still largely human, pietously surrendering to the will of the gods, her body translated into stone. An affecting performance from Victoria Wicks. Presumably the Priestess could move because she was close to a heat source; Lucius (Phil Davis delivering a performance closer than I'd expected to his Wilfrid Brambell-as-Albert Steptoe in The Curse of Steptoe) ended up with a dead right arm.

Donna is a great asset to this series, and Catherine Tate was still further here from her Runaway Bride persona. Long term viewers would have recognised that Donna's immediate questioning of how she could understand the language of those around her marks her out as independent; it took Sarah until her penultimate story, The Masque of Mandragora, to ask this question, and somewhat creepily the Doctor immediately realised that Sarah's remark meant that she was now under the influence of another.

My favourite of all the 'pseudo-historicals' since Doctor Who came back has been The Unquiet Dead, but apparently it was considered too backward-looking by Jane Tranter, who demanded a 'kick up the arse'. I thought Tooth and Claw was a mess with no sense of period, and The Shakespeare Code was a script in a hurry to do and say too much and ended up being fairly nonsensical. The Fires of Pompeii managed to strike a happy balance, using colloquialism to underscore that these people come from a different culture to the viewer, but have comparable concerns. Caecilius and his family (and I will let other people more learned in these matters, such as jane_somebody and strange_complex, discuss the influence of the Cambridge Latin Course) recalled the injunction of the early writers' guide that the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara shouldn't spend time with the great figures of history but with people in ordinary positions - so we shouldn't see Nelson, but one of the sailors in his navy. Doctor Who broke this rule immediately with Marco Polo, and since 2005 has returned to the (previously rare) 'celebrity historical' in force, but it was good to have a sense of people living their daily lives and being caught up in remarkable events which they interpreted through their experiences rather than entirely through modern eyes. This script tried harder than many.

ETA: When branding this episode as City of Death II late last night, I'd hastily seized upon Caecilius's purchase of the TARDIS as "modern art!" and connected it with the more tangible and human-scale death of Pompeii. Slow on the uptake, I'd missed that should the Pyroviles' scheme had worked, then they would have remodelled Earth and its life to suit them - comparable to the changes Scaroth would have wrought had he managed to stop the destruction of his ship and thus the chemical changes which would lead to life.

I'd mentioned the self-referentialism above, and like City of Death, The Fires of Pompeii expected its audience to know how storytelling works. The security guard in Dragonfire who worried about the semiotic thickness of the text would have approved. Unlike Dragonfire, though, The Fires of Pompeii knew that the self-awareness of Doctor Who as television wasn't a new idea; the series has worked some of its best moments when it was conscious of its own artifice, whether at Cinecittà or at Lime Grove. (The reason that the Doctor couldn't look around Rome properly on his last visit, as he complained, was that there just wasn't the room, nor the resources, to build sets on the scale of the ones seen here at Riverside Studios for The Romans.) The RTD-led series takes this as a given, but the metatextuality in The Fires of Pompeii was better than in most. Lots of people have commented already around the net on the obvious things, but I'm going to do so here as well: 'Translation conventions' abound; the stallholder who sells the TARDIS is Phil Cornwell hybridizing David Jason's Pop Larkin and Del Trotter, not because that's how a stallholder in Pompeii 'was' literally, but because they occupied a space in Pompeiian society comparable to those figures. Latin spoken by the Doctor and Donna is understood as 'Celtic'; a pity that it isn't 'British' (as there were many more Celtic peoples in the Roman world than those in the British Isles) as this would be a neat assertion of how Doctor Who makes its Welsh production base central to the BBC's current presentation of 'Britishness'; as it is the identification of the Welsh with the Ancient Britons, fairly sound linguistically and culturally, is a bit fudged. Then again, perhaps Caecilius is an immigrant from the British Isles himself, as he's given his daughter a name which my source says is probably Celtic, with more remote Germanic and Latin derivations; though another says it's Slavic.

As for San Francisco being a restaurant in Naples - what did Caecilius hear? Was there a sacred Frankish cuisine fashionable in the area in the 70s?

Did Etruscans exist as a recognisable ethnic group in the first century AD, or was this just James Moran pulling labels out of the metaphorical hat with which his audience might be familiar? Christians had to be mentioned as a subversive youth cult, of course, but in the context this might have been arresting for some viewers. The Doctor announcing that he is Spartacus and Donna deciding that she is too is entirely reasonable, helps bring more viewers in on the knowingness, and could even be seen as a joke about Roman naming patterns as puzzled over by generations of students negotiating Julio-Claudian genealogy. A discussion over at strange_complex's journal has pointed out that the idea of the Sibylline prophecies as presented in The Fires of Pompeii has been transmitted (and modulated) through Douglas Adams (reminding me of a discussion of Lachmannian textual criticism over at tree_and_leaf's in the last week). Back to City of Death again... The Doctor has a good reason for thinking he's in Rome, because of course the set was built for the HBO/BBC Rome, which also featured Francesca Fowler.

On a second viewing, there are a few moments which don't stand up so well. The prophetic powers of the Pompeiians are explained as the result of a short-lived rift in time and space very glibly at the end of the episode, which allowed a glimpse into the 'Pyrovillean alternative'. Presumably this means that 'time'/'history' is extremely brittle here, and barely malleable; there is a stark choice between extremes here where the Doctor's meddling is absolutely necessary to make sure the balance between one choice and the other is maintained. The Pyrovile home world was 'lost' (the same word to use the destruction of Gallifrey) - so are the Adipose and the Pyrovilean sufferers from the Time War, whose fallout is again catching up on the Doctor, or has battle been rejoined and is the Doctor as yet unaware?

There were a good few painful line deliveries, particularly of confrontations (there are only so many ways a villain can rasp "Doctor!" and I've heard them all before, tens of times over). Phil Davis was rarely shot in such a way as to adequately hide the bulk of his real right arm. I was doubtful about the volcano being unknown to the first-century Roman world, and reading other reviews by the more classically learned has shown that I was right to be sceptical.

The identification of the Doctor with the divine is so simplistic an analogy, as usually executed, that I am normally thrust into denial ("No, no - no religious allusions in two angels carrying the Doctor up from the hell of Max Capricorn's lair to the bridge of the Titanic, none at all...") but this time it had some weight, because the emphasis was placed on the Doctor's responsibility as a Time Lord, which isn't the same thing as godhood at all, or shouldn't be. The Doctor here displayed his detached ruthless morality again, as seen in The Family of Blood; but Donna can persuade him to make exceptions. Martha never had the opportunity to do so.

She is returning, we learn - Rose, presumably; and Lucius is probably not the last person this series to see something on Donna's back. Is this something controlling her, a representation of her rediscovered greed, and is there some Planet of the Spiders-like Buddhist imagery being reintroduced to the series here?

The Fires of Pompeii was a stronger episode than last week. I enjoyed the jokes which successfully made this viewer feel complicit in the manipulation of the characters and the creation of these last days of Pompeii. The friendship between the Doctor and Donna was strengthened, the story hinged on the Doctor's background as a Time Lord and how it shapes his character and the choices he makes. Donna disassociates herself from the 'kids' the Doctor is used to travelling with; and proves herself an effective conscience. The Doctor is the better person for interfering for the better, a lesson more unwilling companions, Ian and Barbara, gradually taught him across the first two years of the series; but that interference has to be exercised responsibly and there are now choices which are psychologically difficult to make, because they are too close to the loss of home. There are prices to be paid; and one wonders whether the Doctor will betray the Ood for a second time next week, and how this will be dealt with in the episode.


Posted by: Polly (jane_somebody)
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)

Yes, while it's quite true that the Romans had no word for volcano (and of course Caecilius' invention of it, though sound enough etymologically, is several centuries premature) that isn't the same as saying they didn't have the *concept*. The Pompeiians' disregard of the danger they were in is less due to not knowing about volcanoes at all, and more to not understanding the true threat of their particular volcano: a case really of 'familiarity breeds contempt' since the volcano had been making various rumblings and smokings without much further damage since the earthquake 17 years before.

I could have wished that Caecilius had introduced the Doctor and Donna as Spartacus and Spartaca, which would still have been consistent with Donna claiming 'so am I', but I did enjoy the plays with Roman naming-conventions.

I thought using 'Celtic' rather than 'British' was fair enough, since the majority of a modern audience would understand Celtic as 'what was around in our country in ancient days', but not automatically have that association with 'British' (if there was some variant coinage possible such as Britonish that would have worked, but let's not make up more words for the sake if it.)

I can forgive a lot to an episode that allows classicists to 'spot' an upcoming plot development before hoi polloi do, in introducing a character as Petrus Dextrus ;-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)

Thanks for clarifying the volcano issue.

I'm annoyed I missed Petrus Dextrus - I just thought that he had a praenomen, two cognomines [excuse me if that's wrong, it's a couple of decades since I last declined], and no nomen...

If I get round to boiling down the rambles above into something more presentable, I'll probably use coalition-building among the audience as a theme - the episode probably had different 'thicknesses' to different sections of the viewing public.

Posted by: Polly (jane_somebody)
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 07:01 pm (UTC)

Your memory of Roman nomenclature is quite correct! It's just that this time they had a reason for fiddling with it ;-)

Yes, I think you're quite right about the different layers - which is one of the things I think makes this at least an above-average episode (I thought, on one viewing, that it was actually very good, but I realise I'm biased in its favour because of the subject matter.) I gather from you and others that if I knew/remembered more old school Doctor Who I'd also be picking up a whole set of other references, but things like the 'only a bit to do with the Fire' joke worked well for me without the background, which is a sign of a line well done.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 06:45 pm (UTC)

I thought the episode was strong on the moral dilemma theme, but there are a few niggles:

I'll start with the smaller, to continue the classical strand - Mrs Spartacus grated, and while i would have accepted Spartaca, I was disappointed of all the missed opportunities involving the fact that Doctor is a Latin word (what does the translation circuit do with this?), Donna Noble is of ultimately Latin oigin (in the case of Noble, his was acknowlegeded, but someting could have been made of a back-latinized Domina nobilis 'noble lady'), and even John Smith would have produced something credible, but un-Roman in Latin, so suitable for playng jokes on naming patterns.
Evelina really hurt - this is a modern Latinization of a medieval name, probably the product of language contact that happened nearly 1000 years later. On the other hand this is no more than the humanities equivalent of the usual dodgy science.

What really detracted from the story's quality was the weakness of the monsters. This may appear minor, and I am aware that I keep complaining about un-scary CGI monsters. But molten lava that is put out by a bucket of water - what kind of threat is that? And the lack of credibility of the threat somehow undermined the power of the main theme; a great pity!


Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)

You're right about the monster of course; though their frailty does explain why they kept themselves to the hypocausts and to Vesuvius.

There's a hint of some play on Donna's name with "She calls herself noble", but that's as far as it went.

Posted by: Virgers! How are we doing with those explosives? (tree_and_leaf)
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 10:05 pm (UTC)

The identification of the Doctor with the divine is so simplistic an analogy, as usually executed, that I am normally thrust into denial

I thought the family's decision that Donna and the Doctor were gods was plausible given their background - it was the evocation of the creation of Adam that I thought was rather odd...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 13th, 2008 10:16 pm (UTC)

it was the evocation of the creation of Adam that I thought was rather odd...

I'd not given that much thought, but you're right - it's effective, but the symbolism is being applied as if it's not been completely understood.