“THE FIRES OF POMPEII” – Series 4, Episode 2, Story 190 – Written by James Moran; Directed by Colin Teague – The Doctor and Donna take their first trip together and they go all the way back to Pompeii on the day before it erupts. Nice call, Doc. Maybe he just wanted to see his future self’s future companion? Even though she’s so covered in make-up he’s not going to know it’s her? Yeah, probably not. There’s a whole bunch of shaking going on in the town and a whole bunch of soothsayers predicting everything except tomorrow’s eruption. The soothsayers are really, really good even though they miss the biggest day in their history, because they’re sniffing really powerful rock vapors. Rock vapors? It’s an Alien Transformative/Takeover Blabbedy Blah. You’ll be okay with it. Because The CGI Is Pretty Good And The Story Rocks, Too. Rocks. Get it?
THE FIRES OF POMPEII is a sneaky good episode that starts off kinda blah, creates a rather pedestrian mystery, and then starts moving fast and hard with a heck of a moral dilemma for the Doctor and a devastatingly good swerve for a climax.
The Doctor and Donna end up in Rome and they do the whole, “How come everyone’s talking English?” “It’s the TARDIS translation circuit.” bit. Donna asks a ton of questions and the Doctor is all, “You ask a ton of questions,” which is all sorts of funny since that’s all Companions used to do was ask questions and then get caught.
Donna does that, too.
In fact, in a whole lot of ways, POMPEII is a total throwback episode, reminiscent of those Tom Baker era PYRAMIDS OF MARS or IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL serials where the horror was mixed with some religious/space/ancient civilization imagery. Because it’s the Davies era, the episode still gets squeezed into the Running and Shouting Adventure, but that’s not a bad thing if done right, and POMPEII does it right.
Let’s start with the Doctor – once he realizes they’re in Pompeii the day before “Volcano Day” (Captain Jack shoutout), he wants to stop the walking and start the getting out of Dodge. Donna is instantly, “We have to tell everyone,” but the Doctor isn’t having it. He does that really annoying (but consistently applied) thing he does when confronted by a Companion who asks questions he doesn’t want to answer – he gets flustered, he shuts them down, he runs away while giving only half answers. Here, it’s the “Fixed Point in Time” Defense, where the Doctor argues that some events can change and some events cannot be changed and he knows which is which because he’s a Time Lord.
I love that Davies has addressed questions like this during his time as showrunner. The answer isn’t wholly satisfactory because, as we see, he does save a whole family from the eruption. How many can he save? Can he simply not change the moment because the Timecops will come for him (I would pay to see JVCD in a DOCTOR WHO episode) or because these moments literally cannot be changed. It appears to be a moral choice as presented here since the Doctor spends a lot of time trying to interfere with the events of the (silly villain name alert warning) Pyrovile, and they don’t seem to think this moment can’t be changed, do they?
Of course, as the episodes presents it, perhaps the Pyrovile were always there and it was always going to be the Doctor that stopped them from taking over the planet but then caused all those Pompeii folk to die. It’s a great moral quandary for the Doctor and gives Donna an instant taste of how serious things can be – does the Doctor save the few or the many? He chooses the many as Donna knows he must, but being the right thing (or the probably right thing) doesn’t make it the easy thing.
But it does stop Donna from yelling for a minute. (Sorry. Easy Joke. And I’m not too good to let it slide by.)
I shouldn’t get on Donna’s case too much because she’s brilliant throughout this adventure. She asks the questions that make sense and isn’t afraid to stand up to the Doctor when she disagrees with him. She loves being in Rome, but when she sees a sign in English she accuses the Doctor of putting her on. When the Doctor explains the TARDIS translation enhancement, Donna wants to know what would happen if she spoke Latin to the people actually speaking Latin.
It doesn’t translate, and there’s a few funny bits where Romans wonder if the Doctor and Donna are Celtic. The TARDIS gets sold and their search for the Doctor’s ship leads them to a Roman family with a soothsaying daughter and a lazy son. This leads to one of the coolest scenes of the relaunch, when the girl, Evelina and some old dude soothsayer start telling the Doctor they know exactly who he is. Evelina is first to tell the Doctor that “Doctor” isn’t his real name, but his real name is hidden. The old man follows up by telling him he knows the Doctor is from Gallifrey, which allows Tennant to do his, “What? … WHAT?” routine to great effect.
Donna gets herself kidnapped by the Sybilline Sisterhood, who paints eyes on their hands and share some kind of soothsaying group mind, allowing them to see what the others see through their eyes-on-hands. they’re going to sacrifice Donna and her shouting obstinate nature is put to good effect. The Sybilline is an old-school, women-are-crazy group where they pray and chant and think alike and look alike and screech. When people in Tom Baker’s 1970s saw these scenes, they went, “Ah, lesbians.” Today when we see them, we go, “Ah, 1970s.”
(One of these soothsayers is played by Karen Gillan, who you’ll come to know later as Amy Pond. I am resisting the urge to say that this is yet another example of how Steven Moffat is better for this show than Russell T Davies because if you’ve got Karen Gillan why on Earth would you cover her up in kabuki make-up so she’s unrecognizable? I am resisting saying this because it is a totally illogical cheap shot and I’m a slightly good enough person not to take it. I’ll take cheap shots, but not illogical ones. Or, at least not today.)
To show how old school this adventure is at heart, the Doctor and Donna even go traipsing through an honest-to-goodness cave, which leads to the Pyrovile’s spaceship and the Doctor’s moral quandary of burn the city or lose the world.
The Doctor tells Donna that if he sacrifices the city they’ll die to and Donna urges him to do it, which makes you like Donna quite a bit. They end up not dying, of course, and they go running back for the TARDIS, where the family is wailing and begging for help. The Doctor goes right on past but Donna is all about telling him he has to save someone. He saves the family and they stand on a hill and watch the city burn.
It’s a really effective sequence between the Doctor and Donna as neither of them are afraid to get combative with one another and neither are unwilling to apologize afterwards. The Doctor tells her that she was right and that he does need someone to travel with. The episode ends with them taking off.
Or it should have ended there. Instead, we’re treated to a really silly epilogue where the family is living in Rome six months later and they have a little shrine enacted to the Doctor, Donna, and the TARDIS. It’s a stupid ending. It doesn’t ruin the show, which is a definite three-star special (a show that should serve as an example of the quality of a normal episode) and perhaps even a low four. This is good stuff – not historically memorable but a very fine beginning to Donna’s stay in the TARDIS.