Series 4, Episode 2 : The Fires of Pompeii

“Thank you, household gods.”

OK, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Parties, baby naming ceremonies, mates getting made redundant… Is it any wonder I haven’t had time to write on here? Still, I’m back now. And the Doctor’s been busy too, not least revisiting the end of Pompeii, thereby confusing those of us that remember the last time he did that in the similarly titled Big Finish audio The Fires of Vulcan. So was The Fires of Pompeii preferable? Is Catherine Tate more or less annoying than Bonnie Langford?

Actually, to be fair, both companions were pretty well served in those scripts. And a fairly good script it was too, from witty writer James Moran, whose slyly funny screenplay for Danny Dyer horrorfest Severance I absolutely adored. True, there were one or two, welll, whopping contrivances, and the name Pyrovars was less than imaginative, but by and large this was a pretty darned good debut script for a Who writer. It took in plenty of clever references to the show’s past without alienating the casual viewer; I loved the Doctor’s oblique reference to the burning of Rome in The Romans, and finally Mr Moran addressed a question that’s burned in the mind of many a pedantic fan. Namely, with the TARDIS telepathic circuits translating for you, what happens if you actually try and speak the language in question? Yes, at last we know – you sound Welsh (Or is it Celtic?).

OK, so that gag might have been a little done to death, but it’s hard to complain when it’s being delivered by the likes of Phil Cornwell and Peter Capaldi. This episode had an astonishingly good cast, delivering lines that… well, may have seemed a little odd for a trained actor playing a classical Roman. Phil Cornwell’s Pompeiian Del-Boy was a bit of an instant shock to the system, and by the time teenage wastrel Quintus was grumbling “give me a break, Dad”, I was somewhat confused. But actually the modern colloquialisms tied in rather well with the TARDIS translation idea, the only real problem being that it made you think surely it would always translate language like this. Still, I suppose it might have shattered the image somewhat if the Time Lords had started saying things like “It’s the Master? No shit, Sherlock.”

But the quality of that cast shone through, uncomfortable dialogue or not. I’ve always thought Peter Capaldi was great, from his turn in The Crow Road through the angel Islington in Neverwhere to his monstrous Alastair Campbell-alike in The Thick of It. Here, he gave us a nicely balanced turn, from the light touch of John Cleese tribute lines about modern art to the despair of a man watching his city consumed by fire. Opposing him nicely was old hand Phil Davis, giving a darkly sinister performance as Pompeii’s resident augur, Wilfrid Brambell… sorry, Lucius. And I was rather taken with young Francois Pandolfo as the pretty young Quintus, though in truth my attempts to see up his indecently short toga somewhat distracted me from the action.

The CG, as usual, varied from the ropey (the early shot of Vesuvius) to the stunning (the final destruction of Pompeii, the Pyrovar creatures). But the real visual strength of the episode was obviously those exterior shots, filmed at Cinecittà’s sumptuous recreation of ancient Rome for the BBC/HBO series of the same name. Historical Who has rarely looked so lavish, with only the occasional story like The Masque of Mandragora, with its Portmeirion locations, looking like anything other than a BBC set. It seemed churlish to complain that I actually recognised some of the streets from having seen Lucius Vorenus walking down them in Rome.

Catherine Tate gave us her usual spirited performance as Donna; her bolshie personality nicely contrasted with her moral outrage at the Doctor’s refusal to warn the inhabitants of Pompeii of their impending doom. OK, so her reaction to being tied up by the Sisterhood of Scylla was rather too reminiscent of her comedy show, but at least she wasn’t screaming. And the climactic scene as she begged the Doctor to at least go back and save the Pompeiians they had met was staggeringly well-played, by both her and David Tennant.

Indeed, the final moral dilemma faced by the Doctor is at the heart of this episode. We’ve always wondered why he felt so free to mess about with the timeline of contemporary Earth, but couldn’t change moments of schoolboy history. Here at last, we got an explanation, as the Doctor explained about fixed points in the web of time. That seemed a little pat until we realised that Pompeii would only become a fixed point if he personally caused the deaths of 20,000 people. Tennant played the scene brilliantly, with Tate matching him as she took the decision with him. It was a scene reminiscent of Sylvester McCoy’s sometimes coldhearted calculation that some have to be sacrificed to save many.

And what of the bad guys? Phil Davis’ Lucius was an effective mouthpiece for a race of suitably apposite monsters, but the Pyrovars were in truth not that interesting an alien. We’ve seen races that thrive on heat before, and their actual plans seemed rather muddled and confusingly explained. It’s also hard to be that scared of a monster that goes to pieces when you throw cold water on it. That said, they were realised with some striking CG, and the offscreen thudding footsteps as they pursued the Doctor and Quintus were if anything even more effective.

While it was a good debut for James Moran, it has to be said that the climactic scene of Pompeii’s destruction was rather undermined by Peter Capaldi being forced to deliver some incredibly clumsy lines in which he invented the word “volcano”. And that tacked on epilogue was not only irritatingly obvious, but also made you wonder why a professional marble worker couldn’t have come up with a better bas relief of the Doctor and Donna than something that looked, quite honestly, like it had been knocked up as a third form art project.

Overall, The Fires of Pompeii was an interesting but flawed script made to seem better than it really was by a superb production. Not that I’m doing James Moran down; on the strength of Severance and this, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Let’s just hope he doesn’t let his enthusiasm for Doctor Who carry him away too much, as it seemed to here.

NEXT TIME…

“Planet of the Ood” was intriguing…

McInnerny’s potential for ham…

Graeme Harper, just, wow!