21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Fires Of Pompeii

Considering the title, The Fires Of Pompeii is curiously something of a damp squib.

The story revolves around a big moral dilemma which plagues the Doctor throughout. Just like that big dilemma, The Fires Of Pompeii seems to be stuck in its own indecisive rut throughout. It cannot make up its mind on what it wants to be. Big ethical epic? Spooky story of sisterhood shenanigans? Flamey monster tale? Fires touches on all three bases, but somehow only dips its arm in the water instead of diving right in.

It's also interesting in that it starts to break the mould of a by now familiar season pattern. Normally, the first historical of the season acquaints the Doctor with a famous face from the past. In this season, we'll later get Agatha Christie in The Unicorn And The Wasp. But for now, The Fires Of Pompeii takes the Doctor and Donna to Ancient Rome, where there's no famous faces to be seen. Well, unless you count the long lost ancestor of Del from Only Fools And Horses. Thanks to the TARDIS translation in Donna's head, a lone stall-holder says “Lovely jubbly!” No, really.

This raises the first of the problems with this story in that the production team are so busy trying to make Ancient Rome relate to the youth of today that somehow the period setting never really comes across. Take Caecilius' family. It's basically your average soap opera family in Roman togas. Evelina's shocking her dad by going out in short dresses. Quintus is suffering from a hangover and relishing the thought of Vestal Virgins (“How's your head, sunshine?” How's your head?”). It doesn't feel like we've gone back in time to Ancient Rome. Instead it's a self-conscious attempt at mixing history with current times and trends, and so the period setting falls flat on its face because the story's too busy winking at the audience and saying “Aren't we hip, kids?”

Which it isn't.

The setting of Pompeii feels unremarkable and flat, which means that it's ultimately hard to give a damn about the population, because they're written as generic, lazy, modern-day cut-outs.

So what of the possible threats? There are two types of danger. The first and the more ordinary one is that of the traditional Doctor Who-style threat: in this case the Pyroviles and the Sisterhood Of Karn, sorry, the Sibylline Sisterhood. Both are using the nearby volcano to turn humans into living stone Pyroviles, not exactly a satisfactory style of existence.

Both threats are a bit old hat. The roaring, lumbering Pyrovile monster is like something out of Scooby Doo. Its lone victim doesn't seem too bothered by the great big lump. Presumably, we're supposed to think that he's rooted to the spot with absolute, toga-wetting terror, but in fact, he looks decidedly unimpressed by the advancing monster before reacting with zero emotion while being reduced to ashes by the Pyrovile's flamey breath.

The Sisterhood are a little more interesting, on account of an early cameo from the brilliant Karen Gillan – the first of two big names waiting in the wings. Despite Karen's sister being lumbered with a very RP accent, it's easy to recognise her on account of her customary gawp-eyed fish expression that she'll pull when playing Amy Pond. The Sisters are well acted though, not only by Gillan, but by Sasha Behar as Spurrina and an unrecognisable Victoria Wicks (better known as Sally Smedley from Drop The Dead Donkey) as the too far gone High Priestess.

Although the appearance of the High Priestess is suitably macabre, there's something a bit uninspired about the Sisterhood, though. Chanting sisters are an old staple from those old horror movies from the dawn of time, and of course Doctor Who did it with greater success in The Brain Of Morbius. This time around there's too much hand waving and panting and hoary old clichés along the lines of “The false prophet must die! Sacrifice her!”

Meanwhile, following the Doctor and Donna around like a bad smell is good old Lucius Petrus Dextrus, a man whose face has frozen into permanent sneer mode. Lucius already sets out his creepy bad guy stall by playing the old Augur Card when first confronting the Doctor and Donna. He even gets into a mind-reading contest with Evelina, both trying to outdo the other in how much they know about the two mysterious visitors. The Doctor and Donna are clearly taken aback when Evelina knows their names, but Lucius hits back with their Gallifrey and that charming old London town, before turning into a one-man spoiler machine by claiming that “She is returning” and delivering an ominous warning about how there is something on Donna's back. Spoiler-phobic Doctor Who fans should get ready to hurl their tellies out of the window at this point.

Despite this, Lucius never really seems to do much either apart from follow the Doctor and Donna around like a shadow. Everywhere they go, there he is, screeching out some banal warning at the top of his lungs. I guess he's meant to be the creepy bad guy, but somehow this never really comes through enough. Admittedly, the ever-reliable Phil Davis gives his all as Lucius, but the problem is, he's working with material that's flimsier than the togas. It's a lot of heard-it-all-before rants and not much more than that.

But then maybe that was the point – to show up the main threat of Volcano Day as something far more dangerous than a load of chanting sisters and a stone-faced soothsayer. The Doctor's faced many an ethical dilemma before, most notably in Genesis Of The Daleks when he was forced to decide between carrying out his mission to destroy the tinpot meanies on behalf of the Time Lords or wimping out. The Fires Of Pompeii revolves around this ethical dilemma of whether the Doctor should allow history to run its course or whether he should do the right thing and save the population from a painful death. “Pompeii is a fixed point in history,” frowns the Doctor, right from the start. “What happens happens.”

This is where the character of Donna really makes her mark, and if ever there was a story that proves that RTD's casting of Catherine Tate was an inspired choice, then this is a good example. Donna acts as the conscience, the human voice of reason who cuts through the Time Lord's ice-cold logic like a sword. She constantly stands up to him and questions his beliefs, asserting herself in a way that maybe Rose and Martha wouldn't have. “Listen, I don't know what sort of kids you've been flying around with in outer space, but you're not telling me to shut up!” she hisses angrily at an unrepentant Doctor. It may be a far cry from the shouty nonsense of The Runaway Bride, but already, we see how much of an asset Donna will be on board the TARDIS.

She also successfully persuades the Doctor to rescue Caecilius' family at the end (“Just save someone”), in a scene that threatens to hark back to the Doctor's murder of the Racnoss children. He acknowledges that he really does need Donna as a travelling companion at the end to keep him on the straight and narrow – at which point Donna really earns her place in the TARDIS.

Far quicker than Martha, interestingly enough.

The banter between the two is probably the most effective aspect of The Fires Of Pompeii, and both Catherine Tate and David Tennant give superb performances. Tate already proves that she's no slouch when it comes to drama, and she convinces wholeheartedly in her fruitless attempts to rescue any one of the screaming masses or tearfully attempting to persuade the Doctor to go back and save someone.

The hyperactive Tenth Doctor is thankfully in the past, as Tennant gives a performance that combines his usual chirpy nature with a notable undercurrent of steel. It's jarring to see the Doctor grit his teeth and ignore people's cries of help, and the weight of the world is evidently starting to bear heavily on his shoulders. Thankfully, he saves the life of Caecilius' family, although regrettably, we're back to the Doctor Jesus school of subtlety. The Doctor extends a hand from a brightly lit TARDIS (blimey, that electricity bill's going to smart – he's presumably been thinking about Warriors Of The Deep lately) before Murray's Pompous Choir start on with their usual tuneless rubbish as the small group survey the devastation from a safe distance. It's not subtle, it's annoying, and it undermines the good work that Tennant's done in creating a credible, three-dimensional character.

It's a shame that the sci-fi aspects intrude on the plot, since they're superfluous. It's a case of too many cooks spoiling the fiery broth – the main dilemma of whether to let Volcano Day take its course or whether to let the world suffer at the Pyroviles' tender mercies suffers as a result. Incidentally, the end result of that choice feels a bit too easy. From the moment we hear that the Pyroviles are a big threat to the globe, it's blatantly obvious that the Doctor will get his wish of history running its course. It's odd – just this once, it feels like the hokey sci-fi aliens aren't needed.

Script-wise, The Fires Of Pompeii is half and half, which may account for why it doesn't really gel as well as it should. On the production side, luckily, everyone gives 100%. The story benefits from an overseas location shoot at the Cinecitta studios in Rome. There's a stylish, authentic look about the production, from the costumes through to the background scenery through to the lush interior designs. Colin Teague returns to the show and delivers some lovely direction.

He's also managed to assemble a strong cast who generally overcome the limitations of their less-than-inspiring dialogue. The most notable guest star is Doctor-to-be Peter Capaldi (easily the best of the NuWho Doctors in me humble), who provides an excellent star turn as Caecilius. It's a versatile performance that switches effortlessly between humour, authority and pathos. It's no surprise that he would be selected to play the Doctor a few years down the line – as far as Doctor Who auditions go, it's an unqualified success.

Capaldi is ably supported by Tracey Childs as the long-suffering Metella and also Francesca Fowler as Evelina. Phil Davis, as mentioned, also makes the most of his role as Lucius, although it's a shame that he couldn't have got a more meaty villainous part, since he's perfect material for the nasty bad guy roles.

All in all, a tale that suffers from a script that's anything but hot stuff. There are some good one-liners and some great Doctor moments such as the water pistol scene, but the story's bogged down by clichéd aliens and a less than convincing interpretation of Rome with characters sounding like bland modern-day soap pod people. Luckily the direction, the production and the acting (especially from Tate and Tennant) compensate for any inherent weaknesses in the script, but overall, The Fires Of Pompeii is something of a missed opportunity.

Tepid rather than hot.

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