Review: Doctor Who – 4×2 – The Fires of Pompeii

David Tennant licking dust in The Fires of Pompeii

Myah. It’s not a word is it? But I’m feeling sort of ‘myah’ about The Fires of Pompeii. I liked it. It was definitely good. I’m just feeling a little underwhelmed and uninspired by it.

Plot
Psychic powers and stone beasts run riot in old Pompeii, but can Donna dare the Doctor to change established history?

Was it any good?
The script was really very good, with some good writing and some good villains, even though it suffered a little from historical story-itis in places. In fact, it reminded me very strongly of early Tom Baker stories – particularly thanks to the Doc’s voluminous pockets and the classic series level of pseudo-science babble. Masque of Mandragora anyone*?Some clever one-liners and some nice Latin gags, too (yes, I saw something ‘stoney’ and ‘right’ coming, too. Wasn’t sure what though. Could have been an ear or something.), as well as some good Doctor-Donna moments: I especially liked her "I don’t know what kids you’ve been flying around in space with, but you don’t get to tell me to shut up".

The musings about what the Doctor can change and what he can’t were interesting and clever, and ties in nicely with the Doctor’s reaction to Jack in Utopia, as well as the whole Big Finish divergent universe stuff. But I’m starting to wonder if the Doc is turning into a grumpy old man: have you noticed how everything is "the burden of a Time Lord" these days – living a long time, being able to regenerate almost any wound, being able to see the time lines (although not in a full-on, Paul Muad’Dib way). Poor old Doc. Maybe next time he could regenerate into Paul Whitehouse’s "brilliant" Fast Show character. Or there’s always Prozac, assuming it works on Time Lords.

We also had the dilemma of whether to save Pompeii and watch the whole world suffer, or ensure Vesuvius explodes killing 20,000 people. After having Donna spend the script trying to save everyone, it was a good (but probably inevitable) touch to have her finally realise that the Doc’s life can be one big Kobayashi Maru test, yet to have her humanise him enough to make him save at least a few people if he can.

And yet… I think it was just a little too rushed, like it needed a bit more work here and there. The biggest problem was I simply couldn’t hear half the lines. They might have been brilliant, but David Tennant was almost incomprehensibly fast at times, as was Catherine Tate, so I simply couldn’t work out what they were trying to say. More time in the studios – or cutting the script to fit everything in – could have sorted that out.

A little more script polish to even out the last flaws would have been good, too: I’m pretty sure a few grams of room temperature water from a water pistol aren’t enough to cool tonnes of super-heated rock, but I’ll leave the specific heat capacity/latent heat of evaporation calculations to the reader – unless it was ‘special’ water, of course. The attempts to draw parallels between modern kids and the youth of many yesterdays ago was a little clumsy and unnecessary, but would have worked with a little more time.

Phil Cornwell was a bit miscast as the comedy stallholder, who stuck out like a sore thumb in an otherwise quite dark story. Phil Davis is still brilliant in everything (some good interplay with DT, too), and his suddenly spookily accurate prophecy scene was quite chilling, but he had little to do except glower for the most part. And I wasn’t too sure about the family Capaldi.

The Mill’s creation of the villains, the Pyroviles, was very good indeed, although there were too many matte lines for my liking, particularly in the otherwise very impressive eruption of Vesuvius. A little bit more time on the edges and everything would have been perfect.

Donna is still holding up. On average, she’s as great as she was in Partners in Crime. However, her highs were higher and her lows were lower. Far too much shouting and she did get captured by a bunch of girls, resulting in a "Doctor saves the companion" scenario probably a little too early in the series for Donna to have established herself properly. All the same, she definitely showed herself to be a cut above the average companion and I really liked the fact she knew, independently of the Doctor, that Rome is supposed to have seven hills. Ooh, proper smart that, even if she doesn’t know how to pronounce ‘veni, vide, vice’ properly**.

On the whole a very good story that simply needed a bit more time spent on it to really draw the viewer in and prevent a ‘myah’ reaction from its few imperfections. In fact, I liked it enough to want to rewatch it – if only to find out what DT and CT were saying.

The Helm of an ADHD Eight-Year Old
Watching the episode again while also wearing my patented Helm of an ADHD Eight-Year Old to see how much kids would have enjoyed it, I’m feeling a little more scared than I was, but maybe a little bored by the whole thing: too much talking, too much of that family from the Cambridge Latin Course, too little fighting the villains. All the same, scary villains, quite thrilling. One thumb up from under the helm.

The Murray Gold Watch
Back for one episode, purely to annoy "Cosmic Hairbrush". This week, Murray Gold was mostly drowning out the dialogue and removing all sense of drama by deriving music from… just about everything including Xena: Warrior Princess. Actually, he wasn’t bad this week, just overly loud. "Incidental music" not "’the whole reason you’re watching is to listen to my music’ music": the clue is in the title.

Doctor Who Confidential
Not really going to review the BBC3 "Making Of…" doc that follows each episode, but just a few notes:

  • Where was the writer, James Moran? For a second, I thought Rusty had written the episode, he dominated the documentary so much and ‘Moran’ was an alias (cf Sebastian Moran being a Moriarty proxy in the Sherlock Holmes stories). But he’s real, he wrote an okayish episode of Torchwood, he has a blog, and he says he was interviewed for Confidential. Indeed, you can see him chatting about the episode on the BBC web site. So where was he?
  • Anyone else think that the guided tour of Pompeii was more interesting than the rest of the documentary?
  • I’ve actually recorded it and kept it so that I have a video of the Cambridge Latin Course, which I did at school. I think I’ve officially progressed beyond geek, through nerd, to complete dork. Not really news to anyone though, is it?

PS Incidentally, has anyone noticed that Captain Jack (aka John Barrowman) is doing the monster files on the new-look BBC web site. Importantly***, the videos are UNIT, rather than Torchwood videos. Anyone reckon that something’s going to be happening to the Torchwood set-up next series that involves a UNIT take-over?

Other reviews
Other fine reviews are available from Anna, Marie, and Scott. Let me know if I’ve missed yours out.

* Although oddly enough, unlike Masque, most of the story was filmed in Italy rather than Wales.
** v’s were pronounced as w’s in classical Latin, as Mr Chips will tell you grumpily: "with a kiss" indeed. No wonder it sounded like Welsh to old Phil****.
*** Not in the cosmic sense.
**** Although a w in Welsh is a double o, of course

  • Mine was a very mini-review but I really rather loved it.
    BTW lost your feeds on bloglines AND cannot for the life of me get your ‘remember personal info’ button to work. Am I barred?
    🙁

  • Not sure what’s up with your Bloglines since I’ve just checked my feed over there and all the latest entries (bar this) are showing up just fine.
    “Remember personal info?” seems to have been causing some problems of late and I thought I’d managed to fix it this morning. Let me know if that’s not the case.

  • Well, it’s still fubar as far as I can tell (both remembering me – sniff!, and the bloglines feeds… grr)

  • Rob

    Fingers crossed, I just fixed it. Permanently. It was working fine when you stuck to the same window, but the cookie would get deleted on closing the window. Seems to be an issue with the word ‘expires’ versus ‘expirys’ in the default JavaScript. We’ll see, anyway.

  • Haven’t seen it yet, probably won’t for two weeks, so I have no idea if it was mentioned how Donna knew about the seven hills. Picked it up in her travels? Remembered it from school? Reads Lindsey Davis?
    I’d like to think she remembered it from ‘Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’!

  • I loved it, especially the Cambridge Latin references. (Though what happened to Grumio? He was always a grumpy sod I seem to remember). And I thought the jokes about them speaking Welsh were very funny. I can’t imagine Donna having learnt Latin, so I think she would very likely get it wrong. In fact was rather surprised she knew about the seven hills of Rome. In her first incarnation she was portrayed as a somewhat hedonistic character who never looked around her at all. I know we’re supposed to think that the Doctor opened her eyes to new worlds etc, but has she spent the last eighteen months genning up just so she could get one over him when they do meet up?
    I thought Donna was pretty magnificent in this episode though, although I’m inclined to agree with you on the kidnapping thing. But I like her being there to humanise the Doctor. Not quite so keen on the messianic light coming out of the Tardis moment at the end. It’s getting a tad tedious that…
    But otherwise, great fun, pretty exciting. And I’m going to disagree with you on the historical stuff. We all seem to know (or certainly all the bloggers I’ve read seem to) about Cambridge Latin, but my children will never have the opportunity to learn Latin unless I buy the Minimus the mouse series (or indeed a whole selection of CUP Latin books), so I kind of like it that they can learn alot about Latin/Roman history from Dr Who and that it fires up their interest. And it does, really it does. Since seeing the episode in the Globe they are much more interested in Shakespeare, and we’ve been there twice. I’m planning to take them to see a play, and I think they’d have been less interested without Dr Who. So I’m all in favour of the historical stuff, and I do think it gets presented in a far less didactic kind of way.
    As to scariness levels. My lot don’t have ADHD (at least not most of the time) but they do have quite high fear thresholds. So if it’s not at The Empty Child/Blink kind of levels they aren’t usually scared…

  • Electric Dragon

    I thoroughly enjoyed this one too. A bit frustrated perhaps that once again there has to be an alien menace at the heart of the plot, and yeah the water pistol had me reaching for my metaphorical calculator, and the epilogue was a bit too obvious, but overall top stuff. The ‘Rome’ set was a hell of a lot more convincing than the CGI ‘Manhattan’ populated entirely by English actors doing their best “why I orta” accents. Agree about Cornwell (kept expecting him to break out into Mick Jagger from Stella Street) but I thought Capaldi was very good. Donna in particular is getting to stand to up to the Doctor with a conviction that Martha and Rose perhaps could never carry off.
    On a long drive down to a client meeting this morning (and catching up on an In Our Time binge) I was musing about exactly what the “Celtic” running gag should be. That is “what is the x in the equation Latin:English::x:Latin'”? Several competing theories:
    1) Latin is a classical, historical language to us, regarded as a standard feature of the upper class education in earlier centuries (not so much any more, obv) Perhaps the closest equivalent to that in the Roman Empire would have been Attic Greek; certainly the likes of Caecilius would have spoken Greek. It was said by Suetonius that Julius Caesar’s dying words were in Greek: “kai su, teknon” (you too, child), while we all know Shak.’s equivalent (Latin in an English play) “et tu, Brute”.
    2) Maybe when Donna speaks Latin, in a kind of reciprocal way, they would hear English (which of course is gibberish to them). What would English sound like to their ears? I’d have thought English (having strong elements of Anglo-Saxon and Norse) would sound more Germanic than Celtic to the Romans. Although some linguists do argue that the Celtic influence on English is understated. ( http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004037.html )
    Maybe I’m getting too nerdy as well.

  • “In fact was rather surprised she knew about the seven hills of Rome”
    My take on Donna, which is what was born (and borne) out of Partners in Crime, is that she’s a reasonably smart woman with reasonable ambitions for herself, but who suffers from that same problem that many of us have – life getting in the way. Rather than do all the things she might have always wanted to do, she gets caught up in work, etc and never ends up making as much of herself as she might have done.
    I know a woman who was smart, curious, always wanting to know things, has a degree, etc. She’s married a guy who we’ll charitably say is not that way inclined (his ex-wife even used to discourage their kids from reading on the grounds they were just going to be mechanics or something so why would they need to?) and now she’s of a “I’m a Sun reader – how am I supposed to know about that?” (her words, not mine) frame of mind. Who you’re with and the situation you’re in can have a real effect on who you are.
    So I think it’s relatively easy for Donna to be smarter than she seemed at first, stuck in a dead-end job with a dead-end boyfriend, and the Doctor’s bringing the best out of her. Besides, she might have been on holiday in Rome and her granddad might have taught her a thing or two – he seems smart.
    “And I’m going to disagree with you on the historical stuff”
    Depends what you want a story to be. Historical exposition to bring viewers up to speed weighs things down. It’s nice to educate the kids, but that’s going to have an effect on the storytelling. So is Doctor Who an educational programme, a drama, or a bit of both? That determines how you regard the extra weight.

  • Good nerdiness though, although “It’s all Greek to me” would probably have worked.
    PS Ooh. Another Language Log reader! You know, I was only noting to myself last week about the strangely similar usage of “dw” in Welsh to “do” in English and how I’d never seen the equivalent in another language. How remarkable!

  • Electric Dragon

    Oh and in regard to Donna having “something on her back”, my immediate thought was to “Planet of the Spiders”, where there are spiders on the back (both metaphoric Buddhist-style ones and literal ones).

  • As she knew about the danger of going to the beach, presumably she’d seen the BBC’s Last Days of Pompeii documentary. She’s been unemployed for a while — maybe since meeting the Doctor, she’s been binge-watching BBC4 rather than ITV?

  • It doesn’t matter how good effects are these days, those bloody Metebelis spiders will look rubbish on Donna’s back, no matter how hard The Mill tries. Steer clear of the spiders, boys.

  • Rob, ok, you’ve convinced me, and yes I know people like that too. I think it was just in the Christmas episode she came across as knowing so little. But Stu’s probably right, she’s probably been watching lots of stuff on BBC4 just to get her up to speed.
    Electric Dragon, I’m not sure that the Romans would have heard Donna speaking English because the Angles hadn’t got to England yet, we would have all been speaking Celtic, ergo the jokes about Welsh I presume? Anglo Saxon is very like German but comes after the Roman Empire had fallen, I think…
    Rob I am always of the view that storytelling should take priority over exposition, but I don’t mind the odd bit of info thrown my way. I did think in the Shakespeare episode the sheer dazzling speed of the jokes and exchange of lines with Shakespeare made it a lot of fun as well as partly educational. And I didn’t think this felt like it was labouring the point. Certainly my children didn’t seem put off by the Roman stuff, indeed I think they enjoyed it.
    I wasn’t so keen on the Ood when they appeared previously, but I think the trailer for next week looks great.

  • “I think it was just in the Christmas episode she came across as knowing so little.”
    There’s probably been a bit of retconning involved to make her more palatable as a companion and more like someone the Doctor would enjoy spending time with. At the time, I’m sure Rusty wasn’t planning for her to be a companion, so wasn’t thinking about the long-term so much.
    “I’m not sure that the Romans would have heard Donna speaking English because the Angles hadn’t got to England yet, we would have all been speaking Celtic, ergo the jokes about Welsh I presume? Anglo Saxon is very like German but comes after the Roman Empire had fallen, I think…”
    I think Mr Dragon’s point was that if Donna hears modern English when Latin is being spoken, then when she speaks Latin deliberately, the TARDIS might translate that back as modern English. So what would that (rather than whatever Donna’s ancestors would have been speaking at the time – although that would probably have been Gaelic, wouldn’t it, judging by the hair? Unless it was going on whatever the people who lived in London in the 1st century AD would have been speaking, so that would have been Celtic/Latin) sound like to the Romans? Was that your point Mr Dragon?

  • Now I’m really confused!

  • I know what you mean about it being inaudible – I had to stop and rewind several times, and eventually I just gave up. Maybe that’s why I didn’t rate the dialogue much, because I couldn’t bloody hear it!

  • The subtitles helped, although even then, they said Donna had said ‘They’re stung!’ when she’d actually said ‘They’re stone!’

  • espedair

    So 3 things to say
    1.She is returning!
    2.Missing planets… again!
    3.Bloomin cracking fun! (and funny)
    So all in all great 2nd ep. All the doubter in my neck of the woods loved it too. Result!

  • Electric Dragon

    Umm…I think so. Yes, if the Romans heard Modern English (e.g. if the TARDIS translation doo-hickey broke), what would it sound like to them?

  • TemplarJ

    Regarding your comments about the ‘writer’, there was lots of gossip last year that RTD had pissed off a few folk by performing a top to bottom re-write on this week and next weeks episodes. And having watching FoP, I can believe that.
    Agree with your comments, on a surface level it was pretty stunning, as cinematic as I’ve ever seen on telly. But I think there is a danger that Who could be falling into a ‘top that!’ scenario, each episode having to raise the spectacle from the last. Could do with something quiet and spooky (and to be fair, it does look as if we will later on).

  • andrea

    Thank goodness it wasn’t just me who couldn’t hear! I felt so old.
    Oh, you are all so posh with the learning Latin at school.

  • Templar J: “Regarding your comments about the ‘writer’, there was lots of gossip last year that RTD had pissed off a few folk by performing a top to bottom re-write on this week and next weeks episodes. And having watching FoP, I can believe that.”
    I can believe he wrote the coda and the ‘comedy’ stallholder since they both sound like Davies’ level scripting, but some of the other stuff seems a little to grown-up for the level he aims for in his Who scripts.

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  • Finally got to see episodes 2-3 last night…..
    Never having seen “Up Pompeii”, I was wondering if Moran and/or RTD worked in any in-joke references to that old show? It seemed to me the whole “assume the positions” bit during the earthquakes might have come from some other show/routine….

  • The ‘Assume the positions” bit came from Mary Poppins. The Up Pompeii references came mostly in the misunderstood Latin and in character names, particularly Dextus Petrus.

  • Thanks, Stu! Somebody at the bit torrent rebel alliance gathering the other night did mention ‘Mary Poppins’, but it slipped my Swiss Cheese memory. I guess the joke names can be attributed even further back to ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’, probably even going back to Plautus!

  • Well, certainly to Asterix…

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