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

Finger-lickin' good?

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.

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


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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