Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My Review of Doctor Who's 4x02: "The Fires Of Pompeii"

Written by James Moran
Directed by Colin Teague

Donna: “I’m here in Rome. Donna Noble in Rome. This is weird. Everyone is dead.”
The Doctor: “Don’t tell them that.”

After starting off the season with a light episode, the next episode was going to have to be a more serious affair and this week certainly made sure of that. If ever there was an episode on this show that raised an ethical debate, then surely this one would be it.

The premise of this episode has been around for ages. Thanks to the press, it was well documented that The Doctor and Donna would go to Pompeii on the eve of its destruction and that The Doctor would be forced to allow history to take its natural course.

One of the concerns that I had is why on earth would The Doctor take Donna to a time where so much devastation would emerge and then have to tell her that he couldn’t do a thing to stop it. It would be an incredibly bad error in judgement if ever there was one to be had.

Fortunately their trip to Pompeii is an error of sorts. The Doctor intends to take Donna to Ancient Rome, not the destruction of Pompeii. Things started off rather funny when Donna embraced the idea of TARDIS allowing her to understand Latin. Donna’s attempts then use Latin on a stallholder had her being mistaken for a Welsh person.

To prove that Donna isn’t the dunce of the classroom, it’s her who actually comes up with the deduction of their whereabouts. It’s also then The Doctor’s first reaction to leg it which under the circumstances was the best thing he could’ve done. It’s just too bad the stallholder Donna had previously tried to talk to in Latin sold the TARDIS.

However it isn’t just the TARDIS being missing that is the source of The Doctor’s problems. First off there’s a creepy sisterhood who have foretold about the TARDIS’ arrival and then there’s the fellow who it got sold to that also have to be dealt with.

One of the things about this show that continues to get better and better is the casting of guest characters and having The Thick Of It’s swear master Peter Capaldi in the role of Caecillius is one of many wise casting decisions among this episode.

Caecillius is a sculpture and someone who is determined to gain further social status but he is also a surprisingly more benevolent guy that I thought he would be. His family then consist of wife Metelia who seems more ambitious, a drifter son in Quintas and more importantly, a psychic daughter in Evelina. All in all, they are significant to the episode and stand out brilliantly as a family in peril.

It didn’t take either Donna or The Doctor to find them and when they do, we get a case of the travellers being mistaken for a couple. I guess using the same name didn’t help matter either but I like how Donna seems to irk at the idea of people thinking she’s romantically linked to The Doctor in any way. I just hope the writers don’t overly emphasise this in later episodes.

Of course, while The Doctor might be enthusiastic to get the hell out of Pompeii, Donna is determined to warn Caecillius’ family about the imminent danger that they are going to face. You can’t blame Donna for her reactions and also can I point out that if Rose and/or Martha had this experience in their second episodes, I’m pretty sure that they would react similarly.

Donna doesn’t seem to mind standing to The Doctor on the issue too. We know that he’s not being malicious and that it’s hard for him to have allow so many people to die because of history but he should understand why Donna isn’t going to consider that as a reason not to help.

Thankfully before the two of them can really get into there’s the arrival of Lucius to contend with. Another good piece of casting here with Phil Davis, Lucius is an absolute pain in the arse as a prophet who commissioned Caecillius’ to sculpt a circuit for him.

His stance on women is misogynistic too and he grimaces in disgust when Metelia brags about Evelina being psychic herself. However there is an absolutely stunning moment between the two of them of when both The Doctor and Donna’s presence tingles their suspicions.

In a moment that will obviously be foretelling as the series progress, both Lucius and Evelina are able to predict the death of Gallifrey, Donna’s origins and The Doctor’s own dark secrets as the promise of a returned girl. In fairness after last week, this could be Rose but Martha is also a viable possibility. However given the creepy way Lucius said, it’s most definitely Rose that he was pointing towards.

Donna meanwhile decides to be assertive in spending time with Evelina. Asking her questions about what she does in her social time is nothing new, nor is Evelina given a response that basically highlights her lack of independence. In “The Unquiet Dead” Gwyneth was happy to serve her employer and here Evelina is content to be promised to the Sibylline Sisterhood.

Donna is also quick in discovering that not only is the girl suffering with skin irritation that is rock but also that Evelina is unable to actually predict that a volcano is about to engulf Pompeii. If that doesn’t raise a question about Evelina’s abilities as a seer then what does?

However Donna trying to warn the girl about Vesuvius ready to erupt also put her in harm’s way. Those creepy sisters are able to eavesdrop on Evelina’s conversation and when The Doctor is good and distracted, they snatch Donna for sacrifice. Being nearly killed would be the least of Donna’s worries though.

The Doctor on the other hand has been doing some snooping of his own and proves that Quintas is useful too. He figures with all the circuits that Lucius is making some kind of energy converter and even manages to escape the nutter by pulling off his arm. Like Evelina, Lucius is also rock addled; only with him it meant an entire arm of it.

After doing battle then with a rock creature and rescuing Donna (who even when she’s threatened with is still a mouthy piece of work) from the sisters, The Doctor decided to get some answers from their High Priestess. Unlike the sisters, at least the HP didn’t object to a man in the room.

However just like our previous two sight seers, the High Priestess is just nothing but rocks. I mean the poor bint looks something out of Tales Of The Crypt and she is reluctant to tell The Doctor what she has become. Of course he pushes at her so hard that she ends up screaming that she’s a Pyrovile.

Given that this episode is all about fire, a Pyrovile is an appropriate name for an alien threat on the series. The idea of it using Vesuvius to build a new race through human is an innovative as Donna is convinced that by stopping the Pyroviles, thousands of deaths can be prevented also.

I can see why she came to the conclusion so the reveal about The Doctor then having to allow everyone die so that the Pyroviles can be defeated certainly packs a punch. Evelina even predicted that The Doctor would have to make a horrible choice and here he really did.

When the Pyroviles actually did get defeated and Vesuvius erupted, this episode then hit an ambitious scope. Seeing The Doctor and Donna flee the streets only for scared and devastated to perish really hit home. Donna herself had an incredibly hard time heading to the TARDIS as Caecillius and his family were in danger.

Which leads to the shocker of the episode – Catherine Tate’s acting. Yes she’s a good comic actress but seeing as I’ve only seen her in a limited amount of things, the big question was whether or not she would be able to handle the heavy emotional that even a show still dismissed as being childish and silly by some? There’s a simple answer – Yes!

Her performance as Donna rages at The Doctor for allowing people to die really impressed me. Talk about knocking out of the ball park. I thought my reservations about Donna dissipated after last week. Now it’s like I’m ashamed I ever once doubted Catherine Tate’s casting whatsoever.

The sickening thing however is that she’s probably gonna deliver even stronger performances as the series goes on and still many of the critics who don’t like her because she’s not Billie Piper or Freema Agyeman probably won’t relent. As for David Tennant, he’s always good but Catherine really does deserve much praise for this episode.

We’ve had it plenty of times that The Doctor can’t interfere with the course of history and that he would save his own people if he could. I think Donna did take this on board but her persuasion of him to at least save Caecillius and his family allowed for one small victory without violating history completely.

Having the catch up later with Caecillius’ family was great. One of my friends recently pointed out how much she loathed The Doctor always apologising for events that weren’t his fault. I think she raises a good point because volcano day here still wasn’t The Doctor’s fault.

I also liked the dynamic with The Doctor and Donna at the end. He more or less admitted last week that he wanted someone in his life and right now, Donna is that person and if this episode is anything to go by, then her influence can only be good for The Doctor.

Also in “The Fires Of Pompeii”

Unlike last year’s Dalek two-parter, all the actors actually got to go to Rome to film this episode and used the same studio to film one of my favourite shows.

Caecillius (re TARDIS): “What do you think?”
Metelia: “You call it Modern Art; I call it a waste of space.”

I noticed the stallholder is Phil Cornwall from Dead Ringers. That show has done some great Doctor Who skits in the past.

Caecillius: “And who are you?”
The Doctor: “I am Spartacus.”
Donna: “And so I am.”

Lucius: “The prophecies of women are limited and dull. Only the men folk have the capacity for true perception.”
Donna: “I tell you where the wind’s blowing right now mate.”

Another thing that Lucius predicted involved something on Donna’s back and the Medusa Cascade. The Master mentioned the latter last season and I’ll be interested in finding out what it means exactly.

Quintas: “Don’t tell my Dad.”
The Doctor: “Only if you don’t tell mine. Pass the torch.”

Donna: “Then what can you see happening tomorrow?”
Evelina: “Is tomorrow special?”
Donna: “You tell me. What do you see?”

Can I shout out praise to Sasha Behar (aka Mad Maya from Corrie) for her role as the lead sister? I thought she was brilliant.

Donna: “Listen sister, you might have eyes on the back of your hands but you'll have eyes on the back of your head by the time I'm finished with you. Let me go!”
Lead Sister (to Donna): “This prattling voice will cease forever.”
The Doctor (interrupting): “That’ll be the day.”

High Priestess: “Your knowledge is impossible.”
The Doctor: “You’ve read my mind. You know it’s not.”

The timeslot this season is rather erratic. I don’t give a toss about I’d Do Anything; just put this show back into a 7pm slot.

Lead Sister (to High Priestess): “You lied to us and yet this was meant to be.”

Donna: “How many people died?”
The Doctor: “Stop it.”
Donna: “Doctor! How many people died?”
The Doctor: “Twenty thousand.”
Donna: “Is that what you can see, Doctor, all twenty thousand? And you think that’s alright, do you?”

I’m starting to get used to the new theme, I might even start to like it and at least the trailers for the next episode are a reasonable length.

Donna: “You can’t just leave them.”
The Doctor: “Don’t you think I’ve done enough? History’s back in place and everyone dies.”
Donna: “You’ve got to go back. Doctor, I am telling you, take this thing back. It’s not fair.”
The Doctor: “No it’s not.”
Donna: “But your own planet. It burnt.”
The Doctor: “And that’s just it. Don’t you see Donna? Can’t you understand if I could go back and save them I would but I can’t. I can never go back, I can’t. I just can’t, I can’t.”

The Doctor: “You were right. Sometimes I need someone. Welcome aboard.”
Donna: “Yeah.”

Some really good but familiar score work from Murray Gold this week. The music was pretty perfect.

This was certainly a rollercoaster. James Moran made a brilliant impression on Torchwood but with “The Fires Of Pompeii” his impact is a lot stronger. This is a delightful episode that is unafraid at looking at the ethics of the series and not fobbing off the audience with an easy answer. I’m impressed with the way this season has started and next week also looks amazing.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

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