The Fires of Pompeii continues the New Who tradition of a good, solid historical story early in the series. Previous efforts have made use of historical “celebrities” (Dickens, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare) but here we have a slightly different take on the genre: a fictional historical celebrity. In fact, it is even more bizarre than that: this is a fictional-historical-celebrity-from-a-text-book historical story. Caecilius is a famous character to anyone who has studied the Cambridge Latin Course, the standard course for learning Latin for many, many years. I have to admit to being a bit biased in favour of this story because Latin was by far my favourite subject at school, and seeing characters from the Cambridge Latin Course in Doctor Who for me is probably akin to what the TARDIS landing in Hogwarts would be for most people.
To anyone unfamiliar with those text books, including the Doctor himself, Caecilius is just another resident of Pompeii. This works rather well because it is a nice little nostalgia trip for anyone who did Latin at school, but is not a problem for anyone else. Of course, one side-effect of having studied Latin (if you paid attention) is knowing exactly why Lucius Petrus Dextrus is hiding his arm, just from his name! Either he has changed his name for a joke (and his petrified arm is no joking matter) or he was born with that name, which you would probably think is a coincidence too far. We’ll be charitable and call it nominative determinism. There is the usual problem with faking a missing arm for a television programme – an extra wide shoulder, etc, although the capacious robes do help to disguise Phil Davis’s real arm.
There is some further explanation of the TARDIS’s translation circuits, which are not just able to change speech but can alter writing as well: ‘two amphoras for the price of one’. When Donna tries to speak Latin the translation circuits make her sound Celtic. This makes for a funny joke, but it doesn’t pay to think about it too much. When Caecilius replies ‘there’s lovely’, he is attempting to respond in Celtic, but wouldn’t that then sound like Latin to Donna and the Doctor? Also the Doctor’s son/sun play on words would be meaningless in Latin, so how does the TARDIS cope with translating that? This is nothing new: it has always been a flaw in the logic of TARDIS translation and the universal translator in Star Trek has exactly the same problem. It’s something that probably doesn’t have a solution because translation can work for basic communication but if you want to get into things like puns then they simply won’t translate from one language to another: you need to actually learn the language and often the background culture or a bit of history to be able to understand a play on words. This is not generally an issue with the concept of translation technology because we just don’t think about it, but if you are going to draw attention to it for the sake of a joke then the side effect is to draw attention also to the flaws in the logic.
There has been an interesting theme running through Doctor Who since its revival: the Doctor needs his companions to provide him with a moral compass. On his own, he doesn’t know when to stop, when to draw the line, or when to bend the rules. This was the Doctor who Rose met and tamed, the almost-heartless Doctor who offered Martha a couple of trips and then nearly ditched her, and now the Doctor that Donna has to battle with to save a few people from the eruption. At this early stage we can already see how valuable Donna’s friendship will be for the Doctor. She shares his burden of destroying Pompeii by pressing down the lever with him, and then brings him back from a very dark place to save Caecilius and his family. It is as if, in the times when he finds himself alone and companionless again, he dwells on the loss of his people and becomes almost defeatist, and he is allowing his helplessness to save Gallifrey to colour his judgement in not attempting to change what happens to Pompeii, at least in a small way. Writer James Moran uses this to tackle a long-standing continuity issue with Doctor Who: why the Doctor refuses to change history (‘not one line’) when from his point of view everywhere he goes is history. The explanation that ‘some things are fixed; some things are in flux’ is a neat one, and also adds to our understanding of the weight that rests on the Doctor’s shoulders: he can see what can and cannot be changed, a Time Lord gift which is now his responsibility alone. After more than 700 episodes, an important new dimension has been added to the Doctor’s character and the fundamental way in which he interacts with historical (and from our perspective, future) events, with complete credibility. When you think about that, it really is remarkable.
By the way, that actor who plays Caecilius isn’t bad, is he? Oh, and that young actress who plays the soothsayer’s not bad either. I wonder if we’ll see either of them in Doctor Who again one day… RP
The view from across the pond:
When Donna Noble was introduced in The Runaway Bride, she was extremely annoying. That was a risky start for a companion. The thing was, she was a one-time TARDIS traveler, so it really didn’t matter that much; at worst, she’d be gone in an hour. So when it was announced that she was coming on full time the following season, this reviewer was not happy. Catherine Tate or not, Donna was not likable. But Russell T. Davis is a clever chap and had something in mind for this companion for which he was willing to play a long game. The Fires of Pompeii marks the first true sign that there was going to be a sizable payoff, because she is on fire in this story!
Taking place 15 years after his last visit in The Romans, the Doctor and Donna arrive in Pompeii the day before Vesuvius erupts. Here, they meet Caecilius and his family. Peter Capaldi as Caecilius is great, as always, but it’s his daughter Evelina (played by Francesca Fowler) that really deserves recognition. She’s a ball of fire as she and Petrus commence soothsaying about the Doctor from Gallifrey, his name written in the cascade of medusa herself, and Donna who has something on her back; it’s a defining, show-stealing scene. The hint that “she is returning” also adds that slow-burn, season-long intrigue that we had come to expect from the rebooted series. But far sneakier was the other season-long arc: there are a lot of missing planets and Pyrovile is one of them, but reference to these misplaced orbs is so subtly shrouded behind a smokescreen of words that we may not have picked up on it by this, the second episode of season 4.
Speaking of subtlety, there are a number of little touches that greatly enhance the episode. The comedy surrounding the Doctor and Donna looking alike is hilarious, as is the initial misunderstanding that they are husband and wife. It doesn’t help that they both chose the name “Spartacus”, but it did add to the laughs. And how can we not love Donna’s thinking they are in Epcot since signs appear in English? It’s a gentle reminder that Donna is new to all this.
Phil Davis as Petrus Dextrus is a great villain but I still take issue with Doctor Who giving up so much in names. It’s bad enough when episode titles do it and then expect us to be surprised when the titular villain shows up, but when a race is called pyrovile, you know fire will be involved. So too do we know that to be dexterous is to have skill with ones hands. Is it any surprise that Petrus Dextrus has a petrified arm? Not really. (No wonder he was so fired up!) I think this characteristic of Doctor Who (and other science fiction series) is a bad one because those words are only relevant to humans. Ok, Petrus can get away with it, but how come the Pyrovile are not called something else in their own tongue?
Ok, minor quibble aside, the true victory for this episode is in Catherine Tate’s acting. She fires on all cylinders through this episode, offering far more than I ever expected. Gone is the annoying temp from Chiswick; here she faces her challenge head-on. She looks the Doctor in the eye and rests her hands on his in a show of support as he makes the devastating decision to cause the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Her look conveys such horror and it can’t help but break a few hearts. Then she goes on, begging the Doctor to just save one person. For me, this was Donna’s turning point. This baptism of fire truly starts her on a journey of growth and self-discovery.
Let’s not ignore the underlying morality question the episode asks: is it better to keep ones hands clean and allow a greater evil to take place or does one accept responsibility and make an unpleasant choice for the greater good. We can ignore it in the context of a good story, but the fact is, it’s there. The Doctor often plays with fire, but here he’s faced with it in a very literal way. He effectively makes a decision that kills 20,000 people in order to save humanity. That’s a heck of a kill-count for the future. It is not something he takes lightly having made a similar decision with his own people. Morality questions like this are often at the heart of good storytelling.
The Fires of Pompeii is a thoroughly enjoyable visit to ancient Pompeii with a deep, engaging story. And if I were a soothsayer, I would have predicted Peter Capaldi’s return to Doctor Who but alas, that image was probably obscured by volcanic ash.
Alright, I’ve added enough fuel to this fire, but when the puns present themselves so well, can I be blamed? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Planet of the Ood