The Fires of Vulcan is the twelfth installment in the Big Finish monthly range. Once again, I went in without knowing which episode I was getting into and it works surprisingly well. Right away, we learn that UNIT is involved with the discovery of the TARDIS, embedded in rock since the destruction of Pompeii. What will we be getting into?
This story is heavily character-driven but I was surprised how much of that was the guests, not the regulars! Murranus reminds me of Brian Blessed. Steven Wickham plays the gladiator like a King Ycarnos of Earth and even though he’s out for the Doctor’s blood, I still enjoyed him. This is probably because, you know: Brian Blessed! Celsinus (Andy Coleman) starts off trying to ogle Mel but turns out to be a very likable character. Eumachia is the typically annoying power villain who holds sway over people; she was the weakest of the bunch but that’s not a bad thing as everyone else was so likable. And Aglae (Gemma Bissix) is yet another instant pseudo-companion. Aglae, like so many guest “companions” really steals the show and her plight meant a lot to me. The Doctor, played by Sylvester McCoy and Mel (Bonnie Langford) have a great chemistry but they were the weak points in the episode. First off, the Doctor is having one of “those days”. You know the ones; he’s melancholy because he “knows” this is his final adventure. Mel Bush-y-tail is telling him to cheer up because hey, it’s not so bad, it’ll be ok, we can get out of it, though she understands nothing. McCoy’s Doctor Morose is atypical and I don’t really accept it. He’s out of character, accepting fate when he never accepts far more dire situations. On top of that, at one point, the Doctor says “You’re right Mel, I don’t think these people are going to help us!” Wait, wasn’t he the one saying that all along anyway??? It was a weird and sudden change that jarred me and took me out of the story. And Mel is also ridiculously calm when she’s talking about Vesuvius even talking about how she made a model of the volcano when she was in school without seeming to recognize how bad things are about to get. Catherine Tate, she is not!
To compound my troubles with the episode, knowing The Fires of Pompeii take please in the same place and at the same time, I kept thinking: does this interfere with that story? This isn’t a bad thing, but for a guy who loves a cohesive universe, it was a thorn in my side. The irony is that there is no reason to think this couldn’t take place at the same time. Tennant’s story takes place mostly around the house of Peter Capaldi’s Caecilius and the temple where Petrus Dextrus lives. Assuming Pompeii is larger than a couple suburban blocks, there’s nothing to say Tennant’s Doctor was not there at the same time. That was a joyful revelation: this story does not contradict that one! The big bad of this episode is just a person; no aliens need apply! Another great thing is that, having Pompeii visually in my head from The Fires of Pompeii, I felt this was an extremely “visual” episode. Unlike the previous installment, at no point was I “lost” as to where things were taking place. And there are a lot of moments where McCoy’s explanation of events might as well be from an afternoon science class, talking about how the lava will flow and destroy the city. Contrary to the way that sounds, it’s a marvelous thing and gives some idea of the historical significance of the events.
A big thing about these stories is how well they play the cliffhanger. I would like to see the writing improve slightly because all three cliffhangers leave us wanting. The first is the spoken revelation that we will not see the TARDIS for another 2000 years! Cue music! The third is Muranus, having the Doctor in his grasp is about to kill him (which holds no real weight since we know when the seventh Doctor does die!) But the second is actually the one that really bothers me. Mel, stricken with verbal diarrhea, suddenly spews forth the truth about Vesuvius with one of those “if you lock me up today, I’ll be dead by tomorrow” lines. This is grossly out of character and not likely to be believed by anyone, but that’s not even the biggest issue. It’s compounded by the next word: “Doctaaaaaaaaaa” oooooooeeeeeeeoooooooo (um, you know, that’s the theme music having blended it with her cry!) However, I can’t say this wasn’t a good story. This was one of the best McCoy stories to date, but it’s more because of the events and the other characters than the Doctor and Mel. It feels like Big Finish is close to a great story. Right now, we haven’t really gone above an 8, on a scale of 10, but that’s an estimate anyway because I haven’t bothered to rate the others as I listened. I just acknowledge that this story, while good, still needs some work. I’d say “maybe with the next one” but every time I’ve said that so far, I’ve been let down. So I’ll say instead, “I’m sure we’ll get there eventually!” ML