Doctor Who Series 4 episode 2 review – The Fires Of Pompeii

A cracking return to form with James Moran scripting. But somebody shoot the orchestra, please...

There'll be a very hot time in the old town tonight....

Here be spoilers…

If series four of new Who becomes available with a ‘Turn off over-bearing James Horner-style choir music’ button in ‘audio options’, I will buy it at full price. And pre-order. I’m able to recognise dramatic situations and respond to well-written dialogue without having my lugholes washed in the waves of saccharine-sweet music cues that were in evidence towards the conclusion of The Fires Of Pompeii, and I imagine most Who fans over the age of three are as well. It’s distracting and detracting, so please, pack it in, Beeb!

That said…

That’s a bit more bloody like it! After last week’s unpromising and regurgitated season opener, which trumped Warriors Of The Deep for naffness in that category, James Moran’s tale of fiery rock aliens under Vesuvius put the show back on a first-class footing.

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The Doctor and Donna land in ancient Rome, only to find it’s actually Pompeii twenty-four hours before Vesuvius blows. A quick exit from the nasty moral dilemmas involved is blocked when a street-spiv sells the parked Tardis to an upper middle-class marble trader (Peter Capaldi) with a rather recognisable family dynamic: son is whiney but a good lad really; father is ambitious; mum worries about how things look; and daughter is about to enter a life of servitude as a sooth-sayer in a sibylline order that has a molten rock-woman as its high priestess.

Posing as ‘marble inspectors’ to regain the Tardis, the time-travelling duo inveigle their way into the marble-trader’s home (with some very funny references to Spartacus and Welsh clichés) only to be visited by another sooth-sayer in the form of the perennially sour Phil Davis, who not only seems to know that the Doctor is from Gallifrey, but seems to be made primarily of rock.

Clearly Doc and Donna are not the only out-of-towners in Pompeii, and it soon transpires that a fiery alien race have been plotting to turn the earth into literally a living, burning hell so that their otherwise-doomed species may propagate in the form of (very nicely-done) gargantuan CGI rock-monsters.

Not for the first time, the moral dilemma of time-tourism rears its paradoxical head, as Donna threatens to tell the inhabitants of Pompeii that they are doomed and clear the city before The Big One hits, and if Frankie Howerd had been available to comment on her lamentations, I do believe the producers would have done it.

As it stands, the moral quandary turns out to be a far tougher choice, where our intrepid pair must choose between actively sacrificing Pompeii or the Earth itself…

Presumably Fires Of Pompeii has drawn heavily on existing material from the BBC’s excellent 2003 drama-documentary The Last Day Of Pompeii and also Rome, thus taking Doctor Who back to its original mission to re-use the production value of costly historical drama, and this episode was none the worse for it.

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Like any well-done monster, one’s first impression will always be the strongest, and the shots of the ‘foot-soldier’ lava-creature emerging from the magma in Peter Capaldi’s domestic lava-well (mostly already seen in trailers) was a striking piece of imaginative CGI, a truly memorable Who monster that we might hope to come across in later adventures, though I don’t imagine flaming, fire-breathing goliaths come cheap. Also, any creature that can be killed stone dead with two small cups of water might have an Achilles tendon a little too prone to become a Who regular.

There were other interesting ideas at play in Moran’s tale as well, although the ingestion of lava vapour to inculcate psychic abilities was perhaps overly inspired by the spice melange in Dune, and the pre-industrial circuit-boards were a bit of a hard sell.

Donna having raised the question of why the Doctor cannot interfere in the torment of Pompeii and save the citizens led to the information that Pompeii is a ‘fixed’ point in history which may not be interfered with. This might have set Who nerds worldwide trawling through their home-made Excel spreadsheets for instances where the Doctor broke this edict, but Tennent eventually addressed the matter himself, if obliquely, by declaring that some periods in time were fixed and some not. Hmmm. Presumably Earth time is spectacularly fixed, since Who’s viewers know a lot less about the history of other planets.

Another issue was skirted round when the young apprentice-sibyl prognosticated that ‘Doctor’ was not the time-lord’s real name, which was instead ‘written in the stars’.

If episode thirteen reveals that the Doctor’s real name is ‘Tiberius’, I am throwing my TV out of the window.

Donna was far less irritating in this episode, since she mostly reacted to the plot and helped to move it forward. The more this trend is followed, the more I am going to like season four, and if Donna is never going to be a favourite of mine, she could at least become tolerable.

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The chorus of Vader-esque ‘Noooo’s at the explosive conclusion was a bit titter-inducing, and the swaddling music (as mentioned) rankled, but Fires Of Pompeii had enough production value, laughs and quality writing to easily overcome these niggles.

Welcome back, Doctor.

Read Martin’s and Simon’s reviews of last week’s episode, Partners In Crime here and here.