Doctor Who series 4 episode 2 – The Fires of Pompeii review

Our second review of last weekend's Doctor Who: aka the one that emptied the BBC's petty cash tin...

Next time you’re wondering where all the money’s gone that the BBC used to spend on nature documentaries, schools programmes, and things that didn’t involve C-list celebrities cooking or preachy shows about what rubbish parents we are, then remember Saturday 12th April at around a quarter to seven. Because that’s when Doctor Who not only threw all of its effects budget at the screen, but it also looked as if it had borrowed a few quid from mates, had a whip-round the canteen and got an advance on its next paypacket.

In fact, the amount that was lavished on the at-times superb effects work in The Fires Of Pompeii is probably the reason why the BBC won’t be showing a full series next year. There wasn’t a wobbly set in sight.

Outside of the effects department, the episode itself had a fair list of good points. Of particular interest is the growing sparring between Donna and the Doctor. If you can look past the one or two Tate-isms that crept into the performance, Donna’s feist was a strong foil for the Doctor, and once again, it allowed an episode that dug into the conflictions that the Doctor has to be face. We’ve seen a lot of these over the last year or two, and while you hope that they’re going to lead up to something, it was well done here.

As an episode, it took some time to settle down, simply because so much seemed to be packed in. Aside from continuing to establish the relationship with Donna and the Doctor – and thus spend a little time explaining conventions such as the Tardis translating everything – there was the setting up of the Pompeii story, then how it was being manipulated, then a circuit board, lots of prophecies, then a great looking creature, then a water pistol, then everyone slowly turning to stone, then saving the day … it was exhausting stuff, and a healthy antidote to any accusation that Doctor Who lacks ambition. At times, it felt like a compacted extended episode, and possibly it could have used another five minutes or so to cram everything in.

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What lifted the episode well above last week’s though was the last act, though, where Donna gets a real insight into what the Doctor has to face. The consequences of his actions forced both Tennant and Tate to put in some quality acting, and both obliged. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: this double act has promise.

Other bits? Well, having sat through the same Latin course that writer James Moran seems to have done, I got a chuckle out of the fact that the characters all seemed to have originated from the same textbook I had to work through (I got an E in the final exam, though. Bah). The Spartacus moment was fun, too.

I do wonder again though whether the episode will stand alone, or whether I’ve sat through one or two contributory factors to the season denouement. Russell T Davies has dropped hints that something big is coming, and – while we’re all wise to many of the conventions of his take on Who – to get a second episode so packed does leave you salivating for what’s coming next.

Next week, it’s the welcome return of the Ood, one of the new Who’s best monster creations. Bring it on…

Check out Martin’s take on this episode here…