• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives









  • Awards & Nominations

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Fires of Pompeii originally aired in 2008.

Pompeii. We’re in Pompeii. And it’s Volcano Day.

– turns out the Doctor likes Steven Moffat scripts as well

What does it mean to be “just passing through” history? To watch events play out, knowing the expected outcome to every major event? To realise that the people you meet have all turned to ash before you were even born? If the Doctor travels through history fighting monsters and saving the world, how can he allow people to die needlessly? Surely it would be just as feasible for him to prevent the Challenger disaster as it is to foil the Nestene? Why can’t he warn people about impending natural disasters? Why do people killed by the Judoon matter more than people killed in car accidents or lightning storms or murdered by other human beings?

The answer is, of course, “because this is a television show”, but it puts the Doctor in a decidedly uncomfortable position. The show is fond of championing the Doctor as a romantic idealist out to make the universe a better place, and one who can’t abide oppression or suffering. And yet he only ever intervenes in cases involving aliens or futuristic technology. Rather than seeming like an agent of radical social change, this tends to make the Doctor feel a bit like an agent of the status quo.

It’s something the show has wrestled with quite a bit, particularly during the Jon Pertwee era. The Fires of Pompeii doesn’t necessarily provide satisfying answers to those questions within the narrative, but it does a lot to develop the role of the Doctor and his own relationship with history.

Come with me if you want to live...

Come with me if you want to live…

After the relatively light Partners in Crime, the fourth season jumps right into the weighty and meaty material, presenting the Doctor with a serious moral dilemma. Landing in Pompeii on the eve of the volcanic eruption that would claim 20,000 lives, placing the Doctor and Donna in a bit of a moral crisis: can the Doctor and Donna just walk away and leave all these people to die?

Of course, we know that the Doctor can’t really change history. The main reason is because the show needs to remain at least somewhat grounded on modern-day Earth, and that it needs to stay relatable. Davies has invested so much time in developing a world around the Doctor and Donna that he’s not going to wipe it all out by allowing the Doctor to craft large-scale alternate histories, worlds that look and feel markedly different to the world inhabited by the viewer.

He's got a water gun, and he's not afraid to use it...

He’s got a water gun, and he’s not afraid to use it…

This is, of course, one of the reasons that Davies decided not to destroy New York in The Stolen Earth, accepting that Steven Moffat might possibly want to have some episodes set in a world where the one of the most iconic cities on the planet hasn’t been wiped out by a bunch of omnicidal pepperpots. And, of course, Moffat would go on to make retconning the fact that world had been invaded by omnicidal pepperpots during the fifth season anyway, because that sort of thing will also lead to an unrecognisable version of reality.

And, to be fair, there’s a fairly compelling reason why the Doctor shouldn’t be allowed to re-write history on his own whims. After all, that would make him just as oppressive and restrictive as the regimes he topples and the dictators he deposes. What gives the Doctor the moral authority to decide to that the world would be better if his version of history played out? Who is he to decide who should live and who should die?

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

It’s no coincidence that The Fires of Pompeii has a similar naming convention to The Waters of Mars, which exists an inversion of this story. The Fires of Pompeii is a tragedy about the cost of upholding (and enforcing) the integrity of history. The Waters of Mars is a cautionary tale about the consequences of violating that integrity. Here, the Doctor is unable to change the course of history. In The Waters of Mars, he presumes to have the authority.

It’s worth noting that this hubris is a theme of Davies’ Doctor Who. In Bad Wolf, it was pointed out that the Doctor never sticks around to watch humanity emerge from the rubble that he has left. In The Sound of Drums, it’s explained that the Doctor’s decision to topple Harriet Jones allowed the Master to conquer the planet. It’s the Tenth Doctor’s decision to re-write history in The Waters of Mars – to change the very course of events – that signals perhaps it is time to move on.

They'll never see eye-to-eye...

They’ll never see eye-to-eye…

So all of this plays out in the background of The Fires of Pompeii, which admittedly adopts a much more nuanced position. Ignoring the moral questions about toppling governments or imposing his own view of society, what if the Doctor prevented a natural disaster? What if the Doctor intervened to prevent a massive loss of life in a way that didn’t involve superimposing his own morality over the world? What if he saved Pompeii?

It’s a tough question, and The Fires of Pompeii never really has an answer. It’s repeated quite a lot over the course of the episode, and it’s gutsy to see the show willing to tackle the big idea. “We could get everyone out easy,” Donna pleads with him. “Yeah,” the Doctor curtly replies, “except we’re not going to.” Donna doesn’t understand this. “But that’s what you do. You’re the Doctor. You save people.” All the Doctor can offer is a half-hearted excuse. “Not this time. Pompeii is a fixed point in history. What happens, happens. There is no stopping it.”

Letting off steam...

Letting off steam…

This naturally raises a valid point. What is a “fixed point in history”? How come Pompeii is one, but the Sontaran invasion isn’t? The answer, of course, is narrative necessity, and The Fires of Pompeii basically concedes the point. When the Doctor insists that this is one such fixed point, Donna asks the logical question, “Says who?” The Doctor replies, “Says me.” It’s a fixed point because it’s a dramatic necessity that it be a fixed point. If it isn’t the Doctor warns everybody, history changes, and the episode is very different.

That’s the biggest leap the episode asks the audience to make, and then it hangs the rest of the drama around it. To be fair, the script doesn’t shy from the logical questions raised by this plot point. “But I’m history to you,” Donna protests. “You saved me in 2008. You saved us all. Why is that different?” Once again, the Doctor reiterates, “Some things are fixed, some things are in flux. Pompeii is fixed.”

Doctor, Doctor...

Doctor, Doctor…

As such, it’s next-to-impossible for The Fires of Pompeii to offer a dramatically satisfying conclusion to an argument that consists of Donna questioning the Doctor about logic that is hard to rationalise within the plot, but is necessary for the story to function. So writer James Moran throws in several twists around that, allowing the show to avoid the larger question – one that would dangle in the air until Davies circled back to it in The Waters of Mars.

First of all, The Fires of Pompeii is a cracking and entertaining pseudo-historical, with some absolutely lavish set design and a sense that the show is really branching out from where it has gone before. Given the BBC’s skill with period productions, I’m surprised that the revived Doctor Who has tended to limit itself to British and American history. Venturing a bit further afield gives The Fires of Pompeii a distinctive feel.

A historical closed circuit...

A historical closed circuit…

Moran does an excellent job blending this with the show’s science-fiction aesthetic. Lava monsters with heads that look like Greco-Roman helmets are an inspired touch, as are the stone circuit boards. The decision to treat the episode’s Pompeii family as something from a BBC sit-com lends them a quirk humanity, demonstrating why Davies’ decision to play up modern relationship dynamics and riff on familiar set-ups in historical and futuristic settings works so very well.

However, the real kicker comes towards the end of the episode, when Moran skilfully readjusts the episode’s driving question. It’s impossible for the show to offer a satisfactory answer to “why would the Doctor let thousands of innocent people die?” when the reason amounts to “because the script says so.” However, Moran re-phrases the question so it becomes “why would the Doctor be an active participant in the deaths of thousands of people?”, a weighty ethical question that has a much clearer answer. “Because it’s the lesser of two evils.”

Heart (and other organs) of stone...

Heart (and other organs) of stone…

And, once again, The Fires of Pompeii seems like something of a nexus of Davies-era Doctor Who, as we find ourselves replaying The Parting of the Ways. An alien menace threatens to consume the planet, and the only way that the Doctor can stop them is to commit an act of mass murder. Even the plunger mechanism looked somewhat similar. (The use of the plunger imagery is quite inspired – the Doctor need only apply the same pressure that rests upon his shoulders, taking a moral plunge himself.)

This is where The Fires of Pompeii becomes something truly exceptional. It’s about the Doctor and his relationship to history, but it’s also about the importance of the companion. The Ninth Doctor faced the Daleks down alone at the climax of The Parting of the Ways. He lacked the strength to continue any sort of resistance, to repeat the same sacrifices he made before. Here, Donna is able to help the Doctor carry that weight. She’s able to place her weight on the plunger alongside the Doctor.

Oh my gods...

Oh my gods…

The fourth season really pushed Donna as the Doctor’s equal, rather than simply an assistant or supporting character. In their first pseudo-historicals, Martha and Rose both asked about the consequences of changing history – but more as a technical point. In The Unquiet Dead, the Doctor assured Rose that the present could change dramatically based on events in the past. In The Shakespeare Code, the Doctor warned Martha that she’d slowly fade out of existence like Marty McFly. The questions-and-answers were functional and instructional.

Here, Donna’s questions are less about the basics of how time-traveling works and more about the moral implications. Less of “what…?” and “how…?”, but more “why…?” Rose and Martha might object to some of the Doctor’s decisions, but neither would call him out or challenge him so readily. In the first post-credits scene, the Doctor tries to order Donna back to the TARDIS, but she won’t listen. He tries to assert his authority over her.

All fired up...

All fired up…

“What, and you’re in charge?” she demands. “TARDIS, Time Lord, yeah,” the Doctor responds. It’s worth noting that he falls back on the familair implied “I will kick you out of my magic blue box if you don’t play by my rules” threat he dangled over Rose and particularly Martha on their early adventures. Donna is, quite awesomely, having none of it. “Donna, human, no. I don’t need your permission.”

Later on, Donna specifically draws attention to the fact that she is the only companion in the revived series who would dare to call him out, possibly owing to her own life experience. “Listen, I don’t know what sort of kids you’ve been flying round with in outer space, but you’re not telling me to shut up,” she bluntly tells him, making it clear that the dynamic between the Doctor and Donna is distinct from whatever came before. “That boy, how old is he, sixteen? And tomorrow he burns to death.” When the Doctor asks if that is his fault, Donna refuses to let him off the hook. “Right now, yes.”

He's mostly armless...

He’s mostly armless…

Also worth noting is the way that the show seems to be pushing Donna as a female goddess to the Doctor’s Lonely God. This is the second episode in a row to mention Venus as a female god. In Partners in Crime, Wilf pointed out that Venus was the only planet in the solar system named for a woman. Here, Donna jokingly compares herself to “the Goddess Venus.” little dialogue touches like this are a great way of adding continuity to the series, but also a subtle way at hinting at underlying themes.

“There is something at your back” is quite fun, but a lot more overt and blunt. I actually think that the fourth season holds together better than any of the other David Tennant seasons because there’s a clear consistency of vision and structure, rather than merely repeated arc words and in-jokes. Even the fourth season’s arc-word, “the Medusa Cascade”, is a reference to another female mythological figure – putting Donna in context.

These references don't grate...

These references don’t grate…

And, again, the fourth season holds up particularly well on re-watch because it manages to foreshadow and set-up a lot of what is coming – not just in a mechanical “the bees are disappearing” or “that’s another planet gone” sort of way, but in a larger “these are the big ideas of the season” manner. The endings to The Fires of Pompeii and Planet of the Ood are quite jarring on first watch, with the Doctor and Donna immortalised as household gods or in a song echoing through eternity. However, watching them again helps to remove some of the sting from Journey’s End.

Catherine Tate really proves here that she’s capable of carrying the dramatic weight that the show needs. As much as it might be fashionable to criticise casting a high-profile comedian as the season-long companion, there was never any doubt that Tate had the comedic timing to carry off the show’s sense of humour. The Runaway Bride was a convincing hour-long audition tape with David Tennant, and nobody watching Partners of Crime could have been too surprised when the pair had natural comic chemistry.

Venting his frustrations...

Venting his frustrations…

However, Tate is also a formidable dramatic actress, and The Fires of Pompeii allows Tate to demonstrate her range. Donna is more than just a collection of stereotypes or gags or broadly-drawn clichés. She might not have a home life that is well developed as that of Rose or Martha, but she’s still a real person. Her reaction of abject horror to the fate of all the people in Pompeii feels entirely natural and entirely in character, and arguably provides one of the show’s strongest demonstrations of what a companion is meant to do.

Donna anchors the Doctor. She provides a very human scale to his travels. The Doctor sees the big picture – he sees fixed moments and the very movement of history itself. The companion sees the little things, providing him with a window into humanity. The Doctor knows that he can’t save Pompeii, but Donna understands that he has to save somebody. It’s quite similar to the way that Moffat would characterise the Eleventh Doctor’s relationship with Amy – she allows him to see the wonder he might otherwise miss.

Caving to Donna's pressure...

Caving to Donna’s pressure…

It’s also clear that the revived Doctor Who is getting to the point where it can play with its conventions and core concepts, rather than firmly establishing them. The rules have been set out, and it seems the show trusts that the audience are familiar enough with that framework that it can mess with them a little bit. Using time travel as a vehicle for a big ethical quandary rather than convenient stakes is the most obvious example, but Donna plays with the show’s internal logic when she asks about the TARDIS’ translation tool.

Martha and Rose took the plot device for granted, accepting that it existed so that the audience could understand whatever these aliens or foreign humans were saying. Donna, on the other hand, decides to ask more questions. When the Doctor tells her that she’s speaking Latin, she immediately responds, “What if I said something in actual Latin, like veni, vidi, vici?” It’s an illogical, nitpicky fan question – the kind of thing most casual viewers would never ask. However, the fourth season seems to be the point where Doctor Who is entirely comfortable with itself, so it can ask these silly questions.

A heated family discussion...

A heated family discussion…

Like the rest of the fourth season, this also comes out in a whole heap of casually-integrated internal references. The Doctor alludes to the events of The Romans, a black-and-white serial that very few people in the massive Saturday-night audience would have actually seen. The references don’t only extend to the classic show, either. The teaser ends with the Doctor making a massive shout-out to Steven Moffat’s The Empty Child.

(There are also a few nice – and completely coincidental – calls forward as well. Guest starring Karen Gillen and Peter Capaldi, is this the only episode of Doctor Who to feature a guest appearance from both a future Doctor and a future companion in different roles. It’s weird to look back at this episode and see both faces in the same place, even if they belong to radically different parts of the Moffat era.)

Scroll on to read more...

Scroll on to read more…

The Fires of Pompeii is a pretty spectacular episode, and one that really demonstrates just how stong the fourth season is, right out of the gate.

You might be interested in our other reviews from David Tennant’s third season of Doctor Who:

2 Responses

  1. A very interesting review as always and I think it points to why Donna is my favourite of the companions (though Rory come close.)

    I have to say having recently visited the actual Pompeii (and Herculaneum) this episode feels very eerie and I’m not sure I could comfortably watch it today. I don’t mean to suggest ‘Fires’ is in bad taste – I don’t believe it is – but there is a difference seeing it as a fascinating abstract dilema and seeing it after having walked the streets of the genuine city.

    • It’s a very valid point, and I thought about bringing it up.

      After all, imagine if the Doctor had landed the day before the East Asian tsunami. Pompeii is different because it’s insulated from us by over a millennium, and because we all learn about the horror in school in a very clinical way. In a way, I think that makes the Doctor’s position seem a bit less inhuman than it actually is, and makes his burden seem a little lighter. These people are, to us, already dead, so he has the “right” position. Juxtaposing this with the futuristic setting of The Waters of Mars is ingenious, because it means that we don’t have the same investment in the outcome – it’s a fictitious event, so the Doctor’s not reinforcing our vision of what history said happened. We don’t know anything about Bowie Base One, so we engage on a personal level that isn’t possible with Pompeii.

      Here, the fate of Pompeii is an academic question to him and to most of the audience, but if it was a tragedy so fresh that it wasn’t an academic question, the episode would seem tasteless. I think Moran walks a fine line, and I’m really impressed that The Fires of Pompeii works at all. Moran does a wonderful job.

      And Donna is probably my favourite companion as well. I love Rory, but I think Romana would probably rank between him and Donna for me. I really liked first season Rose, to the point where I’d argue first season Rose is the ideal companion archetype for the revived show, but I came to hate her over the next few years when the show seemed to treat her as the moral centre of the universe. The loss of her father made her relatable, contorting the universe to give him back made it seem the world operated on her whims. Separating her from the Doctor was tragic, even if I really disliked the combination of the Tenth Doctor and Rose, but giving her a carbon copy felt like a cheat.

      I was really hoping Donna might come back for the fiftieth, or even that Eccleston would agree to come back and Rose would be teamed with him, and it’s a shame that the Tenth Doctor and Rose are the part of the fiftieth that I’m least looking forward to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: