My Thoughts on The Fires of Pompeii

“The Fires of Pompeii” all seemed to go by in a bit of a flash for me. I watched it with other people and I’d really like to go back and re-view it alone because I’m sure there were a lot of things I missed, including some of the dialogue.

I’m not sure if this will turn out to be one of my favourite episodes, but I’ve no such reservations about the related DW Confidential. It fully justified its 45-minute running time and added a great deal to my background knowledge and enjoyment. Not just because we got to see Tennant’s knees, honestly.

I came away with a huge awareness of the scale of the whole operation, its complexity and the huge pressures on time and resources. These people really are miracle workers. The production values of the episode were the highest I’ve ever seen in DW, almost to the point of detracting from the story as a whole.

Okay, it was a bit of a rerun of The Shakespeare Code, at least for the first 15 minutes or so. Doctor showing off with a trip back in time, wide-eyed companion, corny evil soothsayers, running gags, one-liners. And apart from the visual sumptuousness, I think TSC did it rather better.

I liked the family, even before I knew about the Cambridge Latin Course in-joke connection. They were interesting and pretty well-drawn. My attention wandered when we got another official  – again, that seemed very similar to the Drowning Lord Chamberlain in TSC. And I never really did take to that bunch of Sybils. I wasn’t entirely sure we were meant to take them seriously. There was a very “all in a days’ work” attitude coming over from the Doctor towards them. The plot itself could have been set up better, and wasn’t brilliant to start with (though my view on that may change with a re-watch).

I found the scene with all the big reveals about who the Doctor and Donna really were rather cliched, a bit obviously pandering to the more speculative elements in fandom. There was a bit of a Who-by-numbers feel to it. I was even beginning to feel a bit irritated by Ten, who seemed to be at his most gobby and manic here (although that’s a change from the Emo Doctor, admittedly). But then came the quiet killer of the escape pod scene and the whole thing came to life. Beautifully done on both sides and after that neither DT nor CT put a foot wrong. Just enough was said to make it very powerful and moving.

This was a defining moment for Donna, I felt. She did things that neither Martha nor Rose would have been capable of doing, and I think that was a direct result of the emotional exposure of TRB, when she encountered the Doctor at a very low and vulnerable point. The hand placed over his as he pulled the lever said it all – so did the fact that it wasn’t analysed, she just did it. Rose would have had that degree of empathy, but when we last saw them together she knew much less about the Doctor. Donna’s seen that darkness up close, she knows the name of the planet he came from and has a pretty good idea, I suspect, that it was destroyed by his own hand. So her support of him is that bit richer and more meaningful. It is rooted in honesty on both sides.

You could argue ad nauseum about whether he did the right thing returning to save Caecilius and his family. But Donna saw that he needed to do it, so he could live with himself. I didn’t have any particular issues with the Doctor being presented as a godlike figure at the end. I feel there’s a huge difference between the Doctor behaving as if he’s God (as in S3) and the Doctor being perceived as a god by people whose cultural framework makes it difficult for them to see things any other way. In fact, I don’t think he wants to be seen as a god and that’s one of the reasons he tries to avoid saving people at times.

Martha fed right into his god complex and that was terribly bad for him. Donna has the opposite effect; she humanises him. Yes, it’s possible that his decision will come back to bite him later, and turn out to have done some horrible damage to the timeline, but I’ve a hunch that it won’t because that kind of hope is at the heart of the DW moral universe.

What does worry me is Mr Copper’s line in VOTD about the Doctor getting to choose who lives and who dies. I think that could be a recurring theme and what I anticipate and dread is that it’ll come down to a straight choice between Donna’s life and Rose’s at some point. I think, from some of the things she’s been saying, that Donna is being presented as someone capable of taking that decision out of the Doctor’s hands because she knows it would destroy him. I don’t know enough about Rose’s character development since Doomsday to say whether she could do the same.

I’d be surprised if Rose was killed off but I could imagine any future happiness he shares with her being bought at a terrible cost. I can’t imagine we’d get an unequivocally happy ending – time and time again, DW reminds us that you pay for everything in the end.

But we shall see.

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3 thoughts on “My Thoughts on The Fires of Pompeii

  1. I think, from some of the things she’s been saying, that Donna is being presented as someone capable of taking that decision out of the Doctor’s hands because she knows it would destroy him. I don’t know enough about Rose’s character development since Doomsday to say whether she could do the same.
    Just on the general point of this – because I don’t know whether I agree with your speculation or not – I think Rose was always capable of taking that decision out of his hands. Remember “Do it” in World War III? And “It wasn’t your fault” and telling him not to open the bulkhead in Dalek? I can’t remember any specific examples from S2, but I certainly didn’t see her expecting him to save her at the cost of anyone else there either.
    Whatever happens – and I’m avoiding coming up with any of my own speculation because I find that spoils the fun of seeing things unfold week by week – I think it’s going to be fascinating. And I just hope that, whatever they do, they don’t break my heart all over again like Doomsday did. It does seem as if Rose will not stay with the Doctor; well, give her a good, solid, strong character-based reason for it, that’s all I ask for.

  2. I don’t think she ever had a problem with sacrificing her own life for the greater good. But I’m not sure she understood his history well enough to realise how it would feel to wipe out a planet. That wasn’t her fault, because he hadn’t been open with her at that point, or indeed with himself. It might be very different if they met up now.

  3. It fully justified its 45-minute running time and added a great deal to my background knowledge and enjoyment. Not just because we got to see Tennant’s knees, honestly.
    I agree. The sheer scale of the industry involved in making this episode happen was amazing. I came away with a much greater understanding of the show, logistically speaking, than I’ve had previously. Plus — and I mentioned this when I posted on the episode — I adore Phil Collinson, and it was lovely to see so much of him this time.
    Donna saw that he needed to do it, so he could live with himself.
    I think also it was a matter of that she needed him to do it so she could live with herself, and with him. If he’d walked away from all of those people despite her urging — it would have been a major turning point for her.
    I feel there’s a huge difference between the Doctor behaving as if he’s God (as in S3) and the Doctor being perceived as a god by people whose cultural framework makes it difficult for them to see things any other way.
    Exactly. The family has to have a way to explain how this all happened, and who the Doctor and Donna were, and in that context, for them, it makes sense.
    What does worry me is Mr Copper’s line in VOTD about the Doctor getting to choose who lives and who dies.
    I hadn’t thought back to that — but it is an interesting statement to come back to. Hmm.

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