Saturday, 1 August 2009

Doctor Who: The Fires Of Pompeii

Donna: 'You fought it off with a water pistol! I bloody love you!'

At the heart of tonight's episode was a question which has plagued the fictional time traveller since time immemorial: is it permissible to risk the future in order to save the past? For the Doctor, an old hand at these sorts of conundrums, the answer was a resounding no. For Donna, a relative newcomer to wide-scale catastrophe, the question raised all manner of complex considerations, and provided a stark introduction to the moral quagmire of time tourism.

Donna also managed to ask and answer the question that's perplexed Doctor Who fans for decades: if the TARDIS translates English into Latin, and vice versa, then what would happen if someone spoke Latin and wanted it to be heard as such ? The answer: nobody would have a clue what they were talking about. Phil Cornell's stallholder thought Donna was speaking Celtic. But why would the TARDIS assign random accents to different speakers? Cornell's stallholder spoke with a definite cockney twang.

Russell T. Davies got the idea for a story based in Pompeii after watching the BBC documentary Pompeii: The Last Day. The episode itself was filmed at Cinecittà studios, Rome, was the first time the revived show had taken its cast abroad, and the results pretty much speak for themselves. Using the sets from the cancelled HBO/BBC series Rome, the episode positively reeks of authenticity. Admittedly, the street sellers are somewhat less than kosher, but they at least provide comic relief.

The Mill did a terrific job of breathing life into the Pyrovile, and those shots of Mount Vesuvius exploding, and the Doctor and Donna trying to outrun the ash clouds were spectacularly effective. Even the prosthetic department excelled at making the immature pyrovile look horrific, but it was that final shot of Pompeii being destroyed by fire, while a small group of survivors looked on, that made the episode look truly epic. They must have spent half the budget on those shots alone—and it was totally worth it.

I was also pleasantly surprised by just how good an actress Catherine Tate is. Her handling of the story's weightier elements was spot on: from her horror at the looming destruction of the city, to her helplessness at her own impotence, she turned in a complex, competent performance. And obviously her comedic timing is impeccable. James Moran's script was choc-o-block full of linguistic gags, and they were all delivered with enthusiastic aplomb by Tennant and Tate. I'm not so sure the visual gags worked as well. Where did the Doctor get a water pistol from at such short notice ? (And 2000 years before they were invented?) TK Maximus, perhaps?

The Doctor/companion dynamic has been noticeably different this year. Both Rose and Martha have questioned the Doctor's wisdom before, but when it comes to being headstrong, Donna's in a class of her own. She was utterly disinterested in the Doctor's 'fixed point in time' bollocks—all she cared about was the impending carnage of Volcano Day, and to the Doctor's credit, rather than ignoring the plight of Caecilius and Co. (with some hefty prompting from Donna), he went back and saved them all. Which only goes to show that the Doctor is at his best with someone there to remind him of what's important.

And she's returning, is she? Is there really only the Doctor who doesn't know who 'she' is?

Other Thoughts:

—The story was supposed to be a part of the show's first season, but was replaced in the running order by 'Boom Town'. Which does makes you wonder how the episode would have fared with Billie and Chris at the helm.

—The Doctor's joke that Donna's was from Barcelona was a tip of the hat to 70's British comedy show Fawlty Towers.

—This was Karen Gillan's first appearance on the show. She later becomes the Eleventh Doctor's full-time companion, but tonight she played a heavily made-up soothsayer.

Torchwood fans will no doubt have recognised Peter Capaldi as Caecilius. Capaldi played Mr Frobisher in the 'Children of Earth' mini-series, before going on to land the role of the Doctor in 2013.

—The Doctor presumably spoke to Lucius in Latin, meaning his pun on the likeness of the words 'sun' and 'son' wouldn't have made sense. In Latin, the two words sound quite different.

—What happened to the TARDIS' chameleon circuit? How comes Caecilius could see it in order to buy it?

Quotes:

Donna: "Should I change my clothes?"
The Doctor: "Nah, anything goes in Rome. It's like Soho, only bigger."

Donna: "Have you been here before?"
Doctor: "Yes, I have, and before you ask, that fire had nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit."

Caecilius: "Who are you?"
Doctor: "I am... Spartacus."
Donna: "And so am I."
Caecilius: "Mr and Mrs Spartacus?"
The Doctor: "Oh, no no no no no, we're not married."
Caecilius: "Oh, brother and sister? Yes, of course, you look very much alike."
Doctor and Donna: "Really?"

The Doctor: "Did you think of moving away? Oh no, then again, San Francisco."
Caecilius: "That's a new restaurant in Naples, isn't it?"

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