The Good: Good acting, Decent foreshadowing
The Bad: Very predictable plot
The Basics: "The Fires Of Pompeii" finds Donna Noble and The Doctor discovering an alien influence in ancient Rome on Donna Noble's first trip through time!
Every now and then, there is a joke in Doctor Who that takes a long time to pay off. In "The Doctor Dances" (reviewed here!), the Doctor alludes to time travelers being in Pompeii on volcano day. Writer James Moran took the pretty simple joke and built it into an episode that works to set-up some of the most important aspects of the fourth season of Doctor Who.
"The Fires Of Pompeii" is one of the rare Doctor Who episodes that is much more delightful in retrospect than in first-run. On its surface, "The Fires Of Pompeii" is a pretty standard Doctor Who episode in which aliens are once again attempting to mess with Earth's past. The only truly original wrinkle on the surface is presented by Donna Noble. Noble does not understand The Doctor's theory of temporal fixed points, so she sees the inevitable loss of 20,000 lives on Pompeii as a tragedy that she and The Doctor are uniquely situated to prevent. The Doctor sees another alien invasion that his presence can help stop, especially when one of the Romans is helping the aliens manufacture futuristic technology.
A giddy Donna Noble and the Doctor arrive on the island of Pompeii where Donna has her first experience with the TARDIS translation matrix. While the two are followed by a woman, they experience an earthquake and realize that they are on Pompeii and it's the day of the volcano's eruption. Looking for the TARDIS to escape the imminent destruction, The Doctor and Donna discover that the TARDIS has been sold, to Caecilius. Caecilius is moving up in Roman society and bought the TARDIS as modern art. The Doctor and Donna arrive at Caecilius's home, where The Doctor and Donna try to get the TARDIS back and Donna tries to convince Caecilius's family to take a vacation.
The Doctor is about to take Donna away when Caecilius unveils a futuristic-looking circuit board, which the local auger has foreseen. Lucius and Evelina, Caecilius's daughter, both start making profound observations into the lives of The Doctor and Donna. Donna sees that Evelina is turning to stone and is alarmed. The Doctor learns from Caecilius that all the soothsayers on Pompeii have recently become very accurate in their predictions and The Doctor theorizes it is from dust they are inhaling from Vesuvius. Evelina psychically communicates with the sister soothsayers, ratting out Donna to them. Soon, Donna and The Doctor are forced to flee Lucius, the Sisters, and a rock beast who is intent on using the eruption of Vesuvius to its own twisted end!
Pyrovillia is the planet of the magma-based aliens in "The Fires Of Pompeii." Like the planet of the Adipose in "Partners In Crime" (reviewed here!), Pyrovillia is referenced as destroyed or "gone" and that is but one of many important allusions in the episode. Virtually every important arc in the fourth season is referenced, thanks to the use of soothsayers, in "The Fires Of Pompeii." That makes for an episode that is fun to return to; it is packed with "easter eggs." The Medusa Cascade, the parasite from the episode "Turn Left" and the missing planet are all foreshadowed in "The Fires Of Pompeii."
As fans, there is a lot to enjoy from "The Fires Of Pompeii" as well. Peter Capaldi plays Caecilius, a Roman noble who is later referenced after Capaldi takes up the mantle of The Doctor in "Deep Breath" (reviewed here!). Karen Gillan also makes her Doctor Who debut in "The Fires Of Pompeii" as one of the Soothsayers of Sybiline. Long before she became a Companion, Gillan played a background character, much like Freema Agyeman did.
While objectively average on its own, "The Fires Of Pompeii" benefits from using good guest actors. Moreover, David Tennant and Catherine Tate utilize their great on-screen chemistry to cement the early relationship between The Doctor and Donna Noble. Donna is a Companion who openly, and frequently, challenges The Doctor and "The Fires Of Pompeii" does so in a way where Tate is not simply screeching Donna's lines. It works to begin to truly establish the chemistry that makes any relationship between The Doctor and his Companion work.
The special effects in "The Fires Of Pompeii" are decidedly mixed; there are perspective issues with the Pyrovillians in several shots, though the eruption of Vesuvius is well-presented. The episode has some nitpick problems - where the hell does The Doctor get a squirt gun?! and how is the TARDIS is moved by a simple Roman when it usually weighs incredible amounts?
The result is an enjoyable episode that is essential for the foreshadowing within the series and fun for the fans to see people who would later have greater roles. If it were not for the external elements or ways it fit into the larger season's arc, "The Fires Of Pompeii" would be a real dud. As it is, it might well be the best payoff to a one-line remark that was ever pulled off in a television series!
[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Fourth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of David Tennant as The Doctor here!
For other works with Peter Capaldi, please check out my reviews of:
Doctor Who - Season 9
Doctor Who - Season 8
World War Z
In The Loop
Smilla's Sense Of Snow
For other Doctor Who episode and movie reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!
© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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