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14 February 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 775: The Fires of Pompeii

Dear diary,

Way back at the very start of this marathon, I used to track a loose story arc involving the Doctor’s realisation that time isn’t as rigid as he’d always thought it was. I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t an arc consciously inserted into the programme by the production team, but rather something which evolved organically over time, ranging from The Aztecs, in which the Doctor is fairly certain that time can’t be altered (he’s very blunt about it with Barbara, but there’s a certain something in the performance that makes me suspect that it’s more techies of you can’t rewrite a single line because that’s what he’s always been told, not what he’s experienced) through to The Romans, in which he realises that the Great Fire of Rome was his fault. We’re almost seeing history repeating itself at the moment, and I’m rather liking that it happens in very similar setting - and in an episode where the Doctor actually namecheck the fire he caused!

Yes, I’m seeing patterns in things that aren’t there again. Following on from Voyage of the Damned, which had a few threads starting to appear that will become very prominent right at the end of this Doctor’s life, today we’ve got him once again realising that he’s a vital part of time - and more crucially, realising that he can bend time to his own will. Here, it’s just saving the one family from the eruption of Vesuvius, but by the time The Waters of Mars rolls around, this type of power will have gone to his head. Just like the arc in the 1960s, I’m fairly sure that this wasn’t placed here intentionally, but it’s lovely to see it starting to form in retrospect, when you look back at these stories with knowledge of where the tale goes further down the road.

It’s also fitting in some ways that The Fires of Pompeii should slot so neatly into the Doctor realising how flexible even ‘fixed’ points in time can be, because this episode is something of an important one for the programme’s timeline - with both Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi making their Doctor Who debut here several years before they’d return to play a more prominent role in the series. I’m surprised we as a fandom don’t spend more time parsing the cast list for this one to see who else might crop up as someone major in the future (Oh, actually, Tracy Childs is in this one, too, and she’s an audio companion, so I’m not being entirely facetious).

Overall, I can’t help but quite like this one - there’a a nice enough story behind it all, and there’s several scenes that are especially well done - chief among them being the introduction of Lucius Petrus Dextrus, and the ‘seer off’ that follows - with both Lucius and Evelina revealing facts about where the Doctor and Donna are really from, become delving deeper into their personal futures to hint at someone returning, and something on Donna’s back. The whole scene is brilliantly written, perfectly performed, and directed with such a great style that it really helps to build up the tension. At the time, I remember there being a lot of discussion about exactly who might be returning - the general feeling seemed to be that ‘Rose’ was too obvious after the sight of her in the previous episode, and most people’s money seemed to be on the Rani (isn’t it always?). At the time, I thought that was ridiculous, but the way the line is delivered here, you can easily see why people might expect something more sinister than the return of a former companion.

If there’s one thing about The Fires of Pompeii which does fall a little bit flat for me, then I have to say it’s the actual setting. Save for the few plate shots taken in New York for Series Three with a skeleton crew and no lead actors, this is the first time that 21st century Doctor Who has properly travelled abroad to shoot scenes, and while they do look very nice… they simply don’t ‘wow’ me. I think, truth be told, I was spoilt last season with all the Elizabethan England scenes for The Shakespeare Code. Every single one of those floored me the other week when watching, whereas the Pompeii scenes here simply don’t have the same effect, and I’m not entirely sure what that is. 

Thomas Gruenes United States
3/24/2020 3:08:06 AM #

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