"Doctor Who" spoilers coming up just as soon as I learn to speak Celtic...
It takes a very long time to get to the point -- or, rather, it sets up the point and quickly gets distracted by knife-wielding psychics and fire-breathing stone monsters -- but when "The Fires of Pompeii" actually bothers to deal with The Doctor and Donna grappling with the morality of letting Pompeii fall (first as passive witnesses, then as the poor bastards who have to live with the guilt of making the volcano erupt), it's quite extraordinary.
My eyes glazed over during much of the stock running from monsters and assassins sequences -- even though, as this episode was shot at Rome's famous Cinecitta studios, those stock scenes were among the most beautiful of the entire series (all incarnations) -- and especially whenever we stopped to hang with the sculptor and his family. I understand that they needed to resemble three-dimensional characters so it would matter when Donna convinced The Doctor to go back for them, but the writing and acting didn't really do the job. Mainly, I looked on them as a kind of Pompeii equivalent of the cast of "7th Heaven." Ordinarily, the RTD version of "Doctor Who" does a marvelous job of getting us to care about minor characters just before they're saved or killed (think Mrs. Moore from the Age of Steel two-parter, or Bannakaffalatta from the most recent Christmas movie), but despite getting more screen time than many, the Pompeii family failed to register as interesting enough that I would feel sad had The Doctor not turned the TARDIS around for a small rescue mission.
But the first 10 and last 10 minutes of the episode? Wow. As we've discussed, because Donna is older than Rose or Martha and not in love with The Doctor, she's able to call him out in ways they never did. She questions everything, from small details like how she can understand Latin (and, in a funny running gag, what would happen if she spoke actual Latin while using the TARDIS translator) to the very large, important question of why The Doctor couldn't help evacuate the city before Vesuvius erupted. I don't know how concrete the franchise has been in the past about The Doctor inserting himself into major historical events -- for that matter, it occurs to me that removing Madame De Pompadour from history (as The Doctor intended to do in "The Girl in the Fireplace") would be something of a violation of those rules -- but David Tennant sold The Doctor's frustration with all of Donna's questions. If you had seen your entire species burn, and if you had no doubt been placed in thousands of situations over the years where you knew the rules of time wouldn't allow you to save lives, would you want to debate the ethics of it with your new semi-wanted passenger?
And then came the brilliant, tragic turn in the escape pod -- the one where Donna truly understood The Doctor's burden and unequivocally became his partner -- when they realized that they were the cause of the eruption, and if they didn't play their role, then the rest of the world would be destroyed. The needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few is a sensible idea, but it's hard to be sensible when you have to put your hands on the lever that's going to kill off the few, right? I knew The Doctor was going to push it, but having Donna push it with him was a huge step forward for both that character and this relationship. I look forward to seeing how their dynamic changes going forward (and will be frustrated if he continues to treat her like a nuisance he can't work up the nerve to disinvite).
One final thought: was I the only one who viewed the episode's climax as the opposite of "The Doctor Dances"? There, Nine (dour and pessimistic and haunted) finds a way to briefly experience the absolute joys of godhood by saving the lives of all the gasmask people. Here, Ten (spritely and upbeat and can-do) has to experience the worst part of godhood when he has to let thousands die, a burden that can't be lessened even with the knowledge of the millions more (plus the sculptor's family) that he saved in the process.
What did everybody else think?