Friday, May 02, 2008

Doctor Who, "The Fires of Pompeii": Everyone dies?

"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?

28 comments:

jim treacher said...

I didn't think the Ninth Doctor was all that dour. He had his moments, sure, but so does this one.

Anna said...

Honestly, I was disappointed in this episode. The family was written pretty stupidly, and they introduced a misogyny theme just to have it come to nothing, and seriously? The doctor beats the giant lava monsters with a bucket of water and a squirt gun? Stupid.

But I still love Donna and her relationship with the Doctor. And I still think their dynamic is just like that between Rose and Nine. In "The Unquiet Dead" they fought over the Doctor using Gwyneth; in "Father's Day" they fought over Rose saving her father's life. Granted those were much smaller scales than the entire population of Pompeii, but Rose was coming from the same place of compassion that Donna was here.

J said...

I was 100% Meh on this one. I know that ultimately it was Donna's turn to learn the dark side of great-power-great-responsibility, but as timelines can't be altered it was all really a nonissue.

Watchable, but forgettable.

Dark Tyler said...

Regarding the prophecy in the middle of the episode, was the destruction of Pompeii the terrible choice Doctor would have to make, or (since that one was inevitable) was the daughter referring to something we've yet to see?

Also, what the frak is on Donna's back?

Dan said...

Hmm, strange. Seems most people were disappointed with this, whereas it was considered amongst DW's finest hours here in the UK. Maybe we just got distracted by the snazzy visuals (superb on every level)? I don't know. I can understand a few of the criticisms, but this one thundered along and really entertained me.

Matter-Eater Lad said...

"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"

I imagine he would have put her back, sooner or later.

Anonymous said...

I realize the series would be far less interesting and fun if it adopted the more consistent time travel theory that travelers cannot truly change the past but only assist to bring about that which already happened. But the explanation in this episode that events can or can't be changed simply because the Doctor says they can or can't be changed was kind of lame. Further, since most of the population of Pompeii would have been instantly killed and there would have been no evidence of their individual deaths, why couldn't the doctor have saved more than the family of Caecillius? This reminded me of the rationale in the awful 1989 film "Millenium," where the only people who can see time travelers are those who are about to die, and those soon to be dead are saved and replaced precisley because they were about to die according to history.

Anonymous said...

You were definitely not the only one. I thought the "Everybody lives!" - "Everybody dies." opposite was quite obvious, and it made me very sad.

M.A.Peel said...

dark tyler, I had the same two points.

Anonymous said...

The episode was pretty much a solid "meh" to me. But did anyone else catch that this was the second episode in a where a planet has disappeared?

agv

Anonymous said...

Also the second straight mention of the Shadow Proclamation

Anonymous said...

Was there a reference to Rose when Caecillius' daughter starts revealing information about the Doctor?

Nicole said...

I wonder if the Sci-Fi cuts removed a bit of the dramatic impact at the end, because this was my favourite episode so far, having seen them at UK pace. I loved the Donna interaction and how she was questioning him and his decisions as to who lives and who dies.

Also, the family was a bit of an inside joke for those who learned Latin using the Cambridge Latin course.

Obviously the prophesy will come into play later in the series, but I suspect that it was a reference to the Rani, although others have said it was Rose.

And Old Who fans can help me out here, but I am sure that there was a hidden reference to the Doctor having visited this time period before.

Anna said...

Disappearing planets (and bees) and the Shadow Proclamation... obviously this season's "Bad Wolf." And the reference to Rose was "She is returning." I'm betting that all of those things will come together for the finale.

SciFi definitely cut the scene at the very end with the family worshipping the Doctor and Donna as their new household gods; and I could not have been happier that they did. I absolutely love the Doctor, but not because the hero worship is jammed down my throat. But anyway, that's the only cut at the end that I noticed.

And the comment about the Doctor starting a fire in Rome was a reference to the old Who episode "The Romans."

Tracey said...

I really liked this one. I'm surprised to see so many "meh" comments. I found the episode to be a lot of fun while still having a serious, suspenseful plot (albeit there were some plodding spots in the middle).

I love it when this series addresses the questions that old time fans have had about DW. For example, in a 9th Doctor episode they addressed the old saw about escaping from Daleks by going up stairs... only to find out that Daleks can fly! In this one, they address the recurring fan question, what happens when the TARDIS translates things that aren't in your native language? And what a hilarious result: love the Celtic running gag. Also love them pointing out that the translator translates writing, not just speech.

What I like about Donna is her emotional strength and maturity, and she gets a great chance to demonstrate that when she joins the Doctor in pushing that lever. Brilliant scene. She seems more like a partner in that regard than Rose or Martha, though I certainly liked those two as companions.

Regarding saving the family: I was, frankly, shocked that he got into the TARDIS right in front of that family without inviting them in, leaving them there cowering on the floor as the ash came down. It seems like the Doctor is still dealing with some of his survivor's guilt: too consumed by his own guilt at not being able to save anyone on Gallifrey, so he is unable to save someone in Pompeii. But Donna was a strong voice of reason there. She understood that the whole of Pompeii couldn't be saved, but maybe one or two people could be, and managed to convince the Doctor. Maybe there is some healing in that. Although having them invent the word volcano was a bit of a groaner...

Regarding Anna's comment about misogyny: I didn't see it so much as a theme of the episode; more as a simple fact of the time period. I like that DW acknowledges the race and gender biases in history. It's fashionable in American TV to ignore those politically-incorrect realities.

Toby said...

Along with the loss of the six months later coda, the other big edit was of Donna's attempts to help people as the ash came raining down on them all.

Between their run from the escape pod to keep ahead of the ash cloud and their return to the Caecillian household, there were a lot of shots of the panic in the streets. And Donna trying to save just one little boy and failing.

All lost to make room for commercials. sigh.....

Dark Tyler said...

I really don't get how can anyone keep watching these episodes on TV. I mean, you know there will be cuts, and you know the original version is out there somewhere. It's like watching Dexter on CBS, isn't it?

Regarding the rules of time travel... I have a pretty good feeling of how the season is going to play out. Never in the past have they bothered to explain these rules and we just got along with it because it's a fairytale. Suddenly in season 4 RTD explains to us why the Doctor is strictly forbidden to alter certain things. And then there is the seer spouting out prophecies about a terrible choice he will have to make. Just putting two and two together...

I just don't know how the missing planets fit into this.

jim treacher said...

Not only is Jack's scar too healed and too small, but the off-island Jack we saw in this episode also has no chest hair. Previously when we saw Jack, he had a hairy chest.

Season 5 will introduce a heretofore unseen Dharma station, the Root, a day spa/waxing parlor.

jim treacher said...

Duh, wrong thread...

J said...

I'll check the "100% Meh" comment; I did enjoy the prophecy aspect to the thing. So, like, 90%.

And Nicole, I hope one of the names you tossed about didn't come from the spoiler-laden rumor mill (April Fools' jokes notwithstanding). Doing my best to avoid those things.

Dark Tyler said...

Ugh, I hate the spoiler culture in England. I get that 'Doctor Who' over there is sort of like 'Grey's Anatomy' in the US, but the rampant spoilers all over the place is ridiculous. I mean, there I was visiting London and on a tossed newspaper in the underground there was a HUGE spoiler in big, big letters. (Which I still hold some hope it was false.) What's up with that? Avoiding 'Who' spoilers is so tough I've almost given up hope at this point.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Yeah, I neglected to insert my usual England vs. America disclaimer. I know I may now be closing the barn door after the horses have left, but just in case:

Please do not discuss things from episodes that have yet to air in America.

Anna said...

Don't worry. No one's revealed any spoilers.

Nicole said...

I don't read spoilers for Doctor Who and my guess that the prophecy could refer to the Rani is just that. I made that based on the shot of the female hand with the red nail polish that picked up the Master's ring in Last of the Time Lords.

I have better things to do than spoil people about television programs, and I certainly don't want to piss Alan off.

Dark Tyler said...

the shot of the female hand with the red nail polish that picked up the Master's ring in Last of the Time Lords.

After this season's premiere I immediately thought that it was Rose's hand.

Not having seen any old 'Who', the only thing I know about Rani is the crazy rumor that Joan Collins was going to play her in season 4. (That would have been awesome, by the way.)

daveawayfromhome said...

Did anyone else wonder if maybe Donna's question about saving someone from Gallifrey (sp?) was an opening for the Doctor to actually try and do that? Could saving a few of his fellow Time Lords be enough to reconnect the various universes, thus letting Rose come back through?

crazylady said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
crazylady said...

I really enjoyed this romp back to the old series type of story, and humor that's been missing for a long time. This story was a mix of the Brain of Morbius (the sisterhood) and Snakedance (the royal family) along with the twisted idea of the people of Pompei turning to stone. Hilarious! Brilliant! And I like that the doctor has met his match with Donna.