Every season of Doctor Who during the RTD era kicks off with a loose trilogy of episodes set during the past, present and future to ease newcomers into the show. As Series 4 gets underway with a fresh new companion, Donna Noble, we enter the middle act of the trilogy, “The Fires Of Pompeii”. As I’ve noted before, while the season premiere is always a significant episode when it comes to setting the stage for things to come, the second episode is just as important in many ways, since it’s usually the one that puts the Doctor’s friendship with his new companion to the test for the first time and cements what sort of dynamic they’re going to have for the rest of the season. “The Fires Of Pompeii” is penned by James Moran, who unfortunately never wrote another episode for the show, considering how strong this one turned out to be.
Much like “Utopia” last season (which turned out to be the first installment of a three-part finale instead of Series 3 ending on the typical two-parter), “The Fires Of Pompeii” is an episode that subverts the usual expectations the viewers might have for the RTD era at this point, and it catches you off guard. Traditionally, your average RTD era season always started out light and playful, and then gradually wandered into darker, more contemplative territory later on – for example, “Dalek” marks the point in Series 1 where that season started to get grimmer. “The Fires Of Pompeii” is only the second episode of Series 4, and its third act takes a very intense and bleak turn for the Doctor and Donna that I don’t think any of us were expecting. There are quite a few episodes in Doctor Who that are already entertaining, thoughtful tales for the bulk of their runtime, and then the last fifteen minutes take things to a whole other level and turn them into something special – like “Utopia” and “The Rings Of Akhaten” – and “The Fires Of Pompeii” is one of them.
“The Fires Of Pompeii” is one of those episodes that demonstrates just how good the Tenth Doctor is with people: he works well with the locals; he plays into their superstitions and challenges them whenever he needs to collect information; he uses humor to disarm and deflect any suspicion he might get; and most importantly, he’s always thinking several steps ahead of everyone else, relying on his wits. Ten bounces around between a wide variety of moods in this episode and David Tennant, as usual, does a convincing job of selling all of them. “The Fires Of Pompeii” is also one of those episodes, like “The Satan Pit“, where the core principles of what the Tenth Doctor believes in are challenged – particularly in regards to how he protects the safety and integrity of the space-time continuum.
Thanks to the TARDIS taking them off-course, the Doctor and Donna wind up in Pompeii, the day before it’s due to be destroyed by Mount Vesuvius erupting. The concept was briefly alluded to in “Father’s Day“, but “The Fires Of Pompeii” is officially the point where fixed points in time are introduced to NuWho: the notion that there are some points in history that can never be changed without doing irreversible damage to the time-stream. Basically, the idea exists to explain why the Doctor doesn’t just go back and stop the Titanic from sinking or prevent 9/11, since his inaction would otherwise seem unethical for a guy who possesses a time machine that could save millions of lives (he mainly uses it for fun adventures every week). The concept of fixed points keeps the history of the Whoniverse grounded in a reality close to our own, and more importantly, it gives the Doctor limitations as to what he can or can’t do, to prevent him from becoming too OP. As the first episode to really elaborate on what ‘fixed points’ are, “The Fires Of Pompeii” mines the concept for a good bit of drama.
As soon as he discovers when and where they are, Ten wants to get the hell out of Dodge before disaster strikes, since he certainly doesn’t want to see all that death. It never occurs to him to try to change anything, since he knows instinctively that it’s impossible. “The Fires Of Pompeii” is a story that shows the tough decisions the Doctor sometimes has to make as a time lord. He isn’t happy about having to abandon everyone in Pompeii to their horrible fate and let history run its course, but he knows he has to follow the rules of time in fear of the consequences. Donna puts up one hell of a fight on what they should or shouldn’t do while they have opportunity, accusing him of being callous, selfish and pessimistic, and in the end, they both prove to be right and wrong at the same time.
Just as Ten guessed, he has to keep history in check, in an even worse way than he could have predicted: condemning twenty thousand people to die to avoid the whole Earth dying, because to quote the Twelfth Doctor, “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose”. After that, Ten basically shuts down out of pain and self-loathing, because in addition to this decision being terrible on its own, it’s also way too close to how the Doctor ended the time war for comfort, dredging up all his ugliest thoughts that he likes to keep buried. Donna begs him to do what little he can and convinces him to save Caecilius and his family, imparting an important lesson on him. He may not always be able to win the big battles, but he can never give up hope and admit defeat, because every life he can save does matter. “The Fires Of Pompeii” was a very heavy episode for the Doctor, and I’m glad the events of this story were never forgotten: not only are they important to Ten’s overall character arc, but they also get referenced again, several seasons down the line, in a pretty unexpected way.
After two modern day adventures, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) takes her first, official trip through time in the TARDIS in this episode, and she’s pretty stoked about leaving her home era behind to explore the past. By now, Ten and Donna have started to get pretty chummy and have established a very funny comedic double act with plenty of chemistry between them. However, “The Fires Of Pompeii” is the first episode to put the strength of their new friendship to the test, and cement the bond they have. Once it’s become apparent that they’ve unwittingly gone to Pompeii, a day before thousands of people are due to die, Donna immediately wants to change history and save as many people as they can with the time machine at their disposal, but the Doctor immediately shoots her idea down. Donna really doesn’t give a damn about the Doctor pulling rank as a time lord to try to overrule her, and fires back at every jab he makes.
Throughout the first half of this episode, Ten and Donna have a genuine moral dilemma on their hands, and I like the way James Moran handles it, making sure it’s never too one-sided. Their vastly different viewpoints are pitted against each other, and both of them make valid arguments. Ten claims that Donna is being too impulsive and ignorant about the damage they can do, blinded by her emotions, while Donna claims that the Doctor is being callous and selfish and ignoring his moral responsibility to help. For better or for worse, Donna’s humanity is on full display in this episode. After the last adventure signified that Donna’s compassionate side has grown stronger over time, “The Fires Of Pompeii” explores that aspect of her personality even further – her concern is not only directed towards the people of Pompeii in general, but also poor Evelina, who’s being taken advantage of by a cult.
Among all the serious discussions in this episode, there’s also a rather hilarious scene where Donna gets kidnapped by the soothsayers and nearly made into a human sacrifice, screaming and cursing them out all the while. As you would expect, if Donna is going down, she’s not going down quietly. It’s a pretty foregone conclusion for the audience how this episode will end, with history remaining intact, but the last act still takes quite a dark and ugly turn. The Doctor and Donna letting everyone perish is one thing, but causing Vesuvius to erupt themselves and sacrificing twenty thousand people for the greater good is a whole other thing entirely. They don’t find a third option or a better way to go, the episode actually commits to them having to make that terrible decision and getting blood on their hands, and that is gutsy. Leaving your home era and traveling through time comes with a certain set of responsibilities.
There are several episodes in NuWho like “Father’s Day”, “The Girl Who Waited” and “Rosa” that make it clear that time travel can be beautiful and amazing, but it can also be painful and cruel sometimes. Donna already knew from “The Runaway Bride” that the Doctor’s lifestyle wouldn’t always be sunshine and roses, but here she gets a much fuller picture of how bleak it can get, so she helps him share the burden by pulling the trigger with him. Afterwards, Catherine Tate is stellar at portraying Donna’s anguish and her total breakdown over the devastation that’s come to these people who she’s now helpless to save, eventually begging the Doctor to do anything he can to help. You know how I said “Father’s Day” was the episode where Billie Piper proved she could be a damn good actress with dramatic material? “The Fires Of Pompeii” is the equivalent episode for Catherine Tate, and a lot of people who were on the fence about Donna becoming a full-time companion had their doubts assuaged after this adventure.
“The Fires Of Pompeii” has a running gag devoted to Caecilius and his family, about how they’re ancient Romans who resemble a modern, suburban family – implying that times change and attitudes evolve but people stay the same. Among them, you have Metella, the fussy mother hen who’s primarily concerned with protecting the family’s reputation; Quintus, the lazy, underachieving brother who’s jealous of his younger sister, the golden child; and Evelina, the daughter who’s a budding seer. Evelina doesn’t really enjoy having the gift, but she feels pressured into becoming a soothsayer by her family and her society, wanting to honor the family, which eventually leads to her being indoctrinated into a cult. Quintus may be jealous of his sister, but his resentment towards her only goes so far, and in some ways, he’s more concerned about her well-being than her parents.
The most noteworthy family member though is Caecilius the art-loving marble-maker, portrayed by Peter Capaldi, who later gets recast as the Twelfth Doctor. Doctor Who has recast actors who had bit parts into larger roles before (like Freema Agyeman as Martha), but Peter Capaldi is an example that especially stands out because he noticeably gives Cacelius many of the same ticks and mannerisms he would later give Twelve, and there’s something surreal about seeing Peter and David in the same episode. After the Doctor and Donna save the Roman family, at the cost of them losing their home and all their friends, they come to worship them as their new household gods, the enigmatic protectors of their family, and they will always be grateful towards them – something Ten and Donna will never know about. There’s a recurring theme with Ten and Donna in Series 4: every little thing they can do to help, every little bit of kindness they show people in need does make a difference, and that will be their legacy in the end after they’re gone.
Considering the period in which this episode is set, “The Fires Of Pompeii” touches on religious superstitions and how they came to be as a way for primitive humans to try to make sense of the world and explain things they could never possibly understand. Their worship of the gods is mostly harmless, in and of itself, but it’s very easy for that sort of blind faith and blissful ignorance to be taken advantage of by false prophets and passing grifters, especially during an era where religion is law. The villains in this episode provide an excellent example of what happens when religion turns deadly: from Lucius, the city’s chief augur and a rather icy and pompous man, to the Sybilline Sisterhood, an all female cult of prophetic soothsayers (among them, you’ll find another familiar face: Karen Gillan, two years before she landed her big role as Amy Pond. It’s funny to speculate that one of Amy’s ancestors was a cultist).
The Sisters started out as a fairly benign clan (albeit one that actually does possess the gift to see through time, which is steadily revealed to the audience through a deliciously creepy scene where Evelina and Lucius take turns reading the Doctor’s mind and give Donna a warning about ‘something on her back’), but over time, they came to compromise their core values and become murderous radicals out of reverence and dogmatic obedience towards their gods, who were really opportunistic alien visitors in disguise. The Pyrovilles used them to get what they needed, and the seers don’t realize their deception until it’s already too late for them (a grim fate the Doctor and Donna just barely save Evelina from). Like the Adipose in the last episode, the Pyrovilles are malevolent stone creatures who flocked to Earth to use it for their own purposes after losing their home planet, a sign that whatever is causing planets to go missing out there in the universe is a real problem and is going to become the main arc for Series 4.
Like “The Shakespeare Code“, “The Fires Of Pompeii” was easily one of the most expensive episodes to shoot in the RTD era, and it was apparently quite the troubled production. While some second-unit work had been done in New York City for establishing shots in “Daleks In Manhattan“, “The Fires Of Pompeii” was the first episode to be filmed entirely outside of Britain in Cinecitta Studios, located in Rome, Italy. Some challenges the cast and crew faced were having a limited amount of time to film on location, the special effects team and the equipment being delayed on the journey, the sets actually catching on fire before production even started – but it was all worth it in the end, since “The Fires Of Pompeii” is one of the most visually impressive episodes from Ten’s era.
I want to give props to the costume department, for doing a thorough and meticulous job of recreating archaic clothing for the locals like robes, capes, tunics and cloaks; as well as the lighting team, because there are some scenes in this episode that show off some gorgeous lighting, like Ten and Donna’s trek down into the tunnel systems underneath Pompeii. By this point, the Mill has started to step up their game and create more convincingly rendered, complex CGI creations for the series, like the Pyrovilles in their purest form. “The Fires Of Pompeii” is an episode where most of Murray Gold’s original score is unreleased (save for “The Sybilline Sisterhood“), which is quite a shame, since the musical genre of this episode is pretty far removed from his usual style – featuring sharp strings, harsh brash, and wild archaic vocals – and I would easily have traded the forgettable music from “The Unicorn And The Wasp” for more tracks from this episode on the album. For the final few minutes, Murray also introduces another, more somber variation of Ten’s theme, “The Doctor Forever”, which Series 4 will get a lot of mileage out of.
As a surprisingly strong morality tale, and a surprisingly emotional bonding experience for the Tenth Doctor and Donna, “The Fires Of Pompeii” is easily one of the early gems of Series 4, and a good omen of things to come for Ten and Donna’s friendly dynamic throughout the season.
* “Wait a minute. One mountain, with smoke. Which makes this-” “Pompeii! We’re in Pompeii! And it’s volcano day”.
* “What, and you’re in charge?” “TARDIS, Time Lord, yeah” “Donna, human, no! I don’t need your permission. I’ll tell them myself” “You stand in the market place announcing the end of the world, they’ll just think you’re a mad old soothsayer!”
* “The tall one, he calls us mad” “Then he is a stranger to Pompeii. Soon he will learn” Considering you’re all in a cult, worshiping stone people, is he really off base?
* “They don’t know what it is: Vesuvius is just a mountain to them, the top hasn’t blown off yet. The Romans haven’t even got a word for volcano. Not until tomorrow” “Oh, great, they can learn a new word as they die”.
* “And you, daughter of London. There is something on your back” “What does that mean?” “Even the word ‘Doctor’ is false. Your real name is hidden. It burns in the stars, in the Cascade of Medusa herself. You are a Lord, sir. A Lord of Time”.
* “Don’t tell my dad!” “Only if you don’t tell mine”.
* “What do you think? The goddess Venus” “Oho, that is sacrilege!” Haha, I see Donna’s chat with Wilf in the last episode is still on her mind.
* “But it was him, sir. He made me do it. Mr. Dextrus, please don’t-” “Come on now, Quintus, dignity in death!” Well Quintus, you tossed the Doctor under the bus pretty quickly.
* “Oh, lord of the mountain, I beseech you. This man would prevent the rise of Pompeii. Lord, I beg of you, show yourself! Show yourself!” Alright.
* “Blessed are we to see the gods! Aaugh!” Unfortunately, the gods did not feel blessed to see you, random redshirt guy.
* “The false prophet will surrender both her blood and her breath!” “I’ll surrender you in a minute! Don’t you dare!”
* “You will be silent” “Listen, sister, you might have eyes on the back of your hands, but you’ll have eyes in the back of your head by the time I’ve finished with you! Let me go!”
* “No man is allowed to enter the Temple of Sibyl!” “Well, that’s all right. Just us girls”.
* “You all right there?” “Oh, never better” “I like the toga” “Thank you. And the ropes?” “Yeah, not so much”.
* “Tell me your name!” “Pyrovile!” “Pyrovile, pyrovile, pyrovile, pyro-” Ladies, calm down.
* “Some things are fixed, some things are in flux. Pompeii is fixed” “How do you know which is which?” “Because that’s how I see the universe. Every waking second, I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That’s the burden of a Time Lord, Donna. And I’m the only one left”.
* “The heaven of Pyrovillia is gone!” “What do you mean, gone? Where’s it gone?” “It was taken. Pyrovillia is lost! But there is heat enough in this world for a new species to rise” “Yeah, I should warn you, it’s 70% water out there” “Water can boil, and everything will burn, Doctor!”
* Since the topic of religion is touched on a lot in this episode, Ten gets one more messiah moment when he steps outside of the TARDIS, bathed in bright light, to save the Romans.