Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The Fires of Vulcan written by Steve Lyons and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? Two thousand years ago, a volcanic eruption wiped the Roman city of Pompeii from the face of the Earth. It also buried the Doctor's TARDIS... Arriving in Pompeii one day before the disaster, the Doctor and Mel find themselves separated from their ship and entangled in local politics. As time runs out, they fight to escape from the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. But how can they succeed when history itself is working against them?

The Real McCoy: Wow. Wow. Wow. Astonishing that this story should feature the season 24 team of the seventh Doctor and Mel and it is all the more impressive for it. With four episodes Steve Lyons has shown us a very different dynamic we could have seen between them and opened up a world of potential stories. Mel states that she has never seen the Doctor this contemplative before so this must be the start of him shaking off his clown ball persona and emerging into much darker territory. Sylvester McCoy is at his finest throughout, this the story you should make me listen to when I start ranting on that he is a poor actor, he seems to have bought into the script completely and he underplays the whole thing which really sells his melancholic Doctor. The Doctor is aware of the consequences of this story before they have even gotten involved and broodily wants to leave and cheat fate. He is a stranger to Pompeii; I wonder what he would think if he knew he was walking around in three incarnations hence about to cause the eruption of Mount Vesuvius! He is an excellent gambler and can tell when Murranus is cheating, offering Mel up as a wager when he has no currency to play with. After the first eruption he is appalled to find the TARDIS buried under rubble and declares, ‘This can’t be how it ends!’ He is elusive of Mel’s questions but eventually admits he is scared of knowing his on future and wonders if he retired to Earth and leaves the TARDIS trapped under the ash. The TARDIS hates farewells as much as he does. He thinks Mel is far more precious than money. Looking at the story objectively his knowledge of time travel works against him here, he gives up because he thinks he knows the future, he knows how time works. His name is graffiti on the walls of Pompeii as the man who bested Murranus and is tricked (drugged by Valeria) into the amphitheatre to fight him. This sort of action would be brilliant for an energetic performer like McCoy. Think of the little Time Lord standing up to the psychotic gladiator, declaring he will have to kill him cold blood as death rains around Pompeii. Has he ever seemed more apocalyptic and powerful?

Generous Ginge: Whatever plaudits go out for McCoy should be quadrupled for Bonnie Langford. Kudos to her for approaching Big Finish herself to appear in their audio dramas and what a difference it made to her reputation within fandom circles. Suddenly Mel is being written and performed as an adult, maintaining her positive attitude to life but sensible enough to turn down her enthusiasm when the situation is serious enough. She is culturally unaware of Roman traditions (although she understands a little Latin) and gets several shocks when confronted with slavery, sacrifices and prostitution. She has no money on her (why does he never think to give his companions cash?) and mistaken as a messenger from Isis and is also declared to be a shameless woman who doesn’t even have the decency to cover her head! The Doctor’s chambermaid? She likes nothing more than a bit of shopping to help her relax. She was beginning to think the Doctor didn’t need her anymore and is horrified when asked if she is the Doctor’s whore! Mel knows who UNIT are. Mel’s pragmatism really works in her favour here and sees her refuse to give up even after the Doctor has – what if UNIT were wrong, what if the TARDIS comes to Pompeii again (she is actually right on both counts!) – she will fight time until she knows all of the options have been exhausted. I love how she stands up to Eumachia when everybody else cowers away (‘You should no you don’t scare me like you do that girl.’) and she enjoys a relaxed friendship with Aglae that becomes very protective after the volcano erupts. She is a vegetarian (from Vegetaria!) and is as honest as they come which helps her out after she is accused of thieving and locked up. She tells the truth of Pompeii’s destruction to her suitor, Popidius Celsinus and convinces him to release Aglae from prison and escape the city. Given the cartoonish nature of season 24 it is so shocking to hear Bonnie Langford being given dramatic material of this nature and I’m sure I am not the only person (stand up Steve Lyons) who thought she would fall to pieces. Instead Bonnie rises to the occasion and gives one of the best companion performances we have ever seen, totally convincing and squeezing ever nuance and drop of drama from the script. Shame on me. More of Mel please.

Great Ideas: Capitalising on the drama of Pompeii’s destruction. So good Doctor Who did it twice. Whilst I will always adore Fires of Pompeii as a superb example of how blockbusting and dramatic the new series can be The Fires of Vulcan is clearly the better exploration of history and the ramifications of the eruption. Lyons has more time to set the scene, explore the culture and build up his characters before wiping them out. This is an extremely well researched piece with lots of little detail that you will take away from the story (the Gods, traditions, religion and social culture of Pompeii are all investigated here). It is a nice slant on the traditional historical adventure (very Steve Lyons) in that the Doctor and Mel believe they will be trapped in history no matter what they try to achieve. Knowing they won’t escape brings very different reactions in them – he gives up and she refuses. The Doctor is given a glimpse of the future and his potential death and he is haunted at the very idea that his travels will be coming to an end. Mel argues that it cannot be part of history if it hasn’t happened yet but the Doctor argues that time cannot abide a paradox.

Standout Performance: As much as I want to (finally!) shower praise on Sylvester McCoy (and wonder why he cannot always be this good) the award goes to Bonnie Langford for her dramatic and unforgettable turn as the much underrated Melanie Bush. The thing about Mel that I have always enjoyed is her jolliness in her adventures, after the pessimism of Tegan, the deviousness of Turlough and the whining of Peri it is so nice to have a companion who seems to enjoy travelling with the Doctor even if she expresses that enjoyment in operative terms! The Fires of Vulcan explores a much darker side of Mel, trapped in prison with the foreknowledge that the city will be destroyed within a couple of hours. Bonnie Langford underplays every scene and sells the drama of the situation with ease. Go and listen to her quiet shock at the end of episode three where the seagulls have left the sky, it’s haunting.

Sparkling Dialogue: Lyons gives his performers lots of juicy material to work with…
‘This is your history and no good can come of our meddling with it.’
‘It doesn’t seem fair.’ ‘Time never is, Mel.’
‘I’ve seen the future Mel. I know what will happen, what must happen. In the year 1980 the TARDIS will be discovered dug up out of the ash that will rain upon this city tomorrow. We can’t escape it Mel, no matter what we do. Time already knows. We’ve already lost. We won’t that TARDIS again, nobody will see it, not for almost 2000 years!’
‘The mighty Murranus was outfoxed by…a mightier dwarf!’
‘The truth! You don’t want to know the truth I promise you! You can’t lock me up…you can’t! Don’t you realise you’ll kill me! This time tomorrow we’re all going to be dead! Do you hear me? We’ve got to get out of Pompeii before it’s too late! Doctor!’
‘You think you’ll reclaim your honour this way but your honour will be worth nothing when you’re reduced to ashes!’ ‘Then die Doctor with a coward’s plea on your lips!’
‘How can I accept that Pompeii has seen its final dawn?’
‘The virtual river of boiling hot rock pouring down the mountain at the speed of 100 miles per hour. It will engulf the city killing everybody it touches. We can’t out run it, Valeria, we can’t hide from it. Thousands will die in Pompeii alone.’
‘It is a moment of history preserved like no other.’


Audio Landscape: Lets be honest when Big Finish get it right they get it really right and The Fires of Vulcan has a strong script and incredible performances doing half its work already but couple these elements with some astonishingly visual direction from Gary Russell and a powerhouse musical score from Alistair Lock and you have a Doctor Who story that holds up with the greats. A really strong atmosphere is brewed with some great sounds; seagulls, crickets, puddles, carts rolling, animals screaming in market scenes and crowded bar scenes. The grumbles from the mountain are given real gravitas, people panicking, buildings shaking and animals terrified. I loved the scenes in the baths with children splashing about. The goat to the slaughter sequence is uncomfortable as it screams for release and is eventually silenced. There is an almighty thunder clap at the beginning of episode 3 like a portent of doom which leads to impressive rain scenes, it runs down the buildings and strikes the earth with force. The amphitheatre is brought to life with real gusto, the seagulls swooping in and out of the action.

Musical Cues: The best score yet, Alistair Lock’s command of instruments gives the impression this historical adventure had an entire orchestra backing the action. A sense of mystery follows the Doctor and Mel as they leave the TARDIS which leads into a bombastic piece which opens the story out into the street of plenty. There is a glorious ‘Ice Warriors’ style female vocal that plays over the ‘messenger of the Gods’ sequences. The Doctor and Murranus’ conflict is dramatised by a fierce drumbeat and the pace of music steps up a notch as Valeria steps into their conflict and almost gets killed. In episode four a fantastic piece accompanies McCoy’s wonderful speech that brings home the awesome power of nature and time.

Standout Moment: The cliffhangers to episode 2 and 3 are both spectacular. The end of episode 2 is one of my favourite Doctor Who moments ever, Mel accused of being a thief and terrified of the being locked up during the upcoming disaster. The music is wonderful and Bonnie really sells the material. Episode 3 climaxes in alternating serene and violent moments. The water stops flowing and gulls leave the air…the eruption is coming and at the same time the Doctor is being charged at by Murranus…great drama.

Result: A Scotsman and a redhead visit Pompeii and argue over the morality of their foreknowledge of the future, sound familiar? This is something very special indeed. So many areas of this story could have been fudged (McCoy could have phoned in his performance, Bonnie Langford could have over enthused, the script could have been too maudlin, the atmosphere too grim) but every aspect of this production is spot on from the cast to the director and the musical score. I have always loved Historicals and Steve Lyons produces a powerhouse of drama here, a cast of memorable characters and a emotion drive that runs through the story and makes pressing stop to go to sleep (grrr) very hard indeed! It’s clever, involving and dramatic and it never cheats the audience of the spectacle of Pompeii whilst telling quite an intimate story within it. Possibly the best performance Sylvester McCoy has ever given as the Doctor, it is a triumph for the seventh Doctor and a real highlight amongst the fluff of season 24: 10/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @ http://hisi79.deviantart.com/


John Voorhees said...

Just so you know, I'm working my way through the audios for the first time and very much enjoying your comments after listening to each. Keep up the good work!

kurumais said...

this was my very first mel adventure ever. i never saw any of her tv appearances. i thought she was excellent. i really enjoyed her performance. she has a very nice voice. she was smart, and self assured. nothing like negative buzz i had heard about her.
i look forward to hearing more of her audios

Ed Azad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Azad said...

Whatever Sly was drinking in the sound booth that day, he should order a case of it.

I'm late to the party for this Mel 'renaissance'. I never minded Bonnie, though. If her performance was panto, then that's what she was called on to do.