Tuesday, 5 January 2016
The Fires of Pompeii written by James Moran and directed by Colin Teague
This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Donna arrive in Pompeii and its Volcano Day…
Mockney Dude: Some stunning work done with the Doctor in this story. Series four was where the tenth Doctor’s characterisation was refined to a seriously awesome level, with the silliness of series two balancing the seriousness of series three and adding Donna to the mix. Between them Tennant and Davies have refined the character into something that had serious mass appeal and brought a new wave of viewers to the screen that have been long since lost. She is perfectly right, the Doctor has been surrounding himself with younger companions that he feels he can talk to how he likes but now he has met his match. I really love the ‘we’re not married’ which runs through the series because given their sniping at each other it is exactly the impression that they give. The Doctor still cannot resist a mystery and whilst shooing Donna away back to the TARDIS he catches sight of the printed circuit on marble and that decides that they are staying. ‘You fought them off with a water pistol! I bloody love you!’ cries Donna and she’s right, he walks that fine line between stupid and clever where genius lies. The Doctor can see what is, what was, what could be and what must not – we get a glimpse of life as a Time Lord and how he sees the universe. It's a unique opportunity to understand the weight of responsibility that rests on his shoulders, usually hidden underneath layers of frivolity. Pompeii or the world, what an impossible situation. We get to see how scarred the Doctor was by the Time War by paralleling his decision made then and now. Four years on and the decision to rid the series of Gallifrey was still generating great drama. He runs away from the consequences of his actions because he’s too scared to look back at what he has done and how he might see himself. The Doctor as a spectre of mercy returning to save the family is an enduring image. The last scene between the Doctor and Donna where he admits that he does need somebody and she quietly agrees is priceless, it has been a long time since we have had a Doctor and companion who work this well together, and perhaps we never have. It’s mesmerising.
Delicious Donna: Along with Turn Left, this is Catherine Tate’s most extraordinary performance in series four. I remember watching this episode when it first aired and being blown away by the strength of her performance and how it was two wonderful fingers in the face of all of her critics. Donna walks from the TARDIS and shows Tegan exactly how you can be suspicious and joyful at the same time. The major difference between the two characters (both of whom are very bolshie and loud mouthed) is that Donna manages to be enthusiastic and drag you into her wonderment whilst Tegan used to mope from the ship as though she was being dragged to the dentist by her father. Donna enjoys asking awkward questions and forces the Doctor to recognises his amorality in the face of the impending disaster. She refuses to accept that he is in charge and tells him she doesn’t need his permission to help people (how long have I been waiting for somebody to say that in the new series?). When Donna laughs with and comforts Evelina she feels real, some real effort has gone into pushing Donna away from the caricature she was in her first story and turning her into somebody that you might meet in real. No impossible girls here, just flesh and blood and emotion. Her feelings override her reason and Donna chooses to make her own prophecy about the upcoming eruption. Donna Noble is the only person who would mouth off in the face of a giant bloody knife and face certain death as though the situation is such a chore. When the chips are down Donna is willing to selflessly give up her own life to save the world. When she takes the Doctor’s hands and helps him to make one of the toughest decisions he has ever had to make, to refuse to allow him to take the weight of that that decision alone that was when I fell in love with Donna Noble in a massive way. You really feel for her as she learns the hard way at how cruel history can be as she tries to save lives in the ash filled streets and stands there in tears as the world goes to hell. Donna screaming after the Doctor as he leaves, walking past the family they have gotten to know and willing to let them die gives me goosebumps every time I watch it. She begs him to save somebody and genuinely believes that had he refused she would have left him.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Doctor, she is returning. And you, daughter of London – there is something on your back!’
‘It's me. I make it happen.’
‘The sky is falling!’
The Good Stuff: The street scenes are as filmic as Doctor Who has ever been, beautifully shot in glorious sunshine with elaborate pillars and arches and full of richly dressed extras. One day the series had to tackle volcano day, I’m just pleased they waited until they had the resources to do it justice. It’s really peculiar to think that is Karen Gillan as one of the Sisterhood (and doesn’t she look like Ohica from The Brain of Morbius, mad staring eyes and all!) and wouldn’t it be awesome if they worked this into a later story? The fact that the future Doctor is here too let us just consider this an audition piece for the casting director. The TARDIS vanishing as they realise the danger of their situation is very Hartnell historical. Peter Capaldi is a huge acting coup and whilst some say he is wasted in a likeable role I couldn’t disagree more because it was more vital than ever to make this ordinary man as gorgeous as possible to drive home the pain of the threat. It is far harder to make a nice character interesting and he succeeds in spades. The POV of the Pyrovile looking up through the grille at Evelina is just one example of the thoughtful direction on display here. Lucius is a formidable villain played with real gravity by Phil Davis. He might not be given the most substantial of roles but the way he spits his dialogue out I promise you will never forget him. The scene where Evelina and Lucius try and out soothsay each other is extremely powerful, beautifully performed and scored and with lots of dark hints of things to come. The lighting is extraordinary throughout from the warm glow of the hypocaust, the moonlight streaming through Lucius’ house and the bleached red furnace of the volcano. Give that lighting director a raise. Thanks to the lighting the studio scenes more than match the visual splendour of the scenes in Cinecetta. I always flinch when the Doctor snaps off Lucius’ arm. The Pyroviles are excellently realised, proper filmic monsters for this movie-look episode. A grey blank stone face with a fat pink tongue rolling inside – that High Priestess is horrible to look at. She turns my stomach every time she appears. The scale of this episode is immense, the image of the Pyroviles stomping around inside the volcano, giant behemoths with sparks flying from their every footstep, is fantastic. Another astonishing set piece and the highlight of the episode visually is the volcano exploding and the ash reaching out to steal the sun. Donna condemning the Doctor is powerful drama the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Massacre. She slaps down his objections after his brutal abandonment of the family they have gotten close to. The Doctor and Donna as the household Gods is a lovely finishing touch, more people to remember her after Donna loses these memories.
The Shallow Bit: Quintus is an exotic beauty.
Result: A top ten favourite of mine and the sort of episode the latest series still has to live up to. There isn’t one part of this episode that isn’t firing on all cylinders from the excellent performances, the quality direction, astonishing effects and an excellently crafted script that pushes the Doctor and Donna into some very difficult decision and forcing them to confront each other’s morality and the climax which delivers one dramatic punch to the gut after another. It's one priceless scene after another cumulating in one of the most devastating climaxes to any Doctor Who story, a blistering dramatic final ten minutes that will leave you gasping for air. This is the episode where Catherine Tate proved her dramatic potential and her chemistry with David Tennant is positively sizzling. I love historicals and have been a little disappointed at the entertaining spin the new series keeps giving its forays back in time. This more than makes up for it as the laughs evaporate into a dilemma that means something to our regulars and the lives that they will affect. Astonishingly good, I never get tired of watching this exquisitely realised slice of drama: 10/10