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April 15, 2008

Mea Culpa

Hmmmm... humble pie. Yummy.

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

Pompeii1 When I embarked on my Catherine Tate rant last week I had a sneaking suspicion that my words would come back to bite me on the arse eventually. What I didn't bank on was them rebounding on me quite so soon, or with such velocity. Bloody hell, she was great this week, wasn't she? The fact that her performance left me choking back my tears proves without doubt that I was not only wrong but very shortsighted as well. Tate displayed a humanity and warmth that genuinely moved me ad if she can engage me like this every week then I can easily forgive the odd comedy gurn. She was magnificent.

So I take it all back. Mea Culpa, as they say in Cardiff.

Tennant's still shit, though.

I'm kidding. David had his moments this week, I just wish he'd stop starting his sentences with a sharp intake of breath. It's driving me nuts. And what the hell was going on when the TARDIS went back for the Caecilius family at the end? Does the TARDIS have a Messianic Imagery Backdrop circuit in addition to a Hostile Action Displacement System? Or was Donna taking her mind off things by installing some sun beds in the console room? And who does the Doctor think he is, anyway? Kosh Naranek? David Copperfield? Matthew f***king Kelly?!

Quod Erat Demonstrandum, boyo

Pompeii3 We're so used to gratuitous fanwank these days ("Macra!") that I felt slightly underwhelmed when the villains of the piece turned out to be generic rock monsters who just stomped about and croaked "Dok-tor!" a bit. It was nicely old-skool in flavour, but the invasion subplot never really gelled for me. Psychic whatsits? Energy converters powered by shower tiles? Eh? But the Pyroviles were never the real threat (especially when you can take them down with a water pistol). No, the real threat was always going to be history itself. Or at least that's what I was expecting.

I was looking forward to watching a morality play with the Doctor claiming to be powerless to intervene in the deaths of thousands of people and, to a certain extent, we got this. What I didn't expect was that the Doctor would be responsible for actively causing said deaths twenty minutes later! If you thought the Doctor starting the Great Fire of London was morally ambiguous, then detonating Vesuvius really takes the biscuit. Admittedly, it's not in the same league as accidentally contributing to the extinction of dinosaurs but I'm still not sure if I like my Doctor being so proactive in established history. Especially when fire is on the menu (cf. 100,000 BC, The Romans, The Visitation).

For starters, the ethical dilemma that should exist at the heart of the story is rendered completely meaningless. The Doctor either condemns Pompeii to its fate or the entire planet is invaded by third-division aliens and millions will die. It all comes down to the maths: Pompeii has to be sacrificed to save the world. Quod Erat Demonstrandum, boyo. Even Donna accepts this and pulls the trigger with him. What would have been far more interesting, to me at least, is if the Doctor let Pompeii fall for no greater cause than causality. The argument should have been "If anyone survives they could change established history" not "scary rock monsters will invade the planet!". Sure, it's a far more difficult and nebulous argument to engage in but the alien's presence in the story just gives the Doctor a heroic - and justifiable - reason for letting the disaster play out. I was hoping for a pure historical where the drama would have centered on Donna organising an evacuation while posing as a God, with the Doctor directly opposing her. Hey, it worked for Hartnell.

Does the TARDIS have a Messianic Imagery Backdrop circuit in addition to the Hostile Action Displacement System?

Pompeii2At first, I was slightly annoyed by the rather twee epilogue (he's a God! we get it!) but in retrospect it does suggest that the Doctor's actions may have a (disastrous?) impact on established history as we know it. The Caecilus family certainly look like movers and shakers in Rome and if Quintus becomes a Doctor then who's to say that he won't save the lives of people who will consequently go on to corrupt earth's timeline. Even Mr Copper's warning at the end of Voyage of the Damned about monsters deciding who lives and who dies suggests that this conclusion isn't quite as pat as it first appears.

And after years of playing the spot-the-meme game we suddenly get a story arc worth discussing. What's happening to all these missing planets? What does "you have something on your back" mean? I can't help but conjure up images from Planet of the Spiders, and we all remember what happened there...

The Fires of Pompeii is a welcome return to form for Doctor Who. And it's about time. And while I've got issues with the direction the episode takes towards the end, there's no denying that it looks bloody fantastic. The guest stars give it their all (Capaldi and Davies could have carried the whole thing without resorting to yet another monster mash) and the decision to take the production to Italy pays dividends. It's a gorgeous, exciting, emotional and entertaining 45 minutes. Accipe Hoc!


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