Doctor Who complete reviews: The Fires of Pompeii
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
High production values fail to light John's fire in this excessively 'modern' take on ancient history...
Considering the title, The Fires Of Pompeii is curiously something of a damp squib. The story revolves around a big moral dilemma which plagues The Doctor throughout. And just like that big dilemma, The Fires Of Pompeii seems to be stuck in its own indecisive rut throughout.
It just cannot make up its mind on what it wants to be. Big ethical epic? Spooky story of sisterhood shenanigans? Flamey monster tale? Well, Fires touches on all three bases, but somehow only dips its arm in the water instead of diving right in. It's also interesting in that it starts to break the mould of a by now familiar season pattern. Normally, the first historical of the season acquaints The Doctor with a famous face from the past. In this season, we'll later get Agatha Christie in The Unicorn And The Wasp. But for now, The Fires Of Pompeii takes The Doctor and Donna to Ancient Rome, where there's no famous faces to be seen.
Well, unless you count the long lost ancestor of Del from Only Fools And Horses. Yes, apparently, thanks to the TARDIS translation in Donna's head, a lone stall-holder says “Lovely jubbly!” - no, really. Actually, this is Dead Ringers' Phil Cornwell in a very challenging role – basically it's Phil Cornwell playing Phil Cornwell. No matter what the impersonation, Cornwell just sounds exactly like himself – try watching the next rerun of Dead Ringers and wince at his weird Greg Dyke/Michael Caine gargling. Give him an easy target like Jimmy Savile and he'll still sound nothing like the walking gold mine.
That's by the by – but this does raise the first of the problems in that the production team are so busy trying to make Ancient Rome relate to the youth of today that somehow the period setting never really comes across. Take Caecilius' family. It's basically your average soap opera family a la Hollyoaks but in Roman togas. Evelina's shocking her dad by going out in short togas. Quintus is suffering from a hangover and relishing the thought of Vestal Virgins (“How's your head, sunshine?” How's your head?”). It doesn't feel like we've gone back in time to Ancient Rome – instead it's a very self-conscious attempt at mixing history with current times and trends, and so the period setting falls flat on its face because the story's too busy winking at the audience and saying “Aren't we hip, kids?” Which it isn't. It's like stumbling across a Mouloudji album which has the words “Gear” and “Fab” cropping up regularly in the lyrics. And so the setting of Pompeii just feels unremarkable and flat, which means that it's ultimately hard to give a damn about the population, because they're written as generic, lazy, modern-day cut-outs.
So what of the possible threats? Well, we have two types of danger. The first and the more ordinary one is that of the traditional Who-style threat, in this case the Pyroviles and the Sisterhood Of Karn, sorry, the Sibylline Sisterhood. Both are using the nearby volcano to turn humans into living stone Pyroviles, not exactly a satisfactory style of existence. Both threats just seem a bit old hat though. The roaring, lumbering Pyrovile monster just seems a bit like something out of Scooby Doo. Its lone victim doesn't seem too bothered by the great big lump. Presumably, we're supposed to think that he's rooted to the spot with absolute, toga-wetting terror, but in fact, he looks decidedly unimpressed by the advancing monster before reacting with zero emotion when he's reduced to ashes by the Pyrovile's flamey breath.
The Sisterhood aren't much better – they've clearly been to the Alice Cooper School of Make-Up and the Rani School of Ham for a crash course in being a bit rubbish. Ooh look, there's Karen Gillan buried under several layers of make-up pulling the exact same gawp-eyed fish expression that she'll make billions of times as Amy Pond. Elsewhere we have Sasha Behar (Maya from Coronation Street) hamming it up as Spurrina and an unrecognisable Victoria Wicks (better known as Sally Smedley from Drop The Dead Donkey) as the too far gone High Priestess. Although the appearance of the High Priestess is suitably macabre, there's something just a bit uninspired about the Sisterhood. Chanting sisters are an old staple from those old horror movies from the dawn of time, and of course Doctor Who did it with greater success in The Brain Of Morbius. This time around there's too much hand waving and panting and hoary old clichés along the lines of “The false prophet must die! Sacrifice her!”
"It's a miracle that Steven Moffat didn't throw his telly out of the window when watching this one"
And following The Doctor and Donna around like a bad smell is good old Lucius Petrus Dextrus, a man whose face has frozen into permanent sneer mode. Lucius already sets out his creepy bad guy stall by playing the old Augur Card when first confronting The Doctor and Donna. He even gets into a mind-reading contest with Evelina, both trying to outdo the other in how much they know about the two mysterious visitors. The Doctor and Donna are clearly taken aback when Evelina knows their names, but Lucius hits back with their Gallifrey and that charming old London town, before turning into a one-man spoiler machine by claiming that “She is returning” and delivering an ominous warning about how there is something on Donna's back. Blimey, it's a miracle that Steven Moffat didn't throw his telly out of the window when watching this one.
Despite this, Lucius never really seems to do much either apart from follow The Doctor and Donna around like a bad smell. He's like their Shadow – everywhere they go, there he is, screeching out some banal warning at the top of his lungs. In the end, he's inevitably fried alive – I guess he's meant to be the creepy bad guy, but somehow this never really comes through enough. Admittedly, the ever-reliable Phil Davis gives his all as Lucius, but the problem is, he's working with material that's flimsier than the togas. It's a lot of heard-it-all-before rants and not much more than that.
But then maybe that was the point – to show up the main threat of Volcano Day as something far more dangerous than a load of chanting harridans and a stone-faced soothsayer. The Doctor's faced many an ethical dilemma before, most notably in Genesis Of The Daleks when he was forced to decide between carrying out his mission to destroy the tinpot meanies on behalf of the Time Lords or just wimping out. The Fires Of Pompeii revolves around this ethical dilemma of whether The Doctor should allow history to run its course or whether he should do the right thing and save the population from a painful death. “Pompeii is a fixed point in history,” frowns The Doctor, right from the start. “What happens happens.”
"If ever there was a story that proves that RTD's casting of Catherine Tate was the right choice, then this is a good example"
This is where the character of Donna really makes her mark, and if ever there was a story that proves that RTD's casting of Catherine Tate was the right choice, then this is a good example. Donna acts as the conscience, the human voice of reason who cuts through the Time Lord's ice-cold logic like a sword. She is constantly standing up to him and questioning his beliefs, and asserting herself in a way that maybe Rose and Martha wouldn't have. “Listen, I don't know what sort of kids you've been flying around with in outer space, but you're not telling me to shut up!” she hisses angrily at an unrepentant Doctor. It may be a far cry from the shouty nonsense of The Runaway Bride , but already, we see how much of an asset Donna will be on board the TARDIS. She also successfully persuades The Doctor to rescue Caecilius' family at the end (“Just save someone”), in a scene that threatens to hark back to The Doctor's murder of the Racnoss children. He acknowledges that he really does need Donna as a travelling companion at the end to keep him on the straight and narrow – at which point Donna really earns her place in the TARDIS. Far quicker than Martha, interestingly enough.
The banter between the two is probably the most effective aspect of The Fires Of Pompeii, and both Catherine Tate and David Tennant give superb performances. Tate already proves that she's no slouch when it comes to drama, and she convinces wholeheartedly in her fruitless attempts to rescue any one of the screaming masses or when she's tearfully attempting to persuade The Doctor to go back and save someone. The hyperactive Tenth Doctor is thankfully in the past, as Tennant gives a performance that combines his usual chirpy nature with a notable undercurrent of steel. It's jarring to see The Doctor grit his teeth and ignore people's cries of help, and the weight of the world is evidently starting to bear heavily on his shoulders. Thankfully, he saves the life of Caecilius' family, although regrettably, we're back to The Doctor Jesus school of subtlety. The Doctor extends a hand from a brightly lit TARDIS (blimey, that electricity bill's going to smart – he's presumably been thinking about Warriors Of The Deep lately) before Murray's Pompous Choir start on with their usual tuneless rubbish as the small group survey the devastation from a safe distance. It's not subtle, it's annoying, and it undermines the good work that Tennant's done in creating a credible, three-dimensional character.
It's just a shame that the sci-fi aspects intrude on the plot, since they're superfluous. It's very much a case of too many cooks spoiling the fiery broth – the main dilemma of whether to let Volcano Day take its course or whether to let the world suffer at the Pyroviles' tender mercies suffers as a result. And incidentally, the end result of that choice just feels a bit too easy. From the moment we hear that the Pyroviles are a big threat to the globe, it's blatantly obvious that The Doctor will get his wish of history running its course. It's odd – just this once, it feels like the rather hokey sci-fi aliens aren't needed.
So script-wise, it's very much half and half, which may account for why it doesn't really gel as well as it should. On the production side, luckily, everyone gives 100%. The story benefits from an overseas location shoot at the Cinecitta studios in Rome (where HBO's Rome had been recently filmed). There's a very stylish, authentic look about the production, from the costumes through to the background scenery through to the lush interior designs. Colin Teague returns to the show and delivers some lovely direction that's a far cry from his Spooks-esque direction on the previous season finale. He's also managed to assemble a strong cast who generally overcome the limitations of their less-than-inspiring dialogue. Peter Capaldi is as excellent as ever in the part of Caecilius, and he's ably supported by Tracey Childs as the long-suffering Metella and also Francesca Fowler as Evelina. Phil Davis, as mentioned, also makes the most of his role as Lucius, although it's a shame that he couldn't have got a more meaty villainous part, since he's perfect material for the nasty bad guy roles.
All in all, a tale that suffers from a script that's anything but hot stuff. There's some reasonable one-liners and some great Doctor moments such as the water pistol scene, but the story's bogged down by clichéd aliens and a less than convincing interpretation of Rome. Yes, the direction allows it to look good, but when you've got characters sounding like any bland modern-day soap pod people, this won't really make any difference to the end result. Luckily the direction, the production and the acting (especially from Tate and Tennant) compensate for any inherent weaknesses in the script, but overall, The Fires Of Pompeii is something of a missed opportunity. Tepid rather than hot.
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