Reliving history, telling the future and The Fires of Pompeii (2008)

firespompeii

Firstly, a spoiler. NEXT TIME… It’s Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead.

In that story, River says, “You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them, and it’s like they’re not quite finished. They’re not done yet.” Watching The Fires of Pompeii gives us that experience twice, as it features both Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi, pre- their days as TARDIS regulars.

Gillan is costumed and made-up to such an extent that you do have to squint a little to see Amy Pond lurking in a story she shouldn’t be in. But she’s there, although her posh accent and her earnest way of delivering her Soothsayer’s lines give us no hint of the companion she’ll become.

Capaldi’s presence, like Colin Baker’s in Arc of Infinity, is more distracting. There’s the Doctor, you keep thinking whenever he appears, although Capaldi’s a skilled enough actor to know that as a supporting character he’s there to complement, not steal focus from the main players. He gives a perfectly pitched turn as Caecillius, which is now basically ruined forever because he’s since become the Doctor. Admire your skillful performance, sir? I can’t! You’re the Doctor!

So The Fire of Pompeii’s job – to give us a complete fictional world to immerse ourselves in – keeps getting more and more difficult. These quirks of casting tear us away from the story. But it’s ironic that a story about prophesising the future, is doing so itself by showing us the show’s future stars. It should stop now though, or it’ll become completely unwatchable. Still… Phil Davies as the Master? Francesco Pandolfo as a companion? Tracey Childs as the Doctor?

It’s an odd mix, this story. On one hand, it’s relentlessly jokey, in a cheeky, post modernist way. Caecillius and his family have the 21st century family problems of a sitcom cast, all hungover layabout boys, and girls whose skirts outrage their father and so on.The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) wisecrack their way around the streets of Pompeii. Latin’s misheard as Welsh, and so hilariously on.

Showrunner Russell T Davies has a great love of the Asterix comic strip books by Goscinny and Uderzo, which take a jolly, action packed view of Roman occupied Gaul and you can see the influence clearly in Pompeii. Sly shoutouts to popular culture and modern mores are peppered through both. And when a character called Lucius Petrus Dextrus has a stone right arm, we’re not miles away from the likes of Vitalstatistix, Cacophonix and Getafix.

On the other hand, this is a story in which the Doctor and Donna decide to kill 20,000 people.

They do it in order to save the world, but it’s still a grim moment in a script which has been, up until then, busy cracking the funnies. Once they press the button, they run back through the town where terrified people are trying desperately to flee, but with little hope. The jokes have stopped, and instead we have the unsettling feeling of levity and tragedy sitting side by side.

This is reminiscent of the Doctor’s last visit to ancient Rome, back in ’64 (both AD and 1964) in The Romans. Back then, William Hartnell’s Doctor was shown to inadvertently inspire the Great Fire of Rome. “That fire had nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit,” says Tennant’s Doctor here and he’s right. Back then he was also partly responsible for another fiery disaster that destroyed an entire city and killed scores of people. And the whole affair was also a disconcerting mix of light and dark.

This is clearly what happens when the Doctor visits the ancient Roman empire. He should really steer clear of the whole place. If the TARDIS lands in ancient Gaul, Asterix should gulp down some of that magic potion of his and run a mile.

To get to the TARDIS and escape the devastation they’ve caused, the Doctor and Donna have to dash past Caecillius’s family, who are cowering in terror. It’s too much for Donna, who insists that the Doctor save them, if only them, from the volcano’s wrath. As ever, Donna’s humanising effect on the Doctor works, and the Doctor complies, although it means bending the laws of time.

It’s a nice touch, and saves the story from having an utterly depressing ending. It’s an twist on the ending of The Massacre where Hartnell’s Doctor and companion Steven escaped the slaughter of the Hugenots in Paris, but the Doctor didn’t attempt to save their newfound friend Anne Chaplet. There was a happy ending on that occasion too – we discover that Anne survived and sired a family line that eventually produced Dodo – but in that case it was pure chance. Here the Doctor deliberately intervenes, despite his initial instincts, and the story’s the better for it.

It’s also the start of a longer narrative for the Tenth Doctor, about him gradually loosening his commitment to the sanctity of history. It leads eventually to The Waters of Mars where he abandons it completely, and to the eleventh Doctor’s era, where his new mantra becomes ‘time can be rewritten’. This line of development continues into the twelfth Doctor’s tenure, and oddly enough, is also relevant to the dual casting of Peter Capaldi.

2015’s The Girl Who Died tackles the problem of Capaldi’s appearance in The Fires of Pompeii. In that adventure, the Doctor declares that he subconsciously chose Caecillius’ face for himself as a reminder. It’s a reminder that he saves people’s lives no matter what the rules say. With an angry cry, he turns on his heel and heads off to bring Ashildr back from the dead.

It’s all coincidental I assume, but there’s something neat about the fact that Capaldi’s performance in Pompeii is not just a continuity bump to smooth over, but a signal of an eventual shift in the Doctor’s character. He becomes a rule breaker, a master of time, not its servant and Capaldi’s face is the permanent expression of it. It’s one of those fortuitous instances when Doctor Who inadvertently forecasts its future and creates something new in the process.

Which leads us nicely to our next post on Silence in the Library. But as the saying goes, ‘spoilers’.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: lots of problems with tricky words like “sestertii”, “Appian Way”, “Allons y”, but also “underground” and unusually, “TARDIS”.

LINK TO Mawdryn Undead: truculent teenagers in both.

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