Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Fires of Pompeii: "Oh, you're Celtic. That's lovely."

The Fires of Pompeii (TV story) - Tardis Data Core, the Doctor Who Wiki




Season 4, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #190) | Previous - Next | Index

For me, this story is basically an excuse to see Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who. Mr. Capaldi is one of those actors I'll watch in anything; he's just brilliant. Whether he's tearing a swath through the political world as the vicious Malcom Tucker from In The Thick Of It or trying to cop a kisu off Marina as Danny Oldsen in Local Hero, he nails it. He's a bit alien, and yet passionate in a way that makes him perfectly identifiable.

"The what-ano?"

Not for nothing, if it were up to me to cast the next Doctor, Mr. Capaldi would be at the top of my wishlist.

Catherine Tate, on the other hand, is not a favorite of mine, at least she wasn't until she played Donna Noble. She's wonderful with David Tennant, in this -- and everything else I've seen them do together. Their chemistry works in a way -- and I still blame the writers not this, not the actress -- 10 and Martha's never really did. Donna's "Oi, Space Man ..." is a breath of fresh air after too much, well, romantic longing. OK, so she does say, "I bloody love you!" But we know she's just impressed he held off a stony alien-possessed monstrosity with a water pistol. Her delivery of "Never mind us" when it looks like Donna will need to sacrifice herself along with the Doctor is absolutely winning. And the way she's gutted when she realizes she can't save them all. She's really very good.

"Oh no! We're not ..."
Re-watching this leading up to 50th Anniversary, which we learned this week will be called "The Name of The Doctor," added some timeliness. This is one of the episodes where we get an intimation that the Doctor's true name is deeply significant. "Even the word, 'Doctor,' is false. Your real name is hidden. It burns in the stars -- in the Cascade of Medusa herself."

After the last two weeks, it's fun to revisit the explanation of the TARDIS translation matrix. It's a well-written episode with snappy dialogue and genuine wit built around that bit of explanation. A bit of a contrast actually, from how it's been handled in season 7.

The key to this episode though is the conflict between the Doctor and Donna about the fate of Pompeii.  Donna's desire to save as many as possible is in conflict with the Doctor's understanding -- the burden of the Time Lord, he calls it -- of Pompeii as a fixed point. ("Someone must make a choice. A terrible choice.") That conflict adds depth to the story of the vapor huffing oracles and their puppet master, which was interesting enough on its own in the context of the historical events. This weaving of humanist themes and sci-fi adventure, with snappy dialogue and strong supporting cast around the dynamic charm of Ten, this when the series fires on all cylinders. Again, we see how how superstition makes people dupes, more of one of my favorite themes of the series. We also see the Doctor and Donna revered as household gods, but knowing how they came to be so, and seeing the smile on young Quintus's face as he pays his respects, on his way out the door to study to be a doctor himself, it doesn't offend the sensibilities.

Look, I'm not saying it's perfect. The water pistol isn't really very convincing. The Doctor and Donna should have been roasted to ash. They weren't. Sorry if that's a spoiler. And the bright light from within the TARDIS when the Doctor decides he can save someone and goes back for Caecilius's family, it's all a bit much. Minor quibbles though.


It all comes together at the end. If overwrought in the rescue, it's note-perfect in the aftermath.

And I'd completely forgotten this episode contained a sneak peek of an almost-unrecognizable-beneath-all-that-makeup-and-robery future companion:



Karen Gillan, pre-Amy Pond.





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