Wed, 16 April 2008
The Fires of Pompeii" is the second episode of the fourth series of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who. It was broadcast on BBC One on 12 April 2008.
The episode takes place during the 79AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In the episode, the Doctor is faced with a moral dilemma: whether to recuse from the situation or to save the population of Pompeii. The Doctor's activities in Pompeii are impeded by the rock-like Pyrovile, and their allies, the Sybilline Sisterhood, who are using the volcano to convert the humans to Pyroviles.
The episode was filmed in Rome's Cinecittà studios, and was the first time the Doctor Who production team took cast abroad for filming since its revival. The production of the episode was impeded by a fire near the sets several weeks before filming and problems crossing into Europe.
Critics' opinion regarding the episode were mixed. The premise of the episode—the moral dilemma the Doctor faces—and Donna's insistence that he save the population of Pompeii were universally praised. However, the episode's writing was criticised, in particular, the characterisation of the supporting cast: the dialogue was described as "one-dimensional" and Peter Capaldi's and Phil Davis's dialogue as "whimpering and scowling".
The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) arrive in what the Doctor believes to be first century Rome. After an earthquake, he realises he has materialised in Pompeii on 23 August 79, one day before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When he returns to the TARDIS' location, he is told it was sold to a Lucius Caecilius Iucundus (Peter Capaldi), a marble sculptor.
The episode's antagonists are the Pyrovile, giant rock-like creatures resembling golems whose home planet was destroyed. They operate secretly; the Sybilline Sisterhood act as their proxies. They use the Sisterhood, which is comprised of a high priestess (Victoria Wicks), Spurrina (Sasha Behar), and Thalina (Lorraine Burroughs) to make prophecies while converting them to stone. The Sisterhood is inducting Caecilius' daughter Evelina (Francesca Fowler) and is allied to the local augur Lucius (Phil Davis). The Doctor is disturbed by their knowledge of his and Donna's personal lives, and by Lucius' latest commission, a marble circuit board.
The Doctor breaks into Lucius' home and discovers that he is creating an energy converter. He is accosted by Lucius, who sends a Pyrovile to kill the Doctor. The confusion allows the Sisterhood to kidnap Donna briefly; the Doctor follows them and frees Donna. They escape into the Sisterhood's hypocaust system and travel into the centre of Mount Vesuvius.
Mount Vesuvius is being used by the Pyrovile to convert the human race to Pyroviles. The Doctor realises the volcano will not erupt if the energy converter is running, and subsequently switches it off, triggering the eruption of Vesuvius. Despite Donna's efforts, she and the Doctor are only able to save Caecilius' family, who watch Pompeii's destruction from a vantage point.
The last scene takes place six months later in Rome. Caecilius' family are shown to be successful: Caecilius is running a profiting business, Evelina has a social life in comparison to her seclusion in Pompeii, and his son Quintus (Francois Pandolfo) is training to become a doctor. Before Quintus leaves, he pays tribute to the family's household gods, the Doctor and Donna.
The Doctor refers to the eruption as "volcano day", a phrase used to refer to the eruption by Jack Harkness and the Ninth Doctor in "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances". The Shadow Proclamation, an intergalactic code invoked in "Rose", "The Christmas Invasion", and "Partners in Crime" is used by the Doctor when speaking to the Pyrovile. The Medusa Cascade, first mentioned by the Master in "Last of the Time Lords", is referenced; executive producer Russell T Davies stated that the Cascade would "come back to haunt us". The Doctor also alludes to the events of the 1965 serial The Romans, admitting "a little" responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, which was depicted at the end of that story. Writer James Moran deliberately included the reference. The sale of the TARDIS as "modern art" was also included as a reference to Moran's favourite serial, City of Death. The location and historical significance are also shared by "The Fires of Vulcan", a Big Finish audio play from 2000 starring Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor.
Executive producer Russell T Davies originally planned to include a serial set in Pompeii in the first new series of Doctor Who, after seeing the documentary Pompeii: The Last Day. That episode's position was given to Boom Town and the idea was shelved for three years.
The episode was written by James Moran, who previously wrote the film Severance and the Torchwood episode "Sleeper". Moran had difficulty writing the episode, and had to rewrite the Doctor's opening line over twenty times. The Pyrovile were also edited during writing: they were previously called Pyrovillaxians and Pyrovellians.
Moran worked closely with Davies because of the constraints imposed by filming. Davies encouraged Moran to insert linguistic jokes similar to those in the comic book series Asterix, such as Lucius Petrus Dextrus ("Lucius Stone Right Arm"), TK Maxximus, and Spartacus; the use of the phrase "I'm Spartacus!" refers to the 1960 film. Moran based the ancillary characters of Metalla (Tracey Childs) and Quintus from Caecilius' family in the Cambridge Latin Course; the character of Evelina was the only member of the family created by Moran. The line "Don't worry, she's from Barcelona" was a reference to an apologetic catchphrase from Fawlty Towers, attributed by the production team to Sybil Fawlty.
The episode was heavily based on a moral question posed to the Doctor by Donna: whether to warn the population of Pompeii, or to recuse from the situation. Moran also had to deal with the intensity and sensitivity required when writing about the eruption. Davies and Moran both appreciated Catherine Tate's performance, and cited Donna's ability to humanise the Doctor and help him deal with "lose-lose situations" as the reason the Doctor travels with companions.
The episode was filmed at the Cinecittà studios in Rome in September 2007. Other locations suggested were in Malta and Wales, but the size of the project, the biggest since the show's revival, resulted in production taking place in Italy. This was the first time the majority of the episode was filmed abroad, and the first time the cast had filmed abroad; pick-up shots were made in New York City for "Daleks in Manhattan". Cinecittà had accepted the BBC's request despite the show's small budget to promote the studios.
Filming an episode abroad had been suggested in 2004, but the episode was the first such occasion. Planning began in April 2007, before Moran had written the script, and continued until the production team travelled to Italy. Several weeks before filming started, a fire disrupted the production team. Moving to Rome caused problems for the production team: the equipment truck was delayed for several hours at the Swiss border; the special effects team were delayed for twenty-four hours at Customs in Calais. The production team only had 48 hours to film on location. The aftermath of the eruption was filmed on the same night as the location shots. To create the falling ash, the special effects team used a large mass of cork, with a "constant supply of debris raining down".
Broadcast and reception
Overnight figures estimated the episode was watched by 8.1 million viewers, with a peak of 8.5 million viewers. The episode was the second most watched programme on 12 April; Britain's Got Talent was viewed by 8.8 million people. The episode was the eleventh most-watched programme of the week.
The episode received several mixed and positive reviews. Ian Hyland, writing for News of the World, said that Tate "was almost bearable this week". He also complimented the "TK Maxximus" joke. He was ambivalent to Donna's reaction to the Doctor leaving Caecilius' family to die: he criticised her acting, comparing her to The Catherine Tate Show character Joannie "Nan" Taylor, but said "top again if that was intentional". He closed saying "this week was a hundred times better than that lame opening episode. Scarier aliens, stronger guest stars and a proper adult-friendly storyline involving sisterhoods and soothsayers." Scott Matthewman of The Stage said that Donna's insistence to change the past "formed the emotional backbone of this episode, producing some truly heartbreaking performances". He liked the joke about the TARDIS' translating the Doctor's and Donna's Latin phrases to Celtic, saying it was "subtly played throughout the episode [...] in a way that builds the joke without trampling it into the ground". His favourite part was Donna's attempts to divert the population of Pompeii away from the beach; the scene was "the emotional highpoint of a series of heart rendering scenes". However, he criticised Moran's writing, specifically, Quintus' and Metalla's dialogue, saying the former "remained pretty much one-dimensional throughout". Alan Stanley Blair of SyFy Portal gave a positive review. He was highly appreciative of Tate, saying "[she] moved even further away from her "Runaway" character that initially joined the show." The phrase "TK Maxximus" and the Doctor's use of a water pistol to subdue the Pyrovile was complimented, as was the special effects used to animate the Pyrovile. However, he disapproved of the use of Cockney colloquialisms in the episode, most notably the Stallholder (Phil Cornwell) saying "lovely jubbly". Ben Rawson-Jones of Digital Spy gave the episode three stars out of five. His opening said "Fantastic effects and a well developed moral dilemma bolster 'The Fires Of Pompeii', although the episode fails to erupt." Rawson-Jones felt that Moran's script took "too long to actively engage the viewer and tap into the compelling premise of the time travellers arriving in the doomed city shortly before 'volcano day'." and that "the subplots are unsatisfyingly muddled for the majority of the narrative." He also complained about the characterisation of the supporting cast, saying that "Peter Capaldi and Phil Davis [deserved] better". However, he said the moral dilemma the Doctor faced was "compelling" and the Doctor's use of the water pistol "adds a pleasing sense of fun to counterbalance the impending stench of death and harks nicely back to the Tom Baker era of the show." Overall, he appreciated the premise of the episode, but thought the episode "deserved better writing".