You fought hard and you saved and earned
But all of it's going to burn!
And your mind, your tiny mind
You know you've really been so blind!
Now 's your time, burn your mind!
You're falling far too far behind!
Oh no, oh no, OH NO!!
You're gonna burn...
FIRE!! To destroy all you've done!
FIRE!! To end all you've become!
FIRE!! I'll take you to burn!
FIRE!! I'll take you to learn!
I'll feel you burn!
I think I have, for the first time, felt what people in the 1980s must have felt watching JNT-era Who - seeing a celebrity cameo that shatters your suspension of disbelief. When I grew up, I didn't recognize people in Who from other places, I recognized people in other places from Who. Martin Clunes' first scene as Gary Strang was always tainted with the knowledge he'd once had a snake tattoo and given the immortal line, "Don't you see, mother? Your son is evil!" Now, Kylie in Voyage of the Damned I assumed would be a one-off, but the opening scene of The Fires of Pompeii loses its footing as Donna tries to talk to a Roman stallsholder played by what at first appears to be Armstrong from Armstrong and Miller but is, in fact, a guy from Dead Ringers (notable for being Christopher Eccleston, Greg Dyke and Alan Rickman).
And what does this supreme mimicrist do with his talent? He assumes a cheerful cockney accent and says "Lovely jubbly" which I think is a quote from Only Fools & Horses. Now, I don't go in for bitching about comedy in Doctor Who, but there are limits - I could have coped with the cockney Del boy in Ancient Pompeii, and I could have coped with the Dead Ringer dude... but both? Like Sean McCallif guest-starring as a man character in Seachange, it's doomed - he's not supposed to be funny, but we think he should be. But has Sean cracked jokes, the whole thing would have collapsed. And that nearly happens here. None of the other comedians I can think of in the new series - Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson, Ardal O'Hanlon, Dean Kelly - ever played up their characters so ridiculously! He might as well be jumping up and down in that frizzy wig waving a sign saying HEY, IT'S ONLY A TV SHOW! Graham Crowden took it more seriously. Which says a lot.
I don't know why the idea of comedy stallholders in Rome rubs me up the wrong way, since it is the EXACT same approach taken in The Shakespeare Code, that the past is just like the present with different fashions - people are still as smart or dumb as they would be in the here and how, and so the stallholder selling the TARDIS for a quick profit is entirely in keeping. It's his "Can You Believe How Wacky I Am?" acting that ruins it, since the owners of said time machine are very pissed off at him and he acts like he's not got a care in the world. It would be stupid and unbelievable today and it's stupid and unbelievable in 79AD. It's just bullocks.
Another thing worth calling bollocks is RTD's apparent mission to turn Doctor Who into remaking stories from the spin off media. I loved season three, but the fact is I already owned Groatsworth of Wit, Planet of Evil, Human Nature, What I Did On My Holidays By Sally Sparrow, End of the Line, Singularity and Embrace the Glory. I din't need them all remade, and in such a way The New Adventures and Storybooks were rendered uncanonical. Now Big Finish is up for the chop, particularly one of its earliest success stories, The Fires of Vulcan, starring the 7th Doctor and Mel - a pure historical that rehabilitated Season 24 and Bonnie Langford in particular. As my friend Cameron J Mason has repeatedly pointed out, Pompeii is a big city and thus it is NOT impossible to assume that while the Doctor and Donna are putting up with a sub-Extras peformance from the stallholder, the Doctor and Mel are on the other side of town with their own problems, and thus miss the presence of lava monsters and the like. After all, we know that while the First Doctor was chatting with Ben and Polly outside the TARDIS that afternoon, the Second Doctor and Jamie were in a nearby coffee bar listening to Paperback Writer. And can we honestly complain about plot similarities after seeing Silver Nemesis directly after Remembrance of the Daleks? There's an unambigious precedent for the Doctor having two bollocks-to-the-grindstone identical stories - with the same Doctor, companion, producer, script editor and SEASON!
So, when the TARDIS drops the Doctor and his companion into an alleyway of Ancient Rome, they don't realize they're being spied on. And when an earth tremor strikes the city they've arrived in, leading to the "FUCK! Pompeii! Leg it!" moment, they run back and find the police box unavailable, the theme music crashes in.
Except that the above paragraph counts for a whole episode of The Fires of Vulcan, and the pre-credit sequence of The Fires of Pompeii. To be fair, they both work in their respective elements. Unlike Vulcan, Pompeii has the TARDIS sold by aforementioned stupid bastard comedian as modern art rather than buried in a collapsed building, and the Doctor is not having a panic attack in the belief this is another ontological paradox. But since the Doctor is regailing Donna with the plot of The Romans, you think at least a "Oh, no, not AGAIN!" moment might be worth slipping in.
While Mel and the Doctor had a bit of tiff over the fact they were doomed to die in the destruction of the city, Donna and the Doctor have a far more blunt problem - they have 24 hours before eruption - the Doctor wants to leave, Donna wants to evacuate. The conversation isn't going to knock off the "you can't rewrite history" thing from The Aztecs, it's still the same argument and the Doctor's barely contained anger at Donna when she doesn't tow the line is palpable. Odd, however, that this seems to be the first time in a historical there's the "we can't change everything" rather than "we've got to stop the monsters changing everything" from The Unquiet Dead or The Shakespeare Code. Pompeii is a "fixed point" in history and cannot/should not/must not be altered. So there. Mind you, the Doctor's utter desperation to go might not be about the volcano, but about meeting himself... mmm... and the Seventh Doctor's preoccupation with his own fate might explain why he misses the signs of alien intervention... doesn't explain why everyone talks posh in Vulcan's Pompeii though. Maybe the translator circuits were playing up?
Actually, come to think of it, aliens in Ancient Rome, petrifold regression, soothsayers... this is The Stone Rose! Oh well, the books were already uncanonical. Can't complain. Mind you, I'm sure I remember some kind of monster that uses smoke-like particles to infect and mutate human beings. And it's not the Kraargs, who seem to have been reimagined for this story, including their lack of decent conversation.
While whatsisname the stallholder may have been mixing his medication, the rest of the cast of Pompeii understand the term restraint and manage the balance between talking like I, Claudius and talking like Skins. The scene where the hungover teenage son turns up back at his parents' flat is pure Blackadder, with none of the anachronisms. I think they left the stallholder scenes in because they couldn't do any more takes (they were just borrowing the Roman sets and then they burst into flames, so they probably had to like it or lump it). Meanwhile, we meet the Seers of Pompeii, a sisterhood of goth chicks in red robes and scary makeup who have eyeballs tatooed on their hands so when they cover their eyes, Weeping Angel style, they still look at you. And this allows them telepathic contact. And they've got a legend about the arrival of a police box and the Doctor in their sights - which does, I suppose, explain why they wouldn't be bothering the Doctor and Mel as they wander around pretending to be gods, stealing jewelry and picking fights with gladiators.
But, at the end of the day, The Fires of Vulcan is as canonical as it was at the start. Despite the comedy of the first half, it becomes very grim towards the end, with a healthy dollop of John Lucuratti. The Seventh Doctor at least tried to help those in the city after the eruption, but he didn't go through a Time War full of fire symbolism. For the Tenth Doctor, a city full of confused aristos in long robes caught in an inferno is some serious psychological harm, especially as (like in Partners in Crime) the Doctor's god complex has taken such a kicking he doesn't WANT to be the Highest Authority any more. He just wants to have fun. And instead is confronted with a choice much like that in Parting of the Ways - sacrifice innocents for the greater good. Whereas the Ninth Doctor was at least able to ask Jack to give him a better option, this time he doesn't even want to go near the lever, let alone pull it. In a historical story with a pretermined ending - ooh, spoiler, volcano erupts! - that's interesting, but I'm not sure a whole series of the Doctor going "ARGH! I CAN'T COPE WITH THE RESPONSIBILITY!" will work. At least not again. Let's hope Planet of the Ood allows him a bit less panic and more confidence...
It has to be said though, that the episode reaches a shocking intensity fifteen minutes in. This series sure enjoys a slap in the face as, at what first appears to be a retreat of the scene in The Unquiet Dead where Gwyneth reads Rose's mind, or Timmy Latimer chatting to the watch in Human Nature, the Doctor and Donna end up surrounded by soothsayers, each using their own arc buzzwords and expressions. It might sound unimpressive here, but in context, shocking. It's amazing that someone just saying "Gallifrey" can stun to silence something that was once so common glove puppets in TimeLash used to say it with gay abandon. All in all, for demonstrating in a few lines that the Doctor and Donna have TOTALLY underestimated the situations... and maybe overestimated themselves... it's an incredibly effective moment.
So, all in all, The Fires of Pompeii continues the standard set by Partners in Crime. It worked for me. Bar, mayhaps, a cutaway of Jack in a toga (and that Vortex Manipulator of his would be the hieght of fashion in this world of wrist-bands) or an acknowledgement of Steve Lyons' tale, there's nothing I'd want to change or improve. And, I'll be honest, there was plenty of that in Voyage of the Damned (if only Copper staying on in the TARDIS... mind you, the cast hated him, so...). And even The Last of the Time Lords needed a clearer dub and lose the parrot Doctor... But no. Fires worked for me. There is, however, a cringe moment when the Doctor, asked who he is, announdes "I am Spartacus."
But, like the use of Bowie in Random Shoes, it isn't the program's fault...
NEXT TIME: "We here at Ood Operations like to think of the Ood as our trusted friends because, at heart, what is an Ood but a reflection of us? If your Ood is happy, then you will be happy too..."
What is the circle and why must it remain? One page from The 2007 Doctor Who Annual is turned into a 45-minute plot with our-now-annual trip to the 42nd century where the corrupt and dying human empire grabs anything it can to stop its collapse! The most futuristic incarnation of Kevin Darling seen so far! Andy Warhol artwork of oppressed slaves! Dr Noble and his wife Donna! The Ood revolt against their masters! Lots of electric translator globe actions! And lots of... snow.