5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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THE FIRES OF POMPEII
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK
We’re less aflame, more lukewarm about this one.
There’s certainly something in here for everybody, particularly the classic Who fans. It kicks off with that fine old Doctor Who tradition, knockabout comedy Romans. We’re sure a lot of the audience watching loved ‘em, but we weren’t among them. Call us grimly humourless, but modern mores projected onto another time strike us as less witty than witless. Anachronisms like the daughter skipping out to meet her mates in a daringly short chiton when in fact Roman women barely ever got to leave the house just make us grind our teeth. And as for the oh-so-hilarious modern London accents and cracks about Welsh, all we can say is that one Up Pompeii was enough (and it was crap then as well).
Then there’s a truly awful City Of Death joke about modern art and tons of yapping, and after that, we move onto yet more old-skool Who: priestesses. Bowing, arm waving and tragic eye makeup? Of course! Honestly, it’s just like the old days. (Wonder what it is about being a priestess that impairs your ability to get your lipstick on straight?) And the nostalgiafest continues with a big growly monster that you can kill with a water pistol. Took us right back, it did.
Then we get to the really serious bit, and that harks back to the series of yore as well. Remember the Doctor in The Aztecs and the whole “Not one line!” thing? Course you do. Well, here it comes again. Not that we’re complaining about the repetition – considering a Time Lord’s nature, it’s such a fundamental question that it’s not surprising it might come up more than once. Up till now, things are a bit so-so, but once they get into the heavy stuff things definitely look up. David Tennant’s delivery of the bit about the burden of the Time Lord is particularly masterly (but not Masterly). And his anguish over causing 20,000 deaths, and his and Donna’s willingness to sacrifice themselves, is very affecting.
Except. Nice as it is, they bottle it, not once, but twice.
First of all, there’s the part about the fixed point in history. (We love the Doctor’s explanation of that, by the way: it makes sufficient handwavy Gallifreyan sense to be utterly satisfying.) We know the Vesuvius eruption’s one of those fixed points, because the Doctor says so. So where’s the terrible choice? Sure, the Doctor’s not going to enjoy pressing the actual button, but that’s not the point: how they present it is that he has to decide. Well, not really. He knows that any other course of action other than triggering the eruption will be catastrophic to the timeline.
And actually, it’s even worse than that. It’s not even just a 20,000 people vs causality deathmatch, because they made it so that if the Doctor doesn’t trigger the eruption, the Pyroviles will take over the Earth™. Choosing between 20,000 and 200 million deaths and catastrophic disruption to the timeline is even more of a no-brainer. (Clearly the Doctor, otherwise so well-versed in Earth pop culture, has never seen the second Star Trek movie. You know, with that other Vulcan. Needs of the many, Doc!)
Our bet is that they thought that the Doctor would look too unsympathetic if he personally caused so many deaths in defence of something as abstract as the timeline, and if so that’s sad. It would have been a much more powerful scene without the taking over the earth bit. As it is, the gut-punching it gets makes it a bit of damp squib. As one of us remarked, “Not in the two wires class, is it?” Nevertheless, it’s clearly going to be a theme this season, harking as it does back to Mr Copper’s remark in Voyage Of The Damned that deciding who lives and who dies makes you a monster.
And speaking of themes, it’s time for the guessing re this year’s Bad Wolf to get underway. Shadow Proclamation. Medusa Cascade. Missing planets. There you go: Write Your Own Adventure.
So it’s comical, tragical and historical, if not particularly pastoral. What else? Well, there’s Donna, for a start, and bloody good she is too. “I don’t know what kind of kids you’ve been flying round with in outer space, but you’re not telling me to shut up” is one of our favourite Doctor Who lines ever. She’s funny when she needs to be, she’s serious when she needs to be, and without a doubt she’s much more the Tenth Doctor’s conscience than his previous companions. She’s a lot more willing to stand up to him, too, and not in an obnoxious Tegan way, either. We’re looking forward to seeing how she gets on.
We’re also particularly fond of Lucius. Phil Ford’s an underrated actor who does a tremendous line in veiled menace; with all his mystic utterances and even a couple of “Noooooo!”s, Lucius could have looked a bit silly, but Phil makes him downright spine-chilling, especially when he announces the Doctor’s home address.
As for the Doctor, there’s only so much of lines like “Yes way! Appian way!” that we can take, but underneath all that there’s a lot of the deadly serious Doctor in this one, and oh, how we love it. No doubt you’re sick of hearing us say this, but it’s beneath the fluff that this Doctor’s an absolute knockout.
The Pyroviles, though, we’re less thrilled with. All that marble electronic circuit stuff seems a bit random. And the monsters themselves – and their worshippers - are pretty generic and the inhaling stuff is eyebrow-raisingly unlikely. Like much of the rest of it, they’re nothing to get excited about, but we’ve seen a lot worse.
It’s not terrible or anything, just not particularly wonderful either. Let’s hope it gets a bit more grippy in future episodes.
MORAL: Be careful about what you inhale.
GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!
All that stuff about what's on Donna’s back and the Doctor coming from Gallifrey’s well intriguing, but how does it work, exactly? The Doctor says that a rift in time has opened, but that explains how the prophets see the future, not how they know all that stuff.
SHEETY THING. WITH FOLDS
Nice toga? Sigh. Dude, she isn’t wearing a toga.
Doesn't look very hot in there, does it? For a volcano?
Fixed, flux, whatever. But how come saving four Romans left the timeline unscathed when saving Rose's Dad caused those giant beasty things to come flapping around? (Thanks to Greg Chadwick for pointing this out.) Presumably it was worse in that case because of the paradox Rose caused by going back twice, but still. This is a fixed point in history, after all, and the fact that the Doctor had to be persuaded into saving the Roman family makes it clear he knew he was taking a risk.
What about Evelina’s stone arm? How come that’s magically fixed?
Buy this Dr Who DVD: UK