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Thursday, May 01, 2008
Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii
I'm apparently going to really have to take the time to track down a copy of James Moran's film Severance. Not only has he written one of the stronger episodes of Torchwood, "Sleepers," but his premiere Doctor Who episode is one of the most emotionally compelling stories they've aired on the program in years. At the root of the episode are questions that the show has rarely dwelled on in its history; to what extent is the Doctor responsible for the lives he endangers by his presence? What gives him the right to meddle in certain aspects of history, but not in others? Moran's script takes these questions and puts them into the context of a very old-school-Who-ish "monster of the week" alien invasion story. When the Doctor and Donna attempt to land in ancient Rome, they find themselves instead in the city of Pompeii, the day before the Romans learn what the word volcano means. Immediately the Doctor and Donna find themselves in conflict, with the Doctor wanting to flee the scene as soon as possible, and Donna insisting that she and the Doctor do something to try and save the citizens of Pompeii. Naturally, the Doctor discovers a deeper mystery, hinting at alien involvement with the city, which he must solve with a very precise deadline hanging over his head.
Little touches that Moran brings to the story make it more than a simple "the Doctor fights aliens" story. In keeping with the tone set by the previous story, there's a good deal of comedy on display, mostly centered on the domestic scenes that have become the trade-mark of new Who, as the Doctor and Donna befriend an upwardly mobile Pompeii businessman and his family. Some of the jokes are even a bit overly pun-based, including a bizarre in-joke regarding character names that only makes sense if you took Latin in a British school (or have it explained to you over the internet by someone who did, in which case the impact of the joke is...not so much). The conflict between the Doctor and Donna is handled well, with Donna arguing from the perspective of compassion and the Doctor from necessity, and with it a strong subtext of an earlier critique of the Doctor from Donna, way back in "The Runaway Bride," that what the Doctor really needs, sometimes, is someone to stop him. It's the sort of argument you can't imagine Rose or Martha, or even very many of the Doctor's earlier companions, ever having with him. It's very nice to have a more mature companion, one without stars in her eyes, as it allows this kind of surprisingly sophisticated conversation about morality to occur on what is a family adventure show. And Catherine Tate and David Tennant do an exceptional job once again with the acting in these scenes. It appears that the two of them bring out the best in each other as performers.
Plot Threads to Watch For "She is returning." "There is something on your back." The Medusa Cascade Missing planets