The Fires of Pompeii
|190 – "The Fires of Pompeii"|
|Doctor Who episode|
|Script editor||Brian Minchin|
|Executive producer(s)||Russell T Davies
|Incidental music composer||Murray Gold|
|Originally broadcast||12 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. Set shortly before and during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, this episode depicts alien time traveller the Doctor (David Tennant) and his new companion Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) on a trip to Pompeii, where they uncover an alien invasion. Their clashing worldviews present an ethical dilemma for the Doctor.
The episode was filmed in Rome's Cinecittà studios, and was the first time the Doctor Who production team took its 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 by problems for the production team crossing into Europe.
Critics' opinions regarding the episode were generally mixed. The premise of the episode—the moral dilemma the Doctor faces, and Donna's insistence that he save a family from Pompeii—were widely praised. However, the episode's writing was criticized, in particular, for the characterization of the supporting cast: The dialogue was described as "one-dimensional" and Peter Capaldi and Phil Davis's dialogue as "whimpering and scowling".
The Doctor and Donna arrive in what the Doctor believes to be Rome in the first century AD. After an earthquake and witnessing a nearby mountain begin to smoulder, he realises he has in fact materialised in Pompeii one day before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When he and Donna return to where the TARDIS landed he discovers that a local merchant sold it to sculptor/merchant Lucius Caecilius Iucundus. The Doctor and Donna go to Lucius Caecilius' house to retrieve it. Unknown to them, they have been followed by a soothsayer who reports to the Sibylline Sisterhood that the prophesized man in the blue box has arrived, and the Sisters fear the prediction that his arrival brings fire and death.
At the house, the Doctor is surprised by Lucius Caecilius' daughter Evelina, who seems to have ESP and knows personal details about the Doctor and Donna. They are interrupted by the local augur Lucius Petrus Dextrus, who has arrived to collect a sculpture he commissioned. The Doctor is intrigued by the sculpture, which resembles a segment of an oversized circuit board. Lucius Petrus reveals that he also has powerful ESP and calls out the name of the Doctor's home planet, Gallifrey. The Doctor wishes to learn more about the sculptures and enlists Lucius Caecilius' son Quintus to help him break into Lucius Petrus' house. Inside the Doctor deduces that the circuits will make an energy converter, but is caught by Lucius Petrus. The two escape, but Lucius Petrus beckons a large stone creature to attack and kill them. The stone creature appears in Lucius Caecilius' house and attacks them, but Quintus saves them by dousing the creature in water and killing it. In the confusion the Sisterhood kidnap Donna, and the Doctor sets off to rescue her. He meets the high priestess of the Sisterhood, who is revealed to be transforming into a stone creature. The Doctor discovers that they are being controlled by the Pyroviles, volcanic creatures whose home planet of Pyrovilia was lost. The Doctor is attacked by the Sisterhood, but escapes with Donna into an underground tunnel that leads into the heart of Mount Vesuvius.
The Doctor discovers that the volcano is being used by the Pyroviles to convert the human race and conquer Earth. The Doctor realises the volcano will not erupt if the energy converter is running, and tells Donna that the volcanic eruption is a fixed point in time and must always happen. The Doctor and Donna get into an escape pod and together press a lever which overloads the converter and triggers the eruption, killing the Pyroviles and launching the pod clear of the blast. The Doctor and Donna run for the TARDIS and the Doctor coldly leaves Lucius Caecilius and his family cowering in their home and dematerialises. Donna begs him to go back and at least save one person, and the Doctor finally relents and goes back for Lucius Caecilius and his family. He leaves them on a hill overlooking the destruction, and together with Donna slips out quietly as the family mourns Pompeii. The Doctor comments to Donna that she was right, and he does need someone to stop him.
Six months later in Rome, Lucius Caecilius' family are shown to be successful. He is running a profitable business, Evelina has a social life in comparison to her seclusion in Pompeii, and his son Quintus is studying to become a doctor. Before Quintus leaves, he pays tribute to the family's household gods (in marked contrast to his disrespectful attitude towards them at the start of the episode), a bas relief depiction of which are in the form of the Doctor, Donna and the TARDIS.
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 was requested to write the episode as a consequence of the latter. 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 Metella (Tracey Childs) and Quintus from Caecilius's family in the Cambridge Latin Course; the character of Evelina was the only member of the family created by Moran. At the end of Book I of the Cambridge Latin Course, Caecilius and Metella perish in Pompeii on the day of the eruption, but Quintus survives. This episode creates an alternate ending to their story, where they are all rescued by the Doctor and move to Rome. The line "You must excuse my friend, she's from Barcelona" was a reference to an apologetic catchphrase from Fawlty Towers, attributed by the production team to Sybil Fawlty (and forming a meta-pun on the Sibylline Sisterhood), but also harks back to previous mentions of Barcelona by the ninth and tenth Doctors.
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 themselves 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 series' story arc was hinted at by the Doctor's invocation of the Shadow Proclamation, an intergalactic code previously invoked in "Rose", "The Christmas Invasion", "Fear Her" and "Partners in Crime", and referencing the "Medusa Cascade", which executive producer Russell T Davies stated in Doctor Who Magazine would "come back to haunt us" later in the series. Moran also added continuity links independent of the story arc: as a "fun continuity thing", the script includes a scene in which the Doctor admits partial responsibility for the Great Fire of Rome, as depicted at the end of the 1965 serial The Romans; and the sale of the TARDIS as modern art refers to the 1979 serial City of Death, which includes a scene in which the TARDIS is appraised in a similar fashion. Additionally, Lucius Petrus, while under prophetic influence, informs Donna that "there is something on her back"—a foreshadowing of the story development in the season's later episode "Turn Left".
The episode was filmed at the Cinecittà studios in Rome in September 2007. The filming reused some of the sets from the show Rome. 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 an episode was filmed abroad and the first time the cast had filmed abroad since 1996; the television movie was filmed in Vancouver and pick-up shots had previously been made in New York City for "Daleks in Manhattan". Cinecittà had accepted the BBC's request in order to promote the studios, despite the show's small budget.
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. 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". Scenes set at the Temple of Sibyl were filmed at the Temple of Peace, Cardiff on 18 and 19 September 2007.
Two of the cast members of "The Fires of Pompeii" were later cast in starring roles for Doctor Who. Karen Gillan returned in the fifth series to play Amy Pond, full-time companion of Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor. Casting director Andy Pryor suggested her to new executive producer Steven Moffat based on her performance in this episode as one of the soothsayers. Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor in 2013, and made his first appearance in the 2013 Christmas special (although he had a very brief cameo in "The Day of the Doctor"). He also played John Frobisher throughout the spin-off series Torchwood: Children of Earth. Tracey Childs and Phil Davis have also performed on Doctor Who audio productions for Big Finish.
Overnight figures estimated the episode was watched by 8.1 million viewers, with a peak of 8.5 million viewers. The consolidated figure was 9.04 million. The episode was the second most watched programme on 12 April; Britain's Got Talent was viewed by 9.44 million people. The episode was the tenth most-watched programme of the week and received an Appreciation Index score of 87 (considered Excellent).
The episode received generally mixed 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's 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's 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 rending scenes". However, he criticised Moran's writing, specifically, Quintus's and Metella's dialogue, saying the former "remained pretty much one-dimensional throughout". Alan Stanley Blair of SyFy Portal also 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 were complimented, as were 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".
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- Charlie Jane Anders (27 March 2008). "Forbidden Images Of Star Trek's Shuttlecraft". io9.com. Retrieved 28 March 2014. "At one point, Donna asks what people in Pompeii do for fun, "hang out at TK Maximus?" (Which may be a reference to the British version of discount clothing chain TJ Maxx.) (Note: the chain is called 'T.J. Maxx' in the United States, but 'T.K. Maxx' in the United Kingdom)"
- Hyland, Ian (13 April 2008). "Britain's Grot Talent". News of the World. Archived from the original on 16 April 2008. Retrieved 14 April 2008.
- Blair, Alan Stanley (14 April 2008). "Review: 'Doctor Who' - Fires Of Pompeii". SyFy Portal. Archived from the original on 14 April 2008. Retrieved 14 April 2008.
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- The Fires of Pompeii on TARDIS Data Core, an external wiki
- "The Fires of Pompeii" at the BBC Doctor Who homepage
- "The Fires of Pompeii" at Doctor Who: A Brief History Of Time (Travel)
- "The Fires of Pompeii" at the Doctor Who Reference Guide
- "The Fires of Pompeii" at the Internet Movie Database