Sunday, May 04, 2008

Doctor Who: 'Fires of Pompeii' (4x02)

“Fires of Pompeii” is one of my favorite Doctor Who historical episodes, a much stronger episode than its counterparts in the second and third season. Part of that is the fact that, as far I recall, we’ve never seen them go back this far in history yet on the series. This society feels alien in a way Victorian or even the Shakespearean era stuff didn’t. Part of that is the presence of aliens, but it’s also an aesthetic and cultural division between our world and theirs. On top of the intrinsically interesting surroundings, we get a really dramatic story that gets to the core of the Doctor’s internal conflict, and does a great job of cementing the relationship between him and Donna. It’s one of my favorite standalones of the series so far.

This season has been one of the strongest out of the gate, and strangely enough, it’s largely due to Donna. I like Rose and Martha more as characters, but Donna forces the Doctor to examine himself in a way we didn’t see earlier. Eccleston Doctor had a lot of internal conflict, but Tennant Doctor seemed fairly carefree for much of season two. After Rose is taken, we see some internal conflict, but he seems to be running from it the whole season, unable to really talk about what he went through. And, Martha is so in awe of him, she doesn’t really question it.

Even though the Master arc ended with a reset button for the world, it’s made a huge impact on the Doctor himself. I don’t think it’s so much the trauma of aging, it’s really the knowledge that he will always be alone. The only other timelord in the world turned out to be a psychotic world conqueror who violated every ethic the Doctor lives by. And, thanks to her involvement with him, Martha’s whole family spent a year kidnapped in the service of the Master. And, perhaps the greatest wound of all is the fact that, in the end, she abandoned him. He has to realize just how alone he is.

What Donna does is force him to examine himself in a way he hasn’t before. He’s adrift in the world, no longer with a fawning Rose surrogate, he’s got a grown woman who still shares his wonder at the world, but won’t just go along with whatever he tells her. She questions him in ways he doesn’t really want to be questioned. The best moment of the episode is Donna asking the Doctor why he can’t save them, why he has to play by this seemingly arbitrary set of rules. The confrontation in the Tardis was a scene with so much power, both characters pushed to the edge of their emotions. Follow that up with the gorgeous, tragic burning of Pompeii and it’s a really amazing episode ending.

I’ve said it before, but a large part of what makes the show so powerful is the sheer scope of events. 20,000 lives are at stake, and it’s the Doctor who has to pull the trigger and execute them. He triggers the volcano and has to deal with the emotional consequences of that. Yes, he is given the out that it’s either Pompeii or the world, but he still makes the choice to kill them.

And, aiding all this are the fantastic visuals. The BBC Rome sets are a good foundation, but it’s the visual effects team that takes things up a notch, first with the cool underground fire alien world, and then with the episode capping eruption sequence. I wish we hadn’t gotten that “The power of Vulcan, I shall call this…a volcano” speech, but I could ignore that since the rest of the moment worked so well.

Where does this leave us? The Doctor and Donna are closer than before, but she’s also aware that it’s not all fun and games on the road, they will watch people die, unable to do anything about it. We saw Rose learn that lesson in ‘Father’s Day,’ and now Donna learns it.

This is one of my favorite ‘regular’ episodes in the whole run of the series. It’s got virtually everything that makes the show work. There’s some good comedy at the beginning, some interesting time disparity stuff and world building, and in the end, some really dramatic, emotional stuff. It doesn’t have the plot significance of a season finale, it’s just a really great standalone story that develops the characters. That’s not to say elements of the plot don’t work, but enough does that the bad stuff gets overwhelmed.

So far, the fourth season has been stronger out of the gate than any prior year. It’ll be tough to match that run of episodes that closed out season three, but if they keep up this momentum, it should be doable.

1 comment:

Hugh Yeman said...

This was easily among my top three Tennant episodes - it might even make #1. I'm not quite sure why, but I'm liking him this season much better than before. I think it's partly because I've reached the acceptance stage in my mourning of the Eccleston Doctor, and partly because they're writing stories that play better to Tennant's goofiness.

I agree with you about the depth of his interaction with Donna - somehow I never bought Tennant's attempts at deeper moments before, which made me keen for Eccleston all the more. However, I have to say that the thing that made me really love this episode is that it was clearly an homage to the Baker years. It had a coven of priestesses with face paint and magical powers, creatures made of stone, and aliens mucking about in a major event in earth's history. What more could you ask for?