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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Doctor Who’ blogging: “The Fires of Pompeii”

(tons of spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode! and no comments from party poopers — this is a love fest only / previous: Episode 1: “Partners in Crime”)

Another week, another brutal episode of Doctor Who. Thanks, guys.

And how particularly callous of the writer — one James Moran, in this case, and I’ve got my eye on you, mister — to construct a scenario so perfectly designed to torment the Doctor. Oh, the only Time Lord left to watch Gallifrey burn just so happens to find himself in the “right” place at the “right” time to be the only Time Lord left who could right a temporal wrong by pushing the button that explodes Vesuvius, killing twenty thousand innocent people? What, we should be grateful, perhaps, that it was an ashy volcano that Mister James Moran dug up instead of a fiery one, so that it doesn’t quite hit every trigger in the Doctor’s fragile psyche? Or that by Mister James Moran setting things just so, the Doctor has to kill a relatively small number of people, on a planetary scale, but gets to save the whole planet in the process, thereby somehow making up for the fact that he couldn’t save Gallifrey? Is that supposed to fool us into feeling better about the whole thing? Is that supposed to fool the Doctor into feeling better about the whole thing?

Bastards. Bastards.

There’s a subsubgenre of fan fiction called “hurt/comfort” in which lousy fan writers torture Spock or Frodo or whomever just so that their ridiculous Mary Sue can kiss his boo-boos and make him all better. But this is all the hurt and none of the comfort (and no, Donna’s telling the Doctor, “I bloody love you!” does not count). It’s like they’re deliberately trying to force us into coming up with the comfort part. Is that what you want, Mister James Moran? Doesn’t the world have enough bad fan fiction already? Because you can’t give us this:

and not expect us to do something with it, especially if you don’t.

In unrelated news, I am delighted — in an obscenely pathetically nerdy way — to report that not only am I ever closer to getting a place together to post my old Doctor Who fanfic, I have picked up the continuation of that long, never-completed epic tale in the era of the new Doctors, and have finally begun a new story (which may well turn out to be novella length, as many of my old stories were) that is gosh darn well practically writing itself. And I may actually post the new story first, by way of introduction to the characters and situation, because it’s so much better already than the old stuff was, and is barely Mary Sueish at all, and features lots of very tastefully done hurting and comforting all around.

Anyway: Yes! You land in a bad spot — which you land in because the TARDIS, out of its strange alien love for the Doctor and maybe even with its own peculiar ideas about what kind of comforting he needs, finds a place that needs his help — and it’s just, well, bad. It’s not fixable and the situation is intolerable and so your instinct is just to leave. I don’t know why the Doctor doesn’t take this approach more often… or at least try to take this approach. He can’t hie himself out of the story in the first act, of course, but maybe he should want to every once in a while. (I did that in a couple of my old fanfic stories, had the Doctor say, basically, “You know what? Fuck it. There’s nothing I can do here.”)

And then: Yes! The TARDIS is gone. (That’s a story I never got around to writing: the Doctor spends an entire year chasing the TARDIS around a planet, always one step behind whatever new adventures in alien commerce it’s been transacted in.) And then, sure, comes the the crux of the matter, the thing that stops the Doctor from saying “Fuck it, let’s go”… but still, for a moment there, the creators of this show were in my fannish head again, not thinking about Doctor Who as if it were merely a silly television show but thinking about it as if it were instead a peek into the real life of a roving temporal troubleshooter, if such a thing were to exist.

And yes to Donna, too, who stands up to him — really, has anyone ever called him on his bullshit like she does? She nails it without realizing it when she tells him, “I don’t know what sort of kids you’ve been flying around with in outer space…” because that’s exactly it: they’ve been kids almost exclusively, at least for a long while. Of course, his bullshit isn’t entirely bullshit this time out, which she finally gets when he’s faced with that conundrum — Pompeii or Earth? — but she pushes him more than most would have when she forces him to go back and rescue the marble merchant and his family. Except she doesn’t “force” him to do anything except think about it some more. But what kind of conundrum does that frame? If you can save four, why not eight? Why not sixteen? It’s clear why not twenty thousand… but where’s the cutoff?

“And yet this was meant to be.” Just brutal.

Random thoughts on “The Fires of Pompeii”:

• I foresee that the whole “Doctor and Donna being mistaken for an old married couple” thing is gonna turn into a running joke. (In fact, like the seers here, I can see into the future, and I predict it will happen again in the very next episode.)

• I kinda foresee that we will have received accurate predictions, playing out over the course of this season, in these ambiguous comments from Lucius: “Doctor, she is returning” and “Daughter of London, there is something on your back.” Who is “she”? Rose, perhaps, who appeared in the last episode to be trying to punch through from her alternate dimension? This cannot be a good thing, speaking from the perspective of the cohesion of, you know, spacetime and stuff. Is the Doctor going to have to make a choice between a planet or a galaxy or the universe… and Rose? As for what could be on Donna’s back… I’ll reserve a guess on that for now.

• Great moments in Time Lord scoffing: “Where’d you get the pattern?” the Doctor asks Lucius about the plan for the marble circuit. Lucius replies, “On the rain and mist and wind.” And the Doctor throws him this look:

Hilarious.

• Great references to the old Doctor Who:

“Before you ask, that fire had nothing to do with me,” the Doctor tells Donna, which goes way back to a William Hartnell (Doctor No. 1) story.

The TARDIS has been mistaken for “modern art” before. In the Tom Baker story “City of Death,” art lovers John Cleese and Eleanor Bron comment on the inclusion of a police public call box in the museum’s collection.

I couldn’t look at those creepy priestesses and not think of the Sisterhood of Karn from the Tom Baker episode “The Brain of Morbius.” (And are the priestesses the origin of petrifold regression, which the Duke of Manhattan is suffering from in “New Earth”?)

• Great references to non-Doctor Who stuff:

Speaking of John Cleese… the Doctor’s “You must excuse my friend, she’s from Barcelona” is so totally something Basil Fawlty would have said.

My pal Bonnie reminds me that the Roman family’s running around during the earthquake to save their stuff from falling and breaking is a nod to Mary Poppins, right down to the call for “positions!”

The rock creatures: kinda Balrog-y, no?

• Great quotes:

“The whole planet is at stake? That’s all I need to know!” –the Doctor

“You. Have. Got. To be. Kidding me!” –Donna, about to be sacrificed

“I love not knowing. Keeps me on my toes.” –the Doctor

“Every waking second I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That’s the burden of the Time Lord, and I’m the only one left.” –the Doctor

“He carries starlight in his wake.” –the high priestess, about the Doctor

(next: Episode 3: “Planet of the Ood”)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
posted in:
tv buzz
  • Can’t believe you didn’t mention the “I am Spartacus” joke, MaryAnn.

    This was definitely a good way to start the new season. Here’s hoping they can come up with a story at some point that approaches last season’s Blink in terms of sheer genius.

    BTW, how light is the TARDIS? The guy in the market sold it and lickety-split, it was in the marble merchant’s house. Can you move it with just a couple of guys, a cart, and a horse? What happens to all of the stuff inside if you tip the TARDIS on its side to move it?

  • Normally I’m quiet about the Sci-Fi channel cuts, because I realize that American TV has more commercials, which is fine, whatever. But I was pretty irked to miss the “Six months later” coda at the end and have to watch it online.

    At any rate, the rest of this episode is top notch. I have to admit, I was really apprehensive about Donna being the new companion, but damned if she isn’t a fantastic companion. Rose and Martha had their charms, but like you pointed out–in a lot of ways they were kids. Donna is an adult, and she deals with the Doctor in an adult manner, and I find myself really appreciating that. I have to admit that when her hands joined the Doctor in pulling the lever and dooming Pompeii, I got a little misty-eyed. Had Martha or Rose done it, well, of course they would help the Doctor. But Donna was doing it with eyes wide open, shouldering an adult burden and responsibility alongside the Doctor.

    I think the running gag of Donna and the Doctor being a married couple has a lot to do with the fact that their relationship is between two grown-ups, rather than the mentor-student relationship of Doctor and Martha, or the adolescent romantic relationship of the Doctor and Rose. Not that Donna won’t be learning from the Doctor, but I feel like–and I never would have thought this based on “The Runaway Bridge”–the Doctor also has a lot to learn from Donna.

    By the way, when the seer said “She is coming”, I know we were supposed to think “Rose”, but the first thing that popped into my head was the Rani!

  • MaryAnn

    But I was pretty irked to miss the “Six months later” coda at the end and have to watch it online.

    I haven’t watched the Sci Fi Channel cut yet, but damn! That’s missing? That sucks.

    I think the running gag of Donna and the Doctor being a married couple has a lot to do with the fact that their relationship is between two grown-ups

    Oh, sure. I don’t dislike the idea of this as a running gag, and it’s nice to have the Doctor dealing with someone who’s a little more grown up.

    Yes! Of course I should have mentioned Spartacus. Doh!

  • haven’t watched the Sci Fi Channel cut yet, but damn! That’s missing? That sucks.

    Yeah, it’s one of only two Sci-Fi cuts that I thought really cut out something important–other cuts I have understood. (The other cut is, of course, “…playing track 3.”)

    Also, is it wrong that I totally want a replica of the shrine to the “household gods” for my office?

  • MaryAnn

    I’m sure the shrines will be available for sale at your local science fiction store and through BBC.co.uk soon. :->

  • StrangeAgent

    Yeah, that’s the one (very) little quibble I have about the TARDIS. Just apparently being able to pick it up, put it on a cart (or what have you) and boogie off with it. It’s pretty obvious when looking at close-ups of it, the prop is made from wood. I spent my childhood years in the UK (when police call boxes were still pretty common; and I’d love to find one to put in my living room). The call boxes were actually made from concrete. The phone was on the outside, and the box itself was designed to serve as a temporary holding cell. Just an itty-bitty quibble.

  • StrangeAgent

    Ooops. I stand corrected. Went back and watched an episode again. Only the doors appear wood. Sorry.

  • Mark

    As for what could be on Donna’s back… I’ll reserve a guess on that for now.

    I’m hoping for one of our old friends from Metebelis Three.

  • Jack

    There’s the 6 months later bit that got cut, and a bit where Donna tried to save a baby but the mother took it, which was really sad.

  • Sorta off-topic, but since we were talking about people moving the TARDIS…

    How exactly were the angels able to move it in Blink?

  • Joanne

    Were all the police boxes concrete? There’s one remaining outside Earl’s Court tube station in London – or there was last time I was there, 18 months ago – and it looked pretty wooden to me. Not that I ever touched it. I just smiled at it a lot and wondered why it isn’t a shrine for Whovians visiting London.

    I really did like this episode, particularly the scene just before the end in the TARDIS as Donna asks the Doctor to save someone. It’s heartbreaking, and both DT and CT are brilliant.

    Looking forward to the fanfic, MaryAnn, and may I recommend A Teaspoon and an Open Mind as a good, DW/Torchwood dedicated archive with some pretty good stuff in it?

  • StrangeAgent

    Last comments on the police boxes from me: Yeah, the original ones were wooden (from the late 1800s to the 1930s). Interesting bit of trivia: The police box was invented by our very own Alexander Graham Bell and the first ones were installed in Albany, NY. Pity they never caught on here in the states.

  • Well, I think the TARDIS is probably not very heavy at all — it’s kind of like a portal isn’t it? The stuff inside it is actually in another dimension, if I understand correctly.

    This episode was very good: the funny stuff was really funny, and the dramatic stuff was really heart-rending.

  • AJP

    The part that was the most fun for me was noticing that it was Phil Davis playing Lucius. The last time I saw him was when he was playing Prince/King John back in Robin of Sherwood. Of course, he appears to have been in a lot of other things since then, I just haven’t seen them.

  • jakob1978

    The other funny thing about seeing Phil Davis, is that he’s a regular on an impressionist show called “Dead Ringers”, and he’s appeared on there a couple of times as the Ninth Doctor, such as in this video

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VBjP8q13_8

    I have to say, that if Sci-fi cut the “6 months later” scene, it’s not a cut i’d object to…thought it was an awful scene

  • You’re getting your Phils confused. That’s Phil Cornwell.

  • Jakob1978

    Ah…you’re absolutely right….I was half asleep when i misread the earlier comment. Having said that, Phil Cornwell, was in this episode (as the trader at the beginning), so the point still applies….sort of lol.

  • angel

    I think this season is off to a great start. Last year didn’t really get rolling until the last 6 episodes, so it is nice to see everyone working at top speed already.

    I liked Donna in the Runaway Bride, but I absolutely ADORE her in these episodes. Catherine Tate and David Tennant are a great team. (My favorite right behind Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper)

  • StrangeAgent

    Have to say I love it. My father was Air Force and spent my early childhood years in the UK. Loved the Doctor since I was 4 years old. Unfortunately, once we moved back to the states, I only caught him sporadically on PBS. Decided to start watching the current incarnation of the series after I was introduced to Torchwood. Still catching up, but really, I think it’s largely better than my childhood memories.

  • Dawn

    Yes – good episode – (love the Mr & Mrs running gag – and yes it will run and run!) But if you think this was good then just wait for the Ood, I love the Ood and their lovely squishy faces – and then the stakes get upped good and proper with the Sontarans and their baked potato heads!!! Then the Doctors Daughter – OMG you guys are just gonna EXPLODE! The series is getting BETTER EVERY DAMN EPISODE!!!!!!!!!!!!

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