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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘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:


• 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

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