Doctor Who – “The Fires of Pompeii”

There’s lovely.

I enjoyed that. It’s reminiscent of the new show’s previous excursions into history, notably ‘The Unquiet Dead’ and ‘The Shakespeare Code’, but manages to carve out its own niche, and is considerably more spectacular than expected. Great production values from the visit to Cinecitta 1 and some very good CGI. The production values do take a slight nosedive when we suddenly find ourselves on a mountainside in windswept Wales doubling for Vesuvius, but those sequences are mercifully brief.

As is often the case, things start out fairly brisk and breezy with the now-familiar sight of Doctor and Companion acting like slightly crass time tourists punning their way around history at the expense of the natives. Things begin to come together in the very effective scene in which the duelling seers reveal surprising knowledge about the Doctor and Donna, and from then on the episode settles down nicely. That’s not to say that the humour doesn’t work: there are some funny one-lines and the running gag about the Tardis rendering Latin as Welsh is amusing in its gleeful idiocy.

Donna is noticeably better than last week, both in her general demeanour and in Catherine Tate’s ability to colour more or less within the lines of adult drama. It doesn’t hurt that Donna’s role here could have easily been filled by another companion with a minimum of rewriting; she takes the compassionate, human angle on the situation. It serves the useful purpose of making the Doctor appear that little bit more alien and detached from conventional morality, something that makes him more interesting from my perspective. The old series painted him pretty unequivocally as the upright moral guardian, whereas the current series likes to allow him to be a little bit darker and more angsty without losing that sense of basic decency.

The plot is fairly unsurprising but unlike last week there’s a fair bit of it crammed in, a good sense of peril, and the ending isn’t entirely as I expected. Plus, y’know, ancient Romans.

Based on the Doctor’s anguishing over the Time War I’ve seen the speculation that it may be in some way relevant this season, and I can’t say I’m unhappy about the idea. If true, I’m only surprised it took them this long. Of course, he hasn’t actually mentioned it more than in any of the previous seasons, but there’s just something there that makes sense.

1 I swear Murray Gold was channelling the music from HBO’s Rome in the teaser.

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