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New Who 4.2, The Fires of Pompeii

Yes, that was an episode on top of its game, all right. I know it had some things in it that people are tired of by now - like the Doctor-as-Christ references in the white light spilling around him as he saves the Caecilius family, and the shot of him reaching out for Caecilius' hand like God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But even those bits have to get points for trying (albeit trying too hard). And on the whole, this episode seemed to me to be very much in command of both the Doctor Who format and the Classical receptions genre.

It wasn't just that the people who made this episode knew what had come before - it was that they used it so effectively. There were a plethora of references to previous Who stories and genre staples, but none of them weighed down the story, or tied it to worn-out tropes. What we got here was a fresh yet knowing look at the Pompeii story, which really made the most of the opportunities offered by the setting to explore the character of the Doctor and his modus operandi. (Oh look, I'm a Celt. There's lovely).

Let's start by collecting up some of those references, and what was done with them. Firstly, the genre references - by which I mean the things they did both with the Classical receptions genre in itself, and with the story possibilities offered via direct responses to Roman history:
  • "I'm Spartacus." "And so am I." Brilliant - not just a meta-textual reference to the genre they're in, but it's also built into what's clearly going to be a running series joke about people thinking the Doctor and Donna are married. That's getting double value from your script.
  • Caecilius calling for ants in honey and then dormice. Mary Beard would laugh.
  • Caecilius, Metella and Quintus - fictional characters based on fictionalised versions of real ancient Pompeians, and presented to us as real people facing a real tragedy. Now that is clever.
  • Lucius Petrus Dextrus - who later literally turned out to have a right arm made of stone. (Strictly, the Latin for that should be petra dextra, but that would sound too feminine, and anyway this is clearly meant to be comedy pig-Latin, Asterix stylee. I LOLd).
  • Vulcan - already a gift because of the ironic timing of the eruption on the date of his festival, as recognised by Robert Harris and the script for The Fires of Vulcan. But here they've gone one better again, and linked his role as craftsman of the gods with the creation of Pyroviles' gigantic circuit-board. Brilliant.
  • And the people turning to stone - it works entirely in terms of the plot, but also, as pointed out by the Doctor, references the plaster casts of real victims of Pompeii made in the future.
  • Religious faith - always a hot issue when the ancient world is portrayed (as I noted earlier today), and handled with varying degrees of success. But here they've really made it work for them by turning it into an essential driver for the plot - the very means by which the Pyrovile are able to persuade the people of Pompeii to cooperate with them. I appreciated that, I really did. (Though I note they still couldn't help themselves dropping in a reference to Christianity - they're one of the rebellious subcultures Quintus is accused of hanging out with by his mother).
  • And they'd done their research on Sibyls pretty carefully too, what with the oracles and the sulphurous fumes. I believe I caught a reference to thirteen Sibylline books at one point, which doesn't entirely fit with the traditional story - but still, points for trying.

Yup - all self-assured, all cleverly-handled. And then there are the hat-tips to previous continWhoity - including, of course, Who's own ventures into the Classical receptions genre:
  • The Doctor thinking they've arrived in Rome at first - a lovely way of addressing the origins of the sets they're using and the viewers' previous experience of them, plus of course a reference to The Romans. Not only that, but for viewers who've seen that story, his muttered comment about that fire being nothing to do with him is a neat fore-shadowing of his role in the eruption of Vesuvius at the end of the episode. Cool.
  • As I suspected last week, the Sibylline Sisterhood (as I now know they're called) do indeed owe a lot to the Sisterhood of Karn. But while The Brain of Morbius set us up to expect their leader to be ancient and decrepit, instead when the curtain is drawn back we discover something entirely different. We're being kept on our toes, and it feels great.
  • Though the plot overall goes to entirely different places from The Fires of Vulcan, there are nods in its direction. One is the TARDIS being treated as a temple by the Pompeians - a direct statement from Metella, and a visual reference in Quintus's household shrine at the end. The other is the nature of the roles played by Donna and the Doctor - just as Mel believed in and fought for the possibility of their own escape in FoV, Donna believes in and fights for the possibility of rescuing people in FoP. You don't need to have heard FoV to get either point, but if you have, it adds a nice extra layer to the proceedings.
  • The Doctor's pun about Lucius Petrus Dextrus being "'armless enough" when he pulls his stone arm off - Eldrad must live! (as I see qatsi has already noted).
  • The TARDIS as a piece of modern art: "Ex-qvisite!"

So all the more reason for me to be glad I launched myself on my Classic Who-watching marathon in January - and those are just the references I got from the stories I happen to have seen (or heard) so far. There may well be more.

It's a bit meaningless to comment in too much detail on the sets, given that most of them came from HBO's Rome, but the costumes and props (which were the responsibility of the Who team) generally seemed sound enough - allowing, that is, for in-story eccentricities like the vent down into Vesuvius in the house of the Caecilii. Having the small amount of written script they showed in English saved them from making the unholy mess out of their epigraphy which I see with depressing regularity in other Classical representations (Gladiator, Rome), and I also didn't spot anything glaringly anachronistic. Statues of emperors who haven't actually reigned yet is a classic stumbling-block - but the only ones I saw were Augustus and Vespasian, who both check out. If we must niggle:
  • It's unlikely that either Quintus or Donna would wear clothes entirely of purple, given how fantastically expensive the dye was. I mean, Caecilius is clearly doing pretty well for himself - but that's the ancient equivalent of going round in a diamond-studded tiara. Also, it was the wrong shade anyway.
  • The shots in which Donna and the Doctor first see Vesuvius showed temples sloping up hills between the centre of the city and the mountain, which just isn't realistic from any viewpoint within Pompeii. Rather, it leans heavily on multiple screen images of Rome, which has a quite different topography - and given that this is exactly the point in the story at which they're supposed to be realising that they are not in Rome, but in Pompeii, it was kind of annoying.
  • Long shots of the city when it was being destroyed also showed a free-standing theatre, but both of Pompeii's are built into slopes. Also, the insulae (city blocks) looked perfectly square, whereas Pompeii's are mainly skewed parallelograms.
  • It's a pity they missed the chance to show the dust-cloud emerging from Vesuvius in the shape of an umbrella pine, as Pliny describes it - especially since nowadays that has an obvious extra resonance since it resembles a mushroom-cloud so much.
  • People had wax candles all over the place - on the household shrines, around the impluvium in Caecilius' house, etc. They did exist in the ancient world, but weren't used very commonly, even on shrines. Oil-lamps would have been far more likely.
  • A few parts of the interior sets looked more exotic and middle-eastern (or perhaps Moorish?) than Roman - like the large carved circular window in front of which Donna and Evelina were talking, or a curlicued wrought-iron screen in Caecilius' house.

And, finally, what about the story itself as an ongoing contribution to this series of Doctor Who? Damned good stuff, I'd say. For one thing, I've always wondered how TARDIS translation handles people deliberately speaking in a foreign language - and now we know! (Though it was glossed over later when the Doctor used his favourite 'allons-y' line). The story did a great job of consolidating Donna's role as companion, too, as well as giving us new insights into the way the Doctor works, and the decisions he has to make. And that is actually one of the things I appreciate about it most of all. This wasn't just Pompeii for the sake of it - but Pompeii as an integral contribution to this series' story development. I'd have taken the former - but getting the latter out of it as well is what really makes this episode for me.

And of course the role of prophecy in the ancient world offered us some great opportunities to look ahead into the rest of the series - just as we did with Gwyneth's character in series 1, in fact. The way the story was set up means that we know Evelina is right when she tells the Doctor that 'she is returning' (we all know who, of course, but I won't say it to save the spoilerphobes) - just as we knew Boe was right when he said 'You are not alone'. But what's on Donna's back? No-one I've read so far seems to know about that, so of course we're now whipped up into a frenzy of excitement about it. Oh, and then there's more little references to the Doctor's past, and another 'lost' planet, Pyrovilia. 'Taken', this one was, apparently - which to me kind of rules out the Time War ('taken' doesn't sound destructive enough), and doesn't quite sound consistent with our Universe and Rose's bleeding into one another either.

I'm still nervous about the rest of the series. I can't help but feel that when we find out where all these clues are actually leading, it'll be a terrible disappointment. But right here, right now - this is seismic television. I am so going to be watching this episode again. :-)


( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:23 pm (UTC)
Excellent, I was waiting for this, and I'm glad there weren't any glaring errors or anachronisms that I missed.

Household gods always make me think of the Dalemark Quartet before the Romans. I really must read more history and less fantasy.

And seismic television indeed, ha!
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:43 pm (UTC)

Glad you enjoyed the write-up. I shall be popping over to read yours in a moment.
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
Fabulous review, and I loved the episode. If this gets more kids interested in Roman History beyond Gladiators, I'll be a very happy bunny.

Apr. 12th, 2008 09:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks, and definitely! I shall be seeing if I can slip some references to it into my 'City in the Roman World' lectures this coming week.
(no subject) - ingenious76 - Apr. 12th, 2008 09:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
I presumed the reference to a thirteenth Sybilline book was deliberate - implying that this was some extra, secret, hidden book of prophecy that was distinct from the other 12.
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC)
Oh, hang on, reading the link it sounds like there were originally 9, not 12 so I see your point (serves me right for getting my knowledge via the version of the story in Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See)
(no subject) - strange_complex - Apr. 12th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ixwin - Apr. 12th, 2008 09:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Apr. 12th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sashajwolf - Apr. 13th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Apr. 13th, 2008 11:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sashajwolf - Apr. 13th, 2008 12:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:27 pm (UTC)
The one time I noticed an oil lamp in use, it was being used by Caecilius over the glowing lavic fumes of the household vent.
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)
I don't think I even spotted that one! I shall be looking out for these things a bit more carefully on a second viewing.
(no subject) - owlfish - Apr. 12th, 2008 10:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Apr. 12th, 2008 10:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 12th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
Lucius Petrus Dextrus

Doh! I should have spotted that!
Apr. 12th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
Hey, that's what LJ is for. :-)
Apr. 12th, 2008 10:14 pm (UTC)
Nice review - I was looking forward to hearing what you made of it!
Apr. 12th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks! *g* And glad to hear you're enjoying the series more than you'd feared.
Apr. 12th, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)
Long shots of the city when it was being destroyed also showed a free-standing theatre, but both of Pompeii's are built into slopes.

Yes, you're right. I thought there was something about that which made me uncomfortable (and it's facing the wrong way).

My main nitpicks were (1) I don't think anyone's every suggested that almost no-one got out of Pompeii after the eruption, and (2) the implication that Romans didn't know about volcanoes before Vesuvius went off is just tosh.

we know Evelina is right when she tells the Doctor that 'she is returning'

Lucius says this.

Edited at 2008-04-12 11:21 pm (UTC)
Apr. 12th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC)
the implication that Romans didn't know about volcanoes before Vesuvius went off is just tosh.

I think we're seeing the influence of Robert Harris, there, as it's a very strong theme in his novel. I'm prepared to accept that they didn't fully recognise the character of Vesuvius itself, though.

Lucius says this.

Oh, does he. Well, whatever - it still works.
(no subject) - swisstone - Apr. 14th, 2008 09:27 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2008 09:36 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing such a detailed post. I missed 'Lucius Petrus Dexterus' entirely, as I just thought 'Hang on - that's praenomen-cognomen-cognomen...' (it's over twenty years since O Level Latin...)
Apr. 13th, 2008 10:14 am (UTC)
I just thought 'Hang on - that's praenomen-cognomen-cognomen

Ah, but kudos for that thought, though! Most people wouldn't have noticed. :-)
Apr. 13th, 2008 10:24 am (UTC)
I was hoping, just hoping, that Caecilius' slave would turn out to be called Lurcio. Then my life would be complete..

Apr. 13th, 2008 11:12 am (UTC)
Oh, a bit of Lurcio would have been a fine thing indeed! Although I think the cheeky cockney stall-holder was channelling him to some extent.
Chocadoobee! - captainlucy - Apr. 13th, 2008 01:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
Pop- Swabble! - big_daz - Apr. 13th, 2008 01:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)
I was wondering what you'd thought, I was impressed with myself for getting the purple robes thing, I wondered if they'd done that because they said that she was "a noble", rather than an error?

I liked the way they explained the TARDIS translaton circuits and the clothes as well. I'll gloss over the dr as jesus stuff becuase i find it very irritating, but all in all I liked the episode. There were a few cringe inducing pits such as the "lovely jubbly" stallholder, but it was mostly solid.

I'm even warmingto donna noble now, which given how much i despised her in the xmas special is a feat in itself!

Apr. 13th, 2008 11:58 am (UTC)
I wondered if they'd done that because they said that she was "a noble"

Hmm, I suppose that's possible, but it still doesn't explain why Quintus was wearing it. Full purple robes are pretty much emperor-only clothing. It was the wrong colour really, anyway - the ancient purple was more like a sort of blueberry / maroon colour, rather than the Cadbury purple Donna was wearing!
(no subject) - gillywoo - Apr. 13th, 2008 12:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - strange_complex - Apr. 13th, 2008 12:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 13th, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
Excellent review, PG. I'm doing my bit contributing towards the collapse of western civilisation (or at least the internet, apparently) by watching the series on Iplayer.

Oh, just one more thing: I can just about conceive of there being Christians in Pompeii for Quintus to 'cavort' with (bloody liturgical dancing by the sound of it, I try to stamp it out whenever I can), but Etruscans? Can you shed any light on this, professor?
Apr. 13th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC)
Well, obviously 'Etruscans' in the sense of independent, self-governing people had long ceased to be by AD 79, while their ethnic and cultural distinctiveness had also gradually dissolved under Roman rule - hence, for example, the stories about the emperor Claudius being one of the last people who understood their language.

However, many of the people who lived in the old Etruscan cities under Roman rule would still have considered themselves, and been considered by others, to be 'Etruscan' in this period - just as it's more accurate to speak of the indigenous people of this island in the same era as 'Britons' rather than 'Romans', even though they were living under Roman rule. In fact, this was encouraged by the Roman state, who venerated Etruscan culture and attributed a lot of their own customs - especially arcane and obscure religious ones - to Etruscan influence. In particular, the art of the haruspices was believed to be of Etruscan origin, and was still dominated by people of actual Etruscan heritage in the late Republic. Though it then seems to have gone into something of a decline, and have lost its direct Etruscan links, people called haruspices were still active in the Roman state in the early 5th century AD.

So, that's all a long-winded way of saying that I read that line as meaning that Quintus was hanging out with shady religious nutcases - they may or may not actually have been Etruscan, but they exuded the atmosphere of magic and mystery which ordinary Romans tended to attribute to the Etruscans.

Hell, you could even read it as the Pompeian equivalent of calling people 'Goths' in the present day - though I realise there's a rather greater gulf between young men today in frilly shirts and the actual inhabitants of prehistoric Gotland than there might be between Quintus' friends and 7th-century BC Etruscans! ;-)
(no subject) - weepingcross - Apr. 14th, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 14th, 2008 08:44 am (UTC)
Coqus est in culina?
Sounds like a real ball, maybe one day they'll show it on NZ TV. I am stoked they got Caecilius into it, though I guess it is not too suprising when you think about where a good many of us learned our Latin (I suppose Cerberus didn't appear?). Don't suppose Pliny turned up too did he?
Apr. 14th, 2008 09:05 am (UTC)
Re: Coqus est in culina?
OK, should have been coquus...(I think)
Re: Coqus est in culina? - strange_complex - Apr. 14th, 2008 01:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 3rd, 2008 01:59 am (UTC)
I'm late to the game, but we finally watched this tonight (we've been recording the series, and we're trying to get through most of it this week). I thought it was great--having taught the Cambridge Latin Course, I got such a kick out of seeing Caecilius et al (although it also meant that Evelina's presence was jarring in a way that it shouldn't have been).

The historical anachronism that got me was the bit about one smoking mountain--oh, we must be in Pompeii! Not one mention of the poor souls in Herculaneum. I also had a nasty moment when I thought the stone-effect was to explain why the people of Pompeii 'turned to stone', which seemed like a bizarrely basic misconception of the plaster casts.

Poor Cerberus. I was gutted he didn't get included.
Jun. 3rd, 2008 08:50 am (UTC)
Glad you're enjoying it, and better late than never! I must say I think you've now seen the best episode of the season so far, by quite a long way, but that doesn't mean the rest aren't worth watching - just that they don't quite come up to this level.
( 42 comments — Leave a comment )

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