Monday, 14 July 2014

Fixed That For You

Doctor Who
The Fires Of Pompeii
Series Four, Episode Two

Try as they might, the writers of Doctor Who can't seem to keep a straight line on time travel.  Can you change history or not?  The Unquiet Dead said yes.  Father's Day said no.  And then The Shakespeare Code said yes again, with the caveat that it works exactly like in Back To The Future.  At this point, I just want them to pick one and stick to it.  (And hey, I love Back To The Future, I'll have that one.)

There appears to be an elephant in the room.
Now they have.  Faced with the horror of ancient Pompeii and Vesuvius, the Doctor announces that there are "fixed points" in history, they happen, deal with it.  The rest of history is "in flux".  Okay.  To be just a wee bit cynical, Doctor Who is set in a rough approximation of our world, which we might not recognise if they went and changed gobs of history.  In other words, we secretly already know they can't change major historical events, so heck, they might as well put it in writing.

This doesn't make total sense for the Doctor, of course.  Logically, he must change history on Planet Insert-Name-Here every time he lands on it.  (Because this is time travel, and it's always the past somewhere.)  But then, we hardly know anything about Time Lords, so there's a lot of blanks like this that you can quite fairly fill in.  He just... um... hasn't come across any alien fixed points yet.  Okay?  Anyway, it doesn't have to make total sense to us.  It doesn't as far as Donna's concerned.  The whole awful otherworldliness of "fixed points", and their consequences for the unwary time traveller, form the conflict at the heart of the episode.  That's good work.

So, Pompeii is a fixed point.  Donna is understandably horrified, and with the TARDIS gone (wouldn't you know it!) she wants to help.  The Fires Of Pompeii is already the requisite "show her the ropes" episode, cue jokes about how foreign languages work in the TARDIS, but the fixed point dilemma keeps the "Can you change history?" debate (which happens every time) over on the interesting side.  And things get even more prickly when it turns out some renegade Pyroviles have mucked about with Vesuvius, and at this rate, Volcano Day won't happen.

Wait, what?  So if the Doctor doesn't intercede, Vesuvius won't explode, the baddies will win, and the timelines will change.  But doesn't that turn the fixed point into a fluxed point?  There's a choice now – the Doctor could not do it.  He could walk away or get killed or anything, and bam, no volcano.  (Cue vague doom and gloom for the timelines, all of which is apparently worse than Pyroviles conquering the Earth two millennia ago.)  The Pyroviles are here because their planet unexpectedly went missing – has this changed the timeline from what it was originally?  Wouldn't that bugger up the whole "fixed" thing, if you can do that?  Frankly, the episode would make a lot more sense without the Pyroviles.

Anyway, the Doctor now has an awful choice between 20,000 Pompeiians and the rest of the world/human history (well when you put it like that, it's not much of a choice), but it's a choice he and Donna ultimately make together.  Doctor Who often comes out with moral dilemmas, most of which take the easy way out, but here's one that actually works: there is no easy way out.  It's incredibly bleak for Doctor Who, especially the sight of Donna futilely trying to usher people away from the devastation, and yet it ties right back to the Doctor's established past – and Gallifrey's unfortunate kapputal.  The whole sequence, with the Doctor admitting they probably won't survive and all that eye-candy CGI, is top notch.  (It's just a shame the dilemma has nothing to do with fixed points.  If it were fixed at all, there wouldn't be a dilemma.)

I'm not sure what it is.
Hang on, it'll come to me.
It's not all doom and gloom: the Doctor does rescue somebody, but then only after Donna begs him to make a difference, however small.  (Amazing acting from Tate and Tennant here – it's run-out-of-superlatives stuff.)  On the one hand, this offers a nice, sweet, sort-of happy ending to a story that's utterly depressing.  Oh, here they go, pandering to their fragile audience, right?  Er, not really.  Mr Copper said in Voyage Of The Damned that choosing who lives and who dies makes you a monster, and we see a bit of that here.  The Doctor rescues Caecilius and family because (apart from Donna's insistence) he's met them, and he likes them.  There's no big reason why they get to survive and everyone else has to roast.  Hey, it's great that somebody got rescued, and it's entirely understandable (if annoying) that they immediately set the Doctor and Donna up as gods.  (What's the difference, from their point of view?)  But the decision underlines what a powerful, mythical, alien being the Doctor is, and how important it is to get on his good side.  (Still, I wonder how much history would really suffer if the ruin of Pompeii didn't have any corpses in it.  The Doctor could just keep taking the TARDIS back and scooping up people, as long as he didn't mind catching sight of himself.)

Brrr.  Sounds like an incredibly serious episode, doesn't it?  But it's not, or not entirely.  The Fires Of Pompeii has plenty of light and shade, especially when it comes to sitting the audience down and reassuring them that ancient Pompeii is exactly the same as their living room.  "Won't our clothes look a bit odd?" says Donna.  "Naa," says the Doctor.  "Ancient Rome, anything goes.  Just like Soho, but bigger."  Sigh.  Apart from the depressing Shakespeare Code repeat, which is what that is, we've got a street vendor with Del Boy's catchphrase, and Caecilius's family: the dad's worried about his daughter going out in a short skirt, and he takes the piss out of his son for having a hangover.  They even flog the "speaking Latin makes you sound Welsh" joke until it's just a running gag about Welsh stereotypes.  It's all very broad and patronising, not to mention a waste of very good actors like Peter Capaldi.  As I said in my Shakespeare Code review (since they get to repeat themselves), guys, relax: the audience won't run away just because you set an episode in a different time.

But they might run away if there aren't any monsters (sigh again), so what about the Pyroviles?  Well, they are a mix of great CGI (big rock monsters) and amazing prosthetics (scary rock people), so they're awesome to look at.  It's a bit dull that they're fleeing from a mysteriously gobbled up planet, just like the Adipose last week, but that's arcs for you.  It's a brilliant wheeze having Pompeii full of prognosticators who all accurately predict the future, but somehow haven't noticed the eruption of Vesuvius the following day.  And it's an acceptable excuse, I suppose, for that ghastly routine of "external characters tell the main characters about their inner turmoil" – they're bona fide mind readers, and this shows it.  Phil Davis oozes menace as the prognosticator-in-chief, and as for the fully-stoneyfied High Priestess of the Sisterhood (because there's a Brotherhood and a Sisterhood, sort of like competing supermarkets I guess), she's like something out of Evil Dead.  On the downside, the actual Sisterhood are a pretty anonymous Cult Of Doom, and there aren't a lot of peripheral characters in Pompeii at all, probably to make it easier to accept the ending.  We never see anyone official besides Phil Davis.

Of course!  That's Karen Gillan!
It's funny when actors come back, innit?
It's a very good episode for the Doctor and Donna, although the moral dilemma does have its clumsy moments.  At one point they boil it down to "Well I might just have summit to say about that, Spaceman!"  "Oh, I bet you will!", which is bite-sized enough for a Chihuahua to understand.  Still, Donna gets to ask all the questions we want answered (it's the job of the companion, innit?) in a way that neatly marks her out from her predecessors.  "I don't know what sort of kids you've been flying around with in outer space, but you're not telling me to shut up" is an awesome line, if equally Chihuahua-sized.

Meanwhile, the Doctor gets to agonise over an impossible choice, which is when he's at his most dramatic and some would say, best.  The argument in the TARDIS is a truly powerful moment.  But then, he also takes down a Pyrovile using a water pistol (whilst making an adorable one-eye-screwed-shut face), so there's something for everyone David Tennant-wise, including all that naff running-about-and-shouting stuff that, presumably, someone out there likes.  "TELL ME YOUR NAME-AHH!"

For the most part, this one is reasonably witty and quite interesting, but it doesn't add up to much.  It tries to make sense of time travel, and just raises further questions.  Undoubtedly, The Fires Of Pompeii is all about the ending.  Despite some seriously wobbly foundations, it packs a memorable punch.

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