Sunday, January 30, 2011

"The Fires of Pompeii"

Remember how the Roman Empire was this funny place basically like now except with aqueducts and lots of words with '-us' on the end? Neither did I! Remember how Doctor Who started off as a semi-educational program with at least some pretense towards maintaining historical accuracy? Neither did they!
Now I suppose I'm not really the target audience for this, because a) I'm not the kind of moron Doctor Who was peddled to in this era, and b) I've done Latin and actually studied the textbooks from which writer James Moran ripped off the names of Caecilius' family, and while it may seem funny to see Peter Capaldi running around hamming it up to the ceiling as Caecilius and Phil Cornwell as one of those famous 'cockney Romans' we hear so much about, I doubt "Up Pompeii" or Mel Brooks' "History of the World Part 1" offers a more stereotypical view of this time. You see I know a thing or two about the period, and life in the Roman Empire was bloody horrible. Corruption and vice were widespread, women had virtually no rights, and slavery was so deeply institutionalised that they outnumbered the citizens by a margin of about twenty to one.
But what the hell, right? It's Doctor Who, and if they want to bowdlerise history (which is pretty much necessary for anything up until the second half of the twentieth century) they can. Just don't blame me for being frustrated from a somewhat more informed point of view. It's like how I complain about the dodgy science in other episodes, which in this one is virtually useless because the science is described so little and is so essentially just magic pretending to be science in the mouth of Tennant that there's no point. Instead in this one I complain about the dodgy history. So anyway Donna puts on a stole but the Doctor calls it a toga for some reason and we find out that people are being converted into molten rock men by other molten rock men who have lost their planet.
Oh, so the plot of every historical story from this era, then? There are a lot of bad historical jokes about the Appian Way and the Doctor saying he's Spartacus and so on and there's plenty of purple prose spouted by various soothsayers and prophetesses around the place. Then the Doctor and Donna climb into the centre of a volcano in spite of the unspeakable heat and have to save the world.
Now even though this episode is mostly a massive waste of time, especially in the prophecy fight that is just designed to dribble out hints about later episodes, the Pyroviles look pretty cool and I suppose it's not too bad to see the Doctor faced with that classic moral dilemma of philosophy - is it ethically superior to act and thus kill a smaller number of people so that a larger number may live, or to do nothing yet let that larger number of people die? Of course this all gets confused with Doctor's explanation about fixed points in time. Apparently he 'just knows' when a point is fixed and when it can change. Isn't it funny how the non-fixed points tend to be in the future of whatever year the episode was first broadcast and the fixed ones tend to be around historical events which exist in popular consciousness? Then the Doctor describes this rather needlessly as the "burden of a Time Lord". I assume that goes in the 'Time Lord related purple prose set' with "The Curse of a Time Lord" and "The Fury of a Time Lord". Now we only need "The Very Eye of a Time Lord" and we'll have the complete package.
The Pyroviles need big computer chips made of rock for some reason but this idea seems to get kind of dropped and you are left with the impression it was done solely for a cheap visual shock, and then the Doctor has to wrangle with his doubts. Of course he chooses to kill all these people because it's that or sacrifice the whole of Earth's future but he's not very happy about it and at least it leaves things open. You have to wonder though, if the Doctor didn't have such affection for Earth, would he make the same choice? It's nice of them to put a bit of philosophy in but we could do with some more which would have been possible if there'd been less of Frankie Howard's Rome. Pompeii is nicely realised in terms of appearance I suppose and all the music sounds like it's been taken from Age of Empires I. Also people should notice that the red-haired Soothsayer is played by none other than the elusive Karen Gillan, who will go on to be important in our future.
It's also good to see Donna call out the Doctor, who is effectively doing his whole "I am ze Ubermensch" thing again, and make him rescue Peter Capaldi and the Cambridge Latin Course (contradicting the storylines in those textbooks, incidentally) so that they can quite literally stand around having a fiddle while Pompeii burns, as it were. Anyway it's quite refreshing to see someone who sticks up to the Doctor, as opposed to Rose's coupley smuggery and, unfortunately, Martha's eventual wet-fishedness. This is another one that isn't as annoying as I remember but a lot of the acting is ham and cheese and the historical inaccuracies really get up my nose. The 'Six Months Later' is particularly excruciating and needless. Nonetheless, at least it tries to have some kind of intellectual discourse, which is better than what we see most of the time.

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