“If you could decide who lives and who dies... that would make you a monster”
The Doctor takes Donna into history for the first time, where she learns that some things are meant to be even when you travel in time, and sometimes because you travel in time.
The Fires of Pompeii very much feels like an old fashioned Who story. You can almost see Hartnell wandering through those markets and Ian arguing with Lucius. There is even a subtle reference to The Romans as the Doctor alludes to his previous visit to Rome, and the fire that followed it
With a script by James Moran, famous word jockey and Scribonaut of this parish and owner of the fingertips behind Severance, you know it’s going to have a lot of humour and so it does. When the full horror of the Doctor’s responsibility and the fate of Pompeii is brought home to us however, events take a turn for the tear jerking.
Donna builds (rebuilds?) upon the good foundations of her returning story as she develops into a sparky companion that really won’t accept any lofty Time Lord pretensions to responsibility on a cosmic scale. People are dying and she wants it stopped, she’s only interested in the human cost and offers our Doctor a more insistent moral compass than he’s had in some time. Perhaps even since the days of his travels with Ian and Barbara.
The prophecies of Pompeii merit a mention. Lucius tells the Doctor that ‘She is returning,’ which must mean Rose mustn’t it? Or is that too obvious? Is there really something to all this talk of the Rani? The granite-armed prophet goes on to tell Donna that she ‘has something on (her) back.’ This is mystifying and somehow terrifying, what could it mean? Actually it did remind me of another old enemy, the Eight Legs – surely The Great One couldn’t be the ‘she’ who is returning?
More references to the past as the Doctor refers to an early adventure and the Shadow Proclamation and The Medusa Cascade are mentioned again. Most chillingly events echo the words of Mr Copper in The Voyage of the Damned (repeated above) when the Doctor does indeed decide that Caecilius and his family will live, while all Pompeii burns. Does that make the Doctor a monster?
The Fires of Pompeii looks spectacular, partly due to the much mentioned filming that took place at the Cinecittà in Italy but also due to the fantastic sets that were erected at Upper Boat. The final moments as Pompeii is washed away by a tide of flame are beautifully cinematic, and gloriously inappropriate. Trust the Doctor to save a family from that terrible fate then make them watch their friends burn. This story is that rarest of things; an instant classic. Every bit as satisfying as I hoped it would be and a sure sign of great times ahead.