The Fires of Pompeii

Region 1
box set

Region 2
box set
Region 2
3-episode volume
(Doctor Who Story No. 195, starring David Tennant)
  • written by James Moran
  • directed by Colin Teague
  • produced by Phil Collinson
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 1 episode @ 48 minutes
Story: Donna finds herself in an uphill battle trying to convince the Doctor to warn the citizens of Pompeii that the nearby Vesuvius mountain is about to explode and bury the city in less than 48 hours. The Doctor becomes more concerned to learn how the population is developing an uncanny knack for making accurate prophecies, with serious side-effects on their health. Why is the volcanic eruption the one event they can't predict? And what powerful intelligent forces are at work in the mountain itself?

DVD Extras (box sets only) include:

  • Audio commentary by David Tennant (The Doctor), Catherine Tate (Donna Noble), and production manager Tracie Simpson.
  • Doctor Who Confidential featurette: The Italian Job (9 min.) with Tennant, Tate, Phil Cornwell (Stallholder), director Colin Teague,
    producer Phil Collinson, executive producer Russell T. Davies, and pyrotechnics technician Danny Hargreaves.
    Includes David Tennant's fascinating tour of the actual ruins of Pompeii, with guide Gaetano Manfredi.
  • Deleted Scenes (1 min.) - introduced by executive producer Russell T. Davies
  • TV Trailer

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Well, this story seems to work MUCH better on repeat viewing than it did the first time through, so we'll want to examine what it's doing, or not doing, to create quality anticipation. Will there be an upset in the ranking? Hmmm.....

Perhaps the first blow against creating quality anticipation is the unfortunate sequencing of stories and their settings within the broadcast order. Predictably, the series feels it has to now introduce Donna to the two types of settings that the series alternated between in the sixties, beginning with time travel into history. So we're stuck mucking about with the Earth for the fourth story in a row. At least we've left England this time. The opening shot immediately reveals that the camera started rolling a few seconds too late to capture a satisfying TARDIS materialization. Easy points lost, creating the anticipation of a story done on the cheap, as well as making the story less accessible to those who might be getting their very first taste of Doctor Who with this episode. Not smart.

As those who remember "The Masque of Mandragora" (story no. 86) will attest, there's something about Italy that draws language translation questions out of the Doctor's companions. The subject is handled particularly badly here - The TARDIS would indeed be a poor vehicle to use to explore other cultures if, as suggested here, it magically wiped out all perception of the other culture having differences like language, speech patterns, and the underlying philosophical differences behind such things. Many of the opening scenes open this can of worms and fail to satisfy, instead producing an aura suggesting that Donna hasn't really left modern England. Yes, we're back to that recurring problem again. I prefer to believe that, when a story is properly written, the TARDIS translation mechanisms only fill in whatever raw linguistic blanks may remain in its passengers' minds. Thus you can still hear German and French in "The War Games" (story no. 50), or listen to the Judoon shift from their own language and actually learn English through their own translation devices in "Smith and Jones" (story no. 183). Of course, there's no reason why a shopkeeper shouldn't be able to detect a Celtic accent on Donna's Latin, and if the accent is thick enough, and the TARDIS reluctant enough to intervene, maybe he won't be able to make out what she's trying to say at all..... If only the story's dialogue could suggest/promote this explanation of what's going on.....

In terms of the developing story, what seems to start out as a quaint history lesson quickly adds a bizarre bit of sci-fi mystery that will keep you guessing. I say "bit" because, at least on first viewing, it doesn't quite seem to overshadow a less interesting people drama that sounds weirdly modern where one would more likely expect Shakespearean dialogue. Is the writer (or an editing Davies in his reported re-writes) really able to wrap his mind around a new culture? Is TARDIS translation going to be the new convenient inexcusable crutch whenever this happens? If so, I may tune out. I believe there are philosophies currently coming out in this world that will make the type of open family dysfunctions and blame-centered dialogue featured here seem very dated, and very late 20th / early 21st century. Carting it back to Pompeii in 79 A.D. as a kind of "universal truth" is too pedestrian and "un-travelled" for this show's intended scope.

The Sybilline Sisterhood draws on the strings of old, worn-out cult clichés that don't improve the story's watchability. Although drawing some respectability from its historical basis, putting it ahead of many similar ideas popular in the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show (seasons 12-14), it's ultimately something hard to take too seriously on today's screen. Not until the second half of the story does the sisterhood really prove it has significant worth; before then it predicts a mediocre level of villainy for the tale.

The character of Lucius is introduced in a scene with probably far too many people in it at once, and far too many important story points to get across, probably becoming as much a nightmare to shoot as the Rivendell Council Meeting scene was in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring". On TV's tight schedule, Colin Teague doesn't quite do as well as Peter Jackson did, but manages a fairly good go at it, making at least half of the points succeed very well.

Lucius himself does not sustain much interest for the story though, appearing more and more one-dimensional as a character the more we see of him. On the other hand, the leader of the sisterhood, once revealed, offers loads of higher interest, becoming one of the successes of the adventure.

The music is excellent once more; thank you Murray. Quite a bit of it is now being reused from previous stories, and previous seasons, but that just helps it become more memorable. The music of the Sybilline Sisterhood is unique for this story, and while not my favourite bit, is entirely appropriate and works well. Sadly, an enjoyably pompous brass herald for Lucius and his entourage did not make it onto the CD, but space was limited.

A few well-done story beats escalate the plot and keep you riveted, and we do get a riveting final enemy worthy of making up for many of the story's earlier shortcomings. If this story ever had to be split back into the classic format of two 25-minute episodes, it would have a great cliffhanger....

The sets and artistic design of this story are fairly elaborate and give the show a nice look, although I'd never have guessed before seeing behind-the-scenes material that they left England and went to Rome for the shoot. Partly I'm probably taking modern set-design ability for granted; partly I don't think the maximum possible value of being there was brought out in the footage.

Much of the less than great stuff we found ourselves wading through at the beginning of the story does pay off later on, making the story work better as a whole than the first half alone could suggest. The decisive action for the climax works well on repeat viewing and looks great on screen, although it did seem a bit too predictable on first viewing. The coda was actually more interesting than the climax that first time through....

Music by Murray Gold
"The Sybilline Sisterhood",
"Life Among the Distant Stars",
"Corridors and Fire Escapes", and
"Voyage of the Damned Suite"
are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 4" (2008)

More info & buying options

"All the Strange, Strange Creatures", and
"The Doctor Forever" are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 3"

More info & buying options

There's much more to be said on the finale and underlying premise of this story, but you can read about all that in the In-depth Analysis version of this review after you've seen the show.

On the whole though, I think this tale has aged better than many other episodes of this show. The main subject matter remains interesting, the action is solid, the plot works well, and the visuals are exciting and stunning. It's got much of what I'd want from a story set on a new planet. Chiefly, I only want to remove a few of its less successful dialogue passages, freeing up screen time to strengthen its more promising elements. This story is definitely an improvement on the previous one, but still leaves a weird aftertaste. Perhaps it does deserve to upset the rankings more than before....

This story has become available on DVD.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

DVD NTSC Region 1
14-episode boxed set
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
14-episode boxed set
for the U.K.
DVD PAL Region 2
3-episode volume
U.K. format only

Note: The full season sets contain commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and other extras. The smaller volumes only feature the plain episodes.

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "Planet of the Ood"

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