DVD Extras (box sets only) include:
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) (or allow the Doctor to speak to them in Judoon later this season). 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", or even the group scenes from "The Unicorn and the Wasp" (story no. 199) later this year. 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. No matter what part of his backstory is revealed, or what part of someone else's backstory is revealed through him, he seems consumed with confronting and blocking other people, to the point where he shows no other emotional dimension, and doesn't even seem to believably inhabit the one.
The leader of the sisterhood, once revealed, offers loads of higher interest, becoming one of the successes of the adventure.
The Pyrovillian AlternativeOne of this story's conflicts centers on the whole concept of what is or is not historically inevitable once time travel is thrown into the works. From the opening, you can both see this coming a mile away, and see that the writer(s) don't really understand the nature of the time/space/choice continuum anyway, so they're bound to mess it up. They would like to say that sometimes things can be influenced heroically, and sometimes they can't, and they make the Doctor emphatic on this. But when Donna in her glory (God bless her) pounds away at the Doctor for the reasoning behind this, they can give him none to relay to her or through her to us. That's because there are no good reasons, guys! All alternative histories continue to exist in their own alternate / parallel (or not so parallel) universes. Including one with a Pyrovillian controlled Earth. Including many with a fully vibrant culture on a planet called Gallifrey.
Thankfully, because there's a heroic reason to want Vesuvius to erupt, no argument from me with the Doctor making it happen. But, when acting at his philosophical best as he often did in the good Bob Baker / Dave Martin tales, the Doctor would also save a local population from disaster, unwilling to settle for a half-baked solution. There's no good reason for him to settle for one here in Pompeii, or with regards to Gallifrey. Something more effective than having Donna rant like a lunatic to the locals would be desirable, but having her have to beg the Doctor to help one family seems.... outdated. All it really takes is to put the Relativity back into the Time And Dimensions In Space - what's good for unknown future worlds is also good for Earth's past.
Additionally, several members of the cast have gone on to play much larger recurring roles on the show. Future Doctor Peter Capaldi is here as the father of the main family we spend time with, and does well to demonstrate his emotional range. You'll have to watch a bit more carefully to recognize future companion Karen Gillan as the reporting scout for the Sybilline sisterhood, as she's quite painted up, says half her small number of lines with her hands in front of her face, and disguises her Scottish accent. Suddenly Clara doesn't seem to be the only "Impossible Girl" of the show. Extra fun.
This story has become available on DVD.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:
Note: The full season sets contain commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and other extras. The smaller volumes only feature the plain episodes.
Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page: