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

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have
already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.

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. Unbeknownst to first time viewers this early on, the TARDIS does make up for it later, and if only one materialization could be shown from this episode, they did pick the right one in the end. But come on, it is a simple enough effect by today's standards whose importance in story-telling should not be so underestimated. It really should be at the beginning as well.

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 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 as this enemy was revealed, perhaps requiring one additional "glory" shot just before cutting to the credits.

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 more interesting that first time through, in which the writer assumes that the Doctor is still stuck wrestling the same issues that plagued him when William Hartnell first started out in the role. A little reversal is in the cards - nice, but about 43 years after it was actually needed.

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

The Pyrovillian Alternative

One 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.

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 passages regarding language translation, 20th century family dysfunction, and keep the "fixed points in time" rubbish out of the mouth of the time expert we normally root for. That leaves space to strengthen the mystery's questions and the investigation beats and motivations.

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.

Well, this story is definitely an improvement on the previous one, but still leaves a weird aftertaste. It had the visuals and action plot and heart to be a great classic, if only it hadn't severely defocused itself with several dialogue passages. Perhaps it does deserve to upset the rankings more than before....

International Titles:

Deutsch: "Die Feuer von Pompeji"

Magyar: "Pompeji lángjai"

Français: "La Chute de Pompéi"

Русский: "Огни Помпеи"

Italiano: "Le fiamme di Pompei"

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 In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Planet of the Ood"

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