We were promised an eruption for the second episode of Dr Who’s fourth season, and by heck, we got one. Donna and The Doctor found themselves in Pompeii a day before the volcano was due to erupt, and after a series of confusing events ended up detonating Vesuvius personally, killing 20,000-odd people in the process. It was, needless to say, rather a darker episode of Doctor Who than usual. James Moran, who wrote the actually-very-bleak horror comedy “Severance” was behind the goings-on of this episode, and struck just the right balance of comedy and bleak horror here, setting things up to be a light hearted romp through olden days before eventually finishing with one of the most morally fascinating moments of the entire show so far.
But first, let’s just get this down. How fantastic did everything look this episode? Everything was shot on location at the set they sued for “Rome”, and the details and life of the people seemed completely real. In a sense, this was the most realistic and believable trip back in time that we’ve seen yet, and much of this must boil down to the way Moran doesn’t try to explain the goings-on particularly, instead focusing much of the episode on a family of Romans, headed up by Peter Capaldi (the nasty one from The Thick If It, who in a complete role-reversal played a nice guy). The family scenes sparkled in the way they mirrored modern times, but with a few twists – “go and pray forgiveness to the household Gods!” – and truly made us care about if these four people lived or died. You would imagine that as a result the other characters would fade into the background, but no, Donna and the Doctor both got some tremendous scenes during the episode, especially towards the end. Catherine Tate got a lot of stick for her character, but up until now has only ever acted in Russell T. Davies’ episodes. Coupled with a better writer, she seems much more likable. Tate, a superb actress, completely sells the intensity of the final few scenes with a dynamic acting performance that for the first time shows Tennant’s Doctor in a negative light. In return, Tennant ups his game, and the episode benefits enormously for it. As Donna walks through Pompeii as the ash falls, the sense of loss is palpable, and when Tennant goes back to the Tardis without helping the family you can see the decision weighing on her character whether to stay or not. Hopefully, this will quieten all those who had criticised her before, because it truly was a superb performance.
The performances were universally excellent, which helps when the plot makes only vague sense. The scenes with the cult populated entirely by women didn’t seem to have any real purpose in regards to the rest of the plot, although the effects on the woman turned into stone were great. Listening to her announce her real name though, I have no idea what she said it was, even after re-listening to the scene... There was never any interest in what would happen to these characters, and they seemed to be forgotten about entirely by the end as the plot focused instead more on the other soothsayer. Phil Davies did what he could with the character, and one of the best scenes in an episode filled with good scenes was when he and the daughter had a sooth-off, predicting various aspects about Donna and the Doctor. Towards the end he, too, seemed pretty one-dimensional, and the episode would have been better for picking one baddie or the other. Having two different baddies who essentially served the same purpose just took time away from the central plot and the actual monsters. They looked vaguely like transformers, and died amazingly easily (one bucket of water = death, seemingly), and again, didn’t seem developed enough.
There were so many little touches throughout, though – did you catch the reference to the Shadow Proclamation? – that the plot didn’t really matter. The joy was in the script, which sparkled one-liners. The idea that if someone from the Tardis speaks Latin to… Latin folk, it translates into Welsh resulted in several whispered one liners from Capaldi (translating one piece of Latin as “look you”), and Tennant’s delivery of the line “I am… Spartacus” was hilarious, especially as Tate then joined in with “No, I am Spartacus”. The Doctor pulling out a water pistol was unexpected and brilliant, and again these silly moments counteracted the very dark shift in tone that took place at the end. I thought the Doctor was right to leave the family behind, but at the same time I was happy when he came back for them – it felt right. And good work to the director for not trying to dilute the darkness. It made the entire scene of the eruption (which was very realistic) seem so much more important.
This was a great episode of Doctor Who, mixing light and dark moments with a storyline that had characters who were interesting. I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing us return to Rome for another episode sometime in the future.
Episode Rating: A
- How did they move the Tardis into the family home so quickly?
- I was worried the ending would see Rose appear again, but instead we got a nicely underplayed finale with the family. Good stuff!
- The magical Sonic Screwdriver was mostly absent this episode, although he used it ocne to knock some computer chips off a shelf. Couldn’t he have just, y’know, knocked them off himself? The Doctor is getting lazy…
- I wish I had a pond in my front room.
- Line of the Episode: Tate’s furious “I’ll surrender you in a minute!”
Next week: Remember those rubbish Ood aliens from last season? They’re back, to be rubbish all over again.