Don’t you think I’ve done enough? History’s back in place and everyone dies.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that an episode that’s about the idea of the future haunting the past is similarly haunted by the future of the programme, starring not only a future companion but also a future Doctor. Funny that.
There’s something difficult about these episodes – and by “these episodes”, I mean the ones that deal with the laws of time travel. Obviously, they’re necessary up to a point; it’s always going to be a question that pops up after a while in any science fiction piece, but especially so in Doctor Who, where the lead character is seemingly changing time every Saturday. Why can you save Donna in 2008, but not Caecillius in Ancient Rome? After all, it’ll be Ancient 2008 one day. (It feels like Ancient 2008 now.) And, in turn, the fact is that these things are always going to be entirely arbitrary, and to present them as anything otherwise is really just a sleight of hand; you can dress it up in technobabble, but essentially “fixed points in time” amount to “just because”. Or, really, “because the eruption of Vesuvius is something the viewers know about”. Something they did on Quantum Leap once, which is interesting and might be worth learning from, was to have the past changed into what we know – so, there’s an episode where Scott Bakula travels back in time and changes time so that Jackie Kennedy wasn’t assassinated along with JFK. That’s potentially quite a neat write-around to avoid the constraints of the audience’s knowledge.
The solution that The Fires of Pompeii finds, insofar as it actually is a solution, is to frame it not about the laws of time travel but rather to examine it in terms of the ethics of it. It’s a clever approach, but it’s a difficult one to quite get a handle on; ultimately, what it comes down to is a trolley problem, which is… I mean, I think I am generally more forgiving of trolley problems as dramatic contrivance than people tend to be, but it’s still a little tired. There’s a lot of other ways to frame the debate (the most obvious being status quo vs revolutionary ideas, which feels in line with Doctor Who) and it’s difficult not to feel as though this particular way of approaching it didn’t quite work. Especially, actually, since it’s a fairly hollow ‘debate’ – much as “fixed points in time” amount to “just because”, the debate amounts to “I know better than you”.
But that doesn’t mean that The Fires in Pompeii doesn’t have anything to say, or that it’s not an episode that’s instructive about the characters – it just needs to be considered from another angle.
The most interesting part of The Fires of Pompeii, I think, is the way David Tennant pitches that line, “TARDIS, Time Lord, Yes”. It’d be quite easy to play that in a more comedic way – certainly, Catherine Tate does it with a sort of affronted air that makes it feel a little like a punchline – but it’s not the choice he makes. No, instead he really snarls it, leaning into the arrogance and the superiority; he is in charge, and he’s demanding she acknowledge that, demanding she acquiesce to him.
That’s the more engaging way to look at The Fires of Pompeii – a study in the Tenth Doctor’s arrogance. It’s palpable, seeping off the screen; he’s patrician and condescending, and so screamingly steadfast in his convictions. In turn, it’s this that alienates him and makes him monstrous, turning a blind eye as people perish all around him. It’s actually quite horrifying to see the Doctor leave, the sound of the TARDIS transformed into something threatening as he nearly leaves Donna behind. Of course Donna doesn’t agree with the Doctor, even after pushing the button with him. (Why did she do it, then? So he didn’t have to do it alone. That’s a fascinating detail about her character, there.) You could quite easily imagine something like this used as the basis for a Kill the Moon style confrontation between the Doctor and a companion; there’s something genuinely quite awful about it all. For all that people talk about the Davies era as being about framing the Doctor as a lonely god, it feels quite rare for them to discuss it in terms of this episode – when The Fires of Pompeii is, surely moreso than any other story of his tenure, the piece that most emphasises the gulf between the Doctor and everyone around him.
I almost wish, really, that the episode had been more willing to commit to that, to be a little more critical of the Doctor in that regard. It’s a far more compelling way to look at these time travel parables, I think, throwing up much more to consider than a trolley problem – you sort of wonder, really, what The Fires of Pompeii might have looked like as a contemplative late series episode rather than a big, broad part of the series launch.
The grace note, of course, is supposed to be the moment where the Doctor saves Caecillius and his family. But what makes Caecillius so worth saving? It’s that he and his family were the supporting cast, the only people the Doctor and Donna got to know. It’s that he’s got the famous face of Peter Capaldi, the actor the audience are going to recognise. If you like, it’s that he’s got the future face of the Twelfth Doctor, marking him apart from everyone else in much the same way the episode stresses the Tenth Doctor’s separation from humanity.
There’s little about what the Doctor says to Caecillius at the end that you’d describe as comforting. It’s not the caring conversation that Donna has with Evaline; it’s about the long lens of history, contextualising them as ants next to a giant. It’s cold, without empathy, while Caecillius stands and watches and cries – thinking, perhaps, about friends and colleagues and people he passed on the street and people he didn’t meet. Saving Caecillius isn’t kind, it’s fickle, and arbitrary, and ultimately just down to a whim. To be at the mercy of someone like that? Talk about cruel and unusual. The joke at the end is that Caecillius and his family didn’t understand the Doctor and Donna, thinking of them as gods – but maybe that’s a more accurate way of looking at them, in the end.
A few years later, when Peter Capaldi popped up again and turned out to be the best Doctor Who we’ve ever had, they returned back to this episode to explain it away. Why does the Doctor have Caecillius’ face now? As a reminder to save the little people. But is that what he did here? In a way, it feels much closer to that speech in Boom Town, about how every now and then even the worst monster will spare someone just to make themselves feel better.
Ultimately, then, I think The Fires of Pompeii is a very good episode – but one that’s often celebrated for the things it’s not actually doing.