Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Fires of Pompeii

the fires of pompeii doctor who review james moran colin teague david tennant catherine tate russell t davies title sequence

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.

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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.

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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.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Last of the Time Lords

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Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.

For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.

And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.

Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.

That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.

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Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.

The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.

To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.

A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.

It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)

There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.

Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.

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Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.

In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.

Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.

I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.

(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)

It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.

I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sound of Drums

doctor who review the sound of drums russell t davies colin teague tenth doctor title sequence card vortex

I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.

What strikes me about this episode is quite how fraught it is.

In part that’s because it’s grounded, in a way that previous finales haven’t necessarily been. Bad Wolf drew its strength from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the terrifying with those brilliant game shows; Army of Ghosts, while it began based in the everyday, soon worked its way into the conspiracy theories and aliens more at home in the sci-fi genre.

Here, though, it’s different. The episode is, as I’ve said, grounded; the fight is against politicians, the police, CCTV cameras. There are no Daleks or Cybermen to speak of. Yes, there are certainly fantasy elements to it, and the ‘realism’ is far from the focus of the episode – but, for a time, our main trio are labelled as domestic terrorists and forced on the run.

From that comes a certain powerlessness to our characters, in a way we haven’t quite seen before – understandable, given that the villain is the Prime Minister. There’s a certain level of authority there we’ve not exactly seen to a villain so far; when the Doctor, Martha and Jack are driven to the streets and hide in the dark, it feels significant. There’s a deconstruction of their entire position – the narrative collapse is put into effect.

It’s because of course, at this point – rather unlike the previous finales – the ‘bad guys’, as it were, have already won. The Master is the Prime Minister. Martha’s family has been arrested and her house destroyed. There is no help coming. There’s a real tension to this, and it makes the episode all the more effective.

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One of the big things that works about this episode is John Simm’s Master.

I touched on this a little last week, and I suspect I’ll expand upon it again tomorrow, but the Master here is perfectly pitched to work alongside Tennant’s Doctor. There really is a sense that the pair are equal and opposite in every way; Simm’s own manic behaviour mimicking Tennant’s inclination towards the same, but also the slick control and charm. They work together fantastically; the phone conversation in the middle of the episode is one of my favourite interactions between the Doctor and the Master ever, and it’s played perfectly by John Simm. Despite everything, despite the fact that the Master holds far greater power than the Doctor, he plays it with a real vulnerability – one that really underscores the depth of feeling, of love and of lust, that’s shared between the two men.

It’s because of that that Simm playing against Capaldi tomorrow is quite so interesting a concept – in a sense, there’s a lot of the same promise that a multi-Doctor special offers. There will, I assume, be a certain frisson resulting from it – a juxtaposition of the two styles and characterisations, particularly when throwing Missy into the mix.

Indeed, over the past few weeks I’ve been saying that Capaldi and Gomez are perhaps the best Doctor/Master pair we’ve ever had, but I’m inclined to qualify that once again. Because the dynamic between Tennant and Simm is fascinating, really; it’s absolutely the right way to pitch the two characters for the show at this point, both diegetically and extradiegetically. It grows not just from the Time War and that personal isolation the two characters have, but there’s a real feeling of emotional depth and weight to the pair here. Certainly, the backstory and motivation presented for the Master is controversial amongst some circles; personally speaking, I’ve always liked it. For better or worse, it grounds the Master in a certain means of storytelling that puts emotion at the forefront – he’s not quite a pantomime villain anymore.

(Yes, I know, the obvious response is to point to any of the scenes where the Master is over the top or camp and say “really, that’s not a pantomime villain?” – but I think that’s missing the point slightly. Those moments of humour underscore the insanity of it; you’re not losing the pantomime aspect, but rather adjusting it, presenting it in a different light alongside the more serious moments.)

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In a way though, and one that’s not often commented on, this is quite a pivotal episode for Martha. Obviously, we know, with the benefit of history, what’s going to happen next week – but taken on its own, you can see that a lot of the groundwork was established this week to make that work.

She gets a rough time of it again here. There’s no arguing against that. Her home, and presumably the majority of her possessions, are destroyed. Her family is kidnapped. Also, there’s the end of the world, and the fact that she’s left to deal with it pretty much alone. (Actually, what’s Martha’s job situation like? Does she still have her position at the hospital? That might be an issue.) Of course she gets the worst of it – Martha is grounded in a way that Jack and the Doctor aren’t, so a story that’s as fundamentally grounded as this one is will naturally affect her far more deeply. It’s her world in a far more manifest sense than it is theirs, and it shows across the story.

But for the first time though, Martha more obviously takes a stand and directly argues back. There’s a steel to her, and a steel to her frustration; the character is in a much different place to earlier points in the series. Even as recently as Human Nature, one suspects that she would have taken a lot of the instructions given to her – here, though, contextualised around her family, Martha refuses to.

It makes sense, of course; the personal stakes give Martha a reason to take more direct control. However, I do wonder if this highlights a broader issue with the series as a whole – that Martha, effectively sidelined by her own unrequited love arc, didn’t really get the opportunity to exercise her own autonomy enough. It’s an ongoing truism of the show that the companion never listens to the Doctor – but I’m struggling to think of any particular occasion when Martha does ignore the Doctor? That might just be a personal lapse, but I think the overarching point stands. I do like Martha, and I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much when it comes to the overall series commentary, but I worry that this moment standing out only serves to underscore how limited her role has been so far.

Ultimately, though, I do really enjoy this episode. It’s another strong one – much like Utopia, and indeed I’ve always been particularly fond of this trilogy. It’s nice to be able to look back on it and to feel justified in that; it’s not actually the rubbish it’s oft criticised to be. (I’m worried for next week, to be honest; one moment in particular gets a lot of criticism, and I hope it doesn’t let me down.)

In the end, though, I quite enjoyed this one.

9/10

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