This was a quality episode, a great recovery from the lacklustre series opener. The episode had an excellent story premise which ultimately sees the Doctor implicated again in another ancient Roman disaster. The burning moral dilemma of the story is established early on when the TARDIS duo realise that they’ve landed in Pompeii, not Rome, and it’s the day before Mount Vesuvius erupts. Donna implores the Doctor save the town, but the Doctor rightly insists he can’t. The only criticism I’d have is that, having established the major moral dilemma so early on in the episode, the matter is mostly shelved until the volcano actually erupts forty minutes later. That leaves a lot of somewhat distracting (although not itself uninteresting) collateral plot progression in between, such as the affair with the Sibylline Sisterhood. Nevertheless, the sequence where the Doctor callously leaves the Pompeii people to their doom, only to be swayed to save the Caecilius family by Donna’s impassioned entreaties, was emotionally compelling stuff.
Implied in the moral dilemma that forms the premise of the episode is the Doctor’s burden as a Time Lord. The Doctor knows he has the capacity to save this whole town, if he wanted to, but grudgingly accepts that he can’t, however much it pains him that doing so is permitting an untold horror to take place. This was really effectively played out onscreen, and Tennant portrayed so compellingly the Doctor’s anguish at what he’s being forced to do, and his resentment of the intolerable burden placed upon him as a Time Lord; the last Time Lord. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. The Doctor was also faced with the dilemma he faced on Gallifrey, at the close of the Time War: of wiping out Pompeii, or allowing the whole world to be conquered by the Pyroviles. In this case he resentfully but unhesitatingly chose to destroy Pompeii for the sake of the world. He made the right choice, I think, as his decision on Gallifrey was the right one, although undoubtedly he would have preferred not to have been forced to make either choice in the first place. This is a reason why I wasn’t happy about how Moffat portrayed the Doctor as having wanted to go back and change what he did on Gallifrey in The Day of the Doctor: here the Doctor showed that he would do again without hesitation what he did on Gallifrey, because he knew it was necessary.
I thought Donna was very well-written in this episode. Although I appreciated the chemistry the Doctor and Donna had when we first saw them together, the Doctor-Donna partnership is shaping up to be surprisingly good in other ways. Donna showed herself willing and able to stand up to the Doctor and his “I’m a Time Lord” pretensions, to rein him in if necessary. Donna’s there to keep the Doctor’s moral compass intact, and is proving herself more than capable of doing so. I think the Doctor’s more assertive, domineering incarnations need a companion with a strong personality, like Donna, to keep them in check. I’m reminded of Evelyn Smythe in Big Finish, who was created as a companion able to counterbalance the Sixth Doctor’s assertive personality and occasionally (frequently, in fact) put him in his place. Donna does that for Ten, and, as a result, they make for a very enjoyable pair to watch.
Some final thoughts: Peter Capaldi was excellent as Caecilius in this episode, although the script he was given didn’t do his acting talents justice. I thought Murray Gold’s overbearing music accompanying the scenes of volcanic devastation was really inappropriate; I felt it just seemed to make light of the sheer traumatic horror of what we were witnessing, which was the fiery death of thousands and thousands of people, one of the worst natural disasters in history. That sequence would have worked far more effectively with no music or very subdued, understated music. What we got just made me cringe. Finally, I appreciated the humour of the Romans’ hearing “Celtic” whenever the Doctor and Donna uttered a Latin phrase. Much amuse.