Thoughts on: The Fires of Pompeii

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.

Rating: 8/10.

Review: Children of Earth

This is the first time I’ve felt compelled to write a review about a Torchwood story. That’s because Torchwood: Children of Earth was utterly astounding. It is easily the best thing to come out of the Torchwood franchise (that I’ve seen), and quite possibly the best thing to come out of the post-2005 Doctor Who revival. This, readers, is how to do sci-fi drama. Perhaps it was the condensing of Series 3 of Torchwood into 5 episodes that allowed them to pull off this feat of a screen production, something that was, at the time, seen as a “punishment” for Torchwood, but I’d much rather have these five amazing episodes than the usual 13 episodes of mediocrity interspersed with the odd triumph (sorry, but, at least for Series 1 and 2, it’s true).

In terms of plot, Children of Earth started slowly — as to be expected when a single story is spread over 5 hours — but not so slowly as not to seriously pique my interest. The moment when the children first stood still, as if in a collective trance, and in freaky unison spoke “We are coming”, was genuinely chilling. Jack’s recovery from being ripped to shreds by the detonation of a bomb inside him was also quite awesome. The real action didn’t start until episode 3, however, when the 456 arrived in London. I have to admit, for the last three episodes (I watched episodes 3-5 in one sitting), I felt quite sick in the stomach. Children of Earth took a truly dark turn upon the arrival of the 456, wading into bleak waters both exhilarating and disturbing. The revelation of what the 456 wanted, and for what purpose, was truly horrifying — as was the gruesome vision of the husk of a child connected to the beast. Thus the uneasy feeling in my bowel region. Perhaps just as nauseating was the willingness of the government to comply with the 456’s repulsive demand, a comment, perhaps, on the kind of people who are able to rise to such positions of power. It was all carried out perfectly, inducing exactly the response — disgust and outrage — in the audience that it was going for. It was truly fluent and effective writing, acting and production all-round.

A number of significant themes are discussed in Children of Earth. As already stated, there is the commentary on power and those who hold it. To watch the discussions in the Cabinet room, to watch these people po-facedly discuss the best way to round up and give away 325,000 children into, effectively, perpetual slavery, is to think one is witnessing a nightmare. The comment is that these people are not like you and I. They’re the kind of people who will give the order to wrest hundreds of thousands of children from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms in order to give them into slavery. They’re the kind of people who rule us. Also commented upon was the possible, and quite probable, reality of alien contact with Earth. In Children of Earth, the 456 came to Earth not to trade with humanity, or enlighten it, or learn from it, or co-operate with it, but to viciously exploit it. Such is a comment on the fact that, if and when alien contact with Earth happens, it might be more like Children of Earth than we’d want to imagine. It’s easy to forget that the system of morality we in the West take for granted is essentially a legacy of Judaeo-Christian culture, and Christianity in particular, and that outside this historical culture things as simple as seeing your fellow man, not just your family, as deserving of the rights and dignity of a fellow human being, are alien — thus the prevalence of slavery throughout human history, including in the “enlightened” civilisations of Greece and Rome. It is quite probable that, if and when contact is made with an alien civilisation, it will want to exploit us, not co-operate with us — the point made disturbingly in Children of Earth.

It was a fair question for Gwen to ask, “Where is the Doctor?” The answer she satisfied herself with, that the Doctor must look away with shame at humanity, given its actions in this crisis, is sufficient, one supposes (I’d be interested in seeing this incident mentioned in Doctor Who). I’m not critiquing the resolution to this epic story, which contributed to some profound character development, and revelation, on Jack’s part. However, I think a more effective ending might have been to involve the Doctor in a very subtle way. Just let me indulge my offensively presumptuous “I think I could do better than the writer” impulse for a moment. I think it might have been more effective, with humanity at its knees, caught between total extermination and giving one tenth of its children into slavery, for their salvation to be delivered by the Doctor: millions of children across the world are about to be taken, but the 456 suddenly disappear with an almighty screech and a blast, the dark clouds clear, and Jack looks into the skies to see a blue box fading away… The dust settling, humanity would be at the same time overjoyed at their sudden salvation, but also horrified upon reflecting on what they almost did. Or whatever; criticise away.

I want to put in a final word of praise for Peter Capaldi as Frobisher. The part of Frobisher was superlatively written, and superbly played by Capaldi. As Frobisher (never mind as the Doctor), Capaldi really shows himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. It was gut-wrenching to see Frobisher’s reaction as he realised what the Prime Minister was asking him to do in the final episode: a really heartbreaking moral dilemma one would never, ever want to be placed in. Frobisher’s resolution was entirely understandable. It really was brilliant writing and moving acting.

In sum, an absolute triumph.

Rating: 10/10.