Ah. Now. This is tricky. I’m extremely tempted to call this an absolutely fantastic showing of what Doctor Who can be when it’s on top form based solely on the second half of this episode, but that would not be fair to the first half!
Part of the brilliance of the show, rests on the rather easy to carry shoulders, of the TARDIS. This is the device that allows us to travel through time and space and see all the different ways the human condition can survive under unique circumstances. So here, we travel back to ancient Rome (well, Pompeii!) and we get the insight into a family’s life back then. And it’s rather surprisingly familiar. You can see the echoes of what our lives are like today; the rebellious son, the worried mother, the uplifted sibling and the distracted father. Except to me it sort of seemed like a straight version of the characters you see in My Family, a sitcom.
I can see what’s being said here; that pretty much wherever you go, families are the same. Except I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be historically accurate. I would have expected something stronger, a more rigid interpretation of how a family grouping would have acted in the days of ancient Rome. That isn’t my major gripe about this family being included in the episode, it’s just that their introduction like this slowed the whole episode down.
Episode starts, Doctor and Donna run into the market square and brilliant decision they actually went abroad to film, it looks so much more effective than if it had been something knocked up over here. Donna’s loving every moment of it, and the Doctor is loving HER loving every moment of it. They joke, they cajole, we’re thrown more information about how the TARDIS translates writing and speech (anyone else love how the writer pokes fun at how, if the magical translating device makes you speak Latin, if you then consciously make the effort to speak Latin, what would it sound like? Here. Evidentially it’s Welsh!) And it flows. It’s quick and easy and we’re thrust into the action. The Doctor looks aghast when he realises where they are.
And then the TARDIS is sold while the two aren’t looking. And then we hit the family, and it’s like a stumbling block. It’s jarring to go from that whole set up of ancient Rome, and to suddenly find us looking at what could pretty much be your average 21st century family, just dressed weirdly. I found it shook me out of the episode for a while. Thankfully you’re sucked right back in when you get your first viewing of the soothsayers in their full garb. Again, the production values are spot on here.
From here on in the episode catches back up to it’s speedy cause and effect approach; I think I was more thrilled by the contest of the soothsayers with their psychic predictions and knowledge of both Donna and Doctor, than I was by some of the action scenes later on. C’mon. First the daughter calls the Doctor (who introduced himself as Spartacus) by his real name, and then the town soothsayer goes even further, completely undermining our expectations of him as a fraudster, by calling him the “˜man from Gallifrey.’ If that didn’t make you sit up and pay attention, the following exchanges of “She is returning!” to the Doctor and “You have something on your back!” to Donna, would have.
It seems, rather than a watchword for this season, we will have some returning themes. Interesting idea and following on from Rose’s unexpected appearance last week, I like it.
The Sisterhood was effectively portrayed. Their High Priestess’ reveal was nicely done, if perhaps formulaic. But their role in the episode on the whole is very effective; I like how they were innocent victims who simply believed that what they were doing were right. They were not out and out villains, just deceived humans. The real villains of the episode, the Pyroviles, are your typical aliens out to rule the world affair. They are interestingly realised, both in human form through make up, by infecting the High Priestess, and the foot soldiers made via CGI technology. They are just a way to move the story along, to throw an interesting Doctor Who twist on the history of Pompeii.
And it’s the history of Pompeii that is especially crucial to this episode.
It’s hard to remember sometimes that this show isn’t aimed primarily for adults, especially when it tackles the themes it does. Throughout the episode there’s a contest of wills between the Doctor and Donna as she challenges him on why, if he knows the people in Pompeii are doomed to die, he doesn’t try to save them. After all, isn’t that what he does? For the most part, he avoids these questions with simply stop answers, he doesn’t try to explain to Donna until the last 15 minutes when the alien invasion becomes clear and he now perhaps has a good reason to interfere!
It turns out, in another good performance from Tennant, that as a Timelord, he can see “”¦all that is, all that was, all that could be and all that must not.” Listen to the way Tennant punctuates that sentence. The tension. He wants to save lives with all his might, but he just knows that sometimes, interfering only makes things worse. That’s his burden that he carries everyday. It’s a good debate dealing with intense thoughts and ideas, especially when by episodes near end, the Doctor and Donna realise they are the ones who doom Pompeii, or else the rest of the world falls to the might of alien Pyroviles.
If anyone says Catherine Tate cannot act, and Donna’s character is not a good companion or they’ve changed her to make the audience like her more, they can all take a good long step back. When she finally supports the Doctor and gives him the strength he needs to make one of the hard choices, and then immediately finds it in herself to challenge him to find some measure of compromise in the deaths of so many people, she seals herself as a companion. Her desire to go back and save someone, just one family, is quintessential Donna Noble that links right back to “˜The Runaway Bride’ when Donna wanted no more death and destruction. And Catherine Tate nails it here. She’s not over the top. She’s not grimacing or being over dramatic the way Donna can be, she’s being the truest to form the character has been.
This is the real centre of the episode, I believe. Cementing Donna’s place in the TARDIS; her position as, not just human companion, but moral compass to a Doctor who has always needed a guiding hand.
Kudos to all involved this episode. Some parts I had quibbles with. But the overall effects cancels out the worries and whenever I was shaken from the episode, I was pulled right back into it.
I’m giving this one 4 out of 5 sonic screwdrivers.
Yes, my score system is new. I’m the reviewer. It’s allowed.