A First-Timer Watches Doctor Who: “The Fires Of Pompeii”
It must have been foretold that I would watch “The Fires of Pompeii” in the same week that Peter Capaldi begins his stint as the Doctor. In this episode, Capaldi plays an Ancient-Roman family man named Caecilius, whose household faces incineration in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Caecilius’ daughter, Evelina, has the power to see into the future—but strangely doesn’t have an inkling that a volcano is about to erupt. As the Doctor and Donna discover, that’s because the town has been infiltrated by the Pyroviles, a species of alien fire-lovers who lost their home planet. They want to redirect the heat from Vesuvius to turn the whole planet into a sauna they can repopulate with their own kind.
Peter Capaldi could not be less Doctor-like in this episode! He’s soft-spoken to the point of almost-whispering, and reacts to the volcano’s explosion by huddling in the corner hugging his family. Not that that’s not a normal way to behave! But I’m sure the contrast between Caecilius and his interpretation of the Doctor will be fun to pick apart.
Watching this episode, I realized how far Doctor Who‘s special effects have come since story like “The Satan Pit,” which also dealt with a fiery, cave-dwelling monster. The High Priestess of the Sisterhood, a group of cloaked female soothsayers, had been completely turned to stone by the Pyroviles—and the reveal of her dry, craggy flesh was a genuine feat of makeup. (Face Off contestants, take note.) Then there are the Pyroviles themselves, somewhat Sauron-esque fire breathers who’ve set up camp inside Vesuvius. Their clanking, armoured forms would not have looked out of place in a Peter Jackson movie.
As the Doctor faces his difficult choice—destroy Pompeii or destroy the whole world, including Pompeii (which actually kind of seems like a no-brainer?)—there’s an inkling that this is a miniature version of what he faced on Gallifrey. After setting off the volcano, he bolts to the TARDIS as though he just wants to get the hell out of there and forget he ever met Caecilius, Evelina and the gang. It seems insensitive—but there’s a sense that he’s been here before, that this isn’t the first time he witnessed thousands of people burning. Maybe his new friendship with Donna—which is free from the romantic messiness that ultimately clouded his relationships with both Rose and Martha—will help him find more peace with himself.