It’s a moral dilemma that has haunted Doctor Who since its earliest days. While the Doctor has always meddled in the affairs of other planets and present day Earth, our planet’s history has always been treated differently. Ever since strong-headed schoolteacher Barbara Wright failed to stop the Aztecs from performing human sacrifices, the message has been clear: you cannot change the past.
Trust Donna — brash, loud, intelligent Donna — to ask the question, “Why not?” and refuse to give up until she got a satisfactory answer. It was that process that formed the emotional backbone of this episode, producing some truly heartbreaking performances from both David Tennant and Catherine Tate.
Unfortunately, the episode also had its fair share of hammy, underwritten characters — but thankfully, the positives in this week’s episode far outweighed the negatives.
The conceit of the TARDIS translation circuits, which allow the Doctor, his companion and the audience to communicate in any language, receives a sly kicking here. When Donna finds out that she and the Doctor are automatically talking in Latin, her first thought is to try speaking an actual Latin phrase and see what happens. What could have been a one-off joke — the resultant translation is mistaken for Welsh — is subtly played throughout the episode (“There’s lovely,” muses Peter Capaldi’s Caecilius after the Doctor lets slip a quick “Caveat Emptor”) in a way that builds the joke without trampling it into the ground.
Not so well thought out is the dialogue given to Caecilius’ family. While the marble merchant himself is written well enough to let Capaldi to play him completely deadpan, thus being able to traverse the line between wit and tragedy with ease, his wife and children do not fare so well. At times I found Tracey Childs’ performance painful to watch. Partly this was down to James Moran’s script, which clearly was more interested in getting to the bits with the monsters than it was fleshing out the family through whose eyes we were seeing the events unfold. Similarly, Francois Pandolfo’s feckless Quintus remained pretty much one-dimensional throughout.
Better served was Francesca Fowler as the young soothsayer Evelina, providing the link between the domestic situation and the real peril behind this week’s episode — the augurs and soothsayers who, remarkably, are proving to be always right — but turning to stone in the process. Her scene with Catherine Tate, as Donna struggled to work out why seers could seemingly see the future, but not realise that the city was doomed, really helped cement Tate’s character as a genuinely compassionate woman in ways that her previous episodes have only hinted at.
And it’s when Donna’s story takes off that the story really hits its stride. Her pestering of the Doctor, until he tells her that as an immutable point in time Pompeii and its inhabitants must be allowed to die, are a mere prelude to some woderful performances. As the duo struggle to defeat Phil Davis’ Lucius and the alien Pyroviles, Donna begins to realise that the enormity of the moral dilemma the Doctor has to deal with — see the Earth destroyed, or perform the act that will cause Vesuvius to erput and kill 20,000 people.
As the Doctor and Donna race through the ash-strewn city, Tate perfectly portrayed Donna’s anguish as she forlornly appealed for people not to run to the beaches and certain death. For me, that short scene was the emotional highpoint of a series of heart-rending scenes, each with Donna at their heart. Despite the earlier shortcomings of the episode, it ensured that the programme ended on a more positive note than the earlier scenes with Caecilius’ family would have suggested.
Or at least, it would have done were it not for an (on the face of it, at least) unnecessary epilogue. I can only hope the final shot — the revelation that the Doctor and Donna were now revered as household gods by the family — has ramifications for the rest of the series, as that would be the only justification for such a scene.
As it is, there are plenty of unanswered questions that may signpost the way this series is going. What happened to the planet of Pyrovilia? Is it related to what happened to the ‘lost’ Adipose planet last week? What does Donna have on her back? Unlike previous series of Doctor Who, there does seem to be a coherency to some of these ‘clues’. Maybe next week, we’ll get a further idea of where all this is going…
- Next week: Planet of the Ood