Maybe it’s time for me to admit that I simply don’t like Doctor Who’s period episodes. In my review of last season’s ‘The Shakespeare Code,’ also the second episode of that season (as ‘Tooth and Claw’ was in the second season) I pointed out to myself that, when taken one by one, Who’s historical tales haven’t actually been so bad. Yet the few I have really appreciated – ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ and ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ – were written by Steven Moffat, who can make gold out of absolutely anything. Other period stories such as ‘Code’, ‘Tooth and Claw,’ ‘The Unquiet Dead,’ ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’ and ‘Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks’ are weaker not because their settings couldn't be conducive to great stories, but because their scribes failed to draw great stories from those familiar periods as effortlessly as Moffat.
Add James Moran to that list. It pains me to say so, because I so enjoy Moran’s blog (check it out if you’re interested in the life of a British film/TV writer), but Moran’s script for ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ is painfully dull. The first problem is the setting. As the Doctor rightly insists throughout this episode, Pompeii is a “fixed point” in history. Its demise cannot be altered, not even by the Doctor. Knowing that, what exactly is the point of setting an episode there? Whichever way you spin it, the outcome will always be the same. Forgive me if I'm being a bit clever, but apparently I feel strongly about this.
Like other Who writers before him, Moran tries to jazz up the period setting by tossing in an excessive number of disparate elements. These include an annoying Pompeian family who bicker amongst themselves for comic effect, an evil augur with a hidden agenda, fire monsters (both big and small), mystical priestesses and stone people. With so many ingredients at play, it’s left to David Tennant to provide the endless reams of exposition that ties it all together. (Poor Tennant is often forced to fill this thankless role. I know he’s incredibly good at it, but that doesn’t mean the writers should abuse his talent with constant expositional speeches.) Past Who episodes have pulled off convoluted plots because the complications have served a greater purpose, like a killer twist (‘Utopia’) or close character examination (‘Last of the Time Lords’). ‘Pompeii’ only really has two things: its story beats, and dialogue that beats you over the head with them.
Moran does try and put his own spin on Pompeii’s demise. Through a series of complications, the Doctor and Donna are forced to make a choice: destroy Pompeii, or destroy the whole world? In a rare misjudged bit of performance, Tennant overplays the Doctor’s angst at this supposed ‘dilemma’ which really is no sort of dilemma at all. Subsequently, Moran goes for another moment of moving drama: as Pompeii disintegrates around them, Donna begs the Doctor to save the family we met before. This moment works better because it is such a perfect summation of Who’s ethos. The Doctor emerging from the TARDIS, holding out his hand and saying “Come with me” (see screenshot) has to be the quintessential image of the Doctor as a humanitarian. It’s unfortunate that he’s rescuing such an unappealing group.
‘The Fires of Pompeii’ is an admirable attempt at tailoring a historical event to Who basically unsuited to its conventions. While Moran’s effort has a couple of memorable moments, it ultimately is proof that Pompeii is deathly unsuited to Who’s specialised format.