Inhaling Vesuvius – 4.2 The Fires of Pompeii


An apology to the household gods from Matthew Kilburn. Originally published in the Tides of Time number 40, October 2017.

REVISITING THE FIRES OF POMPEII REMINDED ME HOW WELL-CRAFTED AN EPISODE IT IS. There’s a great amount of detail to enjoy, from young Soothsayer Karen Gillan’s vowels – even rounder than her stare – to the nods to popular culture alongside ancient history and the myriad pasts of Doctor Who

The references to Donna’s (and the Doctor’s) language being Celtic firstly appeals to a BBC sense of British identity, appealing to a common Celtic stratum across the nation of four nations. However, it also becomes specifically Welsh, and especially a self-parodying BBC Cymraeg-Welsh, with Caecilius’s remark ‘There’s lovely.’
Was Phil Cornwell’s stallholder a more deliberate David-Jason-as-Del-Trotter impression at one stage? The ‘Lovely jubbly’ line is still a little forced.

I still have trouble with Evelina’s name as this is a Latinization from Irish. Perhaps (given Peter Capaldi’s background) Caecilius is descended from Irish settlers on the Clyde who then made their way to Italy, and he’s given Evelina this cognomen.

The casting of Francesca Fowler as Evelina and Francois Pandolfo as Quintus is of course done with more of an eye to the contemporary than the classical. Both are well-built, almost statuesque, but not aristocratically remote. While having something of the teen soap about them, they feel more believable than the inhabitants of a Hollyoaks calendar. [I wrote this before Doctor Who cast two Hollyoaks alumni for the 2018 season.] They, as much as Tracey Childs’s Metella (a casting recalling her appearance in 1980s boatbuilding soap Howards’ Way) help accent the Caecilius household as the aspirational everyfamily.

The ‘Positions!’ scene where the family believe Quintus’s disrespect for the household gods has brought vengeance from the heavens is as good as or better a representation of an historic belief system than anything in The Aztecs.

Having gone to such trouble to set up the TARDIS telepathic circuits, the episode presents us with a conundrum in the Doctor’s exchange of obscurantist nonsense with Lucius Petrus Dextrus. ‘I concede that every sun must set… and yet the son of the father must also rise.’ This pun works in English, but not in Latin. It might have worked in some Germanic languages of the day, though not (checking the internet) in Gothic. So, in which language does Lucius hear the Doctor’s words? Or is this a sign of psychic powers enhanced by the Pyroviles and the time rift?

While the Doctor’s excuse for Donna’s ignorance about the role of city augur – ‘She’s from Barcelona’ – firstly recalls Basil and Manuel in Fawlty Towers, given the Doctor’s description of the residents of the planet Barcelona in The Parting of the Ways, this is both appropriate (as Donna has failed to sniff out Lucius’s position from the context) and potentially very insulting.

The tale of a city whose leaders are in thrall to a cult of its own mightiness, and listen to the promises of false gods whose secret agenda only becomes clear as the city’s inhabitants are converted has aged very well in the nine years since this episode was first broadcast.

The seventeen-year period in which the Pyroviles have been reconstituting themselves through Vesuvius and the people of Pompeii begins with the historical earthquake of 62AD.

‘Thank you, that’s all I needed to know.’ The Doctor isn’t yet the Time Lord Victorious, and needs to give himself permission to intervene.

Donna knowing that it’s not safe for the Pompeiians to escape to the beach gives her some pleasing authority and emphasises she has a moral toughness, not just a shouty tendency.

Caecilius coins volcano about 1300 years too early, by my reading of OED.

The rest of Tides 40 can be found online here

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