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Doctor Who: "The Fires Of Pompeii"

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Hola. Let me first apologize for not participating in last week's post-show discussion. I was vacationing in the Yucatan and, honestly, not thinking all that much about Doctor Who. (Well, maybe a little.) That's also why this post is a little late. I just got in last night and didn't get around to the episode until this morning.

It wasn't a bad episode to come back to, was it? The script by relative newcomer James Moran (he's worked on Torchwhood, if that counts) was a bit like last season's "The Shakespeare Code" redux. The Doctor and companion travel to an earlier era in earth's history where some strange doings that look like magic turn out to be the work of aliens. But it came packaged with a big helping of Time Lord 101 to bring new companion Donna (Catherine Tate, who I'm continuing to like) and presumably newer viewers up to speed on who The Doctor is, what he's all about, what he can do, and what he refuses to do. It ended with a heavy lesson in Time Lord realpolitik that deepened the portentous tone that's gone hand-in-hand with the lightness Donna's brought as a companion. It's a tricky balance, but so far this season has maintained it pretty well.

That it filled a lively setting with genuinely scary villains certainly helped. It was shot in part at Rome's famed Cinecitta facilities. (Maybe, and I'm just venturing a guess here, using leftover material from the massively expensive, tepidly received series Rome.) As the episode opens, Donna and The Doctor find they've landed in Pompeii at just about the worst possible time: August 23, 78 A.D., the day before the big eruption. Suspecting it would be best to get out of town, The Doctor suggests a quick retreat, only to discover that the TARDIS has been purchased as an objet d'art by an upwardly mobile marble merchant Caecillius (Peter Capaldi). Turns out it's just as well they were delayed since the gift for prophecy Caecillius' daughter Evelina (Francesca Fowler) shares with both the local Sibylene cult may be tied to the rumbling of the nearby Mt. Vesuvius. An imposing local soothsayer named Luciuswho never lets anyone see his right arm and has a keen interest in some marble tiles that look like electrical circuits also seems to figure in some how. He's played by veteran character actor Phil Davis, who I best remember for his incredibly moving, quiet work as Vera's husband in Vera Drake. Here he's just on the right side of hammy. Apart from improv, is there any better place for an actor to practice range than British television?

Before we figure out what Lucius is up to we have work through some funny business about the TARDIS translating English as Latin and Latin as Welsh. For some reason this joke never grew old and I think a lot of that has to do with David Tennant's delivery because it's really not that funny of an idea. Tennant was in fine form this time out, too, particularly in those moments in which he has to deliver fast, witty dialogue in the middle of a dangerous situation. He's good at keeping the comedy at the fore while still making it clear that he's using witticisms to distract and delay his opponents. Peter Parker has nothing on Tennant's interpretation of The Doctor.

There weren't easily distracted villains, either. Lucius, it turns out, had designs on Earth as a new homeworld for his fire-loving alien race, forcing The Doctor to choose between preventing the immediate, fiery death of 20,000 Pompeiians, some of whom he'd grown to like, or saving the town, disrupting history, and letting the Earth get destroyed. It's really not much of a choice, but the episode neatly lays out how the last of the Time Lords works. It's a bit like the serenity prayer: There are crappy spots in history he can change, crappy spots he can't and it's his task, and frequently burden, to know the difference.

Of course, there are exceptions. Caecillius' family gets a last minute reprieve that feels a bit like a cop-out that makes The Doctor appear to operate by the same loose rules as Marvel Comics' The Watcher, who can't interfere with history except, you know, when he can. If nothing else, Caecillius' death would have spared us the silly moment in which he invents the word "volcano." Although now that I think of it, that also indicates that, as the coiner of that word, saving him didn't change history a bit. Oh, how time travel stories make the mind reel.

With that we're off to another adventure, although I have a feeling that The Doctor's Pompeii dilemma will see a reprise before season's end.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

- I really hate the way Sci-Fi cuts these episodes. The act breaks feel all wrong and I know I'm missing scenes. I'm considering switching to the miracle of the Internet for future episodes.

- I got the "she's coming back" moment from the big soothsay-off at the Caecillius house. But was the bit about Donna being "noble"? That's a question to be answered. (And no spoilers, please, UK readers and BT junkies.)

- Was anyone else as creeped out as I by the flesh-turning-into-stone moments? The slow, cancerous transformation felt Cronenbergian.

- Was that fiery foot soldier on loan from God Of War?

- Great. The Ood are back. Those guys are creepy.