TV EYE: Doctor Who, S4 E02: The Fires of Pompeii

This episode makes it official- Catherine Tate is surprisingly good when it comes to the drama (especially at the climax) and frequently bloody awful when it comes to comedy – which, for a ‘comedy’ performer, takes some doing. A far more dramatic and thoughtful episode than last week, but also a much more uneven one – the Italian sets from Rome certainly helped a great deal, but fantastic sets can’t disguise some very poor direction (What were they thinking with the ‘psychic vision’ with flames overlaid on the top?), and when you’ve got people wandering around in togas, it’s very easy for it to look less like Rome (the series), and more like Carry on Cleo. Some genuinely fantastic moments – even if he ended up howling his heart out in a quarry, Phil Davis was fantastic, and Peter Capaldi also delivered the goods – it just would have been nice if the script could have credited the audience with a small amount of intelligence and not made his family so sub-Eastenders that it boggled the mind (Would it really have killed them to have them say “Father” rather than “Dad”?) Some bloody awful puns, and the Latin gag, like the Shakespeare quotes from last season, were a good idea used too often, plus it would be nice if someone could introduce Murray Gold to the concept of subtlety (or the sharper end of an axe, whichever is quicker…). On the plus side, in the moments where the episode wasn’t making me shake my head or shiver with embarrasment, it was surprisingly good, with some very unsettling foreshadowing (Especially Phil Davis’ “There is something on your back” line– although, I swear, if this turns out to have something to do with the after-effects of Donna’s encounter with the Empress of Racnoss, I’ll be so bloody annoyed…), some fine concepts at work and a good, emotion-based approach to the whole question of the Doctor interacting with the past. The special effects were genuinely spectacular, and the climax (well, apart from the twee epilogue) worked well – it’d just be nice to see this kind of thing done without the “Throw in everything and the kitchen sink” strategy that makes New Who such a grind at times. It’s the kind of spectacle and scale that the old show could never even dream of – I’d just like to see them experiment with doing this kind of thing while not doing quite so much of the purile wink-at-the-audience humour– it fits in the cartoony style of last week’s episode, but in a story about the destruction of Pompeii, it ends up feeling massively out of place (and Human Nature/Family of Blood proved it is possible to do Who without it…)… Still – next week, we have alien worlds, Tim McInnery in a tie, and a Fistful of Ood…

And the new arrangement of the theme tune? Still every shade of wrong…

3 thoughts on “TV EYE: Doctor Who, S4 E02: The Fires of Pompeii

  1. I’ve been watching the last couple of years of Who with increasingly less head-shaking and embarrassment (last year’s finale notwithstanding) and this one was mostly fine, I thought. Certainly much better than last week.
    The strange thing about the new theme is that in every way it embodies the problems with the series and the soundtrack. It’s a concoction of overly bombastic, overly frantic mugging that doesn’t have the confidence to trust its audience to Get It.

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    • I guess my main disappointment was how inconsistently directed it was, and that a genuinely intelligent and pretty well crafted Who story kept getting interrupted by gags that wouldn’t have been out of place on Up Pompeii. I guess, for me, last weeks at least felt consistent on its own terms – it set out to be a cartoony romp and largely succeeded. This week’s was better in many ways, and yet was also dragged down by the cartoony “anything for a gag” approach, especially considering the weight and emotional effectiveness of the ending (which was rather undercut by the pointless ‘six months later’ epilogue). Mostly, it’s just the kind of thing that’s always going to annoy me about New Who and really isn’t going anywhere – but, at least this was much, much better than The Shakespeare Code, and actually told a story rather than simply throwing a few random ideas together as some New Who episodes have done in the past.
      You’re right about the theme, and the approach of the show in general – it very rarely takes the chance of actually trusting its audience, and the soundtrack from Murray Gold does seem to have taken a turn for the worse this year (after some surprisingly tolerable stuff in year 3). I think the other reason I can’t stand the new theme arrangement is that it shreds the last vestiges of genuine weirdness left in Delia Derbyshire’s treatment of Ron Grainer’s music – all that’s left in the new version is bombast, crap drumbeats and electric guitars. Maybe I’ll get used to it after eleven more episodes, but I kinda doubt it…

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  2. I thought it was all a bit dull for the first 20 minutes, until the soothsayers started their saying.
    Catherine Tate still rubs like a cheesgrater on a knob, especially when getting angry – she slips straight into ‘angry gran’ or whatever the foul mouthed character concoction is called.
    I struggled a little with Phil Davis too – sadly he’s now been tainted in my mind after watching his performance as Wilfred Bramble a few weeks ago in The Curse of Steptoe.
    Couldn’t agree more about the theme too. Please Murray – just take a step back and breathe.

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