It’s the one with Peter Capaldi! Years before being cast as the twelfth Doctor, here he plays the father of a doomed Pompeii family the day before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. This episode is also the first appearance of Karen Gillan as one of the soothsayers of the Sibylline Sisterhood, but nobody notices (I had to look it up). More to the point, this is an episode dealing with hard choices and the unbreakable rules of time travel, which weaves an emotional thread through the story. It’s pretty good.
It’s long been a matter of contention whether the Doctor can change history or merely be a part of it. Early episodes like The Aztecs all but rule out the possibility of altering the timeline, yet, since then, damaging history has been a regular danger. Finally, then, the Doctor lays down the rules: some things are fixed, some things are in flux. Being a Time Lord, the Doctor knows which is which. That’s handy. It’s a bit like the Prime Directive in Star Trek, and in a similar fashion, the Doctor is unable to help the thousands of people who are about to be burned alive as their mountain explodes and covers them with burning ash and molten rock.
What could be a relentlessly grim scenario is brightened up by some fun use of names, ongoing jokes that play with the language (TK Maximus!), winks and nods to the series past and the Doctor using a water pistol. But, ultimately, this is a serious drama with emotional weight. Donna’s pleading with the Doctor to save these people feels very genuine and, despite some blustering and shouting, she’s a really good companion, able to question everything, not take anything at face value, and set the Doctor straight when he needs it.
Yeah, there are aliens involved – refugees of another missing planet (this season’s arc, as I recall), the Pyroviles (seriously?). The visual effects are excellent and the scale of the episode is bigger than any previous attempts at doing this sort of thing, but it does fall back on some lazy clichés too. The chanting cults… anything but chanting cults! I’ve had it up to here with Doctor Who and chanting flipping cults! Many of the guest characters just sort of fill a void rather than stand out in their own right, although I did quite like the ‘villain’ Lucius and his creepy premonitions. On the whole, a solid episode with a strong theme.