The Fires of Pompeii
The Fires of Pompeii was the second story of the fourth series of Doctor Who. Narratively, the story was important for explaining why the Doctor can sometimes change history and at other times cannot. Specifically, it introduced the notion of “fixed points” in time, which would later be the central theme of the television stories The Waters of Mars and The Wedding of River Song. It also continued the “Missing Planets” arc, with the Pyroviles mentioning their home planet having been taken much like the Adipose’s breeding planet.
Behind the scenes, it was notable for being the first major shoot outside the United Kingdom since the 1996 television movie. Moreover, it was the first time a principal photography unit had been outside its country of production since The Two Doctors.
This episode featured the first appearance of two actors within the series that went on to play bigger roles during the show’s later seasons. It hosted a guest appearance from Karen Gillan, who would later star as the Eleventh Doctor’s companion, Amy Pond, in series 5, 6 and 7. It also featured a guest appearance of Peter Capaldi, who would later portray the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor.
The Tenth Doctor and Donna exit the TARDIS in what the Doctor claims is 1st century Rome. Donna is amazed to have gone back in time; everyone around them is long dead, from her perspective of being from the 21st century. Joking not to tell the locals that, the Doctor watches as Donna takes in the sights.
When Donna expresses skepticism due to English words she notices on a cart, the Doctor explains that the TARDIS translation circuits are translating the local language for her; they’re actually currently speaking Latin. This amazes Donna further. A new idea forms in her head — what if she said something in actual Latin while her speech is being translated? She tries it out by saying “Veni, vidi, vici” to a nearby stallholder, who tells her, emphasizing each syllable, that he doesn’t speak Celtic. The Doctor explains that she sounded Welsh — “there’s something”.
Resuming their walk, Donna wonders if they stand out because of their clothing, but the Doctor explains that Rome is “like Soho, but bigger”. The Doctor explains that he’s been here before — “and “that fire had nothing to do with me… Well, a little bit!”
The two soon realize that something’s horribly wrong. Where are those great sights — the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, the Pantheon — that the Doctor never got to see? Why is there one hill, and not Rome’s famous seven… and why is it smoking? As a tremor rocks the streets, the Doctor realizes they have arrived not in Rome, but in Pompeii in August 79 — and Vesuvius is about to erupt!
Some time later, the Doctor and Donna meet up; he’s learned the date from the locals, and it’s exactly the daybefore the eruption. The Doctor then tells her off when she tries to plan an evacuation. “Pompeii is a fixed point in history. What happens, happens. There is no stopping it.”
She follows him back to the TARDIS… but the Doctor’s ship is gone! They find that the stallholder has sold it to local marble merchant, Caecilius, as a piece of “modern art”.
Meanwhile, a red-hooded member of the Sibylline Sisterhood who has been following them reports to her fellow sisters and the High Priestess that the “blue box” has appeared in the marketplace. They find that this is a fulfillment of a Sibylline prophecy. However, it was to come at the time of fire, destruction and betrayal.
At Caecilius’s house, his wife Metella is preparing their prophetically-gifted but sickly daughter Evelina for the arrival of the town’s augur, Lucius Petrus Dextrus. Their son Quintus is also present. A tremor causes them to brace their valuables. Unable to catch one, they are lucky that the Doctor arrives, and holds it in place. The family introduce themselves, and the Doctor uses his psychic paper to pass himself off as a marble inspector, which is also an excuse to get the TARDIS back. Both the Doctor and Donna assume the alias “Spartacus”.
Lucius arrives, and the Doctor wins a verbal joust with the augur, earning praise in return for his cleverness. The Doctor then excuses himself and Donna, and they head to the TARDIS to leave. However, he is compelled to stay when he sees Caecilius unveil a marble plaque he has produced to Lucius’ designs — it is recognizably an electrical circuit. Overhearing Lucius give prophecies, the Doctor tells Donna that they’re in an age of “official superstition”; prophecies are the equivalent of ten o’clock news.
Overhearing them, Evelina tells her parents that they “use words like tricksters” and are mocking them. Seeing how ill Evelina is, the Doctor is told she breathes vapors for strength, but he disagrees that it is having that effect. She then asks if that’s his opinion as a “Doctor”. Lucius claims that Evelina’s prophecies are easily faulted. However, when the Doctor says Lucius has been “out-soothsayed”, the augur joins Evelina in predicting the truths about Donna and the Doctor. They see their real names, naming Gallifrey and London as their true homes, Gallifrey’s destruction, and the Doctor’s name being “written” in the stars of the Medusa Cascade. Evelina also states that his true name is not Doctor but is “hidden” and that he is a Lord of Time. Petrus Dextrus warns the Doctor “she” is returning and tells Donna that “there is something on your back”. Evelina then faints.
Later, Donna investigates Evelina’s mysterious skin ailment. She finds that the ailment in question is that her skin is becoming petrified. Her arm has completely turned to stone. Meanwhile, the Doctor is shown a hypocaust system powered by geothermal hot springs from Vesuvius itself, from which emit monstrous sounds from “the gods of the underworld”. This system, he is told, was installed after the 62 earthquake on instructions from Lucius and the other soothsayers. From that time on, the soothsayers have been inhaling rock dust from these hypocausts, and all their predictions have been uncannily accurate. If so, then why have they not predicted Vesuvius’ imminent eruption?
Bribing Quintus into showing him where Lucius lives, the Doctor breaks into the augur’s house with the boy. They find that not only is there the stone circuit that was made by Caecilius, but five others as well. Quintus is shocked by this. The Doctor explains that it’s common practice for a criminal to acquire the required parts from different places to avoid suspicion. Meanwhile, Evelina gives Donna a stola, and talks about a teenager’s life in Pompeii. Donna’s hints about Vesuvius’ impending eruption are ignored, and she realizes that none of the seers have foreseen it. She tells Evelina about the eruption, which the sisterhood telepathically overhear through Evelina. Their High Priestess decries it as false prophecy, determining that Donna must be sacrificed.
Quintus and the Doctor, meanwhile, have been caught by Lucius. The Doctor helps him assemble the marble plaques into a circuit board. He asks who instructed Lucius to build this, saying he can help him. Dextrus takes this as offence against the gods, and threatens to have his guards kill them. The Doctor responds by trying to shake his hand — and breaks off Dextrus’s completely petrified right arm. They then take the opportunity to flee as the Doctor knocks over the tablets. Lucius begs the gods of the underworld to go after the Doctor and Quintus as they would prevent the rise of Pompeii. A safe distance from Lucius’ home, the Doctor and Quintus hear thudding footsteps from underneath the ground.
Returning to Caecilius’s house, they find Dextrus has summoned a giant, humanoid, stone-and-magma creature from the hypocaust. The Doctor tells Donna to get water, while he attempts to reason with the creature. Members of the Sisterhood appear behind Donna and drag her from the room. Only Evelina sees this, but one of the sisterhood motions to her to remain silent. Unable to reason with the creature, the Doctor has Quintus throw water on it, causing it to harden and collapse into rubble. He then wonders what happened to Donna.
At the altar in the sisterhood’s temple, Donna has been tied down to a table as a sacrifice. Just as Sister Spurrina lowers her knife — Donna’s prattling voice will cease forever — the Doctor arrived, saying, “Oh, that’ll be the day.” Entering anyway, he tells them he had met the original Sibyl after whom the order is named, and she would be ashamed of them. Spreading the word with the blade of a knife? Spurrina moves to stab him, but the High Priestess demands to speak with the Doctor. With the curtain moved away, it is shown the High Priestess has been completely turned to stone. She confirms that it hurts, but the voices tell her it’s necessary.
The Doctor realizes that somehow, the people of Pompeii are turning to stone before the volcano erupts. The High Priestess sees into his mind, demanding to know what a volcano is. Suspicious, the Doctor demands to know who she is. The alien, asserting control over the High Priestess, declares itself a Pyrovile; the sisters blindly begin chanting its name. The Doctor, taking a water pistol out of his jacket, warns her that he’s “armed”. He instructs Donna to open the hypocaust, and demands to know what the Pyroviles are doing here. The Pyrovile explains that it is one several aliens who crashed to Earth millennia earlier, awakened by the 62 earthquake. Their adult form is the creature they saw at Caecilius’ villa. They are a psychic race, and have bonded telepathically with some of the local humans. The Doctor cannot find how they are seeing the future with such accuracy — such an ability is beyond psychic. As he questions why the soothsayers can’t see the volcano, though Spurrina informs her sisters that the weapon is harmless. The Doctor confesses that she’s right, but adds that it will sting. He fires a few squirts of water at the High Priestess, who wails in pain. Donna and the Doctor use the confusion to escape into the hypocaust, in towards Vesuvius itself.
Dextrus and the possessed high priestess each declare that their Pyrovile-induced prophecy of a Pompeiian empire must advance, the latter warning that the Doctor threatens their plans. As they run, Donna tries to convince the Doctor to stop Vesuvius’s eruption. He again refuses, telling her the eruption is a fixed point in time which cannot be stopped or avoided. Donna asks him how he knows this as she is basically history to him as well, but he saved her and everyone else in 2008. The Doctor explains his Time Lord ability to see the past, present and all possible futures at once, calling it a burden. Donna presses him as to how many people died. The Doctor confirms the figure was about 20,000, and she asks him if it’s alright to let all these people die. Before he can answer, they hear a roar, hinting that the Pyrovile are aware of their presence, forcing them deeper into the volcano.
Dextrus and the Cult of Vulcan take the circuit boards to the mountain. The Doctor and Donna, meanwhile, have reached the center of the volcano. Inside it, they see what appears to be the remains of an escape pod, or something similar. Donna guesses that the aliens plan to blow up the mountain to launch themselves into space. However, the Doctor informs her they are planning something much more sinister. They are then discovered by Lucius, who summons the adult Pyrovile to hunt down Donna and the Doctor, declaring their presence a defilement to his masters’ temple. The Doctor and Donna make their way towards the pod, briefly fending off an adult Pyrovile with the water-pistol. Reaching the pod, the Doctor politely asks Lucius as to the Pyroviles’ plan before they die. Lucius announces that his masters’ plan is to expanding beyond Pompeii, to conquer the whole world. Donna points out that the Pyroviles could just go home, but Lucius retorts that their home planet, Pyrovillia, was “taken”. Thus they will stay and conquer Earth, boiling its oceans.
The Doctor and Donna lock themselves in the Pyrovillian ship. The Doctor finds the Pyrovile are using Vesuvius to set up a fusion matrix to convert millions of humans into Pyroviles. The matrix will bleed off so much of Vesuvius’ pent-up energy there won’t be enough to trigger the eruption — this is why the soothsayers have been unable to see it. There won’t be an eruption anymore! The Doctor can switch off the Pyrovillian circuitry and save the world from conquest, but he will cause the eruption and the deaths of himself, Donna and twenty thousand people. And if Pompeii is destroyed, it’s not just history… “it’s me”.
They choose the latter as the lesser of two evils, and, together, reverse the machine. Vesuvius’ eruption begins imminently, and both Lucius
and the Pyroviles, at the center of the explosion, are destroyed almost instantly. The residents of Pompeii watch in terror as ash falls upon them, thinking the sky is falling. Meanwhile, the Pyrovillian escape pod holding the Doctor and Donna is launched into the sky and lands between Vesuvius and Pompeii. The two run for the safety of the TARDIS. As they do, Donna tries to inform the citizens where it’s safest to flee, but they ignore her in panic.
They reach the Caecilius family’s home, where the Doctor ignores their pleas for help as Donna yells at him. With the TARDIS engines starting up, Donna is forced to board as well. As they de-materialize, Donna urges him to return and save the citizens. The Doctor refuses, saying if he could go back, he would — just as he would go back and prevent the destruction of Gallifrey, which also burned. Donna tearfully pleads with him — if not the city, then just save someone. Just one person! The Doctor relents, and re-materializes the TARDIS inside the Caecilius home, where the family are huddled in a corner awaiting death. He offers them his hand, and takes them into the safety of the TARDIS.
The Doctor, Donna, and the Caecilius family gloomily watch from the hills as the pyroclastic flows from Vesuvius destroy Pompeii. The Doctor explains why Evelina’s visions have stopped — the massive explosion of Vesuvius caused a tiny rift in time, but it’s now been sealed. He promises that Caecilius and Pompeii will be remembered. They then wonder who the Doctor is and why his “temple” has such size within. Caecilius, awed by the fury of Vesuvius, coins the word “volcano”, but grieves for the people who are getting killed by the eruption. The Doctor and Donna leave, with him acknowledging that she was right — “Sometimes I need someone”.
Six months later — in early 80 — the Caecilius family has resettled in Rome. Lobus Caecilius has re-established his marble business, now worrying about a deal with the Egyptians that may set up his family for life. Evelina is a healthy and happy teenager once again, and is dating and wearing trendy outfits, much to her father’s consternation. Quintus has been the most affected of the family — he is now training to be a doctor. He is told to give thanks to the household gods before he leaves for his studies. Doing so, Quintus smiles at the image of the gods and thanks them; the marble bas-relief shows the family’s household gods to be the Doctor and Donna, and their temple the TARDIS.