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Recap / Doctor Who S30 E2 "The Fires of Pompeii"

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And we thought Rory was the only one who had mostly unseen adventures in the Roman Empire!

"I don't know. Isn't that brilliant? I love not knowing! Keeps me on me toes. It must be awful being a prophet, waking up every morning, 'Is it raining? Yes, it is. I said so.' Takes all the fun out of life."
The Doctor

Original air date: April 12, 2008

Production code: 4.3

The one where Peter Capaldi and Karen Gillan appear early.note 

Written by James Moran. This episode was inspired by the very similar Big Finish Doctor Who episode "The Fires of Vulcan".

The Doctor and Donna land in Ancient Rome, ready to have more fun than an amphora of monkeys.

Except after some searching, they discover that they've landed in Pompeii, on Volcano Day, approximately 24 hours before Mount Vesuvius paves paradise and puts up the Roman equvalent of a parking lot. Donna immediately requests the Doctor's help to organize a mass evacuation and save everyone, but the Doctor shuts the idea down: as we've seen with the First Doctor, you can't change history, not one line.

So they go for the other secret Time Lord manoeuvre: running away, much to Donna's frustration. Unfortunately, the TARDIS is missing; while they were walking around, a street merchant seized it (justified; it was parked on his market patch) and sold it to Caecilius, a local marble merchant (played by Peter Capaldi) with a dysfunctional family (a hungover son and an oracle daughter) AND a taste for avant-garde art. It's not the first time the TARDIS has been mistaken for an art installation.

In no particular order: Caecilius' villa is later attacked by a massive magma-man (which is stopped by a bucket of water), and it is revealed that the volcano fumes inhaled by his oracle daughter to boost her visions are slowly turning her into stone. Also, a local prophet claims that there's something on Donna's back. This will be important later. And he says that a planet has apparently gone missing. This will be very important later. Meanwhile, Caecilius has a freaking computer circuit made of stone, so the Doctor decides to stick around a bit longer for the above events.

The Doctor confronts the oracles of the Sybilline Sisterhood (with a Walther P38 water pistol) and finds out why someone ordered a load of marble power-converters.

To his horror, the Doctor finds out that Mount Vesuvius won't erupt if he just leaves; he needs to make it erupt. If Pompeii isn't destroyed, then since the alien menace of the week hasn't also been destroyed, a race of lava golems will turn humans into more golems, boil the ocean and conquer the world. Donna realises for the first time that travelling with the Doctor can be very morally disturbing. They make the volcano erupt, both fully expecting to die, but it turns out the conversion device they used was inside an escape pod. Donna convinces the Doctor to go back and save Caecilius and his family. Because not everyone is an über-depressed near-suicidal Time Lord, and sometimes the Doctor forgets that. However, while its definitely a good thing that he saves them, he also forgets that changing history can unfortunately have unexpected consequences, and long down the line will these consequences take a toll on his hearts, his psyche, his very soul, and nearly creation itself...

Six months later, Caecilius and his family have their lives back on track, the daughter is finally socialising like a (in our time, anyway) normal teenager, and that wastrel son is making good of himself, studying to be a doctor (not that kind). And their new household gods on the altar, with a box flanked by this man and this woman, look suspiciously familiar...

The casting for this episode turned out to be quite auspicious. Phil Davis (Lucius) would play the first antagonist in Sherlock (a series run by the same showrunners as Doctor Who); Tracey Childs (Metella) had previously appeared as Dr. Elizabeth Klein in Big Finish Doctor Who, who would go on to become a regular Big Finish companion; Karen Gillan (Soothsayer scout) would return as Amy Pond, one of the two longest-serving companions of the new series; and Peter Capaldi (Caecilius) would have a supporting role in Torchwood: Children of Earth and later take the helm of the show as the Twelfth Doctor himself, making him only the second actor to previously appear in the series before landing the role of the Doctor (the first being Colin Baker, who played Commander Maxil in "Arc of Infinity" before playing the Sixth Doctor).note 


  • Accidental Art: Played for Laughs, as Caecilius is sold the TARDIS as a work of modern art. His wife calls it a "great waste of space", not knowing that the TARDIS is Bigger on the Inside. Capaldi then went on to become a later resident of the TARDIS...invoked
  • Alien Invasion: The Pyroviles are manipulating humans in Pompeii (who believe them to be gods), and they seek to repopulate their numbers by possessing and converting millions of people whilst converting Earth into a new homeworld.
  • Ancient Rome: Sort of; we'll get there eventually.
  • Armour-Piercing Question: When Evelina first emerges to meet the Doctor and Donna, having been consuming the vapours, the Doctor (so far going by the name "Spartacus") concurs with her brother's assessment that it's not doing her any good. Her response stuns him into silence.
    Evelina: Is that your opinion... as a Doctor?
  • Artistic License – Biology: People were not "turned into stone" by the eruption by any means: they quite possibly died due to extreme flash-heat, their bodies were quickly encased in ashes, and then decomposed. The "stone people" you see in photographs and museums were not found and unearthed like that; they are human-made casts, made by pouring gypsum into the hollow impressions that bodies left in the solidified ash.
  • Artistic License – Geology: The Doctor and Donna outrun what is presumably a pyroclastic flow back to Pompeii. Pyroclastic flows like those that devastated Pompeii typically move at 700 kph at their slowest.
  • Artistic License – History: Vesuvius, as is shown in this episode, had been rumbling and giving small eruptions for days before the final event. The people of Pompeii were actively evacuating the city even as the final eruption destroyed it.
  • Arc Words: Medusa Cascade, a missing planet, "she is returning", the Shadow Proclamation, and something on Donna's back.
  • An Arm and a Leg: The Doctor breaks off Lucius' stone right arm during their confrontation at his house.
  • Badass Boast: One is made on behalf of the Doctor by a semi-delirious Evelina, when the apparently genuine psychic abilities of the seers of Pompeii are revealed.
    "Even the word 'Doctor' is false. Your true name burns in the stars, hidden in the cascade of Medusa herself. You are a lord, sir. A Lord of Time."
  • Been There, Shaped History: Played for Drama. The Doctor is quick to deny that he had anything to do with the Great Fire of Rome. By the end of the episode, he and Donna are personally responsible for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (as the alternative would be letting the Pyrovile race Take Over the World), something which weighs heavily on both of them.
  • Big Bad: The Pyroviles as they want to Take Over the World and turn every human into their kind.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Quintus may be a partyboy, but he's very protective of his sister Evelina. He's horrified to see how ill she looks after breathing the vapors and is willing to stand up to the gods to defend her.
  • Big "NO!": Lucius Petrus Dextrus and the High Priestess, when their Evil Plan is foiled. Both do it twice.
  • Brick Joke: At the start of the episode, the Doctor says that Latin doesn't have a word for "volcano", and it won't until tomorrow. One day later, while watching Pompeii drown in lava, Caecilius coins the word from the name of the Roman god of fire, Vulcan.
  • Broken Aesop: Downplayed. Donna, the Doctor and Evelina's dialogue clearly makes the former two's crisis about whether to engineer Vesuvius' historical destruction or allow the Pyroviles to change history and take over the Earth as if it's a Sadistic Choice between the Pompeiians' lives and the rest of the world. But considering how the episode also indicates that the Pompeiians will share the exact same fate as the rest of the Earth in the latter scenario — the population slowly and painfully converted into new stone vessels for the Pyroviles, with Pompeii only surviving in name as the namesake of the Pyroviles' new planetwide empire — Pompeii is essentially screwed in both scenarios, and the heroes' choice to save the rest of the world comes across as Shoot the Dog more than anything else. If anything, letting Pompeii die under the heat, ash and gases of Vesuvius over the course of two days at most seems like the more merciful fate for the inhabitants, when compared to the slow and explicitly-painful conversion which the High Priestess of the Sybilline went through. That being said, the story's other aesop about how history can't be changed remains intact.
  • Call-Back:
    • The Doctor mentions that he had nothing to do with Rome burning. "...Okay, maybe a little bit."
    • This is not the first time the TARDIS has been mistaken for a piece of modern art.
    • The Doctor's mention of "Volcano Day" nods to a comment made by Jack Harkness in "The Empty Child", where he suggested the destruction of Pompeii as a good event for time travellers running "self-cleaning" cons to use.
  • Can't Argue with Elves: The Doctor tries this, when arguing that as a Time Lord he's got the say of what should and shouldn't happen. Donna's not having any of it.
    Donna: What, and you're in charge?
    The Doctor: TARDIS, Time Lord, yeah!
    Donna: Donna, human, no! I don't need your permission, I'll tell them myself!
  • Climactic Volcano Backdrop: And inside Mount Vesuvius, no less.
  • Come with Me If You Want to Live: The Doctor does this at the end for Evelina's family, though he just says "Come with me." This time, Caecilius doesn't argue.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • Convection, Schmonvection: Justified; most of the heat is being taken by the Pyroviles.
  • Creator In-Joke: Latin students everywhere stand a chance of recognising Caecilius, Quintus and Metella. They feature in the Cambridge Latin Course, a widely-used Latin textbook series.
  • The Cretaceous Is Always Doomed: There's no saving Pompeii. It's a fixed point in history. The possible alternative of a Pyrovile-run Earth doesn't help much. And the only time the Doctor could visit Pompeii was of course the day before it was to be buried.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The Doctor, when Donna is about to be sacrificed. Also counts as a Walk-In Chime-In.
    Sister Spurrina: This prattling voice will cease forever!
    The Doctor: Oh, that'll be the day.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: A minor example, courtesy of Lucius, with Donna snarking in response.
    Lucius: The prophecies of women are limited and dull! Only the menfolk have the capacity for true perception.
    Donna: I'll tell you where the wind's blowing right now, mate...
  • Establishing Character Moment: Donna sharing the burden with the Doctor of having to cause Vesuvius' eruption, and later pleading with him to save just one family. It's not hard to see why the Doctor became such good friends with her.
    Donna: Just someone. Please. Not the whole town... Just save someone.
  • Face Death with Dignity: The Sisterhood, once they realise what's coming and how they've been betrayed, with their second in command castigating their possessed High Priestess for betraying them, before holding their other members and saying softly, "and yet, this was always meant to be."
  • Fainting Seer: Evelina, after telling the Doctor that he is a "Lord of Time".
  • Fanservice: Donna gets a Roman dress with a rather low-cut bodice, and also leans forward quite often, thus showing plenty of cleavage.
  • Following in Their Rescuer's Footsteps: At the end, Quintus has been inspired by his rescue by the Doctor and Donna to go to Ancient Roman medical school.
  • Foreshadowing: Lucius Petrus, while under prophetic influence, informs Donna that "there is something on your back" and tells the Doctor that "she is returning."
  • A God Am I: It's a inverted trope here. The new "household gods" of Caecilius' household are the Doctor, Donna and the TARDIS. None of those three believe themselves to be gods — no, not even the TARDIS - though the Doctor has been called one on many occasions ("the Lonely God" being one of his better-known nicknames).
  • Handshake Refusal: Lucius Petrus Dextrus, on account of his stone right arm.
  • Hangover Sensitivity: Quintus's first scene has him waking up with a severe hangover after a night out partying, which Caecilius is pretty irritated about.
  • Happily Married: Caecilius and Metella look like a modern stereotype; bickering about household furniture, raising children, he can't find a pin because she's polishing it, and sticking together in tragic times.
  • Historical Domain Character: In reality, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus was a Roman banker who lived in Pompeii at the time of the 62 AD earthquake, during which he most likely died. He's most well known to modern audiences due to being fictionalised by the Cambridge Latin Course, in which he survived the earlier quake to perish during the Vesuvius eruption, seventeen years later.
    • Of course, there could just be more than one Caecilius in Pompeii. Also, Caecilius introduces himself as Lobus Caecilius, meaning that he must be a different Caecilius.
  • Holy Backlight: When the Doctor comes back to save Evelina's family, light pours out of the TARDIS door behind him.
  • Hostile Terraforming: It's briefly indicated that the Pyroviles would've inflicted this trope on Earth after converting the human population. When the Doctor points out that the planet the Pyroviles are planning to colonize is 70% water, Lucius retorts by saying water can boil.
  • Human Sacrifice: The priestesses kidnap Donna and nearly do this to her on the High Priestess' orders because she's apparently spreading "false prophecies" about Pompeii being destroyed, but the Doctor gets there in time to stop it.
  • Identical Grandson: The web video “The Descendants of Pompeii” depicts apparent descendants of the Caecilius family who resemble Evelina and Metella.
  • I Am Spartacus: Says the Doctor. "And so am I," says Donna. Caecilius, obviously not getting it, first assumes them "Mr. and Mrs. Spartacus", then "brother and sister".
  • I'm Mr. [Future Pop Culture Reference]:
    • With bonus I Am Spartacus joke included absolutely free - though, for added amusement value, it would have been a Historical In-Joke even back then: Spartacus' slave revolt would have taken place most of 150 years before the events of the episode.
    • 2000 years later, the English language itself still frequently throws Latin into everyday conversation.
  • Innocuously Important Episode: While it appears to be your average Monster of the Week/Historical Period of the Week Doctor Who episode, even aside from the standard Foreshadowing and retrospective casting jokes, the events of this episode directly influence the Twelfth Doctor's choice of appearance, most of 6 real-time years later (In-Universe, around 1100).
  • Keep It Foreign: The TARDIS's telepathic field translates Latin phrases into Celtic (Welsh today) phrases, and English into Latin.
  • Kill It with Water: Or a Walther P38 water pistol.
  • Living Lava: The Pyroviles are made of stone with lava insides, vaguely shaped like Roman centurions.
  • Living Lie Detector: Both augurs/soothsayers visibly unnerve the Doctor and Donna by seeing right through their stories and made-up identities and telling them things about them they couldn't have possibly known.
    Lucius: Is that so? Man from Gallifrey. [...] And you, daughter of... London.
    Evelina: Is that your opinion... as a Doctor? [...] And you, you call yourself Noble... [...] Even the word "Doctor" is false. Your real name is hidden... it burns in the stars, in the Cascade of Medusa herself. You are a lord, sir... a Lord of Time.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The Pompeiians, Herculaneans, and Stabiaeans have one once Vesuvius erupts.
  • Meaningful Name: Lucius Petrus Dextrus (literally translating to Lucius Stone Right Arm!). These were all deliberate — Russell T. Davies was channelling Asterix and asked James Moran to put them in.
    • The name "Lucius" is a subtle hint that he's a bad guy.
    • Caecilius. His first appearance is him gushing over his new "modern art" item: the TARDIS. When the Doctor and Donna both introduce themselves as "Spartacus", and Caecilius assumes they must be brother and sister, he states they do look a lot alike, at which they emit a puzzled "Really?" in unison. Amusingly, "caecilius" means "the blind one".
  • Mistaken for Exhibit: Not only is the TARDIS mistaken for a modern art installation, but an enterprising street trader has sold it to a wealthy marble merchant, kicking off the plot. It's meant to be Played for Laughs.
  • Mistaken for Special Guest: Not addressed in the episode, but there's a subtle indication that Donna is seen as someone of high status, as after the soothsayers note her true name is "Noble" she is given purple clothing to wear, which was seen at the time to indicate wealth and status because of the sheer expense of the dye.
  • Noodle Incident: The Doctor apparently met the Sybil, and she was an excellent dancer. She fancied him.
  • Oh, Crap!: The Doctor is initially unimpressed (and slightly amused) by the supposed prophets. Then Evelina calls him a "Doctor" and Lucius addresses him as "Man from Gallifrey", which clearly alarms him.
    The Doctor: ...What?
  • Outrun the Fireball: Or, in this case, the advancing wall of volcanic ash and lava rolling all the way to Pompeii.
  • Pity the Kidnapper: The priestesses abduct Donna while the Doctor's back is turned. When he shows up at their temple, neither he or Donna are very concerned about the situation. Note that Donna was about to be killed (mainly for blasphemy, but also for being... well, Donna).
  • Prescience Is Predictable: "It must be awful being a prophet, waking up every morning, 'Is it raining? Yes, it is. I said so.' Takes all the fun out of life"; so says the Doctor.
  • Prophecy Twist: The Doctor says Pompeii's destruction is "a fixed point" that he can't prevent, even though thousands will die. As it turns out, he has to make Vesuvius erupt to Save the World. When the Doctor realizes this, he's understandably stunned, as is Donna when he tells her.
    The Doctor: ...but that's the choice, Donna: it's Pompeii or the world.
    Donna: ...Oh my god...!
  • Psychic Powers: The Sibylline Sisterhood, as well as Lucius and Evelina, have them as a side-effect of the Pyroviles' presence. To be specific, the humans had the powers already, albeit dormant. The Pyroviles activated these powers (the backlash of the sheer force of the eruption, rippling back through time and space, also had something to do with it), though the Doctor mentions a difference between "psychic" and "seeing the future".
    • Evelina and Lucius are both particularly powerful seers, and it's suggested by the Doctor that despite Lucius' sexist dismissals of her prophecies, Evelina is the stronger of the two — he picks up that the Doctor is from Gallifrey and Donna is from London (and has something on her back), but she picks up the Doctor's name, the fact it's not his true name (and that his true name is hidden), the Medusa Cascade, and the fact that he's a Time Lord.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The Pyroville speaking through the head priestess does this constantly, until the Doctor gets fed up of it.
    Pyroville: We. Are. Rising!
    Doctor: Tell. Me. Your. Name!
  • Punny Name: The producers must have had a lot of fun inserting any Ancient Rome puns they could, like Lucius Petrus Dextrus, Donna asking Evelina if she's been to TK Maxximus, and an obligatory I Am Spartacus joke.
  • Running Gag:
    • Because of the TARDIS, Donna hears the Romans' Latin as English, so if you speak to them in Latin, it's translated into a Celtic language. When the Doctor and Quintus are cornered by Lucius Petrus Dextrus and his men, the Doctor murmurs, "morituri te salutant" ("those who are about to die salute you"), and Lucius Petrus Dextrus retorts, "Celtic prayers won't help you now."
    • Caecilius mistakes the Doctor and Donna for a couple. When they correct him, he instead thinks them siblings, which befuddles them too much to correct him.
  • Sadistic Choice: Save Pompeii and let the Pyroviles convert everyone, or save the world and let Pompeii be buried.
  • Seers:
    • Loads of them, thanks to a combination of the Pyroviles' activating latent psychic abilities in humanity, and the sheer force of the Pompeii eruption creating a brief crack in time and space that rippled back. The Sibylline Sisterhood are the most organised, with Lucius following the same agenda, and Evelina as the odd one out (she's promised to the Sisterhood, but not a member) — it's also implied that she's the most powerful seer of them all, going by how much she picks up off the Doctor when semi-delirious.
    • The original Sibyl is mentioned by the Doctor as part of "Reason You Suck" Speech to the Sisterhood, as an old acquaintance and (apparently literal) dancing partner, who "may have had a thing" for him (he said it would never work, and apparently she said she knew).
  • Shoot the Dog: With the Pyroviles planning to convert all of humanity and take over the Earth for themselves (draining Mount Vesuvius' geothermal power for the mass conversion), coupled with the fact Pompeii's destruction is explicitly a fixed point in time that cannot be directly changed, the Doctor and Donna's only option is to destroy the Pyroviles by triggering the historical eruption themselves. It weighs heavily on both their consciences.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The Punny Name Running Gag is a reference to Asterix.
    • To Fawlty Towers, when the Doctor explains away Donna's ignorance of what an augur does with "she's from... Barcelona."
    • The scene of Caecilius' family rushing to their positions during the pre-eruption earthquakes could be one to the Admiral Boom scenes in Mary Poppins, with a character shouting "Positions!"
    • Caecilius, Metella and Quintus come from Cambridge Latin Course, the most popular Latin textbook in the UK and US (not Evelina, though — she was created especially for the episode).
    • The Doctor drops a reference to the upcoming 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Caecilius assumes "San Francisco" is the name of a new restaurant in Naples.
    • Giant footsteps shake the ground from the Pyrovile foot soldier sent to the house of Caecilius, with the camera work even deliberately spoofing the T. rex reveal from Jurassic Park.
  • Sistine Steal: The Doctor steps out of his TARDIS to save a doomed family from the title eruption. The TARDIS is unaccountably shining behind him, and then there's a shot of his hand, reaching out for the father's as if he's God and the human is Adam in the Sistine Chapel painting.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: While Caecilius and his family only appears in one episode, they have a big enough impact on the Doctor for him to subconsciously model an incarnation on Caecilius' face, hundreds of years later.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Sort of, even though it's not a direct adaptation; see Creator In-Joke and Historical Domain Character. In the Cambridge Latin Course, Caecilius and most of his family died in the eruption of Vesuvius. However, that man's name was Lucius Caecilius, while Caecilius introduces himself as Lobus Caecilius.
  • Spiritual Successor: To "The Myth Makers". The scene in which Caecilius introduces the TARDIS to his wife is even a loving homage to an almost identical dialogue between Paris and Cassandra.
  • Taken for Granite: A side-effect of the Pyroviles taking over their human hosts is stone limbs. The Sybilline High Priestess is even farther along, looking like she's completely made of stone, hence her hiding behind a curtain.
    The Doctor: The people of Pompeii are turning to stone before the volcano erupts.
  • Take Over the World: The Pyroviles plan to emulate Rome by taking over the entire known world — and likely everything else on the planet.
  • Temporal Mutability: Donna asks why saving Pompeii would be different from all the other times the Doctor saves people. The Doctor retorts that some things in time are changeable, some aren't, and the ability to tell one from the other is part of being a Time Lord. Of course, the two of them have to personally make Vesuvius erupt to save the rest of the planet.
  • The Theme Park Version: Donna sees a translated slogan on a market stall and for a moment is convinced they're just in Epcot, until the Doctor explains the translation circuits.
  • Translator Microbes: The Doctor tells Donna about the TARDIS translation field that means they're speaking English while the Pompeiians hear them speaking Latin. She wonders what happens if she intentionally speaks Latin. Answer: The Pompeiians don't understand your Celtic.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: The Doctor assures Donna they won't stand out, as ancient Rome is "like Soho, but bigger". It still applies after it turns out they're in Pompeii.
  • Water Guns and Balloons: "You fought her off! With a water pistol! I bloody LOVE you!"
  • Walk-In Chime-In: The Doctor, upon entering the Sybilline temple.
  • Watching Troy Burn: The Doctor gives Evelina's family a front row seat to watch Pompeii's funeral pyre, but assures Caecilius that one day, Pompeii will be found again, in the future.
  • Weaksauce Weakness: A giant, badass-looking alien warrior made of magma and rock... and a bucket of water takes it down in seconds. The Doctor later uses this to his advantage by arming himself with a water pistol.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The family Donna and the Doctor saved reestablish themselves in Rome. Marble business continues, Evelina is wearing a short skirt that's the latest fashion, and her brother is studying to be a doctor.
  • What Have We Ear?: The Doctor does this to Quintus to bribe him into taking him to Lucius Petrus Dextrus's house.
  • The X of Y: "The Fires of Pompeii".
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Donna's rather atypical response to almost being turned into a very typical altar sacrifice. Well, almost.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: The Doctor tries to discourage Donna from warning people about Vesuvius erupting, saying she'll be dismissed as a mad soothsayer. When it does erupt, she tries to scream to people not to go to the beach (where the ash cloud will still be lethal), but no one listens to her.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Who NSS 4 E 2 The Fires Of Pompeii