Doctor Who in Review: Season Four, Episode #2 – Hot Prophecies
The hit BBC series Doctor Who is now in its fourth season on the Sci-Fi Channel, and since we’re all big fans here at ComicMix, we’ve decided to kick off an episode-by-episode analysis of the reinvigorated science-fiction classic.
Every week, we’ll have our best Who-philes go through the most recent episode with a fine-tooth comb (or whatever the "sonic screwdriver" equivalent might be) and call out all of the continuity checks, names dropped and storyline hints we can find to keep in mind for future episodes. We’ll post our analysis each Monday, so you have ample time to check out the episode once it airs each Friday at 9 PM EST on Sci-Fi Channel before reading our review.
Missed a week? Readers can view past "Doctor Who in Review" features via the links at the end of this article.
Keep in mind, we’re going to assume readers have already watched the episode when we put fingers to keyboard and come up with our roundup of important plot points. In other words, SPOILER ALERT!
Let’s begin now, shall we?
Season Four, Episode #2: "The Fires of Pompeii"
IN BRIEF: The Doctor and his companion, Donna Noble, set off to visit Ancient Rome, only to find themselves in Pompeii a day before Mount Vesuvius erupts and causes the deaths of everyone inhabiting the city. As always, the duo discovers that there is something alien afoot, and after much debate about the implications of changing fixed points in history, they are faced with a grave decision that challenges one of the longstanding rules of traveling with The Doctor. A dark future is hinted, clues about the rest of the season abound and The Doctor’s new companion forces a change of heart in everyone’s favorite Timelord.
BEEN THERE, SET THAT ON FIRE: Early in the episode, The Doctor mentions that he’s visited Rome before, adding, "Before you ask, that fire had nothing to do with me… well, maybe a little bit." This is a reference to a story from the second season of the original series, titled "The Romans," which saw The First Doctor (William Hartnell) visiting the city and, after a series of (mis)adventures, accidentally setting fire to Emperor Nero’s plans for rebuilding Rome — and in doing so, indirectly causing the famous blaze.
The Doctor’s reference to "Volcano Day" is also a call-back to a much more recent episode titled "The Doctor Dances," in which Captain Jack Harkness used the term when discussing Pompeii.
WHEREVER YOU GO, THAT’S WHERE YOU ARE: After eons of traversing time, space and various other dimensions, you’d think The Doctor would have fixed the TARDIS’ ability to actually go where he intends it to go. This time around, he plans to take Donna to Ancient Rome, only to land in Pompeii. With The Doctor’s ability to provide "Universal Roaming" for normal cellphones (as he did for previous companions Rose Tyler and Martha Jones), one has to wonder why he can’t do the same for a GPS unit.
Of course, that assumes that all of these accidental detours aren’t intentional. Two seasons earlier, in an episode titled "The Impossible Planet," The Doctor said it was "more fun that way" when asked why he never knew where the TARDIS would take him. In the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays, The Eighth Doctor said something similar about his unexpected arrivals on several occasions. Does this mean he deliberately doesn’t tune the TARDIS directional controls for the sake of surprise?
Furthermore, The Doctor has, on several occasions, mentioned that the TARDIS acts with a mind of her own regarding their destination. The Ninth Doctor mentions in the episode "Dalek" that the TARDIS took itself off-course in response to something it sensed — and he also mentions in "The Impossible Planet" that the TARDIS was acting reluctant to land where they eventually arrived. This notion of the TARDIS’ self-awareness was first hinted at way back in the first season of Doctor Who, during an adventure titled "The Edge of Destruction," when a series of bizarre events within the TARDIS are eventually attributed to warnings the ship was trying to give The First Doctor about a dangerous malfunction.
I KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT: When Caecilius buys the TARDIS, thinking that it’s a piece of art, this wasn’t the first time the blue box has been perceived as a museum-worthy piece. During the story "City of Death," which featured The Fourth Doctor, noted comedic thespians John Cleese and Eleanor Bron made cameos as museum guests admiring the artistic implications of the blue police box parked in a corner of the gallery.
TIME TROUBLES: The Doctor’s warning to Donna about changing "fixed events in time" has been a recurring theme in the series, harkening all the way back to the first season of the series and a story called "The Aztecs," in which one of The First Doctor’s companions attempts to end the practice of human sacrifice in the ancient culture.
We also saw one of the worst-case scenarios of changing even a minor fixed event when Rose Tyler attempted to save her father’s life and change the subsequent course of history during an adventure with The Ninth Doctor titled "Father’s Day." When her father’s life was spared, a race of alien creatures called "Reapers" began devouring space/time.
THE CREATURE REPORT: While this episode relies pretty heavily on CGI to bring the Pyrovile to life, the integration feels fairly smooth, and the creatures seem genuinely intimidating. The mix of animated stone and magma brings to mind the Balrog creature from the big-screen adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring — and that’s not a comparison we throw around lightly.
The makeup effects used on the high priestess of the Sibylline Sisterhood also seem fairly respectable, especially when The Doctor challenges her about her identity.
AGAIN WITH THE SHADOW PROCLAMATIONS! When faced with the high priestess of the Sibylline Sisterhood, The Doctor demands that the creature within her "name yourself, planet of origin, galactic coordinates, species designation according to the universal ratification of the Shadow Proclamation!" The creature reveals itself to be a Pyrovile — a creature composed almost entirely of stone. So this time around, invoking the Shadow Proclamation seems to have had an effect… causing us once again to wonder what the heck the Proclamations are all about.
So far, the only other creatures we’ve seen who apparently respect the Shadow Proclamation were the Nestene from "Rose" (who allowed The Ninth Doctor to state his case for Earth’s defense) and whoever it was that arrested the Adipose family. (See last week’s review for more on the Adipose.)
QUESTIONS ANSWERED: You have to applaud the creators of the series for actually having characters ask the questions on viewers’ minds when it comes to the science of Doctor Who. When Donna tests the TARDIS’ ability to translate speech and words by actually speaking latin to the merchant, the TARDIS translates the latin back into welsh. This joke gets some repeat play throughout the episode, as both The Doctor and Donna use phrases based in latin ("status quo" and "ipso facto," for example) and are referred to as "celtic" by the surrounding cast of characters.
On a more serious note, when Donna questions The Doctor’s insistence that the deaths in Pompeii are necessary, he tells her that Timelords are able to see which points in time are fixed and which are in flux, and can only change certain events. This, he says, is "the burden of the Timelords." Three seasons earlier, in an episode titled "The Parting of the Ways," Rose told The Ninth Doctor that she could see "everything" when she absorbed the time vortex of the TARDIS and The Doctor said he could, too — all the time. This is one of those questions we’ve wondered about for a while, as it’s always seemed as if previous Doctors have arbitrarily decided which events they can take a hand in shaping.
YEAH, GOOD POINT: When questioning the Pyrovile about their plans for Earth, The Doctor brings up a good point — one that many people were pointing out after the grand finale of M. Night Shyamalan’s alien-invader opus, Signs. Isn’t Earth, with its high amount of water (somewhere around 70-80 percent of the surface of the planet, right?), a bad place for creatures with extreme moisture-sensitivity to make their new home?
THE ODD COUPLE: The dynamic between The Doctor and Donna Noble continues to provide an interesting underlyine theme for Season Four, as the romantic subplots and wide-eyed adventure of the Timelord’s interactions with his former companions Rose Tyler and Martha Jones is noticeably absent from Donna Noble’s relationship with The Doctor. With Donna, The Doctor has chosen a companion who challenges his decisions and the rules of the Doctor Who mythos familiar to longtime fans. At the end of "The Fires of Pompeii," Donna’s please convince The Doctor to go against his better judgment and save a family from the volcano. The question remains, however, is this the start of a change for the better… or worse?
QUESTIONS UNANSWERED: During her prophecy, Evelina tells The Doctor that his real name is "hidden" and that it "burns in the stars, in the cascade of Medusa herself." The Master referenced The Doctor closing a rift at "The Medusa Cascade" during the previous season’s final story arc, in an episode titled "Last of the Time Lords," and series producer Russell T. Davies has stated the Medusa Cascade would come back to haunt The Doctor.
Two seasons earlier, Madame Pompadour also referenced the Doctor’s name as "more than just a secret" in an episode titled "The Girl in the Fireplace," while the Carrionites in last season’s "The Shakespeare Code" also referred to it as hidden. Both of these statements seem to harken back to an adventure with The Seventh Doctor titled "Silver Nemesis," when The Doctor grew very agitated after his enemy Lady Peinforte implied that she knew his past, his name and that he was more than just another Time Lord.
HINT OF THINGS TO COME: During the scene in which Evelina and Dextrus enter prophecy mode and reveal that they’re aware of The Doctor and Donna’s real names, as well as the destruction of The Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey, clues about upcoming story points are revealed at a fast clip. In the first of these prophesies, Dextrus tells The Doctor, "She is returning." Does he mean former companion Rose, who made a surprise appearance at the end of the previous episode?
Dextrus follows with a cryptic message for Donna, telling her, "Daughter of London, there is something on your back." One has to wonder if this is a reference to the spider-like creatures who rode around on the backs of humans in "Planet of Spiders," a story featuring The Third Doctor that took place during Season 11 of the original series. The spiders used humans as transport and, though defeated at the end of the story, also wounded The Doctor enough (via radiation exposure) to force a regeneration.
FIRST THOUGHTS ON NEXT WEEK’S EPISODE, "Planet of the Ood": For the umpteenth time, they’re not married. Oh, and didn’t we learn our lesson about the Ood yet?
Special thanks to ComicMix contributor Alan Kistler for analysis of this week’s episode of Doctor Who. Photos courtesy of SciFi.com. For more on Doctor Who and other great programs, check out Scifi.com and the BBC.
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