My husband is the best in the world. Upon hearing that I wouldn’t be able to see the Doctor Who Experience during my trip to England, he suggested that we change the trip to later in the year, so that the Experience would be open and we would be in England for the convention Dimensions 2014. Then, when he heard it would cost $750 per ticket to change our plane reservations, he said, “Sure, go ahead.” Now, that’s just way too expensive, but he didn’t even think: he just said yes, because he wants me to do the things I want to do on my trip. He is really the best in the world.
I spent much of yesterday kind of mooning around because of the news about DWE, so my husband also cheered me up by popping in a bunch of Donna episodes to keep me entertained, and it was wonderful. He even chose “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” one of the most fun episodes but one that he avoids like the plague because of his flying-stinging-insect phobia. We also watched “The Fires of Pompeii,” “The Sontaran Strategem,” and “The Poison Sky.” The only downside to this is that after watching so much Donna, we are always heartbroken that she only got one season and that in so many of her episodes, she’s marginalized by another companion returning.
In this particular viewing, though, I was very impressed by the subplots in “The Fires of Pompeii” and “The Sontaran Strategem” / “The Poison Sky.” Starting with the latter, while I knew that Luke Rattigan was a very important character plotwise, I never really realized how much his character developed over the episode and how well Ryan Sampson portrayed him. Luke is a hyperintelligent human, so much so that he can’t relate to regular humans and feels isolated as well as superior to them. His entire plan, to take other extremely intelligent teens to a new planet while the Sontarans destroy Earth, is half-motivated by his desire to start a new, advanced race of humans and half-motivated by wanting to strike back at the people who treated him so poorly. Morality isn’t even a consideration to him, and even when his students abandon him, choosing to stay with their families, he’s unable to understand why and continue to insist on his own superiority – he continues to act truly in character. It’s not until he’s betrayed by the Sontarans that he begins to understand what everyone’s been trying to tell him, that no matter how intelligent he is, he doesn’t know everything and the human equation still eludes him. Once he realizes that he’s still a human, and more or less still a child even though he’s cleverer than everyone else, he grabs the opportunity to correct the things he’s done, saving the Doctor’s life in the process. While the episode is about the Sontaran invasion, the real story is his.
Similarly, while “The Fires of Pompeii” is about the Pyroviles’ plot on the top level and the education of Donna about the moral choices the Doctor must make on the second level, there is another story behind it all that’s just as captivating. Because of the purchase of the TARDIS, the Doctor meets a Roman family: Caecillius the marble merchant, his wife Metella, and his two teenage children, Evelina and Quintus. In just a couple of minutes of screen time, we see dynamics of the household very clearly. Caecillius and Metella are only concerned with their status in the community, and as such, they’re proud of Evelina because she’s going to be accepted into the Sybilline Sisterhood. They ignore their son, who they feel is lazy and embarrassing, and treat him like a child, while lavishing praise on their daughter. Quintus is definitely not ambitious and rather irresponsible, but he has a cool head on his shoulders and he recognizes that whatever it is that’s happening to Evelina, it’s not good. He’s disgusted by his parents’ lack of concern for her welfare.
Throughout the episode, the relationships within the family changed as events unfolded. Quintus first demonstrates his love for his sister by trying to tell his parents that the vapors are hurting her. He shows his bravery, first in assisting the Doctor and then defeating the Pyrovile in the house, and begins to see that he has a lot more worth, if he would work on developing it. Caecillius and Metella finally begin to see that whatever it is that’s happening to Evelina, it’s destroying her, and that while they couldn’t prevent the events of the episode, a lot of trouble was heaped on their house because of their ambition. In the epilogue, Caecillius and Metella have established themselves as marble merchants in Rome, and while they are still ambitious, they now care for their daughter and son for themselves and not for what their children can do for them. Evelina is leading a normal life (and making the same choices as any other teenager), and Quintus has found a purpose that he can believe in.
These are the kind of Doctor Who stories, or really, sub-stories, that add the real meat to the show. It reminds me very much of “The Robots of Death,” in which the Fourth Doctor and Leela were secondary to the main story of the relationships between the episode’s guest characters and how they developed due to the events they became embroiled in. Caecillius’ family’s story was only a minor plotline and was the third thread in the episode, but because the characters were drawn so distinctly and developed so well, you quickly begin to actually care for them. They’re not just characters introduced to help the plot along, and this magnified the emotional impact of the final conflict – the Doctor’s refusal to save them, and then his change of heart – to make this one of the best episodes of the modern show.