It amazes me sometimes how much I miss things that I really should have noticed. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of Doctor Who episodes multiple times, and I love them, and then one day, it just hits me what it is about a particular episode that I love so much. Today’s revelation talking point is “The Fires of Pompeii”. I know that when I first viewed it, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t stand out to me in any particular way. I enjoyed all of Series 4 (there wasn’t a single bad episode in the entire bunch), but certainly “The Fires of Pompeii” didn’t hold a candle to the incredible episodes “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”, “Midnight”, and “Turn Left”. It had a fun adventure, with the Doctor battling lava monsters that had lost their planet and were trying to make Earth their home by taking over the indigenous sentient species, while he was also trying to figure out why Pompeii wasn’t going to explode like it should.
Then, months later, I rewatched it, along with all of the other Series 4 episodes. They were all better on second viewing, but “The Fires of Pompeii” was surprisingly very good. This time, with the advantage of hindsight, I saw how this episode established Donna’s character as the Doctor’s conscience and the only one who can and will push back against him. “Donna, human, NO!” is the iconic scene which shows that she’s willing to stand against him when she feels she’s right, something few companions ever have the nerve to do. Then, in the end, in the stone capsule, she sees that yes, he has good reasons for what he does and that he makes those difficult decisions no matter how much suffers for them, and she continues to support him. This episode contributed a huge amount to the overarching story of Series 4, in which the Doctor is bound by coincidences (or destiny) to the one companion that travels with him as an equal rather than a subordinate.
It’s only been recently that I realized that “The Fires of Pompeii” is even deeper than that. There’s a third story hidden behind all of this: that of Caecilius’ family. The characters are drawn beautifully from the start, as we meet them when Caecilius has bought the TARDIS as a “modern art” piece, in order to demonstrate that he’s cultured and savvy. From the first moments of their appearance, we know that he and his wife Metella are social climbers, doting on their daughter Evelina and pushing her into the Sybilline Sisterhood because that will increase their prestige in the city, while dismissing the damage it’s causing her. They also ignore their son Quintus, who they think is a wastrel, trying to hide him whenever anyone of importance appears. It’s very telling that when the first earthquake hits, they run to save the vases and statuary rather than make sure their children are safe. Quintus is the only one in the family who actually cares about Evelina and is appalled as he watches his sister degrade.
As events unfold, the parents watch as Quintus steps up to defend his sister and the family, and when Pompeii finally erupts, they learn that the material aspects of life are transient and that the things they’ve been blind to, their children, are the real treasures they should have been protecting. The Doctor saves them, and when they rebuild their lives in Rome, while they’re still trying to climb the social ladder, they do so while also caring for their family.
This whole storyline is carried out behind the bigger sweeping story of the Pyroviles and the Doctor and Donna’s developing relationship and is nearly invisible, and yet it glues together the episode. It adds a layer of complexity to an otherwise straightforward story, providing a cast of secondary characters that you immediately understand and relate to, and grow during the course of the events, getting you invested in their lives without detracting from the main conflict. It’s even more amazing to consider that this was done with very little focus on the family, as most of the scenes and dialogue were focused on the Doctor (of course) and the Pyroviles’ scheme.
It’s this complex plotting and attention to the secondary characters, building them into a story of their own, that really appeals to me about Doctor Who. Yes, I love the Doctor and his companions, but it’s the rest of the universe that’s so interesting, even down to one single family and how their encounter with the Doctor changes their lives.