Monday, 28 September 2015

Main Range 012. The Fires of Vulcan by Steve Lyons (September 2000)

The Fires of Vulcan and The Fires of Pompeii. Why do we think Steve Lyons and James Moran picked these respective titles? The latter is, after all, much more obvious (possibly too obvious). Given Lyons’ was the earlier story, the question remains why he rejected something quite as straightforward as the 2008 title and plumped for “Vulcan” instead. The clear mythological tone he wishes to invoke is something of an interesting, albeit small, recurring motif in this story.  At the very start, the Doctor (and by association, Mel) is cast in the role of Hermes, or Mercury (“we are… messengers!” who arrive in a “chariot from the heavens”). The Doctor is a fluid, ever-changing force, an immortal being that swoops down from on high for brief moments; he’s not the perfect analogy for Hermes/Mercury, but I’ve always thought if ever there were a story that showed us the Doctor influencing Greek or Roman mythology there would only be one clear god to pick. Isis, of course, is another key element of the story associated with the Doctor – in this instance the imagery of the Orient, or the Other, as Edward Said puts it (and note the areas with which Isis is associated – nature (the Doctor wishes to let nature/time run its course) and the friend of slaves, for example (his visible discomfort at being addressed as “master”). Tenuous or not, these links prove an intriguing little aside). The Doctor here is cast as a semi-divine being, equated frequently with a messenger from the gods, a force with detailed knowledge of what is to happen in the future. “Pompeii will rise again,” McCoy intones, and suddenly the idea of the Doctor as Merlin, or as a great prophet, becomes a little bit more believable.  (This is echoed by Mel in the cells – “I don’t think it’s Isis I need… where are you, Doctor?”).

What is most fascinating of course is the limit to the Doctor’s mythos. He too is bound by a set of rules, those of Time Lord ‘mythology’. He might be an advanced species, he may have infinite knowledge in comparison to the humans of Pompeii, but his excess of foreknowledge is as damaging and small-mindedly wrong as the citizens’ ignorance of what is to come. This is an interesting parallel, and I think it renders the cultural commentary on the ugliness of the Roman world a little more palatable. We are not invited to judge the Romans purely on the basis of “gladiators, how nasty” or “they had dozens of gods, how superstitious”. We are invited to judge them on the basis of their superstitions, yes, but we are similarly prodded towards a reading which damns the resigned weariness of a cynic and a sceptic (in this case, the Doctor). Of all the characters in the story, it is only Mel who ‘correctly’ walks the middle path, trying to save who she can and urge Aglae, Tibernus and the legionaries out of the devastation in which they will find themselves. Mel subscribes to no mythology per se. She is a pragmatic product of the western secular world, and has only the (so Lyons intends us to see it) humanist desire to save as many as possible and rage against the dying of the light. (But of course that, too, is a mythology, and in viewing the cultural trappings of the Roman world through our world’s lens we are bound to have some ugly things to say. They might be valid criticisms on our own terms, but probably not on theirs).

On balance, this is fudged by the ease with which the Doctor’s conundrum is resolved. If the story’s resolution gave us thematic closure to this tension between foreknowledge of history and ignorance of history it would have made for a thrilling end. Don’t get me wrong – the way they escape Pompeii is a neat, clever trick (The Doctor piloting the TARDIS into a specifically TARDIS-shaped hole 1,900 years later because it was his TARDIS that made the imprint is a very, very Moffat idea). But it feels rather unearned given the minimal time the Doctor spends learning anything in this story. He learns that Mel’s attitude of hope was right, yes. But he doesn’t suffer in burning ash. His foreknowledge and cynicism is repaid by learning from Mel, where the blind faith of the Pompeiians is not. Now, that does not have to be problematic – unfair things happen all the time in fiction as in reality – but the issue is the sense with which no nobility really gets transferred on to the Romans in the end. It’s a world of danger and fear and superstition and excitement, but not one of particularly strong human bonds (Mel’s friendship with Aglae feels too undercooked for it to count, and at any rate it’s not intra-Roman). They viewed the worth of each individual life differently to us, yes, but not that differently, and a more compassionate treatment of the characters would have been welcome.

Other things:
The opening prologue feels like a delightfully teasing cold open from the new series: TARDIS found buried under the ash from Mt. Vesuvius *cue titles* - and the way it echoes in the cliff-hanger to part 1 makes it more than just a neat opening.
The mewing of seagulls, the splash of water, the babble of fountains the baaing of sheep and other farm animals in the market, the buzzing of insects… There is a luscious atmosphere. The music is lush and filmic (and particularly wonderful at the cliff-hanger of part 2). Part 3 opens with a cracking storm too, an aural treat. Plus I very much liked the use of the seagulls in the final scenes of Part 4, as a call back to the peaceable time pre-eruption.
The Doctor has a somewhat lighter voice here, not overly dark… not quite the clown of much of season 24 but not as dark as he will become, either. All quiet and brooding – it’s not like him at all” is how Mel describes him: perhaps this is part of his turning point between 24 and 25. Proposing that Mel get sent away in the TARDIS also feels like an Eccleston or a Capaldi move. Of course the diminutive and non-warlike Seventh Doctor would be the one to end up in an arena with a renowned and fearsome gladiator for an opponent.
The Doctor’s little chuckle as he says “it’s silly, you know” to explain away not knowing the date.
“So this is it. The final journey. I had hoped for a while longer, time to prepare. Time slipping away from me, we’re only just arriving, but we’ve already stayed a lifetime, too many lifetimes, withering like roses…”
Mel is delightful. Translating the Latin graffiti a nice touch, and challenging the Doctor over his inconspicuous attire, shopping around in the market. “We aren’t beaten yet” – her pleasant derring-do attitude is a nice contrast to the slowly darkening, more melancholy Seventh Doctor. She gets to stand up to Eumachia in Part 2, and has a nice moment working out where the TARDIS must be in Part 3; her determination to save people from the oncoming eruption is compassionate and humane, and naturally echoes Donna’s attempt in 2008. It is very much a quirk of fate that Mel is still in Pompeii for the eruption, and thus that she and the Doctor are able to escape.
“Why are you humans so obsessed with money?”
Murranus a strong, boisterous character, the Doctor skewering his opponent’s use of a loaded dice. He represents the masculine belligerence and egotism present in so much of Roman culture, but it’s nicely undermined by Lyons: the only way he can manipulate the Doctor into a situation of weakness is by having him drugged by his landlady. His arrogant final speech is wonderfully full of pointless, hollow bluster, yet this is troubling for the same reason offered above.
“Perhaps we are not so out of favour with the gods as we had feared…” Lyons gives Aglae a nice pathos.
“It doesn’t seem fair.”/“Time never is.”
Kudos to Lyons – the initial problem he poses (of the TARDIS being buried under rubble and ash for 2000 years) seems so unsolvable one really keeps listening to see how the plot will play out.
I’m really enjoying the addition of these full Hartnell-esque historicals to the Big Finish range, especially seeing Doctors in these kinds of adventures who you wouldn’t normally.
“I was given a glimpse of the one thing no one should ever see… my personal future, my destiny. Perhaps my death.” Isn’t this a Matt Smith line?
The Seventh Doctor being described as “a mightier dwarf” is inspired, and one of the best descriptions of him there is (I think “an impertinent imp” is even better)
Some expository dialogue, but it’s not too clunky. Celsinus is a little bland, but Eumachia is interesting enough, the “bitter old widow”, even if she becomes a little too fanatic and caricature by the end.
“Who keeps track of time?” – a deceptively clever line, given the central dilemma of the story is ensuring that what happens in time is what seems to have happened.
The unnatural moment of quiet calm at the end of part 3 is haunting. The seagulls have left the sky, the fluttering of the caged birds. The eruption itself is vast, filmic and dramatic, a worthy spectacle on audio (a certain irony to that comment, one feels): the screams of citizens and bystanders, the crackle of lightning and the thunder of falling rocks.
“I seem to be in the wrong place at the right time, as usual.”
The Doctor’s powerful speech about the tragedy of Pompeii is beautifully complemented by Alistair Lock’s score. “The pyroclastic flow, a virtual river of boiling hot rock pouring down the mountainside at the speed of 100 miles per hour. It will engulf the city killing everybody it touches. We can’t out run it, Valeria, we can’t hide from it. Thousands will die in Pompeii alone.”
“I was wrong, Mel. You were right. You had hope. Sometimes that’s the most important thing of all.”
“It is a moment of history preserved like no other.”
“It’s still cheating though, isn’t it…we’ve still used our foreknowledge to change things.”/“But we haven’t altered the events that created our foreknowledge…. It’s only cheating if you get caught!”

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