Tuesday, April 15, 2008

4:2 "Fires of Pompeii"

If Captain Kirk used his superior technology to impose his superior morality on every planet he visited, he would come across as a colonialist or a communist. But if he said that it's up to everyone in the universe to fix their own troubles, then there wouldn't actually be any stories. Ergo: The Prime Directive. Kirk is signed up to a Sacred Law which says that he can't interfere with the affairs of other planets, except when he can. Although this is said to be one of the laws of the United Federation of Planets, it's actually one of the laws under which a TV show like Star Trek always and necessarily has to operate. It's a way of drawing a circle around a genre-assumption and saying 'please don't think about this, or the whole thing will collapse'. It's a sacred mystery that enables us to believe that when Kirk reintroduces war to an otherwise peaceful planet, he's doing it in the name of non-intervention. It's only a problem when someone tries to tell us what the Prime Directive actually says; to examine it's philosophical ramifications. That's a bad idea: it's there to facilitate story-telling; it's not what the stories are about.

I know I'm banging on and on about rules: but ever since a big hairy cave man stepped out of the shadow of the TARDIS and started talking in a RADA accent, it's been absolutely clear that Doctor Who has at least two Prime Directives:

1: Everyone, anywhere in the Universe, speaks English.

2: If the viewer knows the outcome of an historical event, the Doctor can't change it.

Directive 1 is so obvious that for fourteen years, no-one noticed it was there at all. In, I think, 'Masque of Mandragora', Sarah wonders why she is understanding Italian and Doctor Tom mutters something about sharing a Time Lord gift with her: the subject isn't raised again until RTD starts to obsess about it in 'End of the World.'
Directive 2 is more of a problem: it comes on stage from time to time (in 'The Aztecs', 'The Time Meddler', 'Day of the Daleks' and arguably 'Genesis of the Daleks'), but it patently makes no sense whatsoever. If helping Harold beat William at Hastings counts as time meddling; why is helping the Thals beat the Daleks on Skaro perfectly OK? In general, the series has been happy to say 'Because the Laws of Time say so' or, in the vulgar, 'It just is, okay?'

RTD has followed Big Finish in adopting Peter Darvill-Evans elegant theory: the whole of the future is in a state of flux and pretty much everything counts as 'future' from the Time Lords point of view. When the Doctor materializes at a particular point, he 'crystallizes' history around himself and makes the events he experiences, and any which depend on it immutable. The fourth dimension is a collection of fixed points, linked together by more or less mutable time-lines, in a sea of unresolved possibilities. But 'The Web of Time' is just another way of spelling Prime Directive: in the Doctor Who universe, history is immutable, except when it isn't. Why can the Doctor change the outcome of the war between the Daleks and the Movellons, but not the outcome of the Second World War? He just can, okay.

Sadly 'The Fires of Pompeii' is yet another example of Doctor Who turning in on itself and making the 'prime directives' -- both 'why does everyone talk English?' and 'why can't we change the past' the actual subject of the story?'. Doctor Who, it seems, is about the narrative conventions of Doctor Who. It's about our nostalgic memories of a show called Doctor Who. It's about the nature and significance and state of consciousness of a character who is carefully not called Doctor Who. About anything, in fact, apart from coming up with an entertaining answer to the question 'What would happen if a none-too-bright 20th century girl was transported back to ancient Pompeii?' Which some people might have thought was the object of the exercise.

This is rather a pity: because, after the grit your teeth embarrassment of the Season 3 finale, the total waste of time that was the Christmas Special, and the 'what the hell are they thinking' comedy of 'Invasion of the Jelly Babies', 'Fires of Pompeii' was quite a decent little story. While nominally about Pompeii, it felt a lot as if the Doctor and Not-Not-Rose had materialized on the set of Rome, largely because they had. (Indeed, I kept wondering whether Quintus was going to be buggered by Ceasar and declare himself Emperor.) The joke that, because the TARDIS translator turns Latin into colloquial English, the market trader talks like Del-Boy and Lucius' family talk like soap opera characters lasts for about five minutes. By the time we get to the serious bits, everyone starts talking Theatre. The question: 'If the TARDIS makes my English sound like Latin, what do the Romans hear when I speak Latin?' is the sort of question only a child (or, I suppose, a fan) would think to ask. The answer 'Welsh' is funny the first time. But not very.

Donna wants to use the TARDIS to save the people of Pompeii from their impending destruction. The Doctor knows that this violates narrative conventions, but Donna persists. He bends the rules slightly, rescuing a single family, because, presumably, introducing thousands and thousands of their descendants into human history doesn't constitute 'interference.' The point of the story is not that the Doctor saves the earth or Lucius's family but that he realises that he needs Donna, even though the audience still can't stand the bloody site of her. Without her, he would have callously left everyone to be incinerated just as he would have wiped out the jelly babies and did in fact kill the ickle bubby spiders. The old man in 'Voyage of the Damned' told the Doctor that if he kept making life or death decisions he'd become a monster and the Dalek in 'Dalek' said he'd make a good Dalek.

Well, yes: every hero is potentially a villain. Surely the Master was introduced precisely to make this point? Sherlock Holmes would have made an excellent murderer; come to think of it, the very first thing we're told about him is that he'd think nothing of killing a friend in cold blood. But I do hope we are not building up to a story in which the Doctor turns evil and, say, Donna, Martha and Rose have to get together to bring him back.

This core story only requires that the Doctor and Donna appear at some historical crux: to give them a chance to assassinate Hitler or stop the Black Death. Arriving in Pompeii 24 hours before the volcano erupts does the job admirably, even if it does effectively decanonize a rather excellent little Sly McCoy / Bonnie Langford audio. One might think that 'Do we save the city or not?' would be quite a big enough question to fill 45 minutes of airtime. (It took basically 100 minutes for Barbara to work out that weaning the Aztecs off human sacrifice was a: a bad idea b: impossible.) But no: it has to be enmeshed in half a dozen other story lines. The overwrought climax in which the Doctor has to choose between destroying Pompeii and allowing some aliens to destroy the whole world diminished, rather than intensified, the dilemma. Save Pompeii or Save the World is not really a difficult call: just a matter of choosing the lessor weevil. Save Thousands of Humans or Obey The Laws of Time could actually present a problem. (And anyway: isn't Pompeii actually part of the world?) It makes a good point about the Doctor's burden: it's in his nature as a Time Lord that he can see the consequences of his actions, that merely by time travelling, he's causing historical events to happen, making decisions which effects who lives and who dies -- which could turn him into a monster, remember. But this -- plus the emphasis on his unimaginable fourth dimensional consciousness -- is one more step towards turning him into a god, if not actually God.

This is overlaid with the amusingly silly idea that the people of Pompeii are physically turning to stone so the city is actually populated by creatures which resemble the plaster casts you can see when you visit the archaeological site. (I wonder if Draft 1 involved the plaster casts in the museum coming to life and menacing the modern visitors, as Egyptian mummies do all the time.) This is happening because they are breathing in dust from the Volcano, through hypocausts, which is related to some alien life form that crashed there in the past, and which is having the effect of making everyone telepathic oh, and also precognitive. These aliens eventually manifest as Transformers made of fire and magma; although they are not very threatening, because they can be defeated by chucking water over them.

This is really only sketched in the most perfunctory way. At the last minute, the Doctor says slightly desperately, that the precognition powers came about because a rift in time was blown open when the alien space craft crashed, and that the 'eruption' has blown it closed. Well, obviously.

Which, as I say, is a pity, because the basic story is really quite good. The soothsaying scene, the moment when the Doctor rescues the family, the epilogue, and the moral dilemma itself were all quite well done. It is one thing to use monsters as plot-devices to facilitate character based stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it every, single week : but the monsters have still got to be either believable and comprehensible, or far enough off stage that we don't notice. It's okay to for the Daleks to be a sort of Prime Directive which lasts for a single story. 'Why do they want to drill a hole through the Earth's core?' 'They just do, okay. It's the rebels you're meant to be interested in.' But the fire monster was complicated, contrived and fussy: it simply generated noise which drowned out, rather than illuminated, the passably interesting story about the Doctor and Donna which RTD presumably set out to tell.


When bad SF writers realised that they had written bad cliches into their bad SF, they used to think that it would help the audience suspend disbelief for the dumb blond to say 'Gee, professor, this is crazier than one of those nutty Science Fiction movies.' RTD's preferred technique is for someone to say 'Oh, you are kidding me.' Please stop it.


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