He Sets Fire To Rome (The Fires of Pompeii)

(57 comments)

"What? No. Don't cast him. He'd make an awful Doctor. He
looks like a murderous cab driver for God's sake."
It’s April 12th, 2008. Estelle is at number one with “American Boy.” Sam Sparro, Kooks, Mariah Carey, Madonna and Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown (a domestic abuser) also chart. In news, Mark Penn resigns from the Clinton campaign, which is interesting mostly because he resigned for reasons other than gross incompetence. London does (depending on your perspective) a rubbish or great job hosting part of the Olympic torch run, as an anti-China protester manages to briefly snatch the torch. It goes similarly well in Paris, where the torch is actually extinguished by authorities. Then, in San Francisco, the torch and runner briefly disappear entirely before being run along a different route where nobody knows to watch or protest it.

Speaking of fire and the classical world, The Fires of Pompeii. First of all, before we go at all into this story, let’s agree to set aside The Waters of Mars. Everything here is obviously going to come up again in that post. But we did a fine job of shutting up about The Deadly Assassin while we worked our way through earlier versions of Time Lord history, and an equally fine job of ignoring The War Games until the time came, so let’s do the same here and take this story entirely on its own terms. Let’s also note that this was written prior to Day of the Doctor and makes no effort to understand the Time War in the context of that episode.

Similarly, when it comes to Peter Capaldi, let’s note that it’s sad that such a great actor blows his opportunity to be on Doctor Who in what is by and large an underwritten bit part. Given that the new series tends not to recycle actors, it’s borderline tragic that we’re not going to get to see him again after this. Also, one of the actresses playing the Sibylline Sisters is quite good, and wasted in the part. A pity, through and through.

It is no secret that I am not, by and large, a fan of stories that treat the alteration of history as a moral dilemma. I’ve discussed my reasons for this before, but the long and short of it is that it’s an entirely fake moral dilemma. Because altering history is at present completely impossible, there are no principles on which to hang an ethical debate about it. It’s as hollow an ethical debate as whether or not it’s acceptable to use grozzlebarks in order to banderflinch. Which is to say that any supposed ethical principles involved are, in fact, purely the invention of the writer. It’s an ethical debate without substance - one in which the writer picks the outcome they want and then creates some technobabble to explain why that’s the ethical position.

Except it’s worse than that, because the position taken is inevitably that changing history is wrong. And so the only sort of message that one can take away from these stories is that things must remain the way they are, often because of the incomprehensible explanations of the People Who Are In Charge Of These Things. The result is a story of veiled authoritarianism in which the overall message is “whatever you do, don’t try to fundamentally alter the nature of the world.” Which is not a good thing.

This is not to say that stories about trying to change history are bad. Whatever the flaws of The Aztecs may be, they’re not this. The Aztecs is a tragedy about Barbara’s inability to change history despite trying. The implication is not that it’s morally wrong for her to try (as it is in The Fires of Pompeii, where the Doctor seems actively angry at Donna’s attempts to change anything), but simply that she will inevitably fail to impose her 20th century British perspective of Enlightenment liberalism on the culture of the Aztecs. There’s a fine line here between whether that makes for a story about throwing up your hands and saying that these savages will never learn or one about how cultural imperialism doesn’t work no matter how good the intentions, but either way, it’s not a story about arbitrarily dictating rules regarding changing history. Similarly, Father’s Day works because it moves off of the moral debate and into one that’s both idiosyncratic and pragmatic: if you try to change history at a vulnerable point in time because you’re double-crossing your own timestream then horrible time wyverns come and destroy the planet. 

On first glance, however, The Fires of Pompeii does not appear to be among these workable stories. It’s firmly in the mould of stories about the immorality of changing history, with the Doctor and Donna getting into a moral argument in which his perspective is one based purely on his superior knowledge of time. He can see fixed points, and knows that they are not to be changed. Donna gives him lip, but in the end, he’s allowed to be right. He doesn’t save Pompeii. Even the hedge offered by the story - that he can save just a few people - is hollow, coming across as “you can do little things, but don’t you dare start thinking about big transformative action regarding the nature of the world.” 

And yet the story, at seemingly every turn, fails to quite land this version of things. For one thing, for all that the Doctor says this is a fixed point, the story blatantly contradicts him. Pompeii isn’t a fixed point; the Pyroviles are averting it when the Doctor shows up. The soothsayers are explicitly said to be right about Vesuvius not erupting for the specific reason that it’s not going to happen. The Pyroviles have changed history so that Vesuvius is not going to erupt. So much for a fixed point. 

There is of course an alternative explanation, which is that the Pyroviles haven’t changed anything but were always a part of history, and that the Doctor and Donna always threw the switch that caused Vesuvius to erupt. Except that doesn’t actually work. For one thing, it ties the Doctor into a fixed point in time. Everything about his supposed Time Lord senses should tip him off that he’s a part of the fixed point in time. Too much of the series is destabilized if we assume that the Doctor’s actions are also historically fixed; the entire notion of what he is as a Time Lord mitigates against that. But more than that, the Doctor acts as though he has a choice in the moment. He doesn’t play the “fixed point” card when he makes the decision to stop the Pyroviles. Everything on screen suggests he’s making an active, free choice. 

Which means that Pompeii never was a fixed point in any metaphysical or ontological sense. It always could be changed. Indeed, it was changed, and then changed back on the basis of a fairly straightforwardly utilitarian answer to an Intro to Philosophy hypothetical called the Trolley Problem. (A trolley is heading towards five people tied to the railroad tracks. You can pull a lever and divert it to a second track where only one person is tied. Do you pull the lever, thus actively causing the death of one person, or through inaction allow five people to die?) Instead it’s that the Doctor is unwilling to change it - unwilling, we learn in the end, because to change it opens the possibility of trying to change the end of the Time War.

Why? It’s worth looking at his explanation to Donna about why she can’t just try to evacuate everyone: nobody would believe her. This is the same problem Barbara faced, ultimately - the cultural context in which she recognizes the historical problem is alien to the cultural context in which the problem occurs. As the Doctor points out, she can’t even explain volcanos to them - they don’t have the word yet. To quote Simon Kinnear, “new words, like volcano, can only come into existence when circumstances provide the necessary context to demand them.” Absent that context the very language fails to work. 

As Kinnear goes on to point out, this is highlighted in the repeated joke whereby common Latin phrases are misheard by the TARDIS translation circuits and thus come out as Welsh to the Romans. The ways in which Roman culture has influenced the present day, in other words, are incomprehensible to the Romans themselves, simply because the entire idea of the present day is incomprehensible. And so Donna has no way to save everybody, because what she understands as their salvation is a concept that doesn’t exist. Hence the scene of Donna walking through the streets, trying to get people to run in the safer direction, and nobody listening to her. She might as well be speaking in English. 

What, then, do we make of the Doctor’s final justification - that if he saves Pompeii he’d have to undo the Time War as well. Because, of course, he can save Pompeii. He has a machine that we’re going to find out can tow planets. There’s zero reason he can’t come up with some ludicrous yet effective scheme to stop the volcano itself or to swiftly evacuate everybody. The idea that the Doctor is unable to change time is clearly wrong. So why doesn’t he? 

Because, ultimately, what he saves them from is only understandable through their death. The very concept of a volcano emerges from Pompeii. It’s not that the fact that Pompeii will be remembered is a moral justification for the slaughter. It’s that the act of saving people from the advance of history is impossible. The reason Pompeii is a fixed point is because Pompeii creates the understanding of itself necessary to deal with the idea of volcanos. Even in the limited circumstances that the Doctor does intervene, he does not teach anything - he’s subsumed into the culture, situated as a household god, no different from the god Vulcan that is wrongly assumed to be within the mountain. 

Likewise, to intervene in the Time War would, in the end, be impossible because it would come from a position unthinkable within the context of the Time War, namely the universe’s survival. History cannot integrate the possibility of its own absence even as that absence is inevitable. The future refuses to have us. And thus no moment can be rewritten in light of what follows from it. Hence the moment just a few episodes later. “Time can be rewritten,” the Doctor begs, from the perspective of somebody who has no idea what that time entails. “Not one line. Don’t you dare,” she replies, because she knows exactly what it entails and cannot stand to see it changed. 

And yet in all of this Donna still wins the argument. Even if saving everybody is impossible, save someone. Caecilius, after all, begged to be saved. Even if he did not understand that the volcano is just plate tectonics and not the god Vulcan, even if he did not have the word for “volcano” as he cowered and waited to die, he knew enough to know that there was some other set of possible events. He knew enough to beg.

And so he and his family become the ones the Doctor can save. Is this just cultural imperialism played out over time? Is the message that in any time there are the ones who are closer to the future who can thus be redeemed? It does not seem so - all of Caecilius’s family shows their profound ignorance at one point or another n the story. There’s nothing special about them save for the fact that instead of making a doomed run to the sea they cowered and begged. It’s not that they were better or more important. They were just the ones within reach.

The result is a story of unusual maturity - one that tackles a topic that rarely works and finds space. It also defines Donna in a new and interesting way. It’s worth comparing to The End of the World, in which the Doctor visibly broadens Rose’s horizons, or to The Shakespeare Code, where Martha comes pre-established as a hyper-capable companion and nothing really changes. In The Fires of Pompeii, Donna’s ethics trump the Doctor’s. He’s wrong and she’s right, even if she doesn’t understand what is and isn’t possible. His attempt to pull rank with an argument from authority fails outright. He’s forced to engage with the practical and the material part of history. 


Donna, in other words, brings the alchemy flooding back into the show. So much so that there is, in fact, a literal apotheosis, the TARDIS, the Doctor, and Donna becoming that most powerful of gods: household ones. 

Comments

Scott 3 years, 8 months ago

Capaldi looks very like David Tennant in that particular picture. Almost Doctor-like, even.

Such a shame, as you say, he blew his one chance to appear in the series on what's basically a bit-part and we'll never see him again. Alas.

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Sean Case 3 years, 8 months ago

Having accepted that Pompeii has to go for the greater good, Donna insists on sharing the responsibility. This prefigures their eventual fusion, and also the decision of Ten and Eleven to share the responsibility for Gallifrey with Eight-B.

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Col. Orange 3 years, 8 months ago

Someone directly asking him for help is higher up the Doctor's ethical scale (at this point) than the non-interference thing (which has always been a little fuzzy - he interferes everywhere he goes).

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David Anderson 3 years, 8 months ago

I was hoping for the caption, in this story Clara is cleverly disguised as Amy.

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Gareth Rees 3 years, 8 months ago

This story is an example of how fantasy television can handle horrible events like the destruction of Pompeii by transforming them into fantastic metaphors, and then letting the audience make the connection. The transformation of bodies buried in ash into impressions in stone can hardly be shown, but it can be prefigured by the slowly petrifying soothsayers and sisters. This is a kind of literalizaton of the narrative force of history: the Pyroviles may be suppressing the eruption of Vesuvius, but the destruction of the city, and of the bodies of the people who lived there, can't be prevented from leaking out into the story.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

He might possibly get a small role on Torchwood at some point. But that would of course make even more impossible a return to Doctor Who.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

You win the talkback.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

|| grammar/vocab nazi on|| You can mitigate something, and you can militate against something, but you can't mitigate against something. || grammar/vocab nazi off||

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 8 months ago

A wonderful reading, Phil, as well as a wonderful set of Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi jokes. My own thoughts on how this episode's historical dilemma worked was a theory that I think Steven Moffat embraced in his era as showrunner (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS spells this out most explicitly, in my view): that time travel epistemologizes the ontological structure of time. Dropping the philosophical terminology, the ability to travel in time makes what is and is not a fixed point in history subject to the knowledge of individual time travellers.

A time traveller who knows nothing of Earth's history is free to stop Pompeii's volcano or evacuate the population with technobabble devices. But because the Doctor and Donna know the history of Earth, Pompeii becomes a fixed point in time, an event they already know to have happened, and on which they know the history of Earth depends.

I had first understood this story as about the knowledge of personal history. The Doctor can perceive the capacity for flux in the events around him, but doesn't necessarily know why some events can be radically changed, some just a little, and some practically not at all. In this case, it was the collision of his immediate future with his present: the fact of his activating the volcano to destroy the Pyroviles will have always determined the fixity of the event in his life.

As for how this relates to The Day of the Doctor, it's still very early days in developing the theory of time travel that Doctor Who seems to operate today. But I take Day of the Doctor's solution to the Time War to be akin to the Doctor's cheat in The Wedding of River Song: the apparent nature of the event hides a completely different event. What looks like a younger River shooting the Doctor is actually a younger River shooting a Tesselecta ship in disguise as the Doctor, rigged to look as though it's releasing regeneration energy. What looks like the destruction of Gallifrey in The Moment's firebomb is actually the explosion of almost all the Dalek ships bombarding it as it slips into a pocket universe and the memory of the cheat disappears from the Doctor's thoughts until the latest point in the Doctor's timeline of detailed interference in the adventure itself.

Regarding the history of Earth, it does fit your reading that Pompeii's destruction is inevitable because it creates the concepts capable of understanding it. Pompeii becomes a key historical touchpoint in the development of modern vulcanology, the most famous historical reference point. As such, it plays a significant role in shaping the history of the world that eventually also created Donna Noble. For her to have prevented Pompeii's destruction would have changed the conditions of the historical process that also generated her. Changing the history of your own world becomes a destructive paradox, because you're also a product of your world.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

DONNA: You've got to go back! Doctor, I am telling you, take this thing back! It's not fair.

DOCTOR: No, it's not.

DONNA: But your own planet. It burned.

DOCTOR: That's just it. Don't you see, Donna? Can't you understand? If I could go back and save them, then I would. But I can't. I can never go back. I can't. I just can't, I can't.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

Listen: I just don't see anything wrong with using grozzlebarks in order to banderflinch. Banderflinching has been part of my family's culture since before we came over to Canada from Ireland. This is no more a moral issue than American's eating Turkey at Thanksgiving.

In terms of the story itself, I like this one. I've never really made much of it, and see it basically as a fun historical run-around. I've always really enjoyed the visuals that are so central to it, such as the stone-work circuitry and the hardening of the Seers.

I look forward to the inevitable fan-fiction or story explaining that while 10-Donna are here, 11-Amy are running around having another adventure, while 12 is using a chameleon arch to play some sort of long game plan against some enemy or other.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

"I can't ever go back," the Doctor says, exactly the phrase said by Christian Shephard in LOST. Christian was a fatalist.

I'm not sure that saving Pompeii was presented as a moral dilemma. It's not like the Doctor ever says that saving Pompeii would be "wrong." Rather, the Doctor thinks it's hopeless, inevitable, and that any attempt to go back and muddle with it will only lead to becoming part of the events themselves, and tragically so. Indeed, he becomes part of the cause of Pompeii's destruction.

And of course, as it's pointed out so poignantly at the end, the Doctor's real objection to interfering with Pompeii turns out to be deeply personal and emotional. It invokes his participation in the Time War, the home he lost, the people he burned. He doesn't want to get involved because he's always trying to run away from his own trauma, which must inevitably be repressed.

This is why he won't "go back." He can't bear to revisit those memories.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Naturally no right thinking liberal in the 21st century would object to your right to banderflinch (assuming sufficient consent from all concerned). However the exploitation of grozzlebraks to do so when there are so many alternatives is not just unethical but lazy.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 8 months ago

I don't think anybody's arguing there's anything wrong with banderflinching. But using a grozzlebark?

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Daibhid C 3 years, 8 months ago

Beaten to it, and better.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Ignorance is an important theme in the Doctor's ability to be actively involved in events. The Doctor forgets, his knowledge is often incomplete or hard to recall. When he (and more importantly the audience) knows what happens there is a problem with the Doctor acting. Further, I agree that makes sense both from the necessity of the plot but also from what could be a theory of temporal paradox.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Look for the "grozzlebark free" label on the side of the packet :)

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

I can see the side of the argument where people say there are alternatives. But I can't really come down in support. Calling it "unethical" is hyperbole. Claims about "harm inflicted" or "suffering felt by those involved" have never been more than unsubstantiated ramblings. It's not a pretty tradition. But it's a deep and meaningful part of my culture, and it feels like a lot of people who have no connection to this history are very eager to come in and change it.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

Could this story be seen as the first step on the road to the "Timelord Victorious"? That here he takes a stand against history and he is not only ok, but rewarded for it by having a closer relationship with Donna. I might keep this in mind post by post and try and build an argument about it in a bit...

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

"Because altering history is at present completely impossible, there are no principles on which to hang an ethical debate about it."

Well, only when the premise is taken literally. This is the great mistake that's always taken with mythology, whether amongst "true believers" or those atheists determined to dismiss those myths on the basis of their impossibility. But of course, myths do not have to be taken literally -- nor should they.

The true realm of myth is in metaphor, and it is the exercise of "aletheia" -- the truth of uncovering -- that makes them relevant for whatever place and time in which we do this work. It is through metaphor that impossible events and creatures can be applied to any place time. Because metaphor unveils an underlying structure, a pattern, that may reveal unrealized entailments (as well as amusing absurdities, which at least instruct in paths best left untaken.)

There are at least three concerns for which this particular altering of history may be of value at the present time. The first and most obvious, as Adam Riggio as so eloquently explained, is that it serves as a metaphor for the Doctor's own personal history. As has been the case so often in Doctor Who, the events of a story help to illuminate the underlying psychology of our protagonist.

But aside from such self-referential purposes, we can look a story such as this to illuminate our own situation. On the one hand, we're dealing with the power of nature; indeed, we are concerned with our own hand in the dealing of natural disasters, be it our contributions to such as well as our limitations in dealing with them. Or, and quite possibly more interesting, we're looking at the potential to rewrite time as a metaphor for rewriting history. In both these cases, we can definitely hang ethical principles on the larger story, insofar as they can be translated to our real-world concerns.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

Re: "it feels like a lot of people who have no connection to this history are very eager to come in and change it. "

Yeah right...and do you still erk your snitforfer? Thought not. You roll out 'tradition' and culture when it is convenient and yet your grozzlebark has gone through modern processing and quality control regimes brought to you by those very people who have "no connection to history". If it wasn't for people like that you'd still be herniking you snitforfer every Francismas Eve like a uninvolved snakwinder.
...and yes I am approx one-third* grozzletender stock myself (via my grand-aunts side)

[* technically 3/pi^2]

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

"Because altering history is at present completely impossible, there are no principles on which to hang an ethical debate about it."

However the ethics of social engineering are exactly something about which there are attempts at principles and attempts at ethical debates. While social engineering (particularly of the Popperian kind) are associated with the left the notion of intervention to change the course of a nation is one that can be found in ideological debates across the political spectrum. For example at least in US foriegn policy the neo-conservatives of the previous decade were taking an interventionist position (almost neo-trotskyist position) at odds with the isolationist tendency within US conservatism.

In terms of sci-fi we have Star Trek versus the Doctor also. The Doctor defaults to intervention with exceptions (exceptions that arise primarily for plot reasons) whereas Star Trek defaults to non-intervention (which it then regularly subverts for plot reasons). For Star Trek the issue is used to create moral dilemmas (it is easy for them to intervene but are constrained by ethics from doing so) but for the Doctor an inability to intervene is used to establish tragedy (he is restrained from intervention not so much by rules of behaviour but by rules of timey-wimey physics).

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 8 months ago

...and then, of course, he did. Whoops.

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Froborr 3 years, 8 months ago

I absolutely think so, yeah.

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Froborr 3 years, 8 months ago

But surely the issue with these stories is not that it is impossible to change history, but that it is frequently wrong to oppose changing history? We change history constantly, because history--as you pointed out way back in the First Doctor run, IIRC--is not a sequence of events but a perspective on those events, a reinterpretation of events into a narrative. We change that story every time we retell it, every time we choose to emphasize this or that detail, gloss over a character, or weave in a theme.

The present is shaped enormously by history--as much by what we believe happened as what actually happened. Changing history is thus a powerful tool to change the present, and in particular attempts to expose the bits glossed over are often opposed by the powerful and comfortable because they challenge the narratives by which modern power structures are frequently justified. To oppose changing history is thus very much to oppose material social progress.

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KMT75 3 years, 8 months ago

"The Man Who Forgets":
No, you look Time Lord. We came first.

AMY:
So there are other Time Lords, yeah?

"The Man Who Forgets":
No. There were, but there aren't... Just me now. Long story. There was a bad day. Bad stuff happened, and you know what? I'd love to forget it all, every last bit of it, but I don't. Not ever. Cos this is what I do - every time, every day, every second. This. Hold tight. We're bringing down the government.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 8 months ago

Yes. Yes I do erk my snitforfer. I also trast my dojcap at dawn, noon, dusk and midnight. I will admit however you are correct. 95% of the people who use grozzlebarks do not follow the whole set of traditions. Not even my entire family.

I guess this might be an issue I'm too close to. I can't see it objectively. All I know is that in my gut I know that in order to banderflinch I must have a grozzlebark. Otherwise it's just meaningless pageantry.

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prandeamus 3 years, 8 months ago

I tried to update the Wikipedia entry on erked snitforfers, but I got involved in an edit war and now Jimbo Wales wants my hernik on a spike. That's quite ironic really, because *my* grand-aunt kept in just such a place.

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Triturus 3 years, 8 months ago

Just goes to show how good the Doctor is at forgetting!



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Triturus 3 years, 8 months ago

It is no secret that I am not, by and large, a fan of stories that treat the alteration of history as a moral dilemma. I’ve discussed my reasons for this before, but the long and short of it is that it’s an entirely fake moral dilemma. Because altering history is at present completely impossible, there are no principles on which to hang an ethical debate about it.

The problem with time travelling historical stories is that you can't change history significantly without changing everything so much that it risks pulling the recognisable world rug from under the audiences' feet. That's why Doctor Who periodically 'resets' the world's knowledge of alien invasions; if the Dr Who world drifts too far from the 'real' world of the viewer, it loses some of its power.

So you can never do a story where the Doctor stops Vesuvius or Krakatoa from erupting, or prevents Hitler from coming to power, because it would cut Dr Who loose from its audiences' world, and that would turn it into a different show altogether. You can touch on these sorts of revisionist historical stories within Dr Who but only if you use the device from Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently, where you find out at the end of the story that the whole thing took place in a different world and the denouement has changed the story world to match up with the world the audience has been in all along. (Stephen Fry's Making History could be another example, if you started the story at the alternate WWII).

So historical stories inevitably have to be deterministic in a way that stories set in the future don't have to be. So the Aztecs or Fires of Pompeii just can't get resolved the way that Day of the Daleks can.

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Alex Antonijevic 3 years, 8 months ago

I have a feeling 11 started to move on during the departure of the Ponds, Trenzalore and all that. Back in Series 5 he's only in his 900's. So by the time he's 1200 he's moved on.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

Well, yes. That is step one in "So You Run an Ongoing Franchise Where the Characters Travel In Time". But the trick is to figure out how give your series the ability to deal with things they should really want to change, and make it work as part of a story.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 8 months ago

OK...I surrender :)

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Toby Brown 3 years, 8 months ago

I've always thought that this was how changing time worked in Who.
Also, literally just now reading this comment made me realise why the Silence needed River specifically to be the one in the suit killing the Doctor (I'd never understood why they couldn't just use a robot, so it looks the same from an outside observer, the same trick the Doctor used): River, as one of the universe's leading experts in Doctorology, is someone who knows that the Doctor dies at Lake Silencio, which makes it a fixed point, which is further concreted by River's future timeline being so intertwined with the Doctors.
Sorry, sort of off topic, just a sudden revelation.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

So how would it have changed history if the Doctor HAD saved Pompeii?

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

I've never really liked this one for two reasons, both of which I'd be interested in hearing counterarguments to.

1. The Pyroviles. Much like van Gogh's chicken, I couldn't help feeling that they were big irritating special effects getting in the way of a potentially interesting and beautiful story. In this story I imagine they must be there to make it conscionable for the Doctor to even consider getting involved, and to make it physically possible for him to intervene, but I felt as though I would greatly have preferred a story where the Doctor and Donna spend the whole time swanning about Pompeii.

2. I love the idea of Donna's character arc, but somehow it seems to come too quickly for me to believe it. Here she zooms from zero to tear-gushing anguish in no time at all, dramatically speaking, and where can she really go after that? Does she grow beyond this point in the rest of the season, do we think, or does she immediately become the Donna she loses in "Journey's End"?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 8 months ago

He could have moved all of Pompeii into another dimension and left the ash clouds to destroy each other.

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John Voorhees 3 years, 8 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

But there's a problem with trying to save Pompeii -- a practical problem. When it's later rediscovered, the archeologists find voids filled with bones, the remains of the people who died. So not only would the Doctor have to move Pompeii into another dimension, he'd have to move back a replacement, a fake Pompeii filled with corpses to get incinerated.

Timey-wimey possibility aside, this starts to veer into creationist territory, with radtion-denuded fossils left behind by a practical-joker deity/devil to fool scientists into miscalculating the age of the world. Beside, John Varley came up with the "time-travelers faking disasters to save people" idea long ago.

The alternative to such farce is, of course, tragic: the Doctor just doesn't have the time or skill to engineer such an elaborate deception -- at least with Gallifrey everything was already in place to make it look like he'd pushed the button on The Moment. Nothing was found afterwards to contradict history.

Worse, to fake Pompeii would be setting up a moral imperative to fake every disaster in the universe, if not every death. And then what? What do you do with all those people? And it's not like they're not going to die eventually, along with the Universe. The Doctor has to, what, create Heaven itself?

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jane 3 years, 8 months ago

1. The Pyroviles are at least in the mold of Roman soldiers, and so can be taken as a metaphor for the Empire-building ethos as such. Van Gogh's chicken, on the other hand, is a rubber chicken, and doesn't really fit in with the aesthestics of the rest of the story. The fighting of the Pyroviles with water is alchemical, a reversal of polarity. And the makeup of the Sybilline high priestess is really fantastic.

2. But Donna was never at "zero" to begin with. She's emotionally involved in Runaway Bride right from the get go. So it's not her ability to demonstrate anguish that defines her character arc. No, her character arc revolves around her own self-hatred, as exemplified by the relationship she has with her mother. Her arc is completed when she finally and completely accepts who she is.

This is interesting in two respects. First, she provides a mirror to understanding the Doctor. The Doctor is also harboring self-hatred, which this episode helps bring to the fore once more. As we see Donna develop, we gain insight into how the Doctor is dealing with (or failing to deal with) his own underlying issues.

Second, understanding Donna's arc in this context redeems the Series Four finale. This is why Donna and Doctor are "fused" -- but more importantly, it means that Donna's loss of memory doesn't contradict her character arc -- indeed, we don't see her abject lack of self-confidence ever again. She doesn't consciously remember how she saved the world, but her person has nonetheless changed; she's effective in life and relationships ever after.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

Is there an alternative where Pompeii isn't devastated and there are no bones to find? Where history is truly changed and, I guess, only the Doctor and maybe Donna remember a timeline where the people didn't evacuate?

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

This actually helps on both counts. Thanks! :)

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Alan 3 years, 8 months ago

IMO, the first step on the road to Timelord Victorious was all the way back in The Christmas Invasion. The Doctor knew perfectly well that Harriet Jones was supposed to serve multiple terms and lead Britain into "a new golden age." Instead, he removed her in a fit of pique and Britain instead got Harold Saxon (who would go on to assassinate a sitting U.S. President and the entire British cabinet) before descending into outright fascism during TW: Children of Earth.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 8 months ago

Such an alternative exists - if Donna is willing to give up the world she was born in, if the showrunner is willing to give up that world as a setting.

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David Thiel 3 years, 8 months ago

I lack the brainpower and/or interest to argue whether this story epistemologizes the ontological or whatnot, but I happen to like it a great deal. This is the episode in which I fell deeply in love with Donna. Catherine Tate is, of course, at home with the farcical humor of the early scenes, but she's equally wonderful playing the emotional core of the latter half.

I appreciated the introduction of the concept of "fixed points in time," even though it has been misinterpreted by many, not the least of whom is Steven Moffat.

It had long bothered me that "Doctor Who" treated known history as something immutable. Surely all of those alien invaders were just as much a part of history; without the Doctor to "set things right," history would not have happened as we know it. While "fixed points" is a bit of handwavery, I can accept that Time Lords intrinsically understand the proper flow of events.

The thing that people get wrong about the "fixed points" is that they're not--as Moffat would have it--moments that CANNOT be changed. They're moments that SHOULD NOT be changed.

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encyclops 3 years, 8 months ago

Technically, yes, but my question is: how different would that world be, really? Putting aside theoretical questions about butterfly wings, how does Donna's world change if instead of one Pompeiian family, the whole of Pompeii is evacuated?

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Ross 3 years, 8 months ago

I always really disliked the "you can't change history" deal too. It was a very transparent "the audience's 'now' is the real now. You can change anything at all after the original airdate of the episode, and nothing at all before" (Most transparently, when the Doctor tells Jamie McCrimmon from 1746 that they've traveled back "into Earth's history" on what he thinks is a World War I battlefield.).

But one of the few things I think Moffat has done really well is to express an idea that there is an intrinsic conflation between memory and history, and if you're willing to buy that (I fully admit that if you come to Doctor Who looking for "Science Fiction", you will probably call that utter nonsense and insist that they immediately hire a science advisor with an absolute veto over anything that contradicts known science), then we actually can have a reasonable framework in which what can't be changed really does map onto "what's in the audience's history books".

(And this leaves you open for really weird and wonderful things. Like, George Washington chopping down that cherry tree might be a Fixed Point in Time even though it did not actually happen)

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Monicker 3 years, 8 months ago

This is something that I cobbled together a few months ago on the subject, I offer it with the thought that perhaps some might find it interesting.

...

For now, I'll just try to explain what I mean by a "you can't change history" philosophy and how I think it could work, but also one possible pitfall which might result from one particular way of thinking about it. Depending on how we conceptualise it, there is arguably a case for saying that it seems to be built on a less philosophically questionable model than its counterpart. The latter idea assumes that there is such a thing as a right and wrong version of history, and that any putative time traveller is somehow an outside agency to this history who does not interact with it in the same way that a non-time traveller would. But this relies on placing the subjective perception of aid time traveller(s) above events as they actually happen. In other words, if someone travels into the past from their 'present', and does various things while they're in this, from their point of view, historical era, then whatever they do will already have become part of the history before they were even born, if it's that far back. The history only ever happened with their visit to it, and whatever they did during that visit, included. There wasn't a 'tabula rasa' version of history without said time traveller being there, and then subsequently another one with them added to it, there was only the latter. The traveller is therefore a part of that history, not an extra element which has been added to it.

This is a view which has been described as the snake swallowing its tail. That is, that the circularity is unbreakable. The Doctor knows that Barbara's intention of helping the Aztecs to survive as a civilisation is doomed, because if it had succeeded it would already have been part of her world's history when she first met him. So he is warning her off so as to prevent her from both expending all that effort only to end up disappointed, and also perhaps with the thought that she might be putting them, the crew, in unnecessary danger. That, at least, is what I suspect the idea at the time the story was written might have been, although I don't know if Whitaker or Lucarotti was primarily responsible for these scenes, and it's noteworthy that Lucarotti had moved away slightly from that idea some decades later when writing his Massacre novelisation, when he did have the Doctor try to affect events differently.

Mawdryn Undead is another story which seems to imply this. It never states that changing history is impossible, but it depicts a circular scenario where the resolution leads directly to the situation as it exists at the start of the story. This isn't through any conscious effort by the Doctor and the others. They actually spend much of the last two episodes trying to prevent the Brigadiers from meeting, and this failure on their part is what ultimately leads to the state of play at the beginning of the story.

Although I'm discussing what seems to have been David Whitaker's idea of how it worked, I don't subscribe entirely to his conception either, if his prologue to the Crusaders novelisation is anything to by. Here he has the Doctor describe how Robert Clive of India tried to commit suicide as young man, but each time the gun failed to go off as he held it to his temples yet fired normally when he aimed at away from himself. The Doctor attributes this to Time, the great regulator, knowing what his fate was. Unfortunately, this is falling into almost exactly the same trap as the 'We must preserve the Web of Time, the balance could be disrupted etc etc etc' style of thinking.

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Monicker 3 years, 8 months ago

Part 2

Both seem to be unconsciously founded on a form of predestinarianism. Both assume that there is a powerful force at work of some sort, the difference is that one assumes it is so powerful that it is not physically possible to defy it, the other assumes that it is possible to defy it, but extremely dangerous, and that the consequences could be disastrous, so there's an implicit appeal for this force to be served and appeased.

So it's essentially, and also doubtless unintentionally, a means of accidentally smuggling God into the equation, or something conceptually very similar, only labelled Time, or perhaps more pretentiously, The Web Of Time. It's a 'We cannot go against the wishes of God/Time, his/its will is absolute' versus a 'We must try not to go against the wishes of God/Time as it could have horrifying results' paradigm.

Now, for me, one possible way out of this is to recognise that this kind of anthropomorphism is misguided from the start. It is still basing itself on the idea that there is a 'right' version of history which has to be adhered to in some way, and which can apparently even affect non-time travellers, judging from the story about Clive of India. He couldn't possibly have known exactly what his future was going to be, unless he was clairvoyant, assuming you believe in such things, and as it hadn't happened at that time, there was, from his point of view, no right or wrong model it could follow. To assume that some indefinable entity called Time had particular plans for him, that it knew his future and was determined to bring it about is to bring a supernatural agency into the matter.

It would be a different matter if a time traveller, who knew of Clive's historical reputation, had travelled back into the past and tried to kill him as a young man. The reason for this traveller failing in such an enterprise would be that, had he succeeded, this would already have been evident in the period the traveller came from. Clive would be on record as having died at whatever time it was the traveller would have killed him. This involves no agency or anthropomorphism, it's simply a case of any time traveller in this situation having the benefit of hindsight. This traveller already knows what the results of any visit to the past would be on their part, because it's already in the history. So unless the history has been incorrectly recorded, then said traveller, on visiting the past, no matter what they tried to do, would be unable to bring about any situation other than that which resulted historically, because his visit had already become part of history before he ever left to go there. Not because of any 'force', not because of anything or anyone 'willing' anything, but because he would already have done - during his visit to the past - what he was going to do. Even though, prior to setting off to visit the past, he might not have been aware of what his future self would do on that visit - but his future self had already done it anyway.

The Angels take Manhattan also indicates partly in this direction, where the Doctor claims that time can only be rewritten if you haven't already read it, and he tries desperately not to read anything that would prevent him achieving his desired outcome. That is something which nods toward the above theory and the concept propounded in The Aztecs, where prior knowledge of what happened in a historical era means that you would not be capable of bringing about a different outcome. The story does also show that it can be changed if you don't know the outcome eg Rory's name suddenly appearing on the grave. However, as far as the above theory is concerned, it would be more accurate to say that if you don't know the outcome of something, you cannot say whether anything has been changed or not.

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Monicker 3 years, 8 months ago

Part 3

This is where the situation in science fiction stories set on other planets comes into play. Hence, how can we or the characters know whether the Doctor and his crew are changing anything in, say, The Daleks or The Keys of Marinus? The answer to this one is that, as we have no documented histories of these planets, it is impossible to say what their 'right' histories are. More to the point though, to illustrate it better, the exact same conditions apply here as to any historical era of Earth they might visit. That is, that whatever transpires in these stories is the history. Not the 'right' history, not the 'wrong' history, because both concepts are meaningless, simply the history. The events in the above two named stories never played out without the Doctor and company involved, just as they didn't in any of the historicals. What this means, amongst other things, is that the Doctor and his crew are, in some ways, actually taking more of a personal risk in these. That is because they help the Thals, and work against the Voord without knowing anything about the history of the planets they're on, at least in the eras they've visited, they have no way of knowing whether they'll win. If the Doctor had had prior knowledge of what happened on Skaro at the time he was there - that this was the time the Dalek City fell - then he would have had extra reason to be confident, as he would have known he was on the winning side. As it was, and unless he did know and simply wasn't letting on, he didn't have this knowledge, so could have had no way of knowing whether or not this might lead to the Daleks winning and he and the others all being killed. In effect, when the Doctor visits these planets and gets involved in events where he doesn't know the outcome he is choosing to risk being on the losing side of history, as it's sometimes known, with all that that implies - ie being defeated and perhaps killed too.

Of course, it's not difficult to understand why later writers moved away from this and tried to write stories where the action relies on the characters, including the Doctor, buying into the idea that you can retrospectively change history, or even, in some cases, having it happen. It's an obvious temptation for a science fiction writer who is interested in time paradoxes and the like. It also allows for a more immediate televisual way of depicting the stakes of it. The scene in Pyramids of Mars where the Doctor takes Sarah to her future to show her what Earth would be like if they left it to Sutekh being one obvious example. It would in fact still be possible to construct a case for their staying to fight, even if you were still sticking to the idea that history could not be altered. You could simply have the Doctor explain that their presence is the probable reason why he didn't succeed then, and that even they did leave then, they would either still have to return there at some stage to deal with it, or at the very least, research into it to find out exactly what did stop him. But that wouldn't be especially exciting or visual.

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Monicker 3 years, 8 months ago

Part 4

It's the sort of thing that comes about when writers are trying to have it both ways. The issue described in Pyramids isn't normally felt to need to arise in stories set on fictional planets, as there's no set history for a writer to be consistent to, unless it's in the form of pre-established continuity in the same series. In those, the stakes can be clearly established as not being guaranteed, but for stories set in the Earth's past there have to be, or at least it's perceived that there need to be, various qualifiers to get round the fact that the Doctor and his companions already have prior knowledge of how the history proceeded.

The compromise in the new series is an attempt to reconcile these different philosophies. It does run into problems of its own - what is a fixed point, who and what decides what they are, why do they apparently have any need for them? As might also be seen, these also risk getting into mystical or supernatural areas, so it's by no means a perfect solution but then there isn't really one available. It's an attempt to patch together two approaches, both based on potentially questionable premises, while adding some questionable premises of its own. But then, in all fairness, given the situation inherited by the new series, it would have been unrealistic to have expected anything else.

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Gareth Rees 3 years, 8 months ago

I’ve discussed my reasons for this before, but the long and short of it is that it’s an entirely fake moral dilemma. Because altering history is at present completely impossible, there are no principles on which to hang an ethical debate about it.

Like some of the other commenters above, I'd like to push back against this analysis of the episode. No such moral dilemma appears in Fires of Pompeii. What the Doctor says is, "Pompeii is a fixed point in history. What happens, happens. There is no stopping it." Assuming we take the Doctor's claim to be correct, then at most the issue under consideration is, "how much can saved from the wreckage?"

But I think the fact that you've taken this episode to be about the moral dilemma of changing history shows how powerful the idea actually is: even when the text of the episode attempts to deny it, in fact it exerts a compelling attraction. And that's because entirely fake moral dilemmas are the stuff of which science fiction is made. Do Flesh duplicates have the moral status of human beings? Would it be right to blow up the Earth if that were the only way to stop the Daleks destroying the universe? Is it ethical to delete someone's memories if that is the only way to save their life? Entirely fake, the lot of them. And yet there seems to be a passionate debate about the last of these in the comments section for Partners in Crime, and no-one seems to be saying, "it doesn't matter whether the Doctor deletes Donna's memories of her adventures in the TARDIS: the whole dilemma is fake because it's impossible for someone to selectively delete memories like that".

In philosophy, impossible (or at least extraordinarily unlikely) thought experiments are used to push our moral intuitions to the breaking point and discover to waht extent moral rule a robust principle or just a rule of thumb that works for us only because we never really test it. In a trolley problem, would you push the lever to send the trolley to its doom? You can always deny the preconditions of the problem: in real life, no-one could ever have the level of certainty about the outcomes that the problem supposes us to have, but that seems to be dodging the point of the experiment, and meanwhile the trolleys roll on...

Having said all that, I do agree with you there is something unsatisfactory about many "can we alter history" dilemmas in Doctor Who, but I think the analysis needs to go a bit deeper than "it's impossible". The first problem with these dilemmas is that the sophisticated viewer knows that however much Doctor Who plays with alternate history, it can never really commit to changing the history of the viewing audience. We know that Pompeii was destroyed in AD 79, so we know that if that doesn't happen in the program then there will eventually have to be a reset button, because Doctor Who can't go down the full-fleged alternate history route without losing its mass appeal. Second, the consequences of the decision often fail to be properly dramatised within the story. We know the consequences of the destruction of Pompeii, but what are the consequences of not destroying it? Nothing is presented in the episode for us to take into account, so how can we balance the two sides of the dilemma? It's impossible here based on what we're shown. But if both alternatives are fully dramatized (as, say, in The Girl Who Waited), we can feel the full power of the dilemma.

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Gareth Rees 3 years, 8 months ago

Compare with this sequence from the docudrama Pompeii: The Last Day, which uses intercutting between actors and plaster casts of bodies of the victims. It tries its best to be heart-breaking, but do we really feel it as much as we do Evelina's arm turning to stone?

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David Thiel 3 years, 8 months ago

Yes, "Pyramids" is the obvious counterargument here. I'd argue that the Doctor and Sarah's sidetrip to the far-flung future of 1980(!) is one of the cornerstones of the series. It's the writer saying, "Yes, this matters."

That's part of the reason that I took such umbrage at "The Angels Take Manhattan." Not only does it flatly contradict the entirety of the previous season, it undermines every story set in the past. Without the possibility of history being changed, the so-called "pseudo-historical" ceases to be viable.

Again, I think that there's a widespread misunderstanding of the "fixed points." It's not that they will happen, rather that they must happen. In "The Fires of Pompeii," known history has already been changed, and it takes the Doctor and Donna's manual intervention to put things "right."

In "The Waters of Mars," there's no question of the Doctor being incapable of altering the fixed point. He just does it. And all of human history does not compress into a single second in response. Adelaide Brooks changes things again--enough to preserve the timeline, one presumes--yet the original version of events remains altered.

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liminal fruitbat 3 years, 8 months ago

The Cambridge Latin Course looks very different, for a start... (where the hell did this sister come from anyway, and what happened to all the slaves?)

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ferret 3 years, 8 months ago

Within the tale, all humans would have been changed into Pyroviles and a new Pyrovillia created on Earth. Outside of the tale, Frankie Howerd wouldn't have had a breakout role with Up Pompei. Beyond that... well, there's probably a book in that question in regards to research and answers.

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Katherine Sas 2 years, 12 months ago

Ooh, nice...

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