|“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.