“I wish I could help you – I wish I had time to help everybody”
Two thousand years ago, a cataclysmic volcanic eruption wiped the Roman city of Pompeii from the face of the Earth. It also buried the Doctor’s TARDIS…
Arriving in Pompeii one day before the disaster, the Doctor and Mel find themselves seperated from their ship and entangled in local politics. With time running out, they fight to escape from the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
But how can they succeed when history itself is working against them?
The first thing to note is that there’s no Ace in this story, instead, it’s set during the Seventh Doctor’s first series and has Mel as the companion..
Now don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you think. For a number of reasons, Mel was not exactly popular with the viewers during her time in the TARDIS. A lot of it I think was unfairly put on Bonnie Langford’s shoulders, when she was actually lumbered with an under-developed character. She was supposed to be an intelligent computer programmer but ended up being some kind of fitness instructor with a superior attitude and a predeliction for repulsive clothes who screamed a lot. Big Finish, pleased with the way their reinvention of the Sixth Doctor is going, has decided to have a crack at Mel, and it works.
The Seventh Doctor never had a purely historical adventure on television, so you go into this not really knowing what to expect. There’s something more serious to this one, mainly because of the historical event it revolves around, we know that the Doctor isn’t going to save everyone from the volcano and that they are all going to die, so as soon as the TARDIS lands the story has a doom laden, sombre feel to it. The Doctor doesn’t seem quite himself in this story; if I’d seen the TARDIS get dug out of the ruins of Pompeii earlier in my life and I then found myself arriving in Pompeii the day before the eruption, I’d get right back in the TARDIS and leave. But he doesn’t. For some reason he gets all depressed and seems resigned to losing the TARDIS. Sitting in a pub he manages to offend a drunk old ex-gladiator and ends up having to fight him in a deserted arena. About halfway through the story he snaps out of his weird funk and is back to normal but it never really rings true that he would get that way in the first place.
To be honest, though the Doctor plays second fiddle to Mel, this is her story and Bonnie Langford shines. The character has been written in a way that tempers all the annoying TV traits with convictions and emotions and a maturity that was never seen before. Essentially this is what the character should have been like to start with. Bonnie Langford clearly enjoys the new Mel and really attacks the part; there’s lots for her to do whilst navigating the city of Pompeii dealing with slavers, brothels, religious zealots and local law enforcement as she determinedly refuses to give up looking for the TARDIS (seeing as some sneaky bugger pulled it out from a load of rubble and kept it for themselves).
She has some great little scenes, where she’s mistaken for a slave or where she hides from someone in a building only to find out that it’s a brothel. There is only one scene where the old annoying Mel surfaces but as it’s the only one, it’s easily tolerated.
The other characters are all fine, well acted and well written. There are no casting or character disasters in this and while none of them particularly stand out as triumphs, they’re all good, solid performances that feel genuine. The character of Aglae played by Gemma Bissix is the likeable one; slave to one of the villains, she befriends Mel who tries to help her escape Pompeii and you do find yourself hoping that she makes it out before the end.
The end. The first half of the story, as I mentioned, has a certain feeling of doom and anticipation because we’re waiting for the eruption to start, but there’s also a definite sense of tragedy because all the characters we meet, whether good or bad, are simply going about their normal lives and it just doesn’t occur to them what’s about to happen. Then, when the tremors start people don’t believe anything worse will happen and so they make no plans for evacuation. When the big eruption happens and panic sets in the production quality gets even better than it has been throughout. You really believe that there’s a city full of people running for their lives; the screaming, the explosions, the terror and confusion and sheer pandemonium, it’s really well done and makes an excellently dramatic final episode.
The only problem with it is that in the first two episodes the Doctor isn’t quite right, it’s not Sylvester McCoy’s fault, it‘s the decision to have the Doctor feeling all depressed and miserable and defeatist that’s the problem. I just don’t buy it. Of course, this is set before the later television stories when he becomes a manipulator of events so you could look at this story as the catalyst that spurs him on to become that version of the Doctor. That’s how I’m going to look at it from now on but it doesn’t change the fact that it feels wrong
The best of the Big Finish McCoy’s so far. A triumph for Mel and a good story, well told.
The Doctor: Sylvester McCoy | Mel: Bonnie Langford
With: Gemma Bissix (Aglae); Andy Coleman (Popidius Celsinus); Robert Curbishley (Tibernus / Roman Legionary); Nicky Goldie (Valeria Hedone); Karen Henson (Captain Muriel Frost); Lisa Hollander (Eumachia); Anthony Keetch (Professor Scarlini); Toby Longworth (Priest); Steven Wickham (Murranus)
Writer: Steve Lyons | Director: Gary Russell | Music: Alistair Lock | Release Date: September 2000 | Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes | Number of Episodes: 4
Set Between: Delta and the Bannermen and Dragonfire