This is not the entry I was expecting to write today. I detested this episode when it first aired, and I’ve barely given it a second thought since, let alone a second viewing. I just filed it alongside the likes of Fear Her and reacted with bafflement every time I saw someone saying it belonged in the upper echelons. I was wrong, they were right. It’s fantastic. This is the first time in the rewatch phase that my opinion has changed quite so dramatically.
I think that my hatred of Donna back then was so all-consuming that I petulantly failed to notice anything else. In my defence, she is annoying. Catherine Tate is still over-egging every joke – and “TX Maxximus” is a particularly egregious joke – and at times this spills over into her non-comedy dialogue during the more frenetic scenes. Some of her arguments with The Doctor were unreasonable – of course he doesn’t “think it’s alright” that 20,000 people are going to die, he’s clearly torturing himself over it, so cut him some slack.
Those sort of things were my predominant memory of the episode, but I find that in reality they’re just a tiny, tiny proportion. Maybe a fortnight of Torchwood has given me more of an in-built tolerance to nonsense, but each instance of Donna being a tit merely annoyed me for a second or two, and then something brilliant came along to distract me. This is not, as I originally concluded, a shit episode with a few good bits, it’s a great episode with a handful of less good bits.
Specifically, one of the big things I’ve changed my mind about is Donna’s role in the moral dilemma. I remember thinking at the time that The Doctor was behaving out of character by coldly refusing to save the family, and that he was only doing so to make Donna look good, and to add credence to the suggestion that he needs someone to help him do the right thing. I didn’t like The Doctor’s character being criticised and held up to such scrutiny, and I certainly didn’t appreciate the fact that it came from Donna.
This is obviously nonsense. Of course Doctor Who should question Doctor Who; he is, by definition, a mystery to us. It’s a theme that Moffat has expanded with great success, and perhaps my expanded knowledge of his older adventures have helped me come to terms with this too – The Doctor is a much more flawed and nuanced character than I used to give him credit for. A perfect hero is boring, he’s way more than that.
And maybe, having seen the complete adventures of, say, Dodo, Adric and Mel, I’m now aware that Donna isn’t actually the worst companion of all time. She’s certainly my least favourite companion of the revived era, but she’s not terrible, just less good than the others. As well as the aforementioned dodgy bits, this episode also contained her best work on the series to date. If the highs stay as high, and the ratio of high to low points remains at this level, then I think I’ll just about be able to tolerate her this time.
Like I say, I didn’t expect to be writing this, and I certainly didn’t expect to go on for so long, plus it’s late and I’m tired, so here are some bullet points that are more along the lines of what I was expecting to write:
* I assumed at the time that The Doctor’s protest that the Great Fire of Rome was “nothing to do with me… well, a little bit” was a throwaway gag, one of countless jokey references to unseen adventures. Nope, it’s a whacking great back-reference. Excellent.
* Phil Cornwell! Phil Davis! And of course, Amy Pond! She’s covered in make-up and putting on an English accent, so it’s not as jarring to revisit as the early appearances of Colin Baker, Freema Agyeman… or Peter Capaldi. He was, of course, excellent in this, which is not a surprise. Caecilius is obviously a great character, given that The Doctor later decided to model his new face on him.
* Capaldi and his family running around to protect their valuables every time Vesuvius rumbled = the staff in Mary Poppins running around to protect the Banks’s valuables every time Admiral Boom fired his cannon.
* All the soothsaying stuff, where Phil Davis and Capaldi’s daughter were correctly reciting details of The Doctor and Donna’s lives, was utterly spooky – it’s another element that I’d completely forgotten about. Then there’s “she is returning” and “there’s something on your back”, and later another instance of a missing planet. They really laid the foreshadowing on thickly during this series, and it’s perhaps a little too on-the-nose at times – the moments are often given an incongruous amount of significance in the context of the scenes that contain them.
* Fave lines that I’d previously forgotten: “Oh, you’re Celtic? There’s lovely.” / “Please excuse my friend, she’s from… Barcelona.”
* Donna asking the Pyroviles why they don’t just go home was a bit UKIP.