Two thousand years ago, a 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 separated from their ship and entangled in local politics. As time runs out, they fight to escape from the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. But how can they succeed when history itself is working against them?
The Fires of Vulcan sees the Doctor and his companion visit Pompeii, as would happen again on television eight years later. It is always interesting to see when the parent television series revisits historic events that Big Finish has already covered. Sometimes, like in the case of The Haunting of Villa Diodati, disregard that the extended universe has already covered this, whilst other times, like with Dalek, the writers are invited to adapt their stories for television, in this case, Rob Shearman’s Jubilee. The Fires of Vulcan is perhaps an example where the production team has decided to use the setting but tell two completely different stories, which doesn’t feel like it comprises either of them. I love history and Pompeii has always been somewhere that I would love to go and visit, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that I love both this story and The Fires of Pompeii equally. You can almost imagine near misses of the two incarnations of the Doctor and their red-headed companions as they hare around the streets of the doomed city.
Steve Lyons’ script is an interesting one, and it is quite well-paced. Having the main narrative framed with the scenes in 1980s Italy following the Doctor’s TARDIS being discovered covered in ash means that actually the main antagonist is actually that time itself and adds to a feeling of inevitability that certainly the Doctor and most probably Mel will ultimately die in Pompeii. I’m not going to constantly compare this to The Fires of Pompeii, however, it does have the advantage of more breathing space which allows the audience to bask in Pompeii for a bit longer before the plot has to get moving. The story is really rather simple, and revolves around the Doctor knowing that his TARDIS was found in Pompeii in the 1980s – apparently UNIT made the Fifth Doctor aware – and this complicates the Doctor’s escape. Whilst Lyons throws obstacles at two things, like the gladiator Murranus and the spiteful widow, Euchmachia, they are rather insubstantial when it comes to the issue of the paradox that the Doctor is unwilling to break. This means that the Doctor is quite despondent for a lot of this story and does seem to accept that this is where he will meet his fate, however, his companion Mel is completely the opposite and determined to find a way out. It does mean that the story is slightly spoilt at the end as Lyons, after painting himself very firmly into the corner, goes for a rather simple and disappointing resolution which I will not spoil here. It didn’t stop my overall enjoyment of the story, but did perhaps prevent this getting full marks.
The direction and sound design really sell the idea that we’re in Pompeii from the beginning and help the city feel busy and alive. The streets and pub bustle with noise, and there is a near-constant noise of the seagulls when the characters are out of doors, or the noise of trickling water, it all adds up to give us a sense of a real city. There is a rainstorm that feels so authentic at the start of Part 3 that I honestly believed it was tipping it down with rain outside the window. Then there’s the goat sacrifice, which feels more than a little distressing.
The truth! You don’t want to know the truth, I promise you. You can’t lock me up…you can’t! Don’t you realise you’ll kill me? This time tomorrow, we’ll all be dead! Do you hear me? We’ve got to get out of Pompeii before it’s too late!Melanie Bush
I think it’s no secret to anyone who has read my reviews of Season 24 that I am no fan of Mel as a companion to the Seventh Doctor. That is in no way the fault of Bonnie Langford, who is only performing the part as she was asked to do so by the production team, but the shrieking companion wears very quickly. It is, therefore, a bit of a surprise that Langford’s return to the character of Mel marks a complete sea change. Mel is written as a mature and believable character in this story by Steve Lyons, and does not emit an ear-piercing scream once. Her character is put into a difficult position by the Doctor and understandably struggles with her seemingly inevitable death in Pompeii, which makes her character a lot more likable. I can only hope that this progression continues through the Monthly Range going forwards.
McCoy has truly recovered from his rocky start as the Seventh Doctor for Big Finish and is utterly captivating here. The Seventh Doctor is morose and depressed, believing that he and his companion are doomed to die in Pompeii and that his TARDIS will be recovered from the ashes of the city. It’s a bit of a different take for this Doctor, especially when travelling with Mel, when the production team were seemingly trying to find their way with their new Doctor.
Verdict: A really good story, let down slightly by the ending. The return of Mel is dealt with really well and the character gets some positive development and becomes a bit more mature than she was on television. 9/10
Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush), Anthony Keetch (Professor Scalini), Karen Henson (Captain Muriel Frost), Robert Curbishley (Tibernus/Roman Legionary), Andy Coleman (Popidius Celsinus), Nicky Goldie (Valeria Hedone), Steven Wickham (Murranus), Lisa Hollander (Eumachia), Gemma Bissix (Aglae) & Toby Longworth (Priest).
Writer: Steve Lyons
Director: Gary Russell
Producer: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Gary Russell
Music: Alistair Lock
Release Date: 18th September 2000
Monthly Range Release Number: 12
Behind the Scenes
- The story is set parallel to the television story The Fires of Pompeii, but the Seventh Doctor and Mel do not meet the Pyroviles, the Tenth Doctor or Donna.
- The first Big Finish audio story to feature Bonnie Langford, who had last played the role in Dimensions in Time in 1993.
- Captain Muriel Frost was a character from the Doctor Who Magazine comics.
- Anthony Keetch has appeared in a number of Big Finish plays, most notably as Coordinator Vansell in The Sirens of Time, The Apocalypse Element and Neverland.
- Karen Henson has also played Monitor Trinkett in The Apocalypse Element and Larisa Petrov in 1963: The Space Race.
- Robert Curbishley has appeared in a number of other monthly range productions, including The Chimes of Midnight, Seasons of Fear, The Time of the Daleks and The Church and the Crown.
- Andy Coleman most notably played Andred/Torvald in the Gallifrey Big Finish series. He also appeared in Winter for the Adept and The Church and the Crown.
- Nicky Goldie has also appeared in Winter for the Adept and The Moonrakers.
- Steven Wickham made uncredited appearances in The Caves of Androzani and The Twin Dilemma. He has also appeared in a number of Big Finish plays including Phantasmagoria, The Dark Flame and Son of the Dragon.
- Toby Longworth has appeared in a number of Big Finish plays, including Sword of Orion, Unregenerate! and The Chaos Pool.
I’ve seen the future, Mel. I know what will happen, what must happen. In the year 1980, the TARDIS will be discovered, dug out of the ash that will rain upon the city tomorrow. We can’t escape it Mel, no matter what we do. Time already knows. WE’ve already lost. We won’t see the TARDIS again, no-one will ever see it. Not for almost 2,000 years.The Seventh Doctor
Previous Seventh Doctor review: The Genocide Machine
The Fires of Vulcan is available for purchase from the Big Finish website.