(After much thought, I've decided that, much like my previous efforts on The Prisoner, I'm going to do a weekly review/recap of Doctor Who season four debut. As always this will be a spoiler-free review)
When I first saw the previews for The Fires of Pompeii, I have to admit, I had a slightly snarky attitude, and thought to myself, "You know, I think I liked this episode better when it was The Shakespeare Code".
Of course, thankfully, I actually watched the entire episode, and I have to say that, production value and script wise, it's one of the best episodes Doctor Who has done - in fact, the script is surprising in that it's the beginning of (what I am speculating) to be the most in-depth exploration of the Doctor's morality.
It begins with the Doctor and Donna arriving in Pompeii in 79 AD, just before the major eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Even within the pre-credits trailer are some clever touches - a slightly witty attempt at speaking Latin within the TARDIS' "telepathic circuits"; some sly references to past stories; and the beginning of exploring why the Doctor can interfere in some circumstances rather than others.
However, the script takes an interesting turn - it does become a treatise on the ethics of changing history...but more importantly, it soon becomes a great meditation on foreseeing the future. The rights of one species versus another. In short, despite its talk of the Doctor knowing about "fixed points in history" - as well as a hinted at sense that, as a Time Lord, he has a unique perception of time - it becomes not just a cliche, but a real exploration of the Doctor's ethics.
Ethics and morality have always been key themes in the series. The First Doctor declared, "You can't change history - not one note!". The Fourth Doctor asked, "Have I the right?" (to which the Seventh Doctor seemed to answer, "Yes, I do!") The Fifth Doctor once remarked, "There should have been a better way", and the Ninth Doctor spent his sole season dealing with the aftermath of not knowing a better way during the unseen Time War. But this is the first time - through Donna's eyes - that we are beginning to get a sense of the huge burden that the character carries - knowing what might need to be done, and knowing that there is a conflict between that and more "human" qualities. Underneath its lavish exterior, "The Fires of Pompeii" seems to indicate the direction that season 4 will be heading: not so much the "return of an old enemy", but moving towards some life-and-death choice for the Doctor (suggested a piece of slight foreshadowing which might have been effective...had it not been "spoiled" in the last episode).
I also have to admit that this is a personal favorite because it hit on my two teenage obsessions: Doctor Who and Roman history. From the mentions of household gods to the use of soothsayers...this is a script that I probably would have attempted to write as a teenager but failed miserably. It's an indication that series four may be the best, most tightly written season of DW since its reboot in 2005.
No spoilers, but some final thoughts: the main plot eventually reminds a viewer of a quote from the past Christmas special, and the last shot seems almost chilling in its implications.