Review – Big Finish Doctor Who #12: “The Fires of Vulcan”

This is the next in line of my Big Finish Productions Doctor Who retro-reviews.

#12 – “The Fires of Vulcan”

From Big Finish’s site:

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?

Written By: Steve Lyons

Directed By: Gary Russell


Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor); Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush); Gemma Bissix (Aglae); Anthony Keetch (Professor Scarlini); Karen Henson (Captain Muriel Frost); Robert Curbishley (Tibernus / Roman Legionary); Andy Coleman (Popidius Celsinus); Nicky Goldie (Valeria Hedone); Steven Wickham (Murranus); Lisa Hollander (Eumachia); Toby Longworth (Priest)

***minor spoilers ahead***

Big Finish welcomes the return of Bonnie Langford as the overly-perky computer programmer / fitness enthusiast turned temporal anomaly Melanie Bush, known as “Mel” to her friends.  I’ll be the first to admit that in the classic TV series, I didn’t give her character much of a chance.  She was likable enough when she wasn’t being overly perky, but she always seemed like a quick add-on during the whole Trial of a Time Lord series, as though even the writers weren’t quite sure what to do with her.  Having said that, Mel makes a statement in her return to Doctor Who, and that statement is “never give up hope.”  Already I have a newfound respect for this character because she keeps fighting to the very end, even with the Doctor himself spends most of the episode brooding about time finally catching up to him.

When UNIT is contacted in 1980 about an archaeological dig having found the TARDIS under the ash of Vesuvius, the Doctor (then in his 5th incarnation) lets events play out without knowing the details of his own future.  Upon arrival in Pompeii the day before Vesuvius erupts, the Doctor comes to the conclusion that time has already taken into account all the probabilities that will be and has led him and the TARDIS here, to be uncovered nearly 2000 years later. 

Once Mel is made aware of the facts, she fights tooth and nail to make sure they can escape.  This is made a little more difficult when their arrival is noticed by a slave, and the Doctor lets him believe they are messengers from the goddess Isis.  This story makes its rounds, and before you know it, the priest of Isis feels snubbed.  But it wouldn’t be a Doctor Who adventure if that story didn’t cause maximum complication for our intrepid hero.  The priestess of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva feels the need to discredit them, and concocts an accusation of theft so as to see Mel land in a local prison.  The Doctor challenges a cheating gladiator to a game of dice to win some money, using the gladiator’s loaded dice against him.  This causes the gladiator to want revenge in single combat and is thwarted only by the woman who owns the bar and demands no fighting beneath her roof, prompting the gladiator to hunt the Doctor through the course of the adventure right up to the very end.

Classic Doctor Who has always told historical dramas exceedingly well, and once more Big Finish continues that tradition.  While Sylvester McCoy is good at brooding – even better than Batman, I would say – this is one of those times where his brooding makes me want to smack him.  Thankfully he is travelling with Mel for this one, because she’s one of the few companions that’s so overly positive that she could counteract that.  For me, it was like she was speaking for the audience.  Maybe it’s because of the Doctor’s brooding and speech-worthy grandstanding, maybe it’s the sound design, maybe it’s both, but the impending threat of Vesuvius feels visceral in this story.  The interactions with the other characters make both our heroes and the audience all too aware of just how petty day-to-day life really can be, and how much we take our lives for granted.

In short, it’s an adventure that harnesses both the lens of history and quality storytelling.  Well worth the listen in my book.