Roman Week: Big Finish - Doctor Who THE FIRES OF VULCAN Review

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Things heat up for Andrew East as he looks back at an early release from Big Finish.

We continue our trip through the Roman Empire to one of its most famous cities - Pompeii. So famous, the extended universe of Doctor Who media has visited it twice. The first time is here in one of Big Finish's earliest plays.

The Fires of Vulcan sees the 7th Doctor and Melanie arrive in Pompeii a short while before the eruption of Vesuvius. The Doctor is aware that the TARDIS is destined to be discovered buried in the ash of Pompeii by archaeologists in 1980. He concludes that this means this is his last trip as something must have prevented him from leaving. Thankfully, Mel is less doomladen and determines to discover a way out of this predicament, and with a little timey-wimey tinkering at the end, the Doctor and Mel are able to leave Pompeii alive and yet still allow the TARDIS to be discovered in 1980.

This audio marks the first time that Big Finish worked with the character of Mel. Much maligned on TV (unjustly, in my opinion), Big Finish sought to round her out into a proper character and actually allow Bonnie Langford to prove she is a capable actress. The television version of Mel was sullied by prejudiced fan opinion of the time. The insult of 'panto' was levelled at the series, and Mel's character in particular, time and time again. It was an insult wielded by people who clearly have no understanding of pantomime. Pantomime, an historic theatre tradition, is a passion of mine and therefore, rather than view it as insignificant and laughable as many people do, I see it as an intricate art form which it takes real talent to perform properly. It is seen as the last refuge for washed up comedians, soap stars and the like, but is actually a microcosm of good theatre.

Doctor Who, however, has never been 'pantomime'. It has never included the requisite elements to be a panto (and the series has dallied with many different formats over the years so it isn't as if it couldn't have if it wanted to) and the 'panto' criticism is really just a euphemism for 'this is a bit stagey and embarassing' - an opinion I couldn't be further from agreeing with in regards to 80s Who.

The Fires of Vulcan is ‘set’ slap bang in Season 24: the season of ‘panto’ as far as some fans are concerned. Delta and the Bannermen, in particular, is generally disliked by much of fandom (or certainly was at the time). The Fires of Vulcan couldn’t be more different to these tales, which, ‘panto’ accusation aside, are light-hearted, glossy and at some times, admittedly, silly.

Big Finish clearly set out to give us a serious story which would demonstrate the talents of McCoy and Langford at delivering more sombre material than Season 24 would traditionally suggest. It’s difficult to imagine this story as part of the same season as Paradise Towers and Time and the Rani, and yet the characters of the Doctor and Mel are not a million miles from their TV counterparts. They are just showing a different aspect. Gone is the Season 24 clown of a Doctor and in is the darker version McCoy began to evolve in Season 26. Bonnie Langford gets to play the characteristics of Mel which were already present on screen – her honesty, her tenacity – with a better script, and this rounds Mel out into a believable character. I never had the issues many fans had with Bonnie being cast as a companion as I have long been an admirer of her ability. Big Finish simply allows Bonnie to work with scripts that give Mel that bit more depth, whilst not compromising the original character.

In The Fires of Vulcan she is great: determined to prove the Doctor wrong, standing up to people like Celsinus and Eumachia; battling through the devastating effects of the eruption to find the TARDIS and only really giving up when all seems completely lost. The Doctor, in turn, is melancholy and sombre but also cheeky and manipulative (his game-playing with Murranus the gladiator, for example). This allows both facets of the 7th Doctor to shine through and is one of McCoy’s best performances.

The supporting cast are very good with Gemma Bissix as Aglae standing out in particular. Steven Wickham’s Murranus doesn’t quite sound right to me, his tones are too plummy for a hardened gladiator, but this is a minor complaint in a uniformly good cast.

As is now becoming the norm for these more recognisable historical periods, the Doctor and Mel are visiting an actual ‘famous’ historical event – the eruption of Vesuvius. This horrific event is superbly depicted in audio – explosions, screams, rocks and some good dialogue which describes but never feels unnatural. The fact that the fates of all the Roman characters are left unsaid is quite powerful and allows the Doctor to surmise on the fact that, for once, they will never know if Aglae, Valeria or the others survived.

Other aspects of Roman culture are thrown in here and there, including the acceptance of ‘foreign’ gods into everyday life (in this case, the goddess Isis). We have the same Roman staples present and correct as we saw in The Romans: gladiators, slaves, banquets along with a few extra, more salacious aspects such as the local pub, gambling and the local brothel – with a prostitute (Aglae) being one of the main characters, and paired up with the whiter-than-white Mel for most of the story! This side of history is something which the TV series, obviously, could never really address, but Big Finish, with it’s ability to hint subtly at things and not actually need the actual visuals, takes full advantage in being able to show all aspects of history.

Quite a bit of Roman vocabulary is thrown here and there too, including words like tepidarium, stola and decurioni and apparently the names of the characters are all based on real people from Pompeii based on graffiti from the uncovered ruins.

The Fires of Vulcan is one of Big Finish’s earliest successes and will probably stand as one of their best plays ever. It holds the important position as the beginning of Mel’s renaissance and continuing the Big Finish revival of the pure historical story. This is a wonderful exploration of an important historical event

A primary school teacher and father of two, Andrew finds respite in the worlds of Doctor Who, Disney and general geekiness. Unhealthily obsessed with Lance Parkin’s A History, his Doctor Who viewing marathon is slowly following Earth history from the Dawn of Time to the End of the World. He would live in a Disney theme park if given half the chance.

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