A Big Finish A ‘Week’ 20: The Fires Of Vulcan

My definition of ‘week’ is getting quite elastic, isn’t it? Oh well, this is a series about a time traveller, after all…

One of the things Big Finish have always done well that the TV series never did much of after William Hartnell is the pure ‘historical’ story. Stories like The Marian Conspiracy or Son Of The Dragon, which put the Doctor and his companions into Earth’s past without any alien invaders or mad scientists or monsters, have actually provided many of the best moments in the audios, and much of the identity of the series. Big Finish has been at its best when exploring genres that 80s Doctor Who never had time for, and at its worst when trying to do ‘Doctor Who stories’.

With that in mind it’s rather odd that their stories with the Seventh Doctor, where they have the most room to manoeuvre and do different stories, have almost all been pastiches of the New Adventures books and/or of the last series, and have been generally the worst of their stories by a long way (the McGann stories have often been dull, but there’s not been a McGann as fanwanky as Master or outright repellent as Flip Flop).

However, rather oddly, the stories featuring the Seventh Doctor and Mel, which one would imagine to be the worst of the bunch (having seen the truly awful TV episodes in which the two team up, easily the worst period of the show’s history by a very long way) break this tendency and are actually often enjoyable (except the repulsive Flip Flop…)

Fires Of Vulcan, by Steve Lyons, is easily one of the better Seventh Doctor audios for these reasons, and because unlike so many of them it’s *about* something. Actually, it’s about many things – all of them Doctor Who perennials. By dropping the Doctor into Pompeii on the day of the eruption of Vesuvius, a day when the Doctor already knows his TARDIS will get buried in the ash for the next 2000 years, Lyons gets to rub two of the oldest morals in Doctor Who – “You can’t change history, not one line” and “Where there’s life there’s hope” – together and see what sparks fly off. A little ‘you must take responsibility for your own actions and not stand around waiting for a god to save you” is also thrown in for good measure.

What’s impressive about this is that there are no truly unsympathetic characters here – the characters who do things we would think of as ‘evil’ are usually behaving correctly according to the morality of the time. The gladiator who tries to kill the Doctor because the Doctor has dishonoured him does so because the ‘dishonour’ could have very real consequences for someone who relies on the goodwill of the public to stay alive after losing a fight – consequences the Doctor completely overlooks in his willingness to trick and humiliate him publicly (although of course the Doctor knows that there are no long-term consequences to interference in Pompeii).

The story is a genuinely good one, with the companion for once taking the lead while the Doctor mopes about going ‘we’re all doomed! Doomed!’ and persuading the Doctor eventually that it is possible to save themselves. Interestingly, the Doctor asks Mel if they should stay as soon as he realises where they are, saying it must be her choice but not giving her the information he has (that the TARDIS will be discovered buried there in 1980) and it’s her decision to stay that convinces him everything has gone wrong. This suggests that in the Doctor Who ‘universe’ ‘free will’ and possession of information are antithetical – predestination exists for anyone who has information about the future, but not for anyone else. This would fit with a lot of my own fanwanky ideas about the TARDIS and time travel (as well as the ideas in the About Time books, which I’ve been reading obsessively for the last few weeks) and provides for many story possibilities (ones which have unfortunately not been followed up).

Apparently the ‘canonicity’ of this story is in doubt now because of an episode from the last series of nuWho, which featured nuDoctor going to Pompeii himself. While this was apparently the best episode of the series (according to Alex) and was also the only episode I considered watching from the last series (purely because it was a crossover with the Cambridge Latin Course), if it means people are less likely to bother with this story because it’s no longer ‘canon’ (and that sort of thing does bother people – see the endless comment thread of doom here ) then I think it’s a real shame, as this is far and away my favourite piece of work featuring McCoy’s Doctor.

Off delivering Focuses now, Superman Beyond 3D review when I get back. In the meantime, I’ve joined that Twitter thing that all the cool kids are doing. For I am down with the kids and their hippity hoppity music and their emu haircuts and their hula hoops. If you are interesting in following me as I twoot, then my username is stealthmunchkin. Not sure how much (if at all) I’ll use the thing though…

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2 Responses to A Big Finish A ‘Week’ 20: The Fires Of Vulcan

  1. Alex Wilcock says:

    It is a brilliant story, and I mentioned it as such in my year 2000 bit, though I admit I think The Fires of Pompeii is even better (and I can’t believe I’ve finished my big list) – but, nonsense, don’t listen to people who want to put down anything that’s not been televised; there’s absolutely nothing in either of them that means they can’t both be ‘real’ (and let’s face it, if stories that directly contradicted each other meant the earlier one got nuked, Mawdryn would have taken out half of Pertwee. Ooh, I dunno, though… ;) ). Canon, bah, humbug; it’s just a word some people use to try and order other people not to have fun.

    Love pure historicals, too. Despite the big fiery monsters, that’s one of the reasons I really liked last year’s Vesuvius story – in many ways it felt like a pure historical, with monsters as icing!

    Interesting asides on Flip-Flop, btw – I thought it was very clever, but written as if Jonny had just been consoling himself after a bad break-up with a diet of nothing but the Daily Mail. Would that be your general direction…?

  2. Essentially, yeah. I only listened to it once, but it sounded not far from the BNP to me…

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