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Book Review: ‘Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii’ by James Moran

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In Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii by James Moran the Doctor and his companion Donna are aiming for a nice relaxing day in (relatively) ancient Rome. But after they land, the duo realizes that they missed their mark by a couple of hundred miles and landed in Pompeii instead. Worse, the famous eruption is happening soon. Really soon. Like tomorrow! The Doctor and Donna start to make a hasty retreat but are waylaid.

The longer they spend in Pompeii the more they realize that something is wrong and they need to fix it. The TARDIS might not always go where it’s told to, but it always goes where it needs to.

[Warning: My review of Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii contains some spoilers!]

The Doctor and Donna plan a nice day out, but wind up with a major moral dilemma

James Moran based The Fires of Pompeii on an episode of Doctor Who that originally aired on April 12, 2008. Donna Noble has just joined the Doctor as his newest companion and he figures that a nice relaxing trip to ancient Rome is the perfect way to ease her into the TARDIS life. They land in a busy marketplace and begin exploring but they quickly realize that something is wrong. After feeling a small earthquake the two take a closer look around and realize that they aren’t in Rome, they’re in Pompeii. And Mount Vesuvius is about to blow. Or is it? 

The people of Pompeii have no fear of the constant rumblings from Vesuvius because they have a group of soothsayers that very accurately predict the future. Extremely accurately. Suspiciously accurately. Yet they haven’t given any warnings about the impending eruption. 

This has the Doctor wondering just what is going on. At the same time that he’s worrying about the overly accurate fortune tellers with no inkling of the coming destruction, Donna is trying to convince him to save the people of Pompeii. He insists that Pompeii is a set point in time. It has to happen like it does or very bad things could happen to the entire universe. But Donna doesn’t see it that way, she points out that the Doctor is constantly meddling with things and argues that this isn’t any different.

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii

As the two continue to bicker they also try to unravel the mystery in Pompeii. Why can’t the soothsayers see the eruption? How is it connected to the strange noises that come from the volcano-powered heating vents in every house? Spoiler alert: It’s aliens (it’s always aliens). But this time the aliens’ plans pose an extra sticky moral question for the Doctor. Was Pompeii truly a fixed point in time? Or do the aliens somehow artificially alter the timeline? Do all those people have to die? Or can things be changed? And at what cost? The answer is unclear. And his final decision might be more of a burden than the Doctor can bear.

If you could save them, should you save them?

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii poses some really tough ethical questions. If you know that a disaster is coming and can potentially save thousands of people, do you have the moral obligation to do so? What if the event has already happened? If you could change the past, should you change it? What if you find out that saving those people leads to other, worse problems? If you accept that you can’t save everyone, should you still save some of them? What if it’s just the people that you know personally? Is that okay, or does the personal connection just make the rescue a selfish act? If you decide not to act, how do you walk away knowing that you allowed so many deaths? What if you caused the deaths by not acting? 

The answers to these questions could (and do) fill multiple books, maybe even a library, on their own. But they can never really be answered. It’s very much like the classic philosophy problem: You see an out-of-control train about to crash into a group of people but you can reach the track switch. However, if you switch the tracks the train will hit another person on that track who is currently safe. Do you switch the track? What if the single person is someone you know, do you switch it now? Philosophers and psychologists tend to be more interested in how and why you make the choice that you do rather than which choice you make. After all, there isn’t really a “right” answer to the question. 

The Doctor and Donna have to make a very similar choice and seeing them go through all the steps of how and why they arrive at their final decision is much more fascinating than their final choice actually is. I really loved going through the process with them and felt the very real grief and sadness they felt at each step of the journey. It’s not an exercise for the faint of heart.

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii is perfect for fans, interesting for newbies

Fans of the show have most likely already seen the episode that James Moran based The Fires of Pompeii on since it aired over 15 years ago. But even if they have seen it, getting an inside look at the emotional turmoil that the Doctor and Donna go through will be really interesting. I always love the deeper insight into the characters and their thinking that books provide.

Anyone who is new to the show will have the pleasure of discovering this adventure for the first time. Even though Doctor Who is a show with a lot of history and canon to it, Moran does a good job making The Fires of Pompeii accessible to everyone. If you’ve never heard of Doctor Who (do you live under a rock?) you’ll be able to pick this book up and enjoy it just as much as if you’ve seen every episode. Armchair philosophers and psychologists will especially enjoy working through the ethical dilemma that Donna and the Doctor’s face.

My Rating: 8/10

Doctor Who: The Fires of Pompeii by James Moran is available now! Will you be reading this one? Let us know on Twitter or in The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of Doctor Who: The Witchfinders!

Book Review: Doctor Who: The Witchfinders by Joy Wilkinson

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Luna Gauthier

I've always been a bookworm and fantasy is my favortie genre. I never imagined (okay, I imagined but I didn't think) that I could get those books sent to me for just my opinion. Now I am a very happy bookworm! @Lunagauthier19 on Twitter

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